For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, "Do not fear, for I will help you." Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel! I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. Now, I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff. You shall winnow them and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. Then you shall rejoice in the Lord; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!"
Isaiah imagines God addressing Israel with nicknames, calling them "my little worm" and "my little maggot," as a parent might affectionately do to a child squirming in its arms. Understood in this way, the words, "worm" and "maggot," are not demeaning, but terms of endearment when attributed to God. We expect God to speak with more dignity! But Isaiah imagines God as not afraid of sacrificing his majesty, to be known as a loving and tender parent, for he will summon every ounce of his omnipotence to defend the poor and the powerless. He will thresh the mountains of evil so throughly that their dust will be carried away by a strong wind. A farmer tramples upon the harvested wheat, then throws the stalks into the air. The seed because it is heavier falls to the ground while the withered leaves and dried up stem are swept away by the wind. Threshing, we note, combines the heavy determination of stamping and beating with the easy rhythmic sweep of throwing the stalks into the air . . . just so, God blends tenderness with strength. If any of us has witnessed the mighty transformation that makes the desert bloom and even the mountain ridges flow with water, we would hardly know whether to dance with reckless joy or to cover our face out of fearful disbelief and our inability to cope with it all. Again God blends tenderness with strength.
Jesus’ words combine gentleness with power. He refers to newborn infants, the least in the kingdom of God, who are greater than the fierce prophets, Elijah and John the Baptist. Then he turns the coin over and changes the metaphor to the violent who take the kingdom by force. The weakest infant is stronger and better prepared to occupy the kingdom than Elijah and John whose preaching attracted yet astonished and frightened people. The Gospel ends with a serious warning: "Heed carefully what you hear!" Everyone of us occasionally comes up against violent opposition. How are we to cope with it? Today’s reading asks us to respond with the consciousness of Christmas and the presence of God as an infant.
Jesus makes the extraordinary statement that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist. John announced the coming of Jesus, but he didn’t live to see the death and resurrection of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church. To that extent we are all more blessed than the Baptist was. We have tasted the good fruit of the death and resurrection of Jesus and of the coming of the Spirit; we are all part of the church, which for all its failings, is a wonderful privilege. We are greater than John, not because we have done more than John, but because we have been more greatly blessed. We pray today that we would never take for granted the ways we have been blessed, but, rather, live generously in response to what we have received, as Jesus said, "You received without charge, give without charge."