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by Hillary McFarland

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

H e sat in prison. Tomorrow, or perhaps a few days from now, he'd be headless. Some called him a wild man and others a prophet, but now he was only condemned. His life had always been a strange one...strange, like his stories. Not the least of which his mother liked to tell, the one about how he danced in her womb when God drew near. When he was young he'd shrug and duck a little when she repeated it again and again. “Come on, mom,” he'd say, and she'd light up and rough his hair and then gaze deep in his eyes, hands locked on his shoulders. “But it's the truth,” she insisted, fervent and strong. “Truth, John.” Timeless and full of fire, her eyes never seemed to age even as raven locks faded and her grip loosened over the years.
     He missed that grip now, here in the dark, and pressed his back into the cold stone of the prison wall. I can handle prison, he calculated. He could handle the chains, even though his own cousin claimed He came to set captives free. Really, cousin? What about these? He moved his arms and skin tightened against iron.
     The voice he knew so well, before birth even, repeated in his mind words boldly proclaimed in the synagogue that day, the day his cousin was nearly thrown off a cliff. The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me. And he winced knowing exactly how those brown eyes glimmered when his friends uttered The Question. The one he sent them to ask; the one that kept him up at night, sleepless and burning even in the cold. 
      John closed his eyes in the dark but he could still see the face of his God-cousin. A scorching tear slid down and nestled in his beard, matted from the desert, these tangled remnants of wilderness and fire, the life of a nomadic prophet preparing the way for One who deliberately chose words from Isaiah to read to the people. The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD. Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
      Fulfilled. This message knew no cage.
     Iron and irony surrounded him and John remembered how the people marveled at first, enraptured at this Galilean's magnetic grace. Grace and truth. He remembered the laughter which echoed off the hills of their childhood, and tears sizzled on weathered, toughened skin. He'd preached truth and sat in chains for it, while Truth walked free, preaching liberty. He'd always lived in the shadows of this Truth, overshadowed from his mother's womb; and standing by, overshadowed again when the Father of Truth thundered from the heavens, bearing witness of His beloved Son. “Hear Him!
     John trembled that day, and he trembled now. His question...he wished he could snatch it back. It was weak, and childlike, and after an intense life of proclaiming the Messiah how could he now, after everything he witnessed, have doubt? How could he, indwelt by the Spirit long before breath filled his lungs, be so blind and weary and struggling?
     “Ask my cousin,” he'd ordered his friends, wild, desperate, and half-delirious, “ask him: are you really Him? Are you the coming One? Or do we look for another? Ask Him!” And then he sank into iron, spent and exhausted and afraid and ashamed. Ashamed of his weakness. Ashamed of his doubt. Afraid of the answer.
     Was it worth it? Did he make the right choice?
     Serve the true Messiah?
     And yet the Living Water and the Bread of Life met the need of his heart, and sent his friends back with a message: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
     These words suspended, almost tangible in the air, and he reached towards them as though reaching for life itself. Tangled in chains and blood and the grime of a hundred other captives before him, closer than ever to death, John laugh-wept into darkness. “I can just see you saying that,” he cried in exhaustion and relief, hovering in that strange, euphoric other-world where grace covers shame and life follows death and only the child-like enter the kingdom of heaven. He tried to shout, but his voice was cracked and hoarse as he repeated them, these words from God. He'd repeat them till he walked up the steps, blinking into sunlight, to draw his final breath. He'd hear that familiar voice, too, and find rest for his soul.

      What did you go out to hear and see? The Scripture has been fulfilled.  The broken  heart is healed. The captive one is set free. The lame walk. The one in need of good news has good news preached to him. These are the signs that follow Me. I touch lives, and these are the fruits. Why have I come? Hope and healing is why I have come. Why have you come? You were sent from God to bear witness of the Light. The Light shines in darkness, even when the darkness does not comprehend it. In life and in death,  proclaim truth. I am the Way, Truth, and Life. God is with us. Emmanuel.


Suggested Scripture reading: Luke 1, Matthew 11, Luke 4

Multiple Scripture passages are used in this adaptation of the story of John the Baptist prior to his beheading by King Herod.


  1. So mesmermizing! The way you told this and I imagined it must have been Holy-inspired because it rings so true. Wow.

  2. Wow, Hillary.
    Good words.
    Two Youtube videos from two of my favorite artists.
    You rock.

  3. Dear Friend and Sister,

    Your words resound in my heart tonight. This is why we respond with the angels "Glory in the highest!" Such a majestic King and yet, he is so approachable...taking John right where he was, with his questions. Not judging him or chiding him, just speaking truth in comfort.

    Merry Christmas to you. And thank you for the Emmanuel reminders...

  4. You have painted a vivid and wonderful picture of John the Baptist.

    You've also showed me some new things that I never thought of before. It's funny, while I've grown up learning about him, I never really thought about John's struggles! Thank you for showing me this story in a new way.


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