No matter how much we plan for the future, it rarely unfolds exactly the way we plan. Sometimes, it's so different from what we project, we don't even notice that what we've anticipated has actually happened.

In the case of Sunday's three readings, many of those who for centuries had been anticipating Yahweh breaking into their world, never noticed that Jesus embodied that event.

Perhaps they literally interpreted words like Isaiah's oracle in the first reading (Is 35: 1-6, 10). They thought the desert and parched land would actually "exult or bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song." If so, they certainly missed Yahweh's presence when it finally sprang forth.

Expectations

On the other hand, when John's disciples ask Jesus, "Are you 'He who is to come' or do we look for another?" His reply (Mt 11: 2-11) seems to be grounded in a literal reading of that same Isaiah passage. "The blind recover their sight," He answers, "cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to them."

But then He quickly adds something which coincides with our reflection: "Blest is the person who finds no stumbling block in me." No matter how Jesus' ministry dovetailed with Isaiah's vision, it still wasn't a perfect match with John's expectations.

Jesus' statement helps us understand James' remark in the second reading (James 5: 7-10). "As your models," he writes, "in suffering hardships and in patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord."

Word and flesh

Biblical prophecy experts often remind us that even though prophets speak in the Lord's name, their words are rarely carried out in the exact way they're proclaimed. Prophets are sent just to deliver the word. God and the believing community will determine how that word actually takes flesh.

Even Jesus can be a stumbling block to John, someone who's not only a prophet, but the greatest person to have lived before Jesus. No matter what God-given word John proclaimed, it's evident from the Gospel that he never thought he was preparing the way for a carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus wasn't quite the person he was anticipating.

Why should we who are "born into the kingdom of God" be any different from our predecessors in the faith? We can't experience God's working in our lives without first crawling over the stumbling block of our own projections.

(12/9/04)