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Hope in God

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When John the Baptist preached by the Jordan river, he proclaimed with boundless confidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel. Crowds came streaming from Jerusalem to hear him speak. In those days, it must have seemed like the kingdom of God would appear on earth at any moment.  But things did not turn out as everyone imagined. John was now in prison for telling King Herod that he was wrong to divorce his wife and marry another. John the Baptist had once proclaimed that the Messiah would depose worldly tyrants. Now, John is a prisoner of the very sort of tyrant the Messiah should have deposed, and this fact nearly strains John’s faith to the breaking point.

That’s the reason why, in the Gospel this week, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). How difficult it must have been for John the Baptist who once proclaimed Christ as the Messiah, to now ask Jesus, “Are you really the one who is to come, or have I made a mistake?” John’s test of faith is evidence that even the greatest saints must pass through a time of terrible darkness in which even God seems to have abandoned them.

Jesus’ reply is a challenge rather than a comfort. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Matt 11:4-5). All these were signs of the messianic era, prophesied by Isaiah, with one notable exception. Isaiah had also prophesied, “Prisoners will be set free” (Isa 61:1).

Why would Jesus name every prophecy of the Messiah, except the exact one John the Baptist, now rotting in prison, so desperately wants to hear? The answer is found in the final statement, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Matt 11:6). What “offense” could Jesus possibly mean? It is the offense we all take at a God who triumphs in ways we ourselves would never choose.

Jesus chose crucifixion and death as the path to the triumph of the resurrection, and then told us, “whoever will not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us that the kingdom of God will come “not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy,” but rather “by following Christ in his death and Resurrection” (CCC, 677). John the Baptist chose to place his faith in Jesus’ ways, and so must everyone who calls himself his disciple.

It's easy to be puzzled, discouraged and deeply troubled by the injustices of the world. We see how evil prospers, and how “no good deed goes unpunished.” The scriptures promise divine justice, and yet it appears to move at a glacial pace. But trust in God means trust in his timing. In truth, God's timing is always better than our own. None of us can claim innocence in God's sight, and if we wish for a sudden tsunami of divine justice to sweep over the world, it's we ourselves who would likely be washed away.

Jesus once told us: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). In the end, John the Baptist chose to “take no offense” at the mysterious unfolding of divine providence. He remained faithful to Christ until death, and his example should inspire us to do the same. No one who puts his hope in God will ever hope in vain.

Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019