The story of John the Baptist, especially the story of his ending, is very disconcerting. (RCL Mark 6:14-29) There is something about prophets that is difficult for most of us to accept. Partly because they tell us things about our selves and our society that we don’t want to hear – inconvenient truths! And yet they are an essential part of our tradition and where would we be without their correction, challenge and encouragement?
John the Baptiser was a strange and somewhat alarming character and yet we know that his pronouncement of the coming of the Lord was utterly important in the preparing of the people for the ministry of Jesus. Last week we heard Jesus say that a prophet is not respected or welcome in their own home and it seems that this was true for John as well as Jesus.
There is something about prophets that is difficult for most of us to accept. Partly because they tell us things about our selves and our society that we don’t want to hear – inconvenient truths! And yet clearly they are a very important part of our spiritual tradition. The Hebrew bible is divided up into the Law, the Prophets, and Wisdom. And John with his similarities to some of the old prophets heralds the arrival and ministry of Jesus. Indeed Jesus was recognised as belonging to the prophetic tradition even by those who did not come to recognise him as Messiah.
In Advent and Lent we hear a lot from the prophets as we hear the words of the old prophets and apply them as proofs to the Lordship of Jesus. In some way we thus find the prophecies that seem to have already been fulfilled as comforting because they support our belief system. And rightly enough.
But what about prophets in general and the prophets of our age and society? I can’t say as I find myself very comfortable in the presence of prophets – or even very easy to recognise who is a prophet and who just has poor social skills!
I remember one day sitting on a suburban train and for the whole journey– half an hour – hearing the most profoundly disturbing prophet tell all who would listen, and those beside, some very hard truths. This prophet was a middle aged indigenous man (Australian Aboriginal), who had been drinking and/or had a mental health problem. But he spoke a loud and terrible truth that needed to be heard. He sat in his seat, tipped his head back so that his voice would be heard, and began. “I know that you think I am only a drunk aboriginal. And I am. But you will listen because I have been educated by Sister Kate’s (a local children’s institution) and I can speak your language...” He then, in a very educated manner, went back through local history of contact between the European settlers and the first peoples, describing events and dates of disease, rape and murder. He then told his family’s story up until the time of his removal from his family and his own broken life. Now this was when I was youngish and before the National Apology by the Australian Government. Despite being a social worker I had never heard before then such a riveting, appalling and comprehensive history of European settlement and aboriginal devastation. It is often not comfortable to be in the presence of a prophet!
The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, are often very disquieting because they tell the people then, and us, that God’s favour can be turned away or withdrawn and that if we don’t address our behaviour we may find ourselves experiencing consequences.
Let me say three general things about prophets and prophecy.
Firstly, that the prophets of the Bible, while sometimes quite alarming, are not simply angry people shouting at the masses and telling people to repent before the judgment day – a popular image. Prophets were members of the community, part of the tradition, who felt led by God and compelled by circumstances to speak words of warning and/or encouragement. Which means that culturally, spiritually and psychologically they knew and loved the people who they were speaking confrontingly to, they were not simply or primarily just the socially disgruntled.
Secondly, related to this, when we think about the role of prophecy and the prophets in the Hebrew Bible it is clear that the Law – the commonly understood tradition and social convention – came first. Prophecy is for those who belong to the group, who know what is meant to be the standard of community life that we are called to live and who need encouragement, correction, challenging to live according to the received tradition. And only then can there be wisdom – the much freer grace filled life of the spirit for the whole community.
And thirdly it is worth noting that most prophecies were not directed at the individual but at the people of God collectively. And the three most common judgments were in relation to how the people of God treated the most vulnerable in society – the widow, the orphan and the alien or outsider.
So how does that relate to us today? Where might the prophets be drawing our attention to our common life so that we can remember again the principles of God’s love for all, especially the widow, the orphan, and the alien? While it is not my place to preach particular solutions – we are all intelligent free citizens of a democratic society – I do think it is my place as a preacher and a teacher from time to time to say: “Look – there are these problems in our society and we are not as a people behaving as I believe God calls the people of God to behave!” There is sadly a long list, and some more within our domain to effect than others.
Firstly the way our society maligns, fears and rejects refugees or “aliens” is against the teaching of the God of the Old and New Testaments. We need to find as nations and peoples more just and merciful and creative ways of responding to the needs of those seeking refuge in a violent and unequal world.
Another source of prophetic like challenge is in how to better respond to the material and health needs of people in our community as the gap between the rich and the poor widens. This pandemic did not cause this gap but world wide the gap has got wider rather than narrower due to our different resources with which to fight and endure such affliction.
Increasingly we understand questions about how to respond to the issues around climate change as a spiritual and justice challenge not simply a scientific debate.
And of course some in the church continue to find it a challenge as to how to bless people regardless of their sexual orientation and identity.
I do not wish to suggest that there is only one right solution or that I have them, but you don’t need to be much of a prophet to know that these issues number amongst the many that our community is not dealing with very lovingly at the moment. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that these are easy conversations, and therefore we do tend to uphold the old custom not to discuss religion, sex or politics in case we offend or get offended. But most of the important issues of the day fall under one or more of those categories.
So if nothing else I believe that the church is being challenged to find a way of discussing such matters without falling into fear and anger but rather in respect and love to listen to each other and those beyond our doors. Let us be role models of compassion and courage and respect for one another as we share our concerns and passions – and please God may we get beyond conversation and actually find ways of acting that speak prophetically to our communities.
Let us allow the challenge of the prophets to be heard and experienced even when it is difficult, knowing that following Jesus has always been uncomfortable and challenging at times. And like his disciples we will sometimes feel ourselves corrected and challenged but ultimately we will find ourselves accepted, loved and encouraged. And listening to the prophets of old and of our times will lead to the growing of the kingdom of God as we are challenged to include all who God loves within our fold.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come convert our hearts until there is room for all.