2nd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Luke 3:1-6;
Phil 1:3-11; Mal 3:1-4
PROPHESYING OUR FEET INTO THE WAY OF PEACE
“Deliver us, Lord.” On Wednesday night we meditated on this age-old human refrain to the gods. “Deliver us, Lord.” Deliver us from death. Deliver us from our enemies. Through eons of time, all across this globe human communities have cried out to the gods for deliverance from death and from enemies. On Wednesday we lifted up two categories of rescuers who human beings have seen as god-given: namely, priests and kings. Priests presided over blood-lettings on altars that were thought to rescue those gathered from death. Kings raised armies to attempt rescue from one’s enemies.
In ancient Israel, the Messiah was hoped for as a sort-of souped-up combination of both these roles, priest and king. The Messiah would come to cleanse the Temple as the Great High Priest and restore pure worship of the Lord. The Messiah would raise up a mighty army to vanquish their enemies forever, establishing Jerusalem as the capitol of the world.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth came as the Messiah but also as God’s true Son to transform both these roles. He came as priest to end sacrifice, prophesying the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and replacing it with his own body. He is the Great High Priest who offered up his own blood as the self-sacrifice to end all such blood-lettings. Jesus the Messiah also came as true king to defeat our enemies. But how does the saying attributed to the comic strip character, Pogo, go? “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” On the cross, Messiah Jesus shows us the futility of using violence to try to end violence. The enemy, in short, is our own human violence against each other. How do we know all this? Only because God raised Jesus the Messiah to new life on the third day. Otherwise, he would have simply been a pretender as hundreds of would-be Messiahs before and after him. We never would have recognized him as the Great High Priest and King who came to rescue us at last from death and from our enemies.
Well, I wanted to recap where we went Wednesday night with the refrain, “Deliver us, Lord,” because there is one other prominent role from ancient Israel that we didn’t talk about Wednesday. In Israel, in addition to priest and king, there was also prophet. In this morning’s texts, we have the last two prophets before Jesus, Malachi and John the Baptist. They were the last two prophets before Jesus the Messiah also came to transform the role of prophet — perhaps the most important role he came to fill, the one which transformed the other two roles, priest and king, into something very different from expectations.
It is the role of prophet which carries on, then, into the Christian faith at large. It is the role that you and I are to continue to fill as the Body of Christ in this world. For on Pentecost Sunday many years ago, God poured out the Holy Spirit through the power of Jesus the Messiah, and it was the fulfillment of another prophecy by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17-18)
‘Wait a second! “Prophet,” you say? I’ve never made a prediction in my life! If I was a prophet, I could predict what this week’s Powerball would be! I’m no prophet.’ Well, yes you are a prophet, and so am I. That’s what the Pentecost story says anyway, that God pours out the Holy Spirit on everyone, young and old, and they begin to prophesy. What we have to do away with is not that we are prophets, because that’s what we’re called to be. What we have to do away with is the notion that prophecy is about true predictions.
Many years ago Charles Dickens wrote about a prophetic journey in his well-loved, especially at this time of year, A Christmas Carol — a morality play in which the miserly Scrooge is taken on a visionary tour of his life. (1) A hair-raising visit from the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, gives Scrooge the first warning of what his future will be if he does not change his life. Subsequent visitations by three spirits show Scrooge his painful past and his even more painful future. He also sees a scene that inspires hope — the warmth and love of the Cratchit house. These contrasting visions prove to be a wake-up call for Scrooge.
Scrooge is changed by the final vision, when he sees his own lonely grave. He pleads with the Spirit of Christmas Future: Let the visions only show what “may be,” so he can still hope to change his terrifying future:
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to one. [Scrooge] advanced towards it trembling. .. “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood …
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” (www.literature.org/authors)
An altered life. That’s what true prophecy is about. Prophecy is not so much about prediction as it is about repentance. An altered life. “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” asks Scrooge. The prophet Jeremiah didn’t foretell the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple to the Babylonians in order to freeze their fate beyond all hope. He foretold what would happen if they didn’t repent. Jesus didn’t foretell the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in order to lock them into a certain fate. He fervently wanted them to repent, to alter their lives. Most specifically, he wanted them to give up the age-old idea that only a more powerful violence can end violence and death. For the only thing more powerful to end violence and death is the force that gives us life in the first place. The only force more powerful in this world is Love.
So how are you and I prophets? By living a life of Love, the same unconditional love which Jesus the Messiah came to live with us. In Dickens’ wonderful tale of prophecy, the contrast to Scrooge’s life is that of the Cratchit household, in which even the smallest, Tiny Tim, is perhaps the greatest epitome of love of all. The prophet Joel says that the young and the old and even the servants will prophesy.
Do you remember the Andy Griffith episode in which Andy has been elected chairman of the “needy children” charity drive? (2) They were taking up money at the schools for this charity as well as all over town. Word gets back to Andy that Opie has given only a penny at school even though he had a ton of money in his piggy bank. Andy is mightily perturbed. He’s not only the highly regarded sheriff of Mayberry, but he’s the chairman of the charity drive. And his own boy gave only a penny!
So, on several occasions, Andy tries to explain to Opie why he should give more than a penny to this most worthy charity for needy children. But every time Opie would tell him that he couldn’t give more because he was saving that money. Andy, of course, thought Opie was saving his money to spend it on some foolishness, so his vexation increased. Even Aunt Bee thought Andy should ease up on the boy.
Long story short: One night, Andy calls Opie for supper and tells him they would just forget about the incident. If he wanted to skip out on this charity this one time so he could buy something he wanted, that was okay.
It was only then that Opie told his father why he was saving his money. It seems there was a little girl in his class who needed a coat, and he was saving his money so that he would have enough to buy it before winter.
You and I are called to prophesy, to lead lives of repentance, turned from all the ways we hurt each other to the way of Love. I am reminded of St. Francis’s instructions to his followers as he sent them out: preach the gospel by all means possible, he said, and if it’s really necessary you could even use words. We are called to this holy table once again this morning to be nourished in the prophetic way of love that our Lord lived out on the cross and that he lives out for us once again this morning as our risen Lord. We are nourished with the power that created and creates life in the first place. We are nourished with God’s power of Love, so that we might live out prophetic lives of Love that others may repent, too.
In the unparalleled, unbelievable bloodshed of the past century we have perhaps glimpsed our future if we don’t repent. But we are never “past all hope.” This season of Advent is about hope, the hope that God’s power of love enfleshed in the baby Jesus and poured out through the Holy Spirit is now a love that we can live out to empower repentance — changed lives.
I would like to finish, then, with that baptismal calling through the song of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah. It is the psalm assigned for today, and it is one of my favorite passages. As Zechariah did while holding the infant John in his arms, I sang this for our boys on their baptism days. Please hear this song for your self, as baptized children of God [singing]: (3)
You, my 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.
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Portage, MI
December 10, 2006
1. I owe this insight, and the next several paragraphs, to Barbara Rossing and her excellent book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004), chapter 4, “Prophecy and Apocalypse.”