John the Baptist’s despairing question in prison may well be our own: Jesus, are you the one? Really?
The answer for us as well is to look for evidence of God’s good will at work in the world. And yet, when we find ourselves disappointed, we need to ask: Is our frustration the fruit of too much clarity about what God’s promises ought to look like? Do we presume to know the shape of God’s love?
John the Baptist called all people to repent, making no distinctions between them. He obeyed God’s call to him, and then found himself in prison for preparing Israel to welcome the Lord and for daring to condemn the king.
Given Matthew's characterization of John's message, it is easy to imagine that John expected the reign of God to arrive with dramatic manifestations of judgment against sinners (“the wrath to come” [v 7]; “the ax is at the root of the trees” [v 10]; “burn the chaff with unquenchable fire” [v 12]). The merciful character of Jesus' message and work appear to have caused John to question whether Jesus was “the one.” – Aaron Couch
John—who had once been so sure, who had said to Jesus with such joy and confidence when Jesus came to him at the Jordan, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”—John is struggling now. . . What has his life meant? What difference has he made? – Judy Buck-Glenn
Jesus does not so much answer John's question as direct John's attention to scripture so that John may answer the question for himself. – Aaron Couch
We know the word sent to John: the blind see, the lame walk, the poor receive good news.
But underlying these assurances and this message of hope is a warning: John, maybe it won't look the way you thought it would. Maybe the coming of the kingdom of God isn't going to bring a world that will look literally like the once promised in Isaiah. Maybe even you, the greatest of the prophets, have made the mistake of telling God what God should be doing. – Judy Buck-Glenn
How can we tell whether what we are about is doing any good, making a difference in someone’s life, fulfilling God’s intent for us?
Some people I know go regularly to the juvenile detention facility and talk with the adolescents there. These are children and teens who have been imprisoned for a variety of offenses, some serious and some not. The people who visit engage in conversation, do Bible studies, and, in one notable instance, facilitate a drumming circle, one of the most popular activities among the young men in the facility.
When we talk about their experience, they reflect on how much the children seem to need someone simply to pay attention to them. For most, the hardness of their lives and the neglect from those who are supposed to love them has cost them dearly in self-esteem, freedom, and the knowledge that they are beloved of God. Even the little that the visitors do does make a difference.
Isaiah's vision points to a God who cares for his people with strength and compassion. God is well aware of the “feeble hands,” “weak knees,” and “frightened hearts” that are characteristic of a people in distress. Our faith tells us that God sees all these things and will give us what we need. In the midst of trouble, it might be hard to imagine that God can bring comfort, healing, and peace, but time and again in scripture, God is envisioned as changing the world. – Mary Katharine Deeley
Finally, the epistle gives us a mandate: be patient. While commands for patience can seem facile and naïve, the truth is that waiting for God’s purposes to be revealed is the hardest work. Patience is a special spiritual discipline.
James calls attention to a significant danger for the people. Impatience can easily lead to friction within the community of faith. One must instead recognize God's closeness and remember with awe that only God is able to render a true and just judgment. – Aaron Couch
Judith Buck-Glenn is associate rector at Christ Church Episcopal in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.
Aaron J. Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.
Mary Katharine Deeley is the director of Christ the Teacher Institute of the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, the author of many books, a frequent speaker on diverse topics, and a pastoral advisor.
Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 32-42.