Isaiah the prophet wrote the better part of three thousand years ago, maybe in the eighth century BCE, “Here is your God. … He will come and save you.”
And the haunt of jackals shall become a lively swamp, and the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy.
Mary’s song reclaims the prophetic vision, raising her voice in heartfelt expectation and exultation of God’s justice: God has filled the hungry with good things; God has remembered the promise of mercy. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour,” sings Mary, while Jesus and John are still being formed in the secrecy of their mothers’ wombs.
And now, John asks, is it true? Is it soon? James answers, “Be patient; do not grumble; strengthen your heart.”
Be patient. For three thousand years and counting (but who’s counting?), we have waited on the promise of the prophets, while the jackals still haunt the edges of our lives, cancer preys on those whom we love; death comes too soon to too many; addiction like a mirage in the desert leads us astray to the haunts of the jackals and mortal danger. We wait, three thousand years later, for the promise of mercy to be remembered, while sin still rages around us and, if we are honest, within us, dividing us from one another, and from God.
But, “Be patient,” advises James.
When John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked him if it’s true, if the promises hold true, if they are truly to be fulfilled in him, in Jesus of Nazareth, this unlikely, itinerant, unconventional rabbi, with his ragtag band of followers and his cavalier attitude to the ascetic disciplines of camel hair and honeyed locusts: when John’s disciples ask him, Jesus doesn’t tell them to be patient. He doesn’t advise them at all. He describes to them. He tells them what he is doing. In direct fulfillment of the prophets’ promises, he tells them that he has healed the sick, opened the eyes of those who were blind, raised the dead, brought good news to the poor. He is, he says doing everything that was promised. And blessed are they who do not take offence at him for it.
Then, Jesus tells them about John, the prophet who prepared the way.
For three thousand years, the prophets have promised God’s mercy, but they have receive little mercy from those to whom they preached. Now, John was imprisoned in a small cave on the side of the hill, on top of which was built the fortress palace of King Herod. In the night, he would have heard them carousing, the girls dancing, and he must have wondered if wickedness had won, after all. It was ever thus, the burden of the prophet, to know, to see the promise of God, the mercy of God’s loving-kindness; and to witness its frustration by the power of sin, greed, and misplaced authority.
John didn’t live to see that frustration played out on the cross. I have no doubt, though, that he was made thoroughly aware of the resurrection.
Alone in his prison cave, John was wondering, and worrying, whether he had done enough; and whether he had done it right; and whether it was all worth it. Jesus, rather than comforting or cajoling him to be patient, told him, this is who we are. This is what we have done, and what we are doing. It is enough. There will be more.
“Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Tell them what you have seen, Jesus says, but wait: there’s more!
For John, his very birth was a miracle, announced by an angel. His life was touched by God from its beginnings, and he knew the Word of God, and the mercy of God. He baptized countless crowds who came to him at the River Jordan, for forgiveness of their sins. He baptized Jesus. “No one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
And yet there was more to come. John prepared the way for Jesus, for the incarnation of God’s mercy, the body and soul of God’s love for us.
Two thousand years later, we sometimes find ourselves asking, “Are we to wait for another?” And Jesus answers us, “Go and tell what you see. Tell of the miracles that were unthought of by John. That you have developed technologies capable of filling the hungry with good things. That you have found new and miraculous ways to cure the sick, give sight to the blind. Sometimes, it seems, you can even raise the dead.” I am not the only one here who has flatlined on an operating theatre table. Raising the dead? There are people who do it in our sleep!
We have reached further into the heavens than John – that John – dreamed possible. We have witnessed countless miracles of birth, of mercy, of love. Three thousand years since the prophet Isaiah’s promises, and God still bears with us, still promises mercy, still shares God’s love with us.
There is no one else to wait for. Jesus is here, with us. We witness to his frustration, his death on the cross, every time we fall into the swamp of sin, the haunt of jackals; but we witness also to his resurrection, his ascension, every time we remember him, in the everyday miracles we share with one another, in the water, the wine, the bread.
Two thousand years later, with Herod’s fortress palace and John’s prison in ruins, a fallen down hilltop, we await Christ’s coming in glory; in the meantime, Jesus reminds us, tell what you see. That God’s mercy endures, wherever the promises of the prophets are kept: to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
Strengthen your hearts, then, to do the work that Christ has given us to do. It is enough for today. Still we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Photo: the ruined hilltop fortress palace where John was imprisoned and beheaded by Herod