Our first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
The Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the most beautiful and intricately detailed texts in all the Holy Scriptures. The purpose of the book is to provide a theological interpretation of some of the pivotal events in the history of the Israelites. This means that the prophet is not simply a journalist or historian reporting the facts of what happened, but he is considering events in relation to what he discerns about what God is doing in the arena of human history.
Remember, the Bible does not present a “god” who is uninterested and uninvolved in his creation. The God of the Bible does not exist “somewhere out there” light years from the earth. Nor is the God of biblical revelation reduced to watching us “from a distance”. The God of the Bible does not simply exist in the small, cramped places of our minds or emotions.
The God of the Bible is a living person who is not only intensely interested in his creation, but he acts in the midst of his creation in extraordinary ways.
The prophet Isaiah describes for us how God has acted in historical events and foresees with the keen spiritual vision of a prophet, how God will act in the future.
That’s what the whole of Isaiah’s book is about- what about the part that we heard proclaimed today.
The prophet’s words likely sounded poetic, but cryptic to our ears- here is a way to understand what Isaiah wants us to understand.
The prophet Isaiah speaks about God’s Word and describes how God’s Word is a living word- now what does this mean?
It means that God’s word is power, and the power of God’s word is that it effects change. God’s word creates and transforms. Isaiah isn’t just pulling this profound idea out of nowhere, he is referencing the description of the power of God’s word in the opening chapter of the Old Testament Book of Genesis- which describes God’s creation as originating in the power of his word. God speaks (“Deus Dixit!”) and things begin to happen- great things, marvelous things, creative things.
What might this mean concretely for us?
Consider how God’s Word is spoken by the prophets and you will have an insight.
When the prophets speak God’s word, the power of God to effect transformation manifests itself. How so? First, the word of the Lord calls, that is, it calls us out directly, gets our attention, names us, insists that God is speaking directly to us and the only proper response to that call is to listen.
Second, the word of the Lord convicts us, that is, God reveals our truth, shows us who we are, what we have done and what we have failed to do. God’s word of truth rescues us from our illusions and compels us to honesty about our lives, our relationships our decisions. The word of God convicts us and is an unrelenting test of our sincerity.
And finally, the word of the Lord commands us. What does this mean? It means that once God has our attention and has told us our truth, then we places before us a new way of life. I know that the culture influences us to think that God’s commandments means that he is bossing us around, but what is really happening is that he is revealing to us a new way of life- and once we have received God’s commandments, this new way of life, then we have a decision to make- will we accept this new way of life or will we refuse.
Whatever our decision, our life is changed- our life is transformed. God’s word- his call which convicts us and commands us changes and transforms.
This is what today’s scripture from the prophet Isaiah is all about.
Now, this word of God, this living word that creates, changes, transforms has done something absolutely unexpected and utterly remarkable in the Lord Jesus.
The evangelist John speaks of the living word of God in the opening of his Gospel, testifying that God’s word has, in Christ, taken on “flesh”- this is St. John’s way of saying that God has, in Christ, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. Because God in Christ has done this, he now speaks to us, not through the mediation of a prophet, but directly. God’s calls to us; God convicts us; God commands us in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to believe that God’s Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ.
And it is now God’s Word, spoken through the flesh of Jesus Christ, meaning through the Lord Jesus himself that creates us anew, effects change in our hearts and minds, and transforms our way of life.
Today’s second reading, an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, testifies that this creative, life changing, transforming power of God’s word in Christ is precisely what the world has been waiting for.
In fact, the world, indeed creation itself, is so desperate to receive God’s word in Christ that it is literally groaning in agony, anticipating the power of God’s word in Christ.
St. Paul’s insight should shock us out of an illusions we might have in regards to the Word of God. The Word of God is not just some amusing anecdote or personal story… The Word of God is not just ancient literature meant to be studied by a scholarly elite. The Word of God is the power of God in Christ, a power that calls us, convicts us, and commands us- and this power of God in Christ is what the world is waiting for, what the world needs, and the means by which God is acting in the world, right now, to draw the world into communion with himself.
Here is something that brings all this very close to your experience. Listen carefully.
The Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, becomes what it is through the creative and transformative power of God’s Word spoken in Christ.
The startling highpoint of the Mass is when the words of God in Christ are spoken to the gifts of bread and wine, and God’s word in Christ then re-creates, transforms those gifts, changing them from mere bread and wine into the living, real, divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself.
God’s word in Christ does that! And God’s word in Christ does what it does to the Blessed Sacrament so that the same power, the same creative, transformative power of God in Christ can be received right now in this very temple.
Receiving the Blessed Sacrament means that God meets you- and in, through and with Christ, he calls you, convicts you, (for true and authentic reception is only possible through a humble admission that we are not worthy), and through the Eucharist he commands us- do this, he insists, as I make myself the sacrifice of divine life and love that you receive- you now make your own life a sacrifice of love for God and for your neighbor!
That’s what Holy Communion is all about! It is the very real and living power of God in Christ spoken to you! Face to face- the Word (Christ) becomes in the Blessed Sacrament, flesh and blood for you! The Eucharist is the power of the Word of God in Christ that calls you, convicts you and commands you. And once you have received the Blessed Sacrament, you are saying “I will change”- “I will let Jesus Christ transform me.” That is, by the way, the fullest implication of the “Amen” you offer before the Blessed Sacrament is given to you.
You should only receive the Blessed Sacrament if you are willing to change, if you are willing to be transformed. Because if you are not willing, then receiving the Eucharist is akin to perjury or making a promise that you have no intention of ever keeping! Yes, it is true. The stakes are really that high!
If we receive the Eucharist with no intention of letting God’s creative and transformative power do its work in us, then God’s word in Christ will convict us of fraud!
Lastly, just a word in regards to the Gospel.
Most preachers will use today’s Gospel as an occasion for an examination of conscience, asking what it might be that an individual has done or failed to do in regards to their receptivity to the Word of God. This is good.
But here is how this Gospel convicts me:
The Word of God in Christ (which in the Gospel is likened to the seeds) is sown into soil. That soil is not just my own soul or my own life. It’s real soil. It’s a real place. The soil, the ground is this parish.
A Catholic parish is not just a collection of faith based infrastructure meant to house the activities of a faith based club. A parish is territory- mission territory.
That’s how you should think of this parish and its boundaries. All Catholic parishes have boundaries and too many Catholics think that these boundaries only mean that if your house is in those boundaries you are guaranteed faith-based services. That’s a dangerous mistake to make!
Think of the boundaries as signifying for you the mission territory you are responsible for. Note I said “you”- not just the priest or the parish staff, but you- the parish, this geographical area is your mission territory. It is the soil into which the Word of God in Christ will be sown.
Your job, your mission, it to prepare this territory, this soil, this parish, to receive the Word of God in Christ. Note, not just prepare yourself, or the people who are registered members of parish, but this whole territory in which you live.
You are here to till the soil, remove the weeds and rocks, to get rid of those things that inhibit receptivity to Christ, so that when the Word of God in Christ is proclaimed and the invitation to know Christ in his Church is extended to people- they are ready to receive him.
Stop thinking of today’s Gospel as a charming story. It is a call from the Lord Jesus that convicts us all and commands us all to accept a new way of life.
Today’s Gospel is telling us all in no uncertain terms that too much of the land that Christ has entrusted to us is fallow, or full of rocks or choked with weeds- and it is time for all of us to tend to that soil, to turn our attention to this mission territory, and be willing to get our hands dirty!