‘What did you go out to look at?’ Jesus asks the crowd in this week’s Gospel, ‘A reed shaken in the wind?” It is an image that has caught the imagination, and provided books and poems, as well as sermons, with a striking title. But what exactly does it mean? The exchange occurs in a section of Matthew’s Gospel that is mostly about the significance of John the Baptist. Clearly, ordinary people were much struck by this extraordinary man, and here Jesus is prompting them to ask themselves why.
Some commentaries suggest that from time to time freak winds blowing through the reeds around the Sea of Galilee created strikingly unusual formations. On this interpretation, Jesus is saying to the people ‘Surely you didn’t go to see John as some kind of freak?’ But they can hardly have been drawn by his social stature either. No one could have been less like the political dignitary who dresses in soft robes and lives in a royal palace. No, they went to see a prophet. And that means, consciously or unconsciously, they went to see him out of spiritual longing.
|The Prophet Isaiah (1513) -- Grunewald|
This week’s Old Testament lesson is one of Isaiah's most famous passages, and one with which the crowd would have been thoroughly familiar. It gives graphic expression to that longing “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy’. John is the harbinger of this vision, Jesus its fulfillment. The fulfillment is not all sweetness and light, however. ‘Here is your God, come with vengeance, and terrible recompense’.
Once again, the themes of the first and second comings are interwoven. The First Coming of carols, social festivities, and the baby in the manger falls easily within our comfort zone. We know what to expect, and we like what we know. The Second Coming when (as the Epistle puts it) ‘the Judge is standing at the doors!’ is a much more unsettling affair, inevitably generating a mixture of personal anxiety and spiritual incomprehension.
Advent is the opportunity to switch familiarity and surprise around. Since divine judgment on the shabby lives human beings so often lead is precisely what it is reasonable to expect, we ought to find the Incarnation – God with us -- spiritually surprising.