Psalm 146.5-10 or
Old Testament: Isaiah 35.1-10
A complacent people responded to Isaiah by becoming deaf and blind to God’s healing (6.8-10). Now, after judgement, they are ready to see, hear and rejoice in the good news of salvation (see also 29.17-19).
Seeing God’s glory and feeling its strength, they will walk in God’s way to the Temple (see Psalm 84.5). One biblical tradition sees the wilderness as the archetypal place of true worship (Amos 5.25; Acts 7.44-50), but here the desert’s blossoming signifies God’s renewed presence in Jerusalem. These themes are prominent in Isaiah 40 to 55, where the Babylonian exiles hear good news: ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (43.19). In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus points to this prophecy when replying to John’s messengers who ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’
New Testament: James 5.7-10
James draws on a Jewish tradition condemning the oppression of the poor and expecting the vindication of those who suffer unjustly. The corrupt treasure of the rich, particularly of those who exploit the poor by delaying to pay their wages (see Leviticus 19.13), will be evidence against them at the end of this age (5.3-4). James urges his disadvantaged congregation not to take out their frustrations on one another but to be patient in their suffering. There is encouragement in the Scriptures, from the prophets whose suffering was a sign of their closeness to God, and in the harvest that comes after the rain has nurtured growth. Above all, there is strength to be found in recognising that the return of Jesus is near. To any who presume to judge one another, he will return as Judge. But to those who show endurance, ‘The Lord is compassionate and merciful’ (5.11).
Gospel: Matthew 11.2-11
Uniquely in Matthew, both Jesus and John the Baptist proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (3.2; 4.17). Their stories intertwine from their meeting at the Jordan, where John is first characterised as Malachi’s coming Elijah (Malachi 3.1; 4.5-6), the messenger preparing the way by turning people to God and one another in readiness for the day of the Lord. And Jesus is the very presence of the Lord: ‘I am with you’ 28.20; see Exodus 3.14). After John is arrested, Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his ministry (4.12), and Jesus links John’s fate as Elijah to his own suffering as the Son of Man, who will be raised (17.9-13). Recognition is central to this passage. In prison for denouncing the unrepentant (14.1-12), John wonders whether Jesus’ ministry, casting out demons and healing the sick (8.1–9.38), and empowering his disciples to do the same (10.1-42), is really the proper work of ‘the Messiah’. Jesus points to the consistency of what he says with what he does: ‘Tell John what you hear and see’, recalling the Baptist’s message that a tree is known by its fruit (3.8-10), as ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’ (11.19). And Jesus invites John, the biblical voice denouncing present corruption and looking for future justice, to believe that Isaiah’s prophetic words (Isaiah 26.19; 35.5-6; 61.1) are already being fulfilled. The question and response remind us that there are always different expectations of renewal. John’s focus is fasting and judgement and Jesus’ is healing and mercy (9.12-14). But Jesus values John’s work, and appeals to him to accept the blessing of taking ‘no offence at me’. Recognising John as the climactic prophetic voice, ushering in his own messianic ministry, Jesus describes him as the greatest ‘among those born of women’. We are reminded that for John himself being ‘a child of Abraham’ was not about physical descent but about God’s power to give new life (3.9). Jesus is the child from the Holy Spirit (1.20), anointed by the Spirit at his baptism as ‘my Son, the Beloved’ (3.17). To even ‘the least in the kingdom of heaven’, to those he baptizes with the Holy Spirit (3.11), he reveals the Father whose will is to be comprehended by infants (11.25-27).
The links between the readings
Today’s first reading is one of Isaiah’s prophecies used to describe the deeds that indicate that Jesus is the Messiah. It was only after calamity that the people were ready to hear Isaiah’s good news. Perhaps the Baptist’s own imprisonment for his denunciation of hypocrisy made him ready to hear the good news of healing and liberation. To those who show endurance, says James, ‘the Lord is compassionate and merciful’.