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!"
John's disciples came to Jesus with a question. From his prison he sent two of them to ask, "re you he who is to come, or must we look for another?" Jesus points them to what they had heard and seen him do, miracles of grace which clearly indicated that he was the awaited Messiah, the Christ. After they had left he gave the testimony about John that we have just read, and it is high praise indeed.
What Jesus said about John was intended not only to praise him, but for the people's profit, to revive their memory of John's ministry, which had been well attended, but which was in danger of being forgotten. He reminded them of John's merits "What did you go out into the desert to see?" John had preached in the desert, and despite the inconvenient location the people flocked in crowds to him. If his preaching was worth taking such trouble to hear it, surely it was worth taking some care to recollect it. Jesus puts it to them, "What did ye go out to see?" He notes how John was a firm, resolute man, not a reed shaken with the wind — who would bow to pressure. He was not wavering in his principles but was remarkable for his steadiness in face of Herod's rage.
John was a self-denying man, mortified to this world. Was he a man clothed in soft garments? If so, they would not have gone into the desert to see him, but gone to the royal court to admire fine fashions. They went out to see a man clothed in camel's hair, and a leather belt about his loins, living a simple lifestyle in tune with the desert he lived in, and the doctrine he preached there was one of repentance. A true preacher must not look like a fashionable court official. John's appearance was rough and simple, but his message had vigour and they flocked to hear him. He was a prophet, Jesus said, and more than a prophet. John had said of himself, he was not the great prophet, the Messiah; but Jesus says of him that he was more than a prophet. He was the great forerunner who prepared people's hearts to receive the message of Jesus. John saw Jesus' day coming like the day dawning, when he pointed to him and said, 'Behold the Lamb of God!'
Jesus closes this comments with a solemn call to attention: "Whoever has ears to hear, listen!" which suggests, "If John is the Elijah whose return is promised in prophecy, then a great revolution is near, the Messiah is at the door, and the world will shortly be surprised by a happy change, for God's kingdom is very near at hand."
What Jesus says about John the Baptist in today's gospel is high praise indeed, "of all the children born of women, greater than John the Baptist has never been born." John is deserving of such praise because, as Jesus says in that reading, he is the prophet whose coming all of the Jewish Scriptures looked forward to. He is the Elijah figure who, it was believed, would immediately precede the coming of the Messiah. Yet, having praised John the Baptist for his unique status, Jesus goes on to make an even more remarkable statement, "the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is." John had been beheaded before he could really hear and respond to Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God. However, through the written gospels and through the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us, we have heard and responded to Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God. Our union with Jesus through faith and our commitment to living as his disciple leaves us in any even more privileged place than that of John the Baptist. Advent is a time to give thanks for the gift of the gospel and of our faith response to it. It is also a time to heed the call to grow in our appreciation of that gift and in the quality of our response to it.