All three readings today are about the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah announces that he will come; the evangelist Matthew tells us he has come; the apostle James tells us that he will come again.
Isaiah’s prophecy is bursting at the seams with joy: Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy.
C S Lewis has a great character in the Chronicles of Narnia called Tashlan - a figure of the anti-Christ. Tashlan, of course, was pure evil. He had the ugly face of an evil bird of prey and a cloud of noxious insects followed in his wake and wherever he walked the grass would shrivel under his feet, the flowers would wilt, and the trees would die.
In another place Isaiah (52:7) speaks again of the coming of the Messiah in the following words: How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation, and tells Zion, 'Your God is king!’
As the Messiah passes: …the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy; for water gushes in the desert, streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah is the great prophet of hope. His words are directed to the demoralised exiles of Israel but are directed also, prophetically, to us the new Israel exiled from our heavenly homeland, the new Jerusalem. The words of Isaiah give us hope in our own day, in this vale of tears.
Above all he gives hope to the weary, the overburdened, the exhausted: Courage! he exclaims, Do not be afraid.
Although the coming of the Messiah will mean vengeance, retribution and salvation we should understand this not only as the just punishment of evil-doers, Satan and his followers who oppose themselves to God and his people, but also a restoration of the proper order of things - justice, everlasting joy, harmony and peace.
We now turn to the Gospel, to John the Baptist in prison. John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the prophets to announce the coming of the Christ. He had leapt for joy in his mother’s womb at the approach of the as yet unborn Messiah. By the river Jordan he had pointed out the Messiah with great confidence: Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. But now in the darkness of his prison cell John began to question. Perhaps he found it difficult to reconcile the line of Ps 145: the Lord, who sets prisoners free, with his present condition.
The prophet who had immediately preceded John was Malachi. It seems he had expected a fiery Messiah who would come in great power: Who will be able to resist the day of his coming? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he is like the refiner's fire and the fullers' alkali.(Mal 3:2)
John’s own preaching bears witness to this overpowering judgment which he had expected to come among them in the person of the Messiah: Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire … the one who follows me is more powerful than I am …his winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out. (Matt 3:10-11)
Jesus comes to John’s aid and reminds him of another description of the Messiah, the one from Isaiah which we read in our first reading. This is a description of a gentle Messiah who sets people free through love: the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.
In the solitude of his prison John the Baptist would have deeply pondered the Lord’s response. We can confidently hope that it would not have taken him long to realise that every word of the prophets and psalmist was applicable to the Saviour. The violence he had come to execute was against sin and death while the power he had come to exercise was in gentleness, healing, mercy and forgiveness. Definitive judgment would come but that would be reserved to the Day of the Lord which would come soon enough.
The apostle James, too, refers to the prophets in the second reading. They spoke their words with great forbearance and patience as they awaited the their accomplishment. James exhorts us to similar patience: You have to be patient; do not lose heart.
We here in this church are a people waiting for the return of the Messiah. St James says he ‘is already to be seen waiting at the gates.’ Instead of empty musings let us turn our minds often to consideration of the joys of heaven. In faith we can already begin enjoying them as one begins enjoying the pleasures of home after a long trip abroad. Like Malcolm Muggeridge on the cruise ship soon to dock in the harbour we should 'begin packing our bags’.