There aren’t many things scarier than seeing fear in the eyes of our leaders. Franklin Roosevelt knew this, which is why history remembers him best for what he said in his first inaugural address in 1933—at the depth of the U.S. depression:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt was acting as a faith healer to the nation, because with faith comes confidence, of which he said in the same speech:
“it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.”
The confidence that comes with faith is the theme of the mass readings from this third Sunday in Advent. The first, from Isaiah, sounds almost like the instructions God might have given any leader who needed to bolster the courage of his people during hard times:
“say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.”
Then James in our second reading continues Isaiah’s message:
“Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Take John the Baptist, for example, who cried out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” Yet in today’s gospel reading from Matthew John seems to be having a crisis of faith. He’s in prison, after all, stripped of his freedom. In the meantime he hears of what Jesus is doing and saying in front of the followers he worked so hard to recruit. We can sense doubt and fear entering John’s heart—fear so great that he sends his own disciples to Jesus to find out if he’s really the one John’s been preaching about.
One can only wonder if Jesus sensed a flagging of faith coming from his cousin, inspiring this assessment:
“Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
After reading this passage again, in the context of the other readings, it reminded me of the passage from Luke where Jesus is hanging on the cross between two criminals, one of whom criticizes him for not doing something to save them if he really is God, and the other who verbally smacks his colleague in the face and prays directly to the Lord: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Here’s a criminal with nothing left to lose, and with his last breath, uses it to pray for salvation to a man he probably never met before but knows intimately by faith. Could it be that, in giving his assessment of John the Baptist, Jesus was foreshadowing that moment on the cross when he meets the first person he’d bring into God’s kingdom with him—who just happens to be a thief?
With that faith, the thief stole Jesus’ heart as well as his way into heaven. Let’s remember that confidence as fear tempts us to surrender to it before we get our chance to surrender to Christ.