Though I’m not up to preaching these days I thought I might enlist the Loyola Hall Team to give their reflections occasionally. Today’s offering is from Edel McClean.
Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6,10; Psalm 145:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matt 11:2-11
Advent is all about faith and hope, and our readings today don’t let us down on that front. The first reading from Isaiah, encourages us to be strong, take courage, trust. James tells us to have patience that we will see all things brought to fulfilment. And after all of those calls to faith, and hope, we see, in the gospel, John the Baptist come to what seems to be a crisis of faith and hope.
John’s early days don’t suggest a man prone to uncertainty. His mighty proclamations, his passionate teaching, the absolute sense of urgency. ‘Get a move on’ he shouts on the banks of the Jordan, ‘the time is nigh’. And finally, along comes Jesus to be baptised. And John, with something of a sigh of exhaustion, must say: ‘Here he is. Time for me to decrease, him to increase’.
But now, instead of being told ‘good and faithful servant’ and the satisfaction of seeing all those who’d mocked him stunned to silence, John’s locked in prison by a man who wants him dead and only hold’s back because he’s nervous of a twitchy crowd. John, who’d preached that ‘the axe is being laid at the root of the tree’, is finding that there seems to be a much more immanent threat of the axe being laid on his own neck.
It seems that John’s hope and faith have been severely eroded. He’s lying in prison and when he hears what Jesus is doing he sends a message – ‘are you really the one’? I wonder if the unwritten text was ‘cause you’re sure not looking like it from where I’m sitting?’.
There’s more that a little doubt in John’s message. It’s not full of faith or hope or certainty. It’s full of doubt and fear and uncertainty. ‘I had been sure’ he says ‘but now I’m not so sure’.
How does Jesus respond to the very public doubt of his much beloved cousin? However much John is struggling to believe in Jesus, struggling to believe in himself and his own mission, struggling to hold onto hope, Jesus responds with a resounding statement of his belief in John, his faith in John, his hope in John. He says ‘I am who I am, and you, John, are who you are, and both of those are richly and deeply good’.
Isaiah in the first reading says ‘say to all faint hearts, courage, do not be afraid’. But sometimes our hearts are prone to becoming faint all the same. In the second reading James says ‘you have to be patient, do not lose heart’. But in the thick of all that seems wrong in the world, or in ourselves, it can be difficult to keep patience. John, in his prison cell, cries out, ‘how long? Is this it? How can I be sure?’ And all of us, at some point, struggle too with how to have faith – how to have faith in our own sense of ourselves, how to have faith in God’s love for us.
If that’s our reality then there’s a great deal of comfort to be had from Jesus’ response to John. However much John is struggling to believe in Jesus, Jesus quite clearly believes in John. Whatever John’s sense of inadequacy in those long nights in prison, Jesus says ‘a greater than John the Baptist has never yet been seen’. And not just John ‘the least in the kingdom in heaven is greater’ Jesus says. He expresses belief not just in John but in all of us.
There’s a beautiful line at the beginning of today’s psalm. ‘It is the Lord who keeps faith forever’. Given how fickle our own faith can be, that’s an immense reassurance. However much we struggle to hold on to faith in our own essential goodness, or however much we struggle to trust in God’s essential goodness, God keeps faith in us. He looks to us, as he looked to John, and with all our inadequacies and uncertainties and fears, he keeps faith in us. He holds on to all that he knows to be good in us, when we struggle to trust it ourselves. God keeps faith in us and says ‘I am who I am, and you are who you are, and both of those are richly and deeply good’.
Advent is all about faith and trust and belief. About our faith and trust and belief, yes. But much more importantly, about God’s faith, God’s trust, God’s belief in us.