O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; for you are alive and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
ON RARE and privileged occasions, my grandmother used to enthral her grandchildren by producing a small clump of desiccated twigs and placing it in a bowl of water. About 12 hours later, the twigs had become luxuriant and flexible green stems. There was no magic involved. This was a plant called a rose of Jericho, which had travelled with her since her youth in South West Africa (now Namibia).
At the age of 60, the plant continued to behave as it would have done when the rains came to the Namib Desert. Part of the wonder was having to wait; and it is the grace of waiting in hope on a much larger scale that Isaiah’s audience, well acquainted with dry landscapes, is being asked to cultivate (Isaiah 35.1-10).
The prophet paints a picture of a time when the part of the population of Judah that had been taken into exile would come home, and when Jerusalem would be restored (Isaiah 35.10). Factual and metaphorical description work together in this passage. On the one hand, it describes deserted land that will be cultivated and settled again (Isaiah 35.1); on the other hand, it evokes an image of a whole world restored and made new.
Walter Brueggemann points out the balanced triads that create a before-and-after effect. Thus the wilderness, the dry land, and the desert of the state of exile give way to Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon — particularly fertile areas (Isaiah 1-39, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). Healing, holiness, and joy complete the picture (Isaiah 35.5-6, 8, 10).
Brueggemann reads this great act of making new as a vision of God’s glory, recapitulating themes from Isaiah 11.1-10, and looking ahead to the triumphant announcement of the new creation in the third part of the prophecy (Isaiah 65.17-25).
The confidence of the prophets would sustain later generations who, having recognised in Jesus the promised Messiah, waited for the “coming of the Lord” in judgement (James 5.8). For James, the state of waiting is an opportunity for a community to attend to its behaviour, avoiding grumbling, and concentrating on being ready to face Christ as judge (James 5.9).
Jesus himself turns to Isaiah in sending an answer to the imprisoned John the Baptist. Matthew, following Mark, sets John’s imprisonment immediately after Jesus’s baptism and temptation (Matthew 4.12, Mark 2.14); so John has had no opportunity to witness the teaching and healing that follow the descent of the Spirit.
His question to Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.3) could sound anxious when read aloud, although anxiety is not necessarily its subtext. It gives Jesus an opportunity to test the most important instrument of the ministry that will continue beyond his death and resurrection.
John’s disciples can be employed as eyewitnesses, the parts that will later be taken on by the apostles, testifying independently to John that Jesus is performing the acts of power described by the prophets (Matthew 11.4, Isaiah 35.5-6).
Brendan Byrne suggests that this might not have been what John expected to hear, since healing and gentleness did not play a part in the preview that he gave when he preached in the wilderness (Matthew 3.7-12, Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004). What Jesus goes on to say to the crowds about John suggests that he does not detect a mismatch of expectations and events. Instead, he affirms that John has played an indispensable part in calling people out of their comfort zone into the wilderness, to hear and see harsh and stark things.
The rhetorical questions heighten the dramatic effect. Nobody would have ventured into the wilderness for the purpose of admiring the landscape, or seeing someone in the clothing of the governing classes (Matthew 11.7-8). They accepted the challenge of standing for long periods outdoors to listen to a prophet, who spoke to them in uncompromising terms.
When Jesus brings healing and restoration into the role that John sets out, it is in the context of the repentance and return to God that John has demanded. And yet, important as John is in human terms, he holds no rank in the “Kingdom of heaven”. John himself had already proclaimed himself unworthy to unfasten the Messiah’s sandals (Matthew 2.11). He waits with us in humility through Advent, as we pray to be found “an acceptable people in [Jesus’s] sight” (collect of the day).