Few of us would be flattered to be called a ‘poor worm’ or ‘puny mite’ by a stranger, but that is exactly how the Lord addresses Israel in Isaiah 41. 13–20. Context is everything, of course, and in Isaiah it is the language of tenderness and intimacy. We can identify with Israel, shivering with fear, shrinking from the violence on every side, but held fast by God’s right hand. The trouble is, although we know it is so, we don’t often feel it is so — or if we do, doubts about our sanity may arise. We have to live a strange paradox, knowing how weak and vulnerable we are yet at the same time knowing that the victory has been won; and the God we can’t see or hear or touch is closer to us than we are to ourselves because his Spirit dwells within us.
Today’s gospel introduces the figure of John the Baptist to our Advent liturgy (Matthew 11. 11–15). John did not speak of poor worms or tiny mites but broods of vipers, yet there is a tender eagerness about all the Baptist’s doings that is arresting. He, too, lived a strange paradox, as ‘the greatest yet born of woman, though the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’
How we are to reconcile these paradoxes, I don’t know, but they provide ample food for thought. My own private accommodation of these texts may strike you as fanciful, but whenever I think of Isaiah’s poor worm, I think of the glow-worm — not a true worm, at all, but an insect, destined to have wings and soar to the heights with a beautiful luminescence. There is in all of us, in the black carbon of our being, something of Hopkins’s ‘immortal diamond’ which God has created, treasures and keeps safe. John saw that and spent his whole life trying to get others to see it, too.