Year C, Advent 2 December 6, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“You my child shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”
Abraham Heschel, the great Rabbinical sage of the 20th century started his profound book The Prophets with the following sentence: “This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being – the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.” And in this very moment, right now, in this very place, just as, it would seem, we are cresting the zenith of our national power, we need prophets to give us refuge in our distress and to sustain us in our faith.
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, is a day to remember prophecy. We heard from the apocryphal prophet Baruch, not one of the incomparable 8th century prophets, but from a century or two before the Common Era and still prescient and relevant. We sang the Song of Zechariah, one of St. Luke’s towering literary accomplishments. “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.” And we hear St. Luke introduce St. John the Baptist and his ministry, putting the words of Isaiah in the Baptizers mouth, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…’” As far as Holy Scripture goes, it just doesn’t get any better than this. And our Collect for today collects it all and recognizes the mission of prophets, and petitions God for the grace “to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” Prophecy matters.
Really, prophecy matters, it counts in Christianity, it is a very important part of Christian spirituality. Prophets are an important part of our whole faith story. Both male and female – there were seven prophetesses of old, including Sarah, Miriam, Deborah and Hannah – these people throughout the ages reflected the truth of God right where they were, right when the were, regardless of the consequences. (Prophecy is always a hazardous occupation). Our faith reserves a very special place of privilege for the prophets, a third of the Hebrew Bible is given to the them, and the story of Jesus Christ, His birth and death in particular, are defined almost completely by a framework of the fulfillment of prophecy. So, what is a prophet?
This is so very, very important in this moment, the art and practice of prophecy. Listen closely to the wind, press your ear to the earth and hear the chatter of those gone before. Our youngest ones are here with us this morning so I won’t profane them with the details of the daily news, but if you listen closely, you can hear hearts breaking right here in this room, breaking across this land, breaking all around the world, breaking under the tragic weight of it all. You can hear fists raised in anger, some of them righteously, some of them imperially, some of them just demented and deluded, twisted by evil or depravation. And you can hear the wringing of hands, the shedding of tears, the silence of not knowing what to make of it, not knowing what to do. We need prophets. We need men and women, children to witness the truth and speak for God, thus becoming our refuge in distress, and offering their voice and vision to sustain our faith. We need prophets.
But what is a prophet? Rabbi Heschel teaches that a prophet speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of their own situation. They speak for God, but for God concerning a very particular slice of the creation, the slice that the prophet inhabits. Hannah’s prophecy comes from the perspective of a woman. She lived, if you remember, on the cusp of the United Monarchy in Israel, she was grandmother to David. Her’s was a time of great hopefulness and her prophecy reflects that. “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy form the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” From her perspective of the God’s eye view, the world was full of hope and her words reflected that truth.
Jeremiah was different. Jeremiah’s prophecy came from the place of the son of a priest with a history of banishment in his family. He identified with the unrighteously cast away. He prophesied in the waning days of the Kingdom of Judah. He was witness to a siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of his kingdom, and his people’s exile into Babylon. Hence his perspective was still that of God, but of God perceived through the eyes of one in a difficult time and through the lips of one witnessing disaster. So from Jeremiah we hear: “I am going to make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink; for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land.” Context, as Tom taught a few weeks ago, matters. The point is that as with anything that is truly of God, the always and everywhere is revealed right here and right now, in this case, through the ministry of the prophet.
When you imagine a prophet of old, what do you think of? I think of the images of St John the Baptist, camel hair and locusts, a religious wacko living on the periphery, in the wilderness; proclaiming the truth, perhaps, but not someone you’d like to welcome down to the potluck after church. Right? John the Baptist wouldn’t be a good candidate for vestry, or becoming a Bishop. While their inability to get along in polite society might be accurate (Jesus was a regular, yet disruptive dinner guest in the homes of the Pharisees) prophets always live their vocation in community, or at least with a sub-community within the larger dominant culture. Prophets do not work alone. This is very important.
Walter Brueggemann is a noted Hebrew Bible scholar and is very concerned with the community nature of prophets. And usually, he writes, usually it is sub-sections, sub-communities, communities of resistance within larger communities, within the dominant culture that births prophets. Communities of resistance. This is serious stuff. Prophets are always serious people.
Now this is a fascinating theological/academic exercise. Brueggmann’s book The Prophetic Imagination is an exciting read along those lines. But my purpose in lifting this up is not academic, it is not even theological, it is because we are in an age that needs prophets, and we are a people that need to hear and heed prophecy. The problem is that in the cacophony of 21st century life, in the deluge of noise we are subjected to, it is extremely difficult to hear the Word and feel the Love of God. Jesus warns that false prophets will proclaim what passes for truth in His name, and those voices abound. So maybe a scholar, who is also a pastor, maybe he can help us hear the prophets we so need in this very time and in this very place.
Brueggmann identifies four general characteristics of the communities that birth prophets. First, prophets arise out of sub-communities that have a long and available memory, a memory that links the current generation to a specific past, and that past is made present through song and story. John the Baptist, he was of a specific people, steeped in a culture and religion. His first recorded words are from a spiritual ancestor, Isaiah. He was in a lineage; he was of a people. A modern example of this is the civil rights movement, the stories of slavery and the old spirituals linked the people of that time to a long time past. “Go down Moses… tell old Pharaoh to let my people go… “ Memory begets prophecy.
A second characteristic of sub-communities that birth prophets is that there is an available and readily expressible sense of pain that is recognized and proclaimed as a social fact. Suffering is acknowledged publicly and is understood to be unbearable in the long term. John lived under the boot of Roman occupation and the collaborationist Sanhedrin and temple bureaucracy. The burden of taxes was unfair and onerous and the gap between the richest and the poorest was vast. Think of the people living right now in the very same wilderness that John called home, or people living in Bethlehem today… They live under the boot of an empire even more all encompassing then Rome, their sense of pain is fact, and is proclaimed as loudly as it can be.
Third, sub-communities that nurture prophets have an active practice of hope. There is a knowledge that there are promises yet to be kept, that the arc of the universe does in fact tend towards justice and know that the tides will turn things that way, some day. What did John preach? “Make his paths straight… the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Right? “Repent and Believe!” Right? You don’t call that stuff out if you don’t have hope. I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero. El Salvador in the 70s and 80s was hell on earth. The suffering across the whole region was as bad as it has ever been and he preached a message of love and forgiveness and the abundance of God over and over and over again until he crossed one too many lines and begged the soldiers to stop killing their own people. (He was shot at the altar while celebrating Mass within weeks of that plea… kind of like Dr. King when he started linking race, and Viet Nam and labor and made the patricians very nervous indeed, and he was killed while lending a hand to some striking sanitation workers). King, though, like all prophets, lived and died with hope.
And finally, fourth, sub-communities that birth prophets have an effective mode of discourse, one that persists across generations, that is distinctive, and richly coded for the insiders to understand and others, well, maybe not. Such communities share a language and a way of communicating outside of the boundaries of the dominant culture. John wandered, then set up camp in the wilderness to which pilgrims flocked. And he preached. Oh, did he preach. And the Romans didn’t understand, though their proxies, Herod and his wife did, and it cost John his life. In this age, I think of DJ Kool Herc and Grand Master Flash, two of the founders of hip-hop. They arose out of the South Bronx in the 1970s. It was as bad as it got in this country, destitute poverty just downwind from the excesses of Lower Manhattan, and these kids got together and started talking about what was going on in a way that only they could understand and in places that only they could go.
A long and available memory, a sense of pain, an active practice of hope, and an effective mode of discourse… these are the things to look for when seeking the counsel and inspiration of a prophet. It is hard for us to be that, as closely tied as we are to the dominant culture, most of us in this room benefit from how things are right now. I certainly do. I have a pension. But we can try. We can try, as Brueggemann calls it, to have “an evangelical will for public engagement.” But more importantly, we can lend our ears to the voices crying out in wildernesses all over the world, from outside Falujah or Nablus, from Katmandu, the jungles of Columbia or forests of northeastern Nigeria, from the streets of Port-au-Prince, the vastness of Pine Ridge, the projects in Chicago or in the alleys right here off of Kesey Square. And when you hear a cry in the wilderness, when you don’t recognize the voice, when you don’t understand what they are saying, when it scares you… listen, listen carefully. Sometimes God speaks in peculiar ways.
We need prophets. We need prophets to become our refuge in distress, to offer their voice and vision to sustain our faith. Because sometimes, sometimes light shines forth from the most unlikely of places. Come, Lord Jesus, come. AMEN.