John the Baptizer scares me, always has. He is so prophetic, a formidable presence from the beginning, kicking to high heaven in his mama's belly when the pregnant virgin Mary comes to visit, celebrating the embryonic presence of cousin Jesus before either of them entered the world. Indeed, John's mother, Elizabeth, says to Jesus' mother, Mary: "For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy." (Luke 1:44). John was prophetic even in utero.
He comes of age in the Judean desert, perhaps keeping company with the Qumran crowd who anticipated the pending Day of the Lord. Then he storms out of the wilderness with a one-point sermon ringing across the Jordan: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 1:2) God's messenger is on his way with judgment for all. "He will gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:12) This unquenchable fire-talk seems to have gotten their attention since Matthew says that the crowds flocked to him, "and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their SINS." (Matt. 3:5-6)
As a child, I was terrified by John. He seemed lean and mean, direct and outspoken, like most of the Texas evangelists I grew up hearing, a revival preacher in camel skin. My grandmother told me we had to like John. He was a Baptist, after all. There is that great story of the two frontier preachers arguing over whose church was the most biblically correct. The Baptist preacher, feeling himself bested, finally exclaimed: "Well, they didn't call him John the Presbyterian, did they?"
John scares me still. In fact, he and Jesus force us to ask: What in the world is the "prophetic" and how do we discern it? Who is a prophet and who is not and how do you know the difference? When do prophets speak for God and when are they just plain crazy? Then and now, pursuing the prophetic is dangerous business.
The Baptist's story winds throughout the gospels, connected to Jesus almost from conception. John precedes him, identifies him, baptizes him, defers to him, competes with him (at least their disciples apparently thought so), doubts him, and in death is affirmed by him as "the greatest of the prophets." Yet John was a prophet in his own right, dying the martyr's death because he would not be silent about the sins of the rich and famous.
That's the thing about John, he would not, could not, keep silent! Jesus, on the other hand, builds his ministry slowly, out by the seashore, telling those closest to him not to divulge the secret, nuancing certain aspects of the coming kingdom with parables, similes and metaphors. John' message has no filter whatsoever. Even snippets of his sermons make us squirm yet.
- "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matthew 3:7) [And that was to the religious crowd!]
- "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife," John says to Herod Antipas, setting himself on a collision course with those ruling families who think that they, unlike the rest of us, are ethically immune (thank God that does not happen today!).
- "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" John, in prison, enquires of his rhetorically nuanced cousin from Nazareth. Had he misheard the Spirit that day in the Jordan?
John said it straight up to theologians, politicians, ordinary sinners, and a Nazarene messiah. What a story, the stuff of innumerable novels, plays, movies, and, of course, sermons. J. Frank Norris, the Texas "Tornado" and infamous fundamentalist preacher, once used John's death as a warning to youth entitled, "The Baptist Preacher who lost his head at the Dance." In the end, like many prophets, John winds up dead and venerated. Matthew quotes the religious leaders saying: "for all regard John as a prophet." (Matthew 21:26) And he was.
At best, prophets like John help us get our bearings in the world. They throw cold water and hard sayings in our faces and force us to take stock of our lives and the culture around us. At worst, pursuing the prophetic may mean that we find an excuse to silence the messenger, manipulating our way out of the warnings. From the Baptist to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the prophetic landscape is strewn with the bodies of the dead, some of whom, though silenced, speak yet.
Defining the prophetic is no easy matter. Some prophets "fore-tell." They look into the future and tell the rest of us what lies ahead, usually with a warning of the wrath that is to come. Jeremiah foretells the word of God to Judah: "You will lose possession of the land which I gave you. I shall make you serve your enemies in a land you did not know; for the fire of my anger is kindled by you." (Jer. 17:4) He was right.
John Woolman, the colonial Quaker, traveled throughout the South urging the Society of Friends to free their slaves a century before emancipation, warning that a refusal to do so would result in a broken nation. He was right. Some prophets say it straight out: God is going to clear the decks; society is in trouble and it will get rough before it gets better. Best to re-form your hearts and your culture.
But prophets also "forth-tell" the Word of God. They say what they see and challenge the status quo for all of us. Amos speaks the "word of the Lord," declaring, "For I know how many are your crimes, how monstrous your sins: you bully the innocent, extort ransoms, and in court push the destitute out of the way." (Amos 5:12-13 REB)
At other times, the prophetic word is a word of hope in a time of trouble, when things are so bad that the only way out is for God to do a new thing. In today's text from Isaiah, the prophet is God's "servant," called from his mother's womb to "raise up" and "restore the survivors," to be "as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Sometimes the pursuit of the prophetic is itself a reason for celebration.
Wasn't Rosa Parks acting prophetically when she refused to move to the back of the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on that December day over half century ago? Her quiet, determined response to one of the great signs of American racism was a prophetic indictment of Jim Crow culture. We're clearly not yet home yet where racism is concerned in America, but we are a long, long way from Montgomery, Alabama, 1955. Rosa Parks pursued the prophetic for all of us. Jim Crow is dead; let's dance.
The prophetic is dangerous and comforting all at once, good news for some and bad news for others. It engulfs the world as it is and the world that lies ahead.
But who is a prophet and who is not? That question echoes throughout both Testaments. Sometimes prophets are obvious--they seize the moment, address the times, and galvanize the culture. Sometimes the message is crystal clear; at other times it is murky and we wait on history for its verification, taking our chances in accepting it or ignoring it along the way. Can the prophetic be verified?
In the verses just ahead of today's gospel reading, the religious leaders explore John's prophetic credentials, at a time when would-be messiahs were a dime a dozen. But John denies that he is Elijah or any other prophet. "I am," he says, quoting Isaiah, a "voice crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord." The leaders were right to question him. We should always check persons' prophetic IDs before we go off with them to change or destroy the world. In history, one person's prophet is another person's quack.
The earliest apostles pursued the prophetic in Jesus, didn't they? Today's text shows the direct and indirect implications of their pursuit. Some verification is public with the "Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and remaining on him." (John 1:32) But then there is that wonderful little line: "They came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day." (Matthew 1:39) And whatever Jesus said or did, by four o'clock Andrew announces to his brother Simon Peter, "We have found the Messiah!" An apostolic community was born in a day-long seminar.
Which brings us back to the question of doubting John the Baptizer: "Are you the one, or do we wait for another?" If John was having second thoughts IN PRISON, then I don't feel so bad when Jesus stumps me as well.
And Jesus' response is a clue to the nature of the prophetic and the gospel itself. He doesn't say: "Of course, I am THE ONE, 'God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, Begotten not made, of one substance with the Father...'" (That's the Nicene Creed several centuries later.) Rather he says: "Tell John what you SEE and HEAR, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the poor have received the good news." Then he adds: "Blessed are those who do not find me an obstacle to faith."
John's not so scary once you listen to Jesus. There IS a difference between the two prophets. John the Baptizer says, "The Kingdom of God is on its way; prepare yourselves." Jesus says, "The Kingdom is already here; live like you believe it." John Dominick Crossan writes that when Jesus says that the Kingdom is here, he means something like this: Heal those who are hurting and then eat with those who are healed. And out of the healing and out of the eating will come a new community. (God and Empire, 118)
That's us! That's us! Let's eat!
May we pray together. Give us courage, O God, to live as if your rule and reign really has come upon us already. Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.