The reading from Isaiah contains the prophetic oracle concerning the return of God’s people to Zion. It offers a vision of the second Exodus, in which people return through the wilderness to the land God has given them. The announcement of this return makes the desert and the wilderness glad, so glad that streams flow, grasses and flowers grow, animals appear, and in the middle of it all is a great, straight, safe highway on which the people will travel. This vision comes with an encouragement to the people to be strong, firm, without fear—because their God has come to save them. Here is the closing picture of this scene: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
James likewise speaks to his audience encouraging strength and patience in their time of waiting. He offers the prophets as an example of “suffering and patience” in waiting for the coming of the Lord. God’s purpose during times of endurance, James says, is to be merciful and to show compassion, not simply to give trials and temptations.
The gospel lesson from Matthew this week fast-forwards to John the Baptist’s time in prison, near the end of his life. He had heard from there of the deeds the Messiah was doing, and he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus told them in reply to go and tell John what they had seen—the fulfillment of prophecy, in which the blind regain their sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news. He also affirmed the truth of all this as the fulfillment of prophecy by validating John’s role as the one who was sent to “prepare the way” for him. Jesus’ concluding line, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,’ is at first difficult to understand. The least are greater than the great John because they have seen the kingdom’s arrival in Jesus and have the opportunity to act out of that awareness. John received the news from afar and was able to go to his death with awareness of having fulfilled his mission.
The experience of our worship this week is intended to equip us with tools for warding off the darkness and embracing the light. It reminds us that the lush green of life is part of a cycle that involves times of dryness, that we are here together in order to strengthen and encourage one another, that others have worked to prepare a way for us to proceed in confidence, that Christ has already come with great power and healing and so will certainly come to us again. Rejoice! Good news is coming soon!