The Birth of a Prophet
Is a prophet born or made? What does it take to speak truth to power or to discern where God is leading us? Are these skills that can be taught - and if so, where do we sign up?
Such are the questions I find myself asking today on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24). Typically in the church we celebrate someone on the anniversary of their death. The only other person whose birth we officially celebrate in the Episcopal Church is Jesus. What makes John so special?
Well, there are the circumstances of his birth. He was the long-prayed for child born to the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth in their old age. When he encountered Jesus in utero, we’re told that he leaped in his mother’s womb for joy. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit. It sounds like nature and nurture were working together on this one.
He may have been “to the temple born,” but he didn’t stay there. We find him as an adult as far from the religious establishment as he can get – baptizing people not in a shiny font but in the Jordan River. He’s out on the far edges of the faith – reminding anyone who’ll listen that we’re all in need of forgiveness. He doesn’t worry so much about being gentle and pastoral. He’s there to point out what’s wrong – to pull off our self-protective blinders and name all the elephants in the room.
Given Mary and Elizabeth’s close connection, John must have known Jesus growing up. Yet when Jesus comes to him to be baptized, it’s as if John is seeing him truly for the first time. From that point on, he’s as confident as anyone in announcing Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Like any real prophet, he points away from himself to the larger truth.
We hear about John’s arrest and beheading in all the Gospels, but it’s Matthew who gives us his questions about Jesus. John’s in prison for speaking out again, this time for calling out Herod on his unseemly marriage to Herodias. He could have left it alone, but it’s not really in the nature of prophets to let things be. Sitting in jail for doing what he thought was right and wondering if it was all worth it, he sends word to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2) It’s not a polite question, but it’s an honest one.
Back in Numbers (11:29), Moses once said: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” I wonder about that sometimes. Sure, we need truth tellers, but sometimes we need it told in a way that it can be heard. We need to be challenged, yes, but in such a way that we’re supported to rise to it. We need the voices on the edges, but we also need those in the center to hold a bigger circle than the prophet might prefer. It’s not always enough to be right.
But that doesn’t make what’s right irrelevant. Thank God for those who push us to ask harder questions, who dare to find God outside of the “approved” channels of grace, and who make us stretch from who we are to who we could be. Happy Birthday, John the Baptist.