Isaiah 35:1-10 • Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55 • James 5:7-10 • Matthew 11:2-11
Where there's life, there's hope. A squirrel foraging for nuts is an essentially hopeful creature, behaving as though he might gather enough to live until spring. For the squirrel, hope is automatic – the behaviors happen without any reflection on the likelihood of survival. For the human species, hope is at one level instinctive, but at another level, a choice.
Today's readings contain many elements of hope. In the gospel, John is sitting in prison, one can imagine somewhat gloomily (and realistically, given the outcome) contemplating his fate. John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question, asking whether Jesus is the Messiah, the hoped-for one of Jewish tradition. Jesus sends back what seems a somewhat cryptic message: go and tell him what you are hearing and seeing – the blind can see, the lame can walk, and so on. To John, this would have been a clear invitation to reflect on today's Isaiah text.
In the Isaiah passage, the prophetic voice begins with the crocus, that small flower popping its head up early in the spring when snow still covers the ground and the winter slog has become wearisome. It goes on to describe a world where people are healed of many infirmities, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news – a reason to hope – preached to them. Then the passage turns to another remarkable vision of a highway where people may return home safely, in a lion-and-other-danger-free zone.
The Isaiah passage, while rooted in a historical period of exile from Jerusalem, can provide a source of contemplation for all of us who are distanced from people and places of meaning to us. It offers a vision of a road back, of re-connecting. The problem is how to make the vision come alive in this life. Perhaps many of us long for a way to connect or reconnect with family and friends without the inevitable tension and problems that can come up. A danger-free highway where people may connect or reconnect sounds great. In practice, though, creating and maintaining such a path is hard work. Frequent travels – virtually or in-person – keep the path clear. Real conversations, about topics that matter to each person, keep the roadway viable. Thoughtfulness sprinkled with humor can prepare the way. Groups we are a part of – families, workplaces, friend groups, congregations – can structure themselves to grease the wheels, so to speak, providing opportunities to share fellowship and food together along the way. For the highway is the path of connecting to others while also finding oneself as one travels.
Some speculate that Jesus responded to the question about himself as the Messiah with a reference to the Isaiah text to avoid upsetting Herod, who had, after all, just imprisoned John. Maybe there were other reasons as well. Out of respect for John, perhaps, Jesus provided his disciples with the information John will need to make up his own mind. Out of concern for John, perhaps, Jesus also reminds him to contemplate this lovely text of imagination and hope. What a great gift to someone in prison – not a yes or no answer to a question, but a much more complex sharing of their common hope in a reality bigger than what can be seen here.
Morning: What in this week's readings lifts my own heart? In what ways can I offer a gentle message of hope to others today?
Evening: Who did I connect with today? How can I find ways to reach out to family and friends without losing my own goals along the way?