Old Testament: Isaiah (35:1-10)
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 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. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 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.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 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; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 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. 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.
The Response: Psalm (146:4-9)
4 Happy are they who have the God
of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
5 Who made heaven and earth, the seas,
and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;
6 Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7 The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
8 The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9 The Lord shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
The New Testament: James (5:7-10)
Be patient, therefore, beloved, 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. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
The Gospel: Matthew (11:2-11)
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 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? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 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.’ 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.”
by the Rev. Mike Kreutzer
Late this Saturday evening, the northern hemisphere of our planet will be tilted farther away from the sun than it is at any other time of the year. This is the winter solstice. It marks the shortest day of the year and, consequently, the time of deepest darkness.
Darkness can be frightening. When it is dark, we struggle to see who or what might be near us, potentially, at least, posing some sort of threat to us. Darkness, especially in unfamiliar places, can allow our imaginations to run away with us. People throughout history have developed myths and legends to comfort themselves in and maybe cope with the experience of being in physical darkness.
But as unsettling as the experience of physical darkness can be, it is sometimes the experience of inner darkness, of not knowing, that can be the most difficult to bear. Those who have been informed, for example, that they might have some serious illness but who have been told also that their doctor cannot know for sure until the test results come back, know well that anxiety. They just want to know, one way or another, instead of feeling stranded in a limbo of uncertainty and fear about “what if?” What they long for most is some little ray of light piercing through the darkness.
We can only imagine what sort of inner, personal darkness John the Baptist might have been experiencing at the time of today’s gospel reading. As I mentioned last week, many of the gospel passages referring to John seem to be tailored by their writers to affirm the superiority of Jesus over John. They appear to have been composed late in the first century at a time when adherents of a religious movement devoted to John competed with the early Christian movement and its devotion to Jesus. They try to make the relationship between the two seem so simple and at least to imply that John clearly saw his whole life’s work as pointing the way toward Jesus.
But the first part of the gospel reading that we heard today presents us with a different image of John. It portrays him at a critical time in his life, coming to grips with the fact that he was probably approaching the end of his life, and struggling with the darkness that still remained as he reflected on the meaning of his life and ministry.
As the scene opens, John is in prison. According to the late first-century historian Josephus, he was being held on the orders of King Herod Antipas in the fortress of Machaerus, about five miles east of the Dead Sea. He had been arrested and confined in response to his criticism of Herod’s second marriage and, especially, because more and more people, Gentiles as well as Jews, were quickly becoming his devoted followers. His popularity posed at least a potential threat to Herod’s dominance.
All through his public ministry, John seems to have viewed himself as another Elijah: as a prophet whose life-work it was to prepare the way for the coming of God, in the person of God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah. But now, he realized how precarious his own situation was. It became more and more apparent that he most probably would not leave prison alive, that Herod would find some pretext for having him put to death.
But he still found himself and all that he had done wrapped in uncertainty. Had he accomplished what he believed God had called him to accomplish? Was the work that would soon cost him his life worth it all? And if so, would God’s Messiah come in time for him to witness it? He simply had no way to know for sure.
But there was one possible hope. One of John’s former followers, a man named Jesus of Nazareth, had been doing some amazing things. Stories about him and his teachings and actions had spread throughout Palestine, penetrating even the walls of the prison in which John was being held. Like the light of a tiny candle, flickering tentatively in the overwhelming darkness of the fortress, that possibility quickly came to consume his waking moments. He simply had to know.
And so John sent messengers to Jesus to ask him point-blank: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In reply, Jesus realized that he could not claim the role of Messiah directly without alarming both Herod and his Roman overlords. To do so could well have made him John’s cellmate. Instead, he sent the messengers back with a description of what he had been doing: clear references to the works of God as described in today’s first reading, the one from the book of Isaiah. When John heard that message, he at last would understand and know.
What could have sustained John through the days, and perhaps months, of darkness that he faced? Would it not have to have been his faith: his trust in the God whose light shines even in the deepest darkness?
Faith, genuine faith, does not take away the darkness. It serves as a light that shines in and pierces through the darkness, bringing hope. It serves, as the canticle of Zechariah puts it (Luke 1:79), “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
As he neared the end of his life, Brother Roger, the founder and first prior of the Taizé community, reflected on the role of faith in enabling us to deal with darkness and light. He wrote: “As a man grows older, he is less inclined to look for signs. He dares admit to himself that he is familiar with darkness. In this realm, no one is privileged. Even psychologists and scholars of the highest order admit that they are at the first stammering of their sciences, that they can only understand one outer layer of the human being. To each one his night, but the darker the shadows become, the more a man discovers the delight of believing. Does belief not include consenting to our night? To refuse our night would be to seek a privilege. If we should see as in open day, to what purpose would we believe? Advancing on a road without knowing where it leads, such a man believes without seeing. No fear of the shadows; they are lit from within. Certainty as solid as the rock: At a given moment the night is rent and dawn appears. So let this dawning come, and one day our death, dawn of a life.”
At this darkest time of year, we are invited to acknowledge and embrace the darkness in which we necessarily live. But, at the same time, we are invited to prepare to celebrate the gift of God’s greatest light piercing and shining through the darkness, bringing hope and new life to all the world.