The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
The Prophet's Voice
When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards. I loved it. I had thousands, still do in our storage room, actually. (Sorry, honey.) Baseball card collecting combined three of my absolute favorite things: sports, sorting, and statistics. I loved opening the packs. I loved putting them in plastic sleeves. And I loved looking up the value of each card in my Beckett Baseball Price Guide.
Those Becketts mesmerized me. They listed the values of baseball cards dating back as far back as the late-1800's. Each month I would buy the newest copy of the magazine at the baseball card shop and check to see the ways in which the value of my collection fluctuated. Mind you, it actually didn't matter because I never sold any cards, I was like eight years old, but I guess it was exciting, as a child, to know the things I liked held real monetary value.
In the price guide there was each month, a hot and a cold list. I'm not sure how players ended up on the hot or the cold lists; I don't think there was terribly scientific method used. But one of the things that always baffled me about that feature was that most of the time the same players populated both lists. Some were, according to the Beckett Baseball Price Guide, both hot and cold – simultaneously!
In fact, there was one player in particular who I remember quite often found himself at the top of both lists in the late 1980's and early 1990's, at the height of my collecting, and that was Jose Canseco. People loved Jose Canseco. He was charismatic. He looked like a movie star and dated movie stars. He hit huge home runs and stole bunches of bases. And his team, the Oakland A's, won a lot of baseball games. And also people hated Jose Canseco. He was arrogant. He was brash. I'm not sure folks knew it at the time, but he had so much steroids coursing through his body he was about to explode. And his team won a lot of games – which, if you were an Indians fan, for example, was a despise-able offense. Jose Canseco was so popular and so offensive that he was always topping both the hot and the cold lists.
The Biblical prophets, like John the Baptist, share the same fate. John was popular enough to draw a nice crowd, but at the same time he was staring down the chopping block. Now, I should be clear mostly Jose Canseco is nothing like John the Baptist. One is a saint; the other is a...well, the other is not. But like Canseco, John the Baptist was both incredibly popular with some and famously offensive to others. He was one of those guys who could top both the hot and cold lists.
But somehow, over the last two-thousand years, during the posthumous life of John, he has transitioned from caustic to quirky, from cage-rattler to cartoon character. I'm sure it's the clothes and the quality zingers we find in the Gospel. But it is important that we remember during this Advent season that John was a prophet. He spoke truth to power. And he was executed for telling that truth. Sure, he could draw crowds, but that doesn't mean those gathered by the river always liked him or even agreed with him.
In fact, even though he is commemorated as a saint, probably very few Church people today would agree with the severity of his message or his confrontational style. He was not nice or polite. His audience was, I'm sure, constantly anxious – never knowing when his truth would take aim at them. He embarrassed the religious leaders in the crowd. He told his fans that they were sinners in need of repentance – not a popular message; just ask any preacher. He insulted his own people by telling them that they are not special; he said, “God could make children of Abraham out of some rocks.” He was imprisoned and beheaded because he never sanitized his message for anyone; he was willing to confront even the most powerful people with their moral and ethical deficiencies. Gosh, he even argued with Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, when Jesus showed up to be baptized. He was a difficult guy.
John was a prophet – in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. And like them, he spoke God's truth until he was silenced by death – because the salvation of the world depended on it. Prophets say the things no one wants to hear but know in their hearts are true. The basic job description of the prophet is tell the Truth until you are forcibly silenced. It's a rough job. Actually eating locusts with honey, was probably the sweetest perk of John's vocation.
And not only did the prophets tell the Truth, they did so unequivocally. Those prophets were not known for their pastoral sensitivities. I mean just look at our reading from the prophet Isaiah today. Most of his messages are portents of disaster and ruin – pretty dark stuff. This one, the one we heard today, is easily one of his most encouraging messages. And in this message of comfort he says, “People are like grass. The Grass withers, the flower fades.” That was the message of comfort – something like, “Well, at least it won't be bad forever. One day you'll die.” Being a prophet, telling God's truth, is a tough job.
John was called, by God, to be abrasive and caustic – in all of the holiest of ways, of course. He was despised and disliked by every powerful person in the religious and political realms. And yet people kept showing up at the river. Now why would they do that?
Well, for some it was probably for the spectacle. Others probably came to hear the religious leaders called snakes and the politicians exposed as philanderers. But this was much more than some populist movement taking place in the woods.
People came because in a world of lies and spin, there were some who were absolutely starving for the truth. Some people came to the water because they needed at least one person in the world to tell them something true – even if it wasn't flattering, even if it was hard to hear.
And so the people showed up. They showed up because they sensed, deep down in their bones, that there was something more to this world than political posturing and self-righteous stagecraft. Something truer, something realer, something worth giving their lives to. NT Wright compares the scene at the River Jordan to the Exodus – which I find very intriguing. He writes, “John is turning [the story of the Exodus] into a drama and telling his hearers that they were the cast. They were to come through the water and be free. They were to leave behind [their] 'Egypt' – the world of sin [and rebellion] in which they were living.... They...were looking in the wrong direction and going in the wrong direction. It was time to turn round and go the right way (that's what 'repentance' really means). It was time to stop dreaming and wake up to God's reality.”1 They showed up at the river, risked John's devastating message, to find something real, to hear something true, to live into the shocking new reality God wanted for them.
John the Baptist always shows up in the Advent season. He shows up not just because he is the precursor of the Messiah – although he is. He also shows up because in this season of Advent, we are called to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. Every Advent we are faced with the same imperative. And it is a painful, discomforting, and shockingly personal call. A call to repentance. A call to consider our orientation, to be honest about our loyalties, to re-examine the priorities of our lives. It is a call to leave behind those things that hold us captive and walk through the water into God's reality, our salvation.
Advent always begins inside. John's revolution did not begin in a marble palace or on the Temple Mount. John's revolution was a word - a prophetic word that split a person in two, went straight to the heart, beating in the chest of each person, standing on the banks of a new life. Prepare the way of the Lord is not just his job, it is ours.
And preparation begins in your heart. That is why God sends us the prophets. That is why we listen to their words – even the ones that leave scars. Those words are meant to cut deep; they are meant to pull out the weeds by the roots. They are meant to hurt until they no longer hurt.
The prophets and their challenging words are a gift to us – maybe not always the gift we want, but always the gift we need. They turn us around and push us towards Heaven. They mean to put you to work, to compel you get your heart ready for its divine guest, to make a worthy dwelling place for your Christ on this earth. John is calling me and you to get ready for Jesus – the Christ who longs to become incarnate in us. And that is no small thing. And so John challenges us to rid our lives of all of the attitudes, and thoughts, and ideas, and actions that prevent Jesus from being born in our lives, and through our lives into our world.
Because the ultimate goal is to wake up to God's dream, is to prepare the way for the Lord to come and establish the Kingdom of God, not only in our hearts, but in our world. The ultimate task of Advent is to ready this world for the coming of Christ, to, as we heard in the epistle from Peter today, make a world in which righteousness is at home.
Today, in this season of Advent, we again are called to heed the disturbing, discomforting, challenging voice of the prophet – a voice that undoes us in all of the best ways. It is calling us to prepare the way of the Lord – into the world, by way of our hearts.
1Mark for Everyone, 2.