The Light of the Prophets
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday, we had John the Baptist in full prophet regalia out in the wilderness, speaking up for the outraged radical inside all of us. Anyone who has ever been angered at the Christmas industrial complex has a friend in John the Baptist. This week, though, he’s targeting Jesus with questions from his jail cell. How did that happen? Last week, he was enjoying his role as holy highway builder, brazenly scattering the proud in their conceit (to quote the song of his relative Mary) – calling out the leaders of his day as broods of vipers. This week, he’s living the consequences of speaking that kind of truth to power. It was prophets like Isaiah and yes, Mary, who shaped John’s imagination, who led him to believe that a reckoning was coming, who inspired him to light a candle in the darkness and stand up for truth out loud. If not him, who? If not now, when?
And yet, look where it landed him. Was there a quicker route to justice than the slow lane Jesus seemed to be taking? One can only wait so long for might to be made right before we start lighting fires of our own. In a sense, John’s rather pointed questions are ours too. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” If anything, our viper pits have only grown since; our deserts are that much drier. So, what do we make of the prophets’ visions for justice and peace – are they merely idealistic pipedreams that slow down the path to realistic progress, or could they be words and images to live by?
I’ll give his mother Elizabeth credit - it couldn’t have been easy raising John the Baptist. Imagine trying to keep his shoes on, or trying to keep him quiet in church. He heard the words of prophets like Isaiah and didn’t tune them out as grown-up blather. The prophets were like movie stars or sports heroes are to our kids; they shaped who he thought he could be. His ears perked up at mention of the wilderness, of the freedom that was possible outside in the desert. John couldn’t reconcile the domesticated God of the temple with the God he knew out in the wild. Whatever his father Zechariah the priest was doing with all his ritualistic sacrifices for sin, they seemed not to be working. The people around him were no different after they left worship than before they came. Whatever passed from their lips didn’t seem to make it to their lives; their tactics, their budgets, their treatments of the weak and the stranger all remained the same. Or so it seemed to John.
Yet the prophet Isaiah talked about waters breaking forth in the wilderness. He talked about a God who would make a way through the desert when there was no way, where the redeemed could walk safely and not be afraid. This God didn’t settle for coping, not when change was possible. In Isaiah’s world, there is a path that leads to joy, and God has already cleared the way. All we need to do is keep walking. No wonder John chose to embody that message. It gave him direction in a world that otherwise seemed like a trackless waste. It gave his life’s story a plot and a purpose.
We can easily imagine John getting fired up by prophets like Isaiah, but we forget that they weren’t the only radical voices in his life. Think about the women who raised him. It was when Mary first visited John’s mother Elizabeth that we first hear Mary singing about God casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly in the Magnificat. It wasn’t just her song, of course. It mirrored the song of countless biblical women before her – Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Judith…and now it was Mary and Elizabeth’s song too. How many times must John have heard his mother or Mary singing about God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty? He didn’t miss their prophetic edge. You see, John didn’t grow up with the baggage we have around Mary or her song. For him, she wasn’t the embodiment of unattainable beauty or purity. She wasn’t the model of perfect submission; she wasn’t saddled with a thousand Christmas carols insisting on her mildness. She was a prophet in her own right. She gave him a song he could live by.
Then what did this latest plot twist mean? He’d been thrown into prison for calling out the king on his unseemly marriage. It wasn’t enough to be right this time. He was at the whim of a tyrant now; his freedom depended not on what could be proven, but on the political winds shifting his way. That’s not the way the world is supposed to work. Laws, integrity, the truth – they are all supposed to mean something. John preached about the Almighty as an axe-wielder and a fire starter, but Jesus wasn’t bringing the fire fast enough. Healing on the Sabbath was hardly the spark of revolution that would set the world aflame, or so he thought. So perhaps in an attempt to send a firecracker of his own, he sends his followers to ask his cousin Jesus directly: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Sounds like a challenge to me.
In his response, Jesus hearkens back to the traditions they both shared; after all, the prophets were the heroes of his childhood too. Jesus uses Isaiah’s imagery about the blind receiving their sight and the deaf hearing and the lame walking to remind John that he knows how the kingdom of heaven comes near – not just by casting down the mighty, but by lifting up the lowly as well. There is more than one way to show strength. It’s not just about setting fires. We’re allowed and even encouraged to be angry about injustice; Jesus certainly was. We just kid ourselves if we think our responsibilities end there. Outrage does not fill the hungry with good things or make the promise of mercy real to the needy among us. We can have the most biting, incisive, even accurate critiques of the powerful, but they ring hollow if not accompanied by a willingness to share our own power and resources, to put our money where our values are.
Jesus reminds us here that we don’t need to invent another plotline for our lives; God has already given us a path and a purpose – a kingdom where God’s mercy forms the measure of our greatness. It’s a kingdom that should change our tactics, our budgets, how we treat the weak and the stranger among us. In the meantime, it’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to push back on the traditions that have formed us and see how well they hold up. Prophets like Isaiah and yes, like Mary, give us visions worth living toward. They’re not pipedreams that slow down progress; they provide us the direction and the energy we need to make progress for all people. In the silence that follows, I invite you to think about the words and images and songs that you live by. How might Isaiah’s vision or Mary’s song or John’s questions be the firecracker you need to take your next step this Advent? In the Name of the One who gives us the prophets to help light up our night - Amen.