What Do You Say About Yourself?
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
What do you say about yourself? It’s not an easy question to answer – especially this time of year, when we’re hustling to buy presents and plan meals and more generally squeeze down into whatever version of ourselves our friends and family expect of us. If pressed, we might start with what we do for a living, who we’re related to. I might say I’m a priest, a wife, a daughter. I’m not risking too much there. Besides, the more we say about ourselves, the more likely we are to slip into pretension or delusion. Shouldn’t we just let our actions speak for themselves?
That’s what John the Baptist tried to do. He’s the most prickly, least commercially friendly of our Advent figures. While the rest of the world is thinking about Santa, or jumping ahead to Mary and Joseph and the baby, we’re asked to linger on someone who would have no use for most of our Christmas customs. John the Baptist wouldn’t be caught dead in a mall. He didn’t care what he ate or what he wore. This priest’s kid could have spent his life planning liturgies, wearing beautiful vestments, extolling the virtues of hearth and home – but no. He’s out in the wilderness telling anyone who will listen that our comfortable habits of piety and charity – our appearances at church, our toy drives and heartwarming news segments - aren’t enough. Repentance is more than the occasional course correction in an otherwise unperturbed life. Turning around means walking down a different road, one that won’t simply make us feel better about the choices we’ve already made. Where does John the Baptist get off rejecting the path already set out for him, the tradition that raised him?
That’s what the Pharisees wanted to know. If he wasn’t the Messiah, or Elijah returned, or the prophet like Moses who was promised way back in Deuteronomy but never showed, then who was he to move in on their market? They thought they were in charge of ritual purification. He’s seemingly making a mockery of them with his riverside baptisms. He responds by quoting their shared tradition back to them. He knows the prophet Isaiah as well as they do. “I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” They should know a prophet when they see one, shouldn’t they?
Easier said than done. If, as we say in Sunday School, a prophet is someone who comes so close to God and God comes so close to them that they know somehow what God wants them to say or do, then how do we know a true prophet from a false one? Our political life is replete with figures who claim to speak or act in God’s name, usually to their own benefit and at someone else’s expense. Surely calling yourself a prophet isn’t enough to make you one. Well, in John’s case, he isn’t pointing to himself. That’s usually a good sign. He isn’t afraid to speak truth to power or tell the unvarnished truth, but he’s also not using every news cycle to keep himself in the spotlight. He’s not asking us to look at him; he’s asking us to look at ourselves first - so that we can take the log out of our own eye before going after the speck in someone else’s.
It’s not always easy to know who to listen to, how to tell a prophet from a mere celebrity. I think about writers and leaders of our time – people like Wendell Berry or Jim Wallis, William Barber or Desmond Tutu, people within our own Christian tradition. How do we know when the messenger is overshadowing the message? Paul, in today’s letter from 1st Thessalonians, gives some guidance: “Don’t despise the words of prophets (he says), but test everything.” In other words, don’t reject a message simply because it makes you uncomfortable, but don’t automatically embrace it either. Any message of God worth hearing is capable of withstanding some scrutiny.
Prophets are not just grumpy old cranks or idealistic upstarts yearning for a simpler time. Nor does holding a minority view automatically make you a prophet. Strength of conviction doesn’t guarantee rightness either; Lord knows, we can be sincerely wrong. As my old seminary professor Beverly Gaventa once noted in her commentary on this letter, the prophets worth listening to speak to communities to which they actually belong. They don’t just throw rocks from the outside or burn down the barn and leave. They speak to people who can hold them accountable too; like John, they know the traditions they’re critiquing from the inside. This isn’t just about credibility; it’s about sticking around and committing to make things better, not simply decrying what is bad. Anyone can be a critic; it takes more than that to be a prophet.
So what makes for a true prophet? Our reading from Isaiah today gives us a place to start.
If the beginning sounds familiar, it’s because Jesus uses it much later to describe his own work. There is some disagreement over who’s the intended speaker here – if it’s the prophet, or if this is a job description too lofty for anyone but the Messiah. Regardless, the direction sounds right. That is to say, if the message we’re carrying is bad news to the oppressed, if it seeks only to keep the imprisoned in their chains (no matter how much we say we’re about justice), then chances are it’s not from God. Prophets aren’t just about condemnation and destruction. There should be some measure of comfort and hope as well – even if such comforts don’t come cheap. We’re not promised that we’ll never suffer loss, that we’ll never have reason to mourn – simply that the grief won’t last forever. There will be a time for rebuilding and repair, prophets tell us, for growth and new life – no matter how deep the darkness gets. Perhaps it’s by learning to name evil for what it is that we can envision the good again – to claim the signs of hope and resurrection when we find them.
On these grounds, it’s not clear at first where John the Baptist should fall on the prophet scale. Honestly, he leaned more on the day of vengeance of our God than on the year of the Lord’s favor. He was less interested in calling his hearers oaks of righteousness than in telling them that the ax was lying at the root of the trees. Still, his message was ultimately one of good news. He insisted that Someone better was coming, that now is not as good as it gets – and that we’ll all be better prepared for new life and growth if we do some serious pruning first. Repentance is not the end of God’s work in us, thanks be to God, but it is where it starts.
So after all this, what do we say about ourselves? Perhaps it is as simple as letting our actions speak, but frankly – I doubt it. It helps to know and name what we’re doing for God in the world and why. It helps to have a standard to hold ourselves to, and a community that loves us enough to hold us accountable. It helps to find our place within a larger tradition, to consider whether or not we might be prophets – and if not, why not. Is it the people around us who squeeze us down and make us play small, or are we letting ourselves off too easily? In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider where God might be calling you to be prophetic – to speak truth to power, whether that word be one of challenge or hope. If you’re tempted to tear something down, how willing are you to stick around and rebuild? If you’re sick of the darkness, how can what you say and do bear witness to the light? In the Name of the One who wants so much more for us than we know how to claim for ourselves, Amen.