The newspapers have been full in the last week of the amazing story of John Darwin, the canoeist who returned from the dead after going missing in the North Sea more than five years ago. At first it seemed like a miracle, but now his wife has admitted that – at least for most of the time – his disappearance had become a scam. People are still speculating about his motives but newspaper reports suggest that it had to do with escaping debts.
From his prison cell, John the Baptist began to hear similar stories about amazing events – blind people receiving their sight, lame people walking, the deaf hearing, even the dead being raised to life. Only this was no scam. John's disciples were able to report what they had actually seen and heard. Isaiah's prophecy seemed to be coming true before their very eyes.
But were people pleased about it? Jesus clearly implies that they were not! 'Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me,' he says, as if anyone ought to take offence at such wonderful things. But, of course, human nature being what it is, people always look for the flaw in the story, the thing that doesn't add up, the discrepancies and dubious details.
People wanted to find something wrong with the ministry of Jesus, some reason to doubt him. The same instinct was the undoing of John and Anne Darwin. Cynical newspaper reporters soon tracked down a photograph of the two of them taken together a year ago, when Mr Darwin was still supposed to be dead or missing.
And people had the same cynicism about John the Baptist before he was imprisoned, when he first appeared in the wilderness calling for repentance. The crowds who flocked to see him were motivated by curiosity as much as by faith and expectancy. Indeed, Jesus wonders what some of them were expecting to find.
Did they expect to find a reed shaken by the wind? If so, that could mean they were expecting a prophet who would proclaim the latest fashionable ideas, bending with the prevailing wind, or it could be a reference to the way that the wind whistles through reed beds creating an eerie and arresting sound, but a sound which nonetheless has no real substance.
Did some go expecting to find a celebrity dressed in soft robes? If so, they were surely looking in the wrong place. For the implication of Jesus' questions is that the only kind of person you are likely to find living and preaching in the wilderness is a genuine prophet – someone with a lot of strong convictions, an uncompromising message and a pretty Spartan dress code. And Jesus confirms that he believes John is a very special person.
So why are the least of those who live under God's new dispensation greater than John? Because John was still looking for the wrong thing, a new era of fiery judgement and harsh separation between the good and the bad, whereas Jesus knows that God is offering a different kind of judgement, a judgement tempered with mercy, patience and unfailing love.
The writer of the Letter of James has the same concept in mind when he pictures the patience of the farmer who treats the whole crop as precious and hopes that the early and late rains will help it to mature.