Who Conquers the World?

The Baptism of the Lord

I have a friend, Kathy, a former parishioner of mine now living in Michigan, whom I often call to converse about upcoming Sunday readings. She’s quite knowledgeable about the Scriptures and our Faith and, even now as she endures cancer, delights to discuss them. Talking with her always makes my homilies better. When we chatted this week I shared my hope, frustration, and challenge in preaching compellingly about the Baptism of the Lord. Virtually everyone who will encounter my homily is already baptized, a baptism they do not remember – they were baptized so young that they can’t remember any time in their lives when they were unbaptized. Getting people to appreciate having been baptized is like trying to get them excited about having once been born; or like getting an American to appreciate living their whole lives in a country where freedoms of religion, speech, and representative government are taken for granted. I didn’t know what message I was going to preach when I spoke with Kathy, but she encouraged me that God would give me something and promised to pray for me. Today I’d like to share with you some threads from other interesting conversations I’ve had this week and in the end I promise to tie their lessons together.

On Monday evening, my fortieth birthday, I spoke with my life’s longest friend. Josh is nine days older than me, we were in school together all the way from pre-K through college, and he grew up into a dynamic Christian businessman. Josh remarked that he is struck and bewildered by how much New Year’s matters to people – it’s far less big a deal for him than it seems to be for others. I likewise have memories of being underwhelmed by New Year’s Eve ever since I was a kid. Even though the ball that drops over Times Square is now covered with high-tech shimmering lights, the sight of that sphere’s slow descent still remains a disappointment to behold. A new year is just a change in number on our calendars and forms, a number whose only significance comes in reference to Jesus Christ. Maybe people like it in the way some of us have enjoyed watching a car’s mileage rollover to 100,000 on the odometer. Maybe people just like any excuse to party. But I think New Year’s appeal in popular culture owes greatly to the idea of a new time beginning, the start of a new chapter in our lives. Lots of people make New Years resolutions, typically related to health. They’re hoping for change, hoping this year will be different, yet their resolutions typically fail quickly because our human nature, by itself, is so very weak.

Thursday morning I did spiritual direction through Facebook for another past parishioner and friend of mine. I met Stephanie at my first priestly assignment, helped her become a Catholic, and today she is her parish’s Coordinator of Religious Education and Director of Youth Ministry in Neillsville. Stephanie’s family has an annual tradition of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and this year she saw it twice. I asked her if she took away any new insights from that rich film and indeed she had. The first time George Bailey goes to Martini’s Bar it’s a calm and friendly establishment where people show concern about him. George quietly prays there, “Dear Father in Heaven… Show me the way,” leaves, meets Clarence, and returns to the bar again in a world where he was never born. The bar is called “Nick’s” now and like the rest of town it has become more crowded and less wholesome, rude and cruel. These scenes impressed on her anew how much one life well-lived can make an extraordinary difference to all the lives around it.

On Thursday afternoon I partook of spiritual direction myself through Zoom with Fr. Bill Dhein, the thoughtful Chancellor of our diocese who sometimes celebrates Masses here for us. Father and I were both drawn by the Spirit to this passage from today’s second reading from the 1st Letter of John:

“Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Who indeed conquers the world? If the rioters at the Capitol this week or the rioters from this summer had succeeded, if they had prevailed and conquered, would they find peace in this world? History suggests not. Violence and death would continue to accompany them. In today’s first reading, the Lord tells us through the Prophet Isaiah:

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
As high as the heavens are above the earth
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

Fr. Bill told me one of his admired spiritual heroes is St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was in the world but not of the world, and in Jesus Christ she conquered the world through a holy power which transforms this world for the better. Today’s gospel says:

“[Jesus of Nazareth] was baptized in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens,
‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

Remember, Christian, that you have been baptized into Christ, the Holy Spirit rests on you, and the Father acknowledges you as his beloved child. Your human nature, by itself, is weak and frail, but you are clothed in Christ and ‘can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.’ Do you want to change yourself? Do you want to be a blessing to others? Do you want to change this world wonderfully for the better? Then ask God for his indispensable, gracious help; and also seek the support of Christian friends, for iron sharpens iron and coals stay hot when gathered.

As our culture becomes increasingly less Christian we can expect to see increasing examples of social decay and religious persecution. Just as you cannot remove the foundation of a house and expect its walls and ceiling to stand upright and level, so our nation will suffer in many ways from discarding its Christian faith. But when worse things come, do not fear and do not despair – ‘God works all things for the good of those who love him.’ Do not be afraid and do not give up. The good of this community depends on you and those around you. Who indeed is the victor over the world? Those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the children of God, whose faith shall conquer the world.

One Response to “Who Conquers the World?”

  1. Agnes Zwiefelhofer Says:

    So, very true. Aggie Z

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