Readings: Isaiah 41:13-20; Psalm 145; Matthew 11:11-15
Poor John the Baptist. He is 'wheeled out' at this time every year. After a few outings in the liturgy it seems that everything that needs to be said about him has been said. And he is permanently playing second fiddle. We know already that it will be the same next year. And the year after that.
But today's gospel reading warns us that it is not a competition between the Baptist and Jesus as to which of them is greatest, a competition in which we know (because we are 'Christians' rather than 'Baptists') who will come off best. One cannot imagine that either John or Jesus ever thought in that way in relation to each other. It was the sons of Zebedee who engaged in that kind of tedious competitiveness, and were very quickly slapped down for doing it.
Instead we are being taught that there is a radical discontinuity between the way God is present in John the Baptist and the way God is present in Jesus. There is none greater than the Baptist if what you are thinking about is the raising up of prophets to teach and guide the people. But if you are thinking about what St Paul later calls 'a new creation', which comes with the Incarnation and Redemption achieved by Jesus, then you see clearly that things have shifted radically. We are in a new kind of place and a new kind of time. God has not only visited his people, he has dwelt amongst them, he has pitched his tent among them, the Eternal Word became flesh. He is in our hearts and on our lips, he is in our neighbour and his Spirit dwells in the very air we breathe, his saving work continues in the preaching and sacramental life of the Church.
The Old Testament prophet whose texts we read this week was a prophet of God the Creator and Redeemer. These ideas were refined through the experience of exile, the people losing all the familiar ways in which up to then they were assured of God's presence (the land, the city, the temple). They needed a new kind of comfort and consolation which comes with a new and more sophisticated understanding of God. He is no longer simply a tribal God, no longer simply 'the best god around'. He is the only God, and not just the 'top god'. He is the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth, and not just the Lord of Israel. He is the Redeemer who will call people from east and west, north and south, to the banquet of an eternal and universal kingdom, and not just the champion of one small part of creation (though he cherishes all small parts, the boundaries, the ends, of all times and places).
Second Isaiah, as this prophet is sometimes called, struggles to find the best poetry in which to describe the radical discontinuity, the new reality, the future that is breaking in. In today's reading it is in terms of a dramatic transformation of the desert which becomes a place of water. It becomes not just damp or wet, but filled with streams and fountains, gushing water, unstoppable rivers, a botanical garden supporting the whole array of beautiful trees: cedar, acacia, myrtle, olive, cypress, plane tree and pine.
In such poetry the prophets sensed what came to be realised between John the Baptist and Jesus. God will act in a new way. God will be present in a new way. Creation will be renewed and remade in ways beyond imagination. They knew that they could not describe adequately how it would be, or what it would mean, but they give us some of the most wonderful poetry in the world in their efforts to describe it beforehand. John the Baptist is not the least among these prophets. In fact he is as great as any of them. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is because the last and least of us living in the light of the Incarnate Word dwells already within this new creation.
It is not that human beings have suddenly become more moral or holier than they were before the time of Jesus. It is that God has acted in a new way in Jesus. God has revealed himself in a new way in Jesus. God is present in the world's history in a new way in Jesus Christ. More dramatic than a desert suddenly transformed into a forest of rich vegetation - so is the drama of Christ's coming. We continue to scratch the surface for the most part, but we must continue to preach this because there are people somewhere in the world who are being prepared by the Holy Spirit to live it more fully than we do. Perhaps God can use our words as he used those of the Baptist to prepare the way for the One whose sandals we are not worthy to untie.