I’ve been asked to speak for about 5 minutes this Sunday at church on the topic of Prophets/Prophecy. Each week in Advent someone is presenting a teaching/reflection. Last week my colleague and fellow congregant, Charlie Collier, spoke about Apocalypticism. Maybe he will share his reflections here on the blog sometime. In short, he explained to us why Advent begins at the end, as it were—why we begin Advent with a look to Christ’s return. It is a future-oriented perspective.
For prophecy, it seems to me, the perspective moves to the other end of the timeline. Reflecting on the prophets forces us to consider that the narrative of Jesus is part of a larger divine narrative. The NT evangelists pick up the stories narrated by the prophets, a story Abraham Heschel describes thusly, “It is not a world devoid of meaning that evokes the prophet’s consternation, but a world deaf to meaning. And yet the consternation is but a prelude. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”
There is something important about the Gospel lectionary reading for this Sunday being Luke 3:1–6.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Here the prelude to Jesus’ ministry and the context for John the Baptist’s activity is set within very prophet-like circumstances. We are told the rulers of the day. And yet the word of God does not come to them. As to a prophet of old, the word of God comes to John in the wilderness. Like the prophets, his message is one of repentance and forgiveness. Furthermore, John, with his first words in the Gospel of Luke, identifies himself with the crying voice that begins second Isaiah. Interestingly too, the first words of Jesus’s public ministry in Luke are from second (or third) Isaiah (see Luke 4:18–19). Heschel writes about second Isaiah:
Earlier prophets, absorbed in guilt and punishment, addressed Israel as “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity” (Isa. 1:4); Second Isaiah, radiant with triumph and joy, addresses Israel as “you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord” (51:1).
For second Isaiah, world history is a “drama of redemption” and “The deliverance of Israel and the return to Zion are depicted as an event of both universal and cosmic significance” (Heschel).
And so continues the Advent season, turning our attention from Christ’s return to the drama of redemption in which Jesus first arrived.
We are not yet to the shepherds and angels. We hold off on the over-booked inn and the messy stable. Peace on Earth and Good Will to All is not yet the focus. Last week we were exhorted to “Be on guard…”; “Be alert at all times…”; prepare “to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:25–36). Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection call us to look for what is to come. And so Advent begins at the end.
This week—and really throughout the whole season in which each of the OT readings are from the prophets—we see once again the cosmic significance of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection by way of being reminded to look at the divine narrative from where it is the message of John and Jesus come.
In the New Testament the word “prophet” appears 144 times. Of those, 86 can be found in the Gospels. And of those, 66 are in Matthew and Luke, the two Gospels with Jesus’s birth narrative. The Gospels surely want to note the prophetic foretelling of Jesus, but the prophetic tradition is not mere prediction. The essential task of the prophet “is to declare the word of God to the here and now; to disclose the future in order to illumine what is involved in the present” (Heschel). “The prophet,” says Heschel, “was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. He was often compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his heart expected.”
By observing Advent, by beginning at the end, by recognizing the flow of God’s narrative, we can say No to our own society. We can condemn its consuming habits and its trivial assumptions. We can say No to our own complacency and waywardness. We can say No to the syncretism that seeps even into our churches—the syncretism that lets “the world” set the holiday agenda and dictate the way this season should be celebrated. Observing Advent is but one way for us to shout a message of hope to a world deaf to meaning.
Advent is prophetic!