3rd Sunday of Advent (December 14 • 2014)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 7-11
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
Witnesses of Joy
One of my most memorable scenes in the movie, Wolf of Wall Street, is the scene when Jordan Belfort, the real Wall Street broker whose life is depicted in the movie, asked his friends around dinner table to sell an ordinary pen to him. At the end of the movie, he uses the same method to teach about selling strategy to hundreds of people who attend his seminar.
In his interview with Piers Morgan on CNN, Piers asked Jordan himself to sell a pen to him. He did and then explained that the secret to effective selling is first to ask questions to find out about the potential customer: what is her need, what does she like, etc. In other words, to be an effective salesperson, one must focus not on oneself, but on the customer and then on the product one wants to sell.
In a way, this Advent season, we are called to be like a salesperson. We are called to ‘sell’ the joyful Gospel of Jesus Christ to those people who don’t know who Christ is. And the way we can do that effectively is by focusing not on ourselves, but on the other people and the Gospel.
When the Priests and the Levites from Jerusalem asked questions to John the Baptist, he tried to take their focus away from himself. When they asked him, “Are you the Messiah?” he said, “No.” When they asked, “Are you Elijah?” he said, “I’m not. When they asked, “Are you the prophet?” again he said, “No, I’m not.”
“Who are you then?” they asked.
He answered, “I’m none of these important people. I’m just the voice in the prophecy of Isaiah whose job is to prepare the One who is more important than I am.”
Indeed, John’s task was not to draw attention to himself, but to Jesus, the Word that became flesh and took his dwelling amongst us; the Light that would bring the world out of darkness. No, John was not the Word. He was not the Light. He was the one who pointed to the Word and the Light.
The prophet in Isaiah too was appointed by God to be the messenger of God’s word. His role was to proclaim the good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners. His role was to be the mouthpiece for God. He was to draw attention not to himself, but to God whom he represented and to the people he served.
Of course, a salesperson cannot completely separate himself from the product he wants to sell. I think the biggest product launching in the world that attracts millions, if not billions, of people today is the launching of an Apple product like a new iPhone or iPad. During the launching, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, often followed his predecessor, the legendary Steve Jobs, who often wore jeans and t-shirt instead of wearing formal suit and tie. The message that they wanted to project by appearing informally was that just like them, Apple products were chic, sleek, and contemporary without losing its substance and capabilities.
Indeed, as witnesses, who we are will have an effect on how people will receive our message. If you want to sell a Mercedes-Benz, for example, you want to look like the wealthy people who can afford to buy a Mercedes-Bens. If you try to sell a Mercedes-Benz wearing short pants, shirt, and thongs, you won’t sell many, if not any at all (well, it is highly unlikely that you’ll be employed as a salesperson in the first place anyway). On the other hand, if you want to sell surfboards, wearing short pants, shirt, and tongs is more appropriate than wearing suit and tie. Indeed, the product will define the seller, not the other way around.
The ‘product’ that we want to ‘sell’ this Advent season is the Gospel, the joyful news of Jesus Christ. This ‘product’ shall define who we are as the ‘sellers’.
It is only when we our selves have been influenced by the ‘product’ that we can become an effective ‘seller’. I once heard that the best sellers are the happy customers. To proclaim the Gospel to others, we too ought to live it first. If people cannot see that the Gospel has truly changed our life for the better, than people won’t listen to any words that we say.
Indeed, friends, our task in Advent is not an easy task, just like it is definitely not an easy task to sell an ordinary pen to someone that we don’t know. We are to ‘sell’ hope when everything seems to be hopeless. We are to ‘sell’ joy in the midst of joyless situations. We are to ‘sell’ peace in times of war. We are to ‘sell’ love when love is lacking.
But real joy does not depend on what happens in the world. Real joy depends on the promise that God is with us regardless of what happens in the world. We still can have joy in our heart and share it with others even when the world outside is bleak and hopeless.
After the people of Israel returned to their homeland from Exile in Babylon, they were hoping that the situation would become better. They hoped that they could restore Israel’s former glory. They expected they could rebuild their temple so that it could emulate the glory of the original one. But all of their expectations were not met. Their hope soon turned sour.
It was during this time that the prophet in Isaiah was anointed by God to be God’s messenger. His job was not an easy job. He was to proclaim good news. He was to heal those whose hearts were broken and those whose hope was dashed to pieces. He was to comfort all who mourned. He was to proclaim that all was well when nothing seemed to be working the way they wanted it.
Of course, he ran the risk of sounding too optimistic in a pessimistic world. The people could simply see him as delusional and his message as irrelevant. Or worse, people who did not like him might turn violent against him. After all, many prophets before and after him were subjected to violence, even death.
Yet, this was the call of his role. He had been anointed by God to do this task. And the only way he could fulfill his task was by embodying the message that had been trusted on him. Using the imagery of clothing, he said that God had clothed him with the garment of salvation and covered him with the robe of righteousness. His very being had become the embodiment of the message of joy and hope that he was to share to his people.
In 2013, US President, Barrack Obama, posthumously awarded his nation’s highest military honour, the Medal of Honour, to Rev. Emil Kapaun, an army chaplain who died as POW in North Korea during the Korean War.
Rev. Kapaun was born in 1916 in the town of Pilsen in Kansas. He was ordained as a Catholic Priest at the age of 24. Four years later, he joined the army as a Chaplain and was sent with his regiment to the Korean War.
Most of the time, soldiers didn’t really know what to do with Chaplains,. They often see Chaplains as those who liked to point fingers at other and tell people what to do. But they respected Kapaun.
One day, during the Battle of Unsan, a sea of Chinese soldiers surrounded the regiment that Kapaun served. Kapaun refused to escape. He didn’t want leave his regiment and was captured alongside the soldiers in his regiment.
They were forced to march, with little to no food, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures, to a prisoners’ camp in North Korea. There, in the camp, hunger, disease, cold, and dysentery ran amok. The only option for prisoners for water was melted snow.
Despite the miserable conditions, Kapaun tried to keep the morale of the prisoners. He often flouted the camp’s rule to give aid to his fellow prisoners by stealing food and medicine. Often he prayed for them. Some times he made containers out of roofing tin to boil water. “He led by example,” said one survivor, “He picked lice off of soldiers when no one else would.”
He kept on caring for the prisoners until his illness prevented him from doing so. As he got worse, he was sent to a ramshackle hospital, dubbed the “death house”, where he would receive no care and leave to die.
When the Chinese guards were taking him, he blessed them and asked for their forgiveness. He said to his fellow prisoner, Lt. Mike Dowe, "Hey, Mike, don't worry about me. I'm going to where I always wanted to go and I'll say a prayer for all of you." He died two days later, seven months after he arrived in the camp.
After the war, one survivor of the camp said, "Combat veterans are pretty reluctant to talk about (their experiences). But this was a pretty dramatic exception. They all wanted to talk about him. They regarded him as a heroic figure, the greatest person they ever knew."
Kapaun carried the message of joy and hope in his own life. He was the embodiment of joy and hope that he tried to instill into his fellow inmates. I doubt he had the opportunity to prepare sermon and deliver it to his congregants every week in the camp. Yet, his actions produced long lasting joy and hope that no words could ever utter.
In 1993, the Vatican gave the title, the Servant of God, to Kapaun, thus opening up a way for his canonization as a Saint. If he was still alive today, I don’t think he would want all this attention on him. But he was truly God’s servant: a humble man who genuinely and faithfully performed the task of carrying the message of joy and hope in a place where joy and hope hardly existed.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul asked the believers in the church Thessalonica to rejoice, pray, and give thanks in all circumstances. No, Paul didn’t ask them to be joyful only in times when everything was rosy. He asked them to be joyful in all time, in whatever circumstances.
And the only way they could do it was to do it as a community. He asked the Thessalonians to encourage, help, and be patient to the weak and the faint hearted among them. No person is strong enough to be joyful in all circumstances. But, when the person is part of caring and loving community that support one another, than the invitation to be joyful in all circumstances will become a possibility.
Friends, Advent is a reminder to us to share the good news that God’s Joy is about to come in the form of a baby in a manger. We are to be like the prophet in Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Kapaun, sharing joy and hope in the midst of a broken world.
Indeed, the world as it is today is not the end of the story. There is another story to be told, waiting for its beginning when a baby is born in a manger. We are to share this joyful story to all corners of the world, starting in our own family and community. We are to share this joyful story through our life, by becoming the joy of Christ that transcends all circumstances. Amen.
 Caleb K. Bell, Fr. Emil Kapaun, Chaplain, Awarded Medal Of Honor; Candidate For Sainthood, on www.huffingtonpost.com
(Posted: 04/09/2013 5:32 pm EDT; Updated: 04/09/2013 5:39 pm EDT)