John the Baptist and the Martha’s Vineyard Miracle

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 35:1-10

Luke 1:46-55

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” Matthew 12:4-6.

That well may be. But John the Baptist is still in prison and, for all we know, the henchmen dispatched from Herod’s birthday party are on their way to relieve him of his head. Though Mary sings of tyranny being uprooted and the hungry filled with good things as though it were a fait accompli, her people are still firmly under the boot heel of Rome. Isaiah prophesied that a paradisal highway would rise up from the desert paving the way for Judean exiles’ return from Babylonian captivity to their homeland. Though the exiles did manage to return, they did not find the promised highway-just desert. The lessons for today are rich in promises that have, at best, been only partially fulfilled. They are hardly enough to inspire euphoric enthusiasm, but perhaps they give us enough to keep the spark of hope alive. Sometimes that is all we get. It is not all we might ask for. But it is enough. It has to be.

The trouble with signs is that they are not definitive. They point to something that is not yet present or complete. Every person Jesus healed, raised from death or gladdened with the promise of good news eventually died without seeing the day promised by Isaiah when

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water…” Isaiah 35:5-7.

Signs do not prove anything. Jesus’ miracles did not convince his critics who witnessed them firsthand. Those of us who receive the good news from the witness of the prophets and apostles have even a stronger basis for doubting it. Like poor John, we receive news about the inbreaking of God’s reign as we wait in the darkness of our present bondage.

Or perhaps not. There are events occurring all around us that might be signs. This September two planes carrying migrants from across our southern border were sent by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. These migrants were evidently rounded up by the governor’s agents, some apparently from neighboring Texas. Neither the governor of Massachusetts nor the local authorities were notified in advance of these transports. It is evident to me, as I think it must be to any fair minded observer, that the Florida governor’s action was a crual and blatant act of political theater designed to ingratiate himself to the most vile and racist elements of his constituency, a tactic occurring with depressing regularity these days. But what happened next is truly remarkable. Residents from across Martha’s Vineyard and other parts of the country raised more than $175,000 after the migrants’ arrival. There were some large donations consisting of multiple thousands of dollars, but most of the donations made for the migrants were contributions between $50 to $100 from churches, civic organizations and local citizens. So many donations of food, clothing and other necessities were received that the drop-off point for charitable donations had to be relocated to the fire department.

Is this a sign? Does it remind us that the future does not belong to tyrants like Herod and Governor DeSantis? Is this a sign of God’s just and gentle reign breaking through the structures of systemic racism and nationalistic idolatry into the hearts of ordinary people? I would love to know how John responded to Jesus’ message. Did he recognize in all that he heard about Jesus the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy? Or did he dismiss it as just one more futile protest against a ruthless regime of oppression? Matthew’s gospel does not answer that question for us. Perhaps that is because we are supposed to ponder it for ourselves.

When all is said and done, only faith can recognize a sign of God’s reign. For those who believe that God raised Jesus from death, for those who know that the future is God’s future, for those who understand that tomorrow belongs to the meek, the peace makers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, those who open their homes and hearts with hospitality, what happened with Jesus’ ministry and what recently occurred on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard are signs that God’s Incarnate Word dwells among us. They are signs that God’s Spirit is at work moving the hearts of people to acts of mercy, compassion and justice. They are signs that God’s parental providence is moving the world closer to God’s just, gentle and peaceful reign.

Here is a poem by Marilyn Nelson relating an incident that might well qualify as a sign of God’s inbreaking reign.  

Minor Miracle

Which reminds me of another knock-on-wood   

memory. I was cycling with a male friend,

through a small midwestern town. We came to a 4-way   

stop and stopped, chatting. As we started again,   

a rusty old pick-up truck, ignoring the stop sign,   

hurricaned past scant inches from our front wheels.   

My partner called, “Hey, that was a 4-way stop!”   

The truck driver, stringy blond hair a long fringe

under his brand-name beer cap, looked back and yelled,

                “You fucking niggers!”

And sped off.

My friend and I looked at each other and shook our heads.   

We remounted our bikes and headed out of town.   

We were pedaling through a clear blue afternoon   

between two fields of almost-ripened wheat   

bordered by cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace   

when we heard an unmuffled motor, a honk-honking.   

We stopped, closed ranks, made fists.

It was the same truck. It pulled over.

A tall, very much in shape young white guy slid out:   

greasy jeans, homemade finger tattoos, probably   

a Marine Corps boot-camp footlockerful   

of martial arts techniques.

“What did you say back there!” he shouted.   

My friend said, “I said it was a 4-way stop.   

You went through it.”

“And what did I say?” the white guy asked.   

“You said: ‘You fucking niggers.’”

The afternoon froze.

“Well,” said the white guy,

shoving his hands into his pockets

and pushing dirt around with the pointed toe of his boot,   

“I just want to say I’m sorry.”

He climbed back into his truck

and drove away.

Source: The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, (c. 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 by Marilyn Nelson; pub. by Louisiana State University Press). Marilyn Nelson (b. 1946) is an American poet, translator, and children’s book author. She is a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and a former poet laureate of Connecticut. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. serviceman in the Air Force, and Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, a teacher. She grew up on military bases and began writing while in elementary school. She earned a B.A. from the University of California-Davis, an M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970 and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1979. She is the recipient of numerous prizes, awards and fellowships. You can read more about Marilyn Nelson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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