Isaiah 35: 1-10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,[a]
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8 A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,[b]
but it shall be for God’s people;[c]
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
9 No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
James 5: 7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved,[b] until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.[c] 9 Beloved,[d] do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved,[e] take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Matthew 11: 2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing, he sent word by his[b]disciples 3 and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4 Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone[d] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet?[e]Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
11 Truly I tell you, 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.
Over the last 2 weeks we have been accompanied in our readings by Isaiah, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. All three are rooted in the Jewish prophetic tradition. Today we focus on them one final time.
In one sense, Isaiah is the odd one out. For he is the only one to reach old age – he is said to have prophesied for over 50 years. The bible is silent as to how he died. The Talmud includes a reference to him being sawn in two under the reign of Mannaseh, but this is questionable. It seems more likely that he died of natural causes.
John and Jesus both died young, executed by the political leaders in whose jurisdiction they lived. They were a threat. As Jesus says in our gospel reading, “blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” But many powerful people did take offence, at both John and Jesus. These are the dangers which the prophet runs, when he or she shines a light on structures of exploitation, be they economic or religious, or catches the popular imagination with talk of freedom. To quote Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr, “it was for his world-view, not his God-view, that Jesus was crucified.”
In the verses after today’s reading, Jesus wryly points out that whether you are a prophet of judgement or one of hope, seems to make no difference to the perceived offence:
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
In our own day, prophecy can still be dangerous. Around the world, we see people who speak truth to power, or who stir up hopes of freedom, attacked or silenced: In Iran, following the recent protests, I am told there have been many, many arrests and beatings.
Or I think of Mordechai Vanunu, a young Jewish engineer from Morocco, who moved to Israel, worked for a government research lab and then fled to the UK and disclosed the Israeli nuclear weapons programme. He was illegally kidnapped whilst in Italy and taken back to Israel, sentenced to 18 years in a secret court, of which he served 11 in solitary, and now, 15 years after his release, he is still under a kind of house arrest, barred from speaking to journalists or from leaving Israel. It’s as if the state cannot abide the words he might speak.
The Kingdom of Heaven “suffers violence,” Jesus goes on to say, “and the violent take it by force.” The Powers of this world have silenced or crushed so many people over the millennia, some intentionally, many through indifference; every one a child of God, a unique wonder. And Christ stands in lived solidarity with each one of them.
And here in our own country, after Thursday’s election, we must needs pray for more merciful government, which embraces difference and recognises in its actions that the suffering of any one of us diminishes us all.
But looking a different way at our three prophets, it is John who is the odd one out, for Isaiah and Jesus look beyond present exploitation to a future hope: “The least in the Kingdom of Heaven” Jesus says, “is greater than he.”
Isaiah’s vision of hope is wonderful in its imagery. The desert shall blossom, the feeble knees will become firm, the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. A new highway will be built, so that those sold into slavery may return – and it will be such a clear road that no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray – comfort to those of us who have ever got lost or into an argument over a map!
There is a verve, a wit in Isaiah’s poetry.
The transformation is both inner and outer: The world, the environment is transformed, renewed to its intended fertility and diversity – but this transformation runs in parallel with a new joy which springs forth in the hearts of the people and of all of creation.
I imagine a similar wit and colour in the way Jesus taught, especially in his parables, captivating, life-giving, provided you were open to his message, did not recoil in defensiveness. Jesus was more explicit that his new Kingdom hope was offered not in some vague future time, but here and now. Freedom was accessible to all – this is perhaps where he became dangerous.
But then in the final analysis it is Jesus who is the exception: Whereas Isaiah and John speak prophetic truth, Jesus alone embodies it. He is the judgement which will befall the sins of the world. Somehow, we believe, he will destroy all sinfulness, at every level and in every corner of creation, utterly and permanently, whilst at the same time inviting every sinner, with infinite patience and mercy, into transformation and wholeness.
And he is the hope which is set before us, come into the world to redeem all of creation, to make us all one, as we were intended, so that division, conflict and isolation melt away.
Both judgment and hope are fuelled by the same love of God, blazingly passionate, grieving at times, yet also infinitely generous, gentle and forgiving.
So, in our prayers and in this Eucharist, let us open our hearts and hands to receive from him, and look with hope and yearning, to the fulfilment of his promises.