In Advent the prophets remind us that God is preparing a way toward us and for us to travel on and that we like the prophets have a role to play in proclaiming that for others. (RCL Malachi 3:1-14; Song of Zechariah – Luke 1:67-79; Philippians 1:1-11; and Luke 3:1-6)
We are told that Advent is a season of waiting but that is not necessarily about quiet waiting with our hands in our laps for something to happen out there. The imagery of the prophets this week is that of a path being forged across the wilderness with such urgency that mountains are brought low and valleys raised up. The images include fire – the refiners fire that purposefully burns away all that is dross and no longer needed.
When we speak of the prophets and try and make sense of what they have said it is important to be clear that we are not simply listening to fortune tellers and predictors of the future. As Christians we primarily see prophets as those who foretold the arrival of Jesus and looking back we can certainly see that those Messianic hopes and longings were met in Jesus the Christ. But prophets also spoke into their own specific times and places and also speak into the universal human condition. So we can hear and see the layers of truth that the prophets were gifted with: their own time, the life and work of Jesus, and the universal journey of the soul including ours.
So, for example, many of the prophets we hear from in Advent were from the time of the exile – when the people of Israel were in Babylon longing for Jerusalem. These prophets spoke in three main ways: speaking harshly and pointing out that they were in exile because they had not heeded God in the past; secondly they directed them to be faithful in the difficult situation of being exiles in a strange land; and thirdly they spoke of the eventual hope of return to Israel, to Jerusalem. All of that is apparent in the words of the prophet Malachi. And this week we hear some of those words of promise. Although they were not sweet words of hope they were words of an awe inspiring, fearful hope.
The words of Malachi were for his people in their time and their situation. However those images speak deeply to all people in hard times and so when the Israelites found themselves oppressed in their own land these prophecies again rang true. So these words of the prophet were applicable again in the time of Jesus and looking back we can certainly see how applicable they were.
And in our own time and circumstances maybe we can identify with them. Many of us have a sense of having fallen onto hard times maybe due to the ravages of the pandemic; of our own fractured communities of faith full of heretical judgementalism and hate; of being called to be a faithful remnant; and that we still live under a promise of hope, a hope that is awesome and somewhat fear inducing.
So the prophets tell us what was urgent long ago, of what was happening in the coming of Jesus, and of what the journey of the human soul tends to be across all the ages. And out of this we have both a hope and a call to action and participation in the making real of the kingdom of God in our time and place.
The task of the prophets can also be seen as a stage of faith development. Walter Brugerman noted that the Hebrew Scriptures – our Old Testament – is divided into three sections: the Torah, or Law, the Prophets, and Wisdom Literature. He suggests that these also describe the development of religion and of the individual person of faith. That firstly we must develop an understanding of the law – of our identity, the boundaries of community belief and behaviour, and of consequence. Then we must engage in critical self reflection which is what the prophets lead us to do with their strong often hard words spoken out of the heart of the faith tradition. And from this will come Wisdom.
Richard Rohr has described prophecy as critical self reflection on behalf of the people of faith. That is, prophets can see what is wrong because they are believers speaking passionately out of love for the faith tradition. They are speaking about and to the issues of their times. They are speaking with one foot in the faith tradition and one of the edge of the community as an outsider. Indeed maybe wisdom can only come out of a deep appreciation for the tradition, and the courage to critique it and ourselves in love.
Because of this the prophets call us to action: within our individual life of faith development and growth and in our communities. The prophets know about the art of waiting and preparing for the reign of God in each and every age. Think of John the Baptist – a life of preparing for his brief role: waiting, developing, so that he would be able to prepare the way and then be able to recognise the Christ and to announce him to a waiting world. In this John the Baptist is in many ways the prototype for Christian prophets. He does not simply prepare himself for receiving the reign of Christ – he knows that his preparation and that of the whole people is the same thing, that without his preparation the Christ can not come!
Listen again to Zechariah: “And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. 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 into the way of peace.” Salvation, our faith, is not for us alone – it is so that we can prepare the way for Christ to come into all life, every life. We are called into a life of light so that those in darkness can also know light and love.
So the news of the prophets is that we can take great comfort and be restored by the hope that our God is forging a way toward us, across any and all terrains, that the good news of Christ might reach us where we are at this moment and in our particular circumstances. Whatever obstacles there are in our life they are being brought low or lifted up so we can experience God. For many of us this is news we desperately need to hear – that what sometimes seems insurmountable will not stop the God who loves us passionately and who is coming to us and for us.
We are also being challenged and prepared for the process that leads us into – to being refined as though in a fire, to being led into wilderness times and places, to journeying to new places. Even in these images is the hopefulness that those experiences we sometimes feel barely capable of surviving can be part of the process of being refined and growing.
And we, like John, are being initiated into the role of proclaimers of good news. We who have heard and received are to become part of the process by which others are reached, cared for, encouraged and challenged on the Way. Our experiences and relationships are part of the essential context of the good news being made real in our lives and times for our sake and for the sake of those around us.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and break down the barrier to our hearts.