ADVENT 3 HOMILY—14 December 2014
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything… In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God now and forever. Amen.
If I were to ask you to draw me a picture of John the Baptist, I suspect that many of your drawings would be quite similar. We all carry stock images of the Baptist in our minds. These may be borrowed from scripture, but also from traditional Christian iconography. As well, we all have a sense of what a prophet should look and be like, and this certainly applies to one who is as much “in your face” as John the Baptist is. We would no doubt draw him as being tall and hairy, thin from all that fasting on locusts and wild honey, and wearing only the flimsiest of woolen garments. Though we really couldn’t portray this, his personal hygiene would probably be open to question. And I suspect very strongly that he would have a permanent scowl on his face. We tend to like our prophets to be angry. In fact, prophets who are not always ranting about something or other tend to make us a bit suspicious. After all, we might ask, isn’t that a prophet’s real job? Aren’t they always supposed to be criticizing something? Always reminding people about what needs to be corrected, now or in the future? In a word, yes. They are.
There is something else we think we know about prophets, though we may not readily admit it. We probably don’t think that they exist anymore. Sure, we know about the prophets of the Hebrew bible, and certainly about John the Baptist. We may even know about the Prophet—capital P—of the Muslim tradition, and be equally aware that Islam considers Jesus to be a prophet, lower case p. But deep down, these may all be historical figures for us. Worthy and admirable people certainly, but not individuals who can make a difference here and now, or even seriously challenge us in some fundamental way. Who wants these pesky and irritating people around anyway, always raining on our parade? Always spoiling our fun? I suspect we may think prophecy doesn’t exist anymore because it would really unnerve us too much to think that it still does. It would force us to re-examine our assumptions about how God works in the world. But in fact, God still works in and through prophets and prophecy. Even here, now, at this time, and in this place.
In the sociology of religion, prophecy is often classified under what is called charismatic authority, and there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of prophets: the ethical one and the exemplary one. In this paradigm, John the Baptist and Jesus would be both kinds. More importantly, however, such a model recognizes implicitly that the prophet stands apart. The prophet is called by something or someone who is “other”—by what, in our terms, may be named as sacred or holy. Nonetheless, however, the prophet never stands alone. Prophetic authority, as with charismatic authority, is nothing without the assent of those who recognize it and agree to follow it. The prophet, therefore, always stands within and amongst a living community of believers.
There is one other thing about prophets, though this is perhaps more of a popular belief than anything else. Many see prophets as people who are focussed exclusively on the future, who see things that are coming and can even predict them, but who are not really concerned with the here-and-now. But in fact, prophets are very much people of the present. If they rant and rave about something, it’s because something is wrong at this time. When John the Baptist called his compatriots to repentance, his was not some future repentance, but one very much—and very urgently—of the present. John wanted people to change their lives right now.
Paul says something really important about prophets and our relationship to them in his letter to the Thessalonians that we have just heard. Do not despise their words, he says. That is, do not reject them out of hand. But also, he says, test everything. In other words, do not take it all at face value. Be critical in your engagement with prophecy. Notice also that Paul is speaking in the present tense. For him, prophets and prophecy are living realities. They make a significant difference in the world. They are living gifts of a living and dynamic Spirit. This is the same Spirit that Paul calls the Thessalonians to recognize and to engage with. The instruction not to quench the Spirit is very telling in this regard. Paul wants us to remain open to its promptings and presence. He wants us to let the Spirit have its prophetic moment.
On this third Sunday of Advent—Gaudete Sunday, a “rosier,” liturgically more joyful day of preparation—we need to step back and ask ourselves where the prophetic echoes of John the Baptist might still be resonating in our world today. Repentance is a fundamentally and radically joyful experience. Where, and in what ways, then, are we being called to a change of heart? And isn’t that a typical Advent question?
Maybe we need to broaden our understanding of prophecy slightly. We tend to think of it in highly individualistic terms. John the Baptist looms large in our imagination. We may see the prophet as the lone person who does or says things of import, but who is ultimately accountable to little else but the promptings of the call. I’m not sure that’s the best way to understand prophecy in our era. It reminds me of the classic “great man” view of human history. It leaves an awful lot of interesting and committed people behind. What about a shift to a communal or collective view of prophecy? As you’ve heard me say on a number of occasions, I grew up in the sixties. For us —while there may have been the great prophetic figures like Martin Luther King and others—we also had a clear and pressing sense of the ways in which, together, we were changing societal values. Our issues then were race and war and militarism. These never go away, of course, but there may now be other, different prophetic moments calling to us out there, today. What are our prophetic movements? More importantly, how are they putting us on the spot?
Three come to mind. Every time I see this on the news, I am amazed and touched by the fact that a colony of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence may well be able to deflect a major gas pipeline project. We know very well, of course, that the environmental crisis, and the mass popular movement to which it has given rise, are signposts of our times. This is a prophetic movement calling for repentance and commitment, for a re-commitment to the integrity of the earth. Forgive us for not caring for your creation as well as we should. Forgive us for our arrogance in thinking that we are masters of the world. Harassment and sexual abuse are very much on our minds these days. Women are re-claiming a voice for themselves, no longer willing to remain silent. Men need to assume responsibility for their acts. Forgive us for our deliberate blindness in ignoring gender and sexual violence. Forgive us for abusing the power that lies at the heart of all relationships. In the midst of the craziness of the holiday season, we hear prophetic voices reminding us of the financial and moral dangers of over-consumption. We know that we all tend to want to have more, buy more, consume more. We also know that our privilege comes at the expense of those who are so often forced under adverse conditions to make the things we consume. Forgive us for our greed in so often wanting more, especially when we don’t need it. Forgive us for our insecure and senseless over-indulgence which so often keeps others in a state of financial dependency. Here then are three prophetic moments in our world. Here arethree prophetic opportunities for us to heed the warnings of John the Baptist.
The Spirit blows where the Spirit wants to blow. God raises prophets where God wants to raise prophets. Our part is to listen attentively and critically—not to quench or to despise—and then to let the summons bore down into our very souls.
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