John the Baptist, just last week crying out in the wilderness with a voice unmistakable and bold, has dramatically changed his tone. Now imprisoned by Herod, he has abandoned his confident pitch that pulsed at the river Jordan’s banks. His confidence tottering and proclamation fading, John now implores about his cousin Jesus, “Is he the one?”
A stream of hope had run through the crowds on the Jordan’s banks. It had flowed through those who rushed from the water, dripping with baptismal verve and ready for the kingdom of heaven John announced. But now it was drying up. John was filled with misgivings, his hope having evaporated inside the prison walls.
Where is justice for the prophet? What of mercy for John? A prison cell was his reward for proclaiming heaven’s kingdom come, for unlocking a conclusive truth at the portals of a warping empire. Malicious bars of injustice imprisoned him, hammered in a forge of vengeance: this man called by God, the first of two miracle children born of wonder foretold by angels, the ascetic in the desert, arouser of hope, baptizer of Jesus himself—held in chains! All the glowing hope looked to be a fading tale told by a disappointing martyr.
Life. Who has lived it and managed to escape injury and heartache of expectations lost, fair due denied, the prize withheld? We each experience tragedies immense and minute, discouragements that sting and pass, despair that aches and endures. How thin the air of promise can feel.
Jesus offers transcendent hope when he answers John. It is hope that sees beyond short-sighted optimism, hope that prevails against searing evidence to the contrary, hope that exceeds the pace of setbacks and remains persistent when, like John, we cannot help but ask, “Are you the one . . . , or are we to wait for another?” It is Advent hope.
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