Deacon Pat Hessel is a permanent Deacon serving Holy Trinity Parish in Spruce Grove since his ordination in 2007. The following is the text from an Advent homily he gave a few years ago:
The first recorded high jump event took place in Scotland in the 1800s. For many years there were basically two ways to do the high jump. There was the scissors jump, where the athlete would approach the bar, lifting one leg at a time and end up standing on the other side of the bar. Then there was the roll, where the athletes sort of wrapped themselves around the bar and would hit the mat on the other side rolling. Then in the 1960s, a guy named Dick Fosbury did things differently. He ran up to the bar and threw himself over it backward and head first. He landed with a flop, on his back (the landing mats had become bigger and softer by that time). The new jump was called the Fosbury flop. When you go to a track and field meet these days, you will only see people doing the Fosbury flop. Dick Fosbury changed the game.
Our readings today speak in a profound way about “changing the game.” Isaiah told the people of Israel what would happen when the Messiah came. “He will come to save you. The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer.” We heard that prophecy fulfilled in the Gospel. John the Baptist was in prison. He heard about the things Jesus was doing and wanted to know if Jesus was the Messiah: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And of course, Jesus, knowing that John would have been familiar with Isaiah, responded by saying: “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear,” and so on. Jesus was telling John that he was the Messiah. The game had changed – things would no longer be as they were. They couldn’t be. If Jesus were the Messiah – the saviour foretold by Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets – he couldn’t just do the same old things that everyone had done before. But that’s what the Jews were expecting from their “Messiah.” They were waiting for someone who would fight the enemies of Israel in the same ways that their other leaders had in the past – just better. To use the high jump analogy – they wanted the Messiah to use the scissors jump or the roll – they just wanted him to jump higher than anyone had jumped before.
But we know that’s not what Jesus was about. He was telling John and announcing to the world that the game had changed. Our Messiah was not born in a palace and he would not lead armies of soldiers into battle against the Romans. He was born in a humble stable. He said things like: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Through his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection, he not only brought us salvation, he showed us the way to live our lives – and this way was different from what people had thought before. So while some were able to understand this new way – especially the poor and the marginalized – many were uncomfortable – even threatened by this new teaching.
I want to draw your attention to another aspect of the high jump. When you think about the old way of jumping, the athlete could always see the bar, and they could always see the landing area. When athletes began using the Fosbury Flop, they could no longer see the bar or the landing area during the jump. There was an element of trust in the unknown – in things unseen. In the same way, when we resolve to change our game – to follow the radical teachings of Jesus – we have to trust that things will be OK, even if we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.
When I say: “change the game,” I’m not suggesting that our journey through this life to eternal life is a game or a sport – there is much more at stake for us than a gold medal – there is the salvation of our souls. But just like the Olympic high jumper, or any serious athlete, our journey requires hard work, sacrifice, persistence, and a commitment to always do better, and for most of us that means we have to change.
But how do we change our game in response to the saving actions of Jesus? Well – a lot of things big and small. Say, for example, you decide to take an hour that you would usually spend watching a TV program and spend that time in prayer, or spiritual reading, or doing volunteer work in the community, or at church. Well, that requires a sacrifice and an unknown. You won’t know who gets voted off the island, or whether that soap opera couple is going to get married or break up, and so on. It sounds kind of silly, but these people we meet on the television do become part of our lives, and if we choose to do something different with our time, we have to say goodbye to them.
If you regularly drink lots of alcohol or smoke marijuana, or use other drugs that alter the way you think or act, you’ve gotten used to a certain way of life that involves these things. These substances have become, in a way, your friends – you rely on them. If you choose to give them up so that you can get closer to God – well, you’re jumping into the unknown. The game will change, but you’re not sure how. What will you do instead after a difficult day at work or at school, or in a social setting where everyone else is using these things? Or maybe you’re a workaholic – the kind of person who works very long hours each day, so that the only thing you have energy for when you get home is plopping in front of the TV with a beer or two – no time or energy for a relationship with God. You find that even when you try to pray, your mind circles back to your work.
And you can think of other examples for yourselves – video games, pornography, idle chatter (especially gossip) – you know the things that are important parts of your life, but that keep you from a close relationship with God and that keep you from loving relationships with your neighbours.
The readings today are calling us to change our game. There are things in each of our lives that draw us away from God. These things are like blindness, and Jesus wants us to see. They are like deafness, and Jesus wants us to hear. They are like lameness, and Jesus wants us to walk – even jump!
Dick Fosbury wanted to be a high jumper – a good high jumper. He wanted to get better, but he found that using the same old techniques didn’t work. He had to change the way he did things. In 1968 he won the Olympic gold medal in high jumping. He gained victory using a technique that came to be known as “the flop.” Kind of ironic!
Advent is a time when we wait in anxious anticipation for our Saviour – the Saviour foretold by Isaiah – the Saviour recognized by John, from his prison cell. How are you preparing for the entry of Jesus into the world? How are you preparing for the entry of Jesus into your life? Take that leap into the unknown. Try something new. Change your game!