Reflections on the readings for Sunday 12 December 2010
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 146:6-10; Matthew 11:2-11; James 5:7-10
What are the signs that God is come among us? The prophet Isaiah describes it as the desert blooming – the barren places made fertile. It is the arrival of life in its fullness in the most unexpected times and places. It is the healing of brokenness and the restoration to wholeness. In this vision salvation is linked with vindication: it will become obvious to all that the favour of the Lord rests upon those who have been exiled, marginalised, written off. In the psalm, too, the Lord comes for the weak and the vulnerable. When the Lord comes the captives are freed.
In the Gospel reading John the Baptist, that faithful herald of the Lord’s coming, is now a captive, imprisoned by Herod for his outspoken message against the corrupt and immoral ruler. Languishing in prison, he seems less confident than he did at Jesus’ baptism. Did he read things right? He does not question that God’s Anointed will come, but he is less sure now that Jesus embodies that Coming. In typical forthright manner, he asks the question straight out. Jesus’ answer is less direct. He invites John’s disciples to notice the signs of God’s presence in their midst, and to report back to John in words reminiscent of Isaiah’s prophecies. These were the very prophecies from which John the Baptist had gleaned his own identity as the one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Instead of giving a simple yes or no answer, Jesus affirms John’s vocation as a prophet, one who reads the signs of the times and interprets them in the light of God’s truth. He directs the attention of John’s disciples to the signs that they should be reporting to their master so that he can discern for himself the arrival of the Kingdom in the ministry of Jesus.
I cannot blame John for being uncertain. His own lived experience was not of freedom and vindication. He would soon be decapitated, and a few years later Jesus would be crucified. Our own lived experience in the time between the coming of Jesus and the awaited Second Coming is just as ambiguous. ‘Peace on earth’ is a wonderful Christmas sentiment, but in reality is in very short supply. The path of least resistance seems to be to give up on this mess and live in hope of the coming of Christ to fix things. But that stance does not take seriously Jesus’ first coming or his promise to be continually present through the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we should do what John’s disciples were directed to do – keep our eyes open for the intimations of the Kingdom in our midst. Where life and goodness blossom in unexpected places, where lives are restored, there God is at work.
James gives some advice on how to live in these between-times. Wait patiently. But James’ idea of patience is not of passive sitting around until something happens. He uses the example of the farmer who must adapt himself to the cycle of the seasons and work hard in harmony with nature. He cannot rush things on, but neither will the harvest happen without him. He works and waits. The prophets are another example of how to wait. Their calling was to listen for God and to speak God’s words into their own contexts. They could not do that without spending time in God’s presence, having their imaginations fired with God’s vision for the future, and pondering their present reality in light of God’s truth. They saw disaster when others were too comfortable to notice. They saw shoots of hope when those around them were mired in despair. They could endure hardship because they knew their God. Between the examples of the farmer and the prophets, James sandwiches instructions not to complain about or judge one another. To recognise the comings of the Lord which anticipate the final Coming we need an open and non-judgemental spirit. It takes a willingness to see light in the most unexpected places, to notice the flowers in the desert.