Especially powerful and poignant is the picture of John, the second figure of expectation for Advent. John, the spirit-possessed prophet who, like Amos and Isaiah, castigated the religious leaders of his day, proclaimed the coming wrath of God and pointed to one coming even stronger than he, sits now in Herod Antipas’s prison awaiting death, because he confronted with God’s word the powerful and violent people of his day. John wonders if his life was worthwhile and asks his disciples to go to Jesus and ask if he really is the awaited stronger one.
Jesus’ answer is as much a challenge to John as is his life to us today. Jesus is not the stronger one who will usher in the day of wrath and winnow the wheat and the chaff, but the one whose deeds gather up the most profound hopes of Isaiah: the blind see the beauty of a dawn, and the deaf hear the song of the birds; the lame jump up and lepers rejoin families; the poor receive good news that God is on their side (Is. 26:19; 29:18-19; 35:6; 6l:1). John, who lived proclaiming God’s word, must now wait for death sustained by faith and hope in that word.
John is a symbol of hopes proclaimed and hopes transformed. A great challenge of faith today is to offer to church and world visions of a renewed and transformed world, without seeing the fruit of our efforts. When I think of John, I think of parents holding infants at baptism wrapped in love and in expectation that those little children will share and form a future that those who gave them life will not ultimately see. With John they prepare the way, but the unfolding of this way is often vastly different from their expectation. Not to give up on the present in the face of a threatening and uncertain future caused Jesus to say that among those born of woman there is none greater than John the Baptist. Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The heart of Matthew’s community and of our churches today are the little ones, not the powerful in fine clothes and royal palaces. They are the poor and the mourners and those who hunger for justice. Often, with little faith, they worry about what they will eat and what they will wear, and find it difficult to hear Jesus’ reassuring words, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides (Mt. 6:25-34). Like Peter about to be swamped by waves, they cry out, Lord, save us! We are perishing (8:25). But this little faith, the size of a mustard seed, is enough to tell mountains to get moving and nothing will be impossible to you (17:20).
Advent is a time that reminds us that even with little or shaken faith we can foster great hopes and plant those seeds that may blossom into a future that we, like John, may never see. Today parents, teachers, people working for justice and peace, priests and religious living and speaking God’s word, along with those burdened by illness while praying for the world’s healingall are messengers coming before Christ and preparing the way. Preparing for the future, living with faith and dying in hope was John’s calling. We who are privileged to be but the least in God’s kingdom have a mission no less august, while no less daunting.
• Place yourself with Messiah in prison, questioning whether the Messiah he foretold is the one who is actually present. Ask how John’s question speaks to you today.
• With gratitude remember those “little ones” who have been greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
• Dream of a future for those for whom you are preparing the way.