(In the history of Israel, a prophet was someone who brought the word of God to the people. A false prophet was someone who told the people what they wanted to hear.)
The day after the San Bernardino shootings, I was driving downtown and thinking about the unending violence in our nation and our world. In my mind I was hearing the cacophony of national voices pretending to be prophetic, shouting out answers in response to terrorism. Then I saw this bumper sticker on the car ahead of me:
Today, too many of us are thinking only of what we want.
Too few of us are thinking of what our world really needs.
Every Advent we hear the voices of Israel’s prophets.
These prophets were not just foretelling the future, but forth-telling God’s Word. This morning we’ve heard from John the Baptist (the very picture of a prophet!) and from Isaiah (we just sang that beautiful hymn set to Isaiah’s words):
Surely it is God who saves me; trusting God, I shall not fear.
For the Lord defends and shields me, and his saving help is near.
So rejoice as you draw water from salvation’s living spring;
in the day of your deliverance thank the Lord, his mercies sing…
Zion, lift your voice in singing; for with you has come to dwell,
in your very midst, the great and Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 12:2-6)
In the 1st century John the Baptist came with a word of warning:
Israel was living a miserable existence under Roman domination. Israel’s leaders had made an agreement with the Romans, thinking it kept them safe, but John called them ‘a brood of vipers’. Israel’s people were not only crushed by the Romans, but by their own leaders. So as a beginning of a new way of life, John told the people to treat each other fairly.
In the 8th century before Christ, Isaiah came with a word of comfort:
It was a time of extraordinary tension in Jerusalem; the northern kingdom (Israel) had been taken over by the Assyrians while the southern kingdom (Judah) paid heavy taxes to Assyria and wondered when its own time would come. Yet in that time of high anxiety Isaiah told them to rejoice – because the Holy One of Israel lived in their midst.
A true prophet not only has the courage to speak, but is also willing to hear.
And how does a prophet ‘hear’?
To hear anyone – from a neighbor to a spouse to the voice of God – we need to set aside our own perspective (always a partial view of reality) long enough to listen – really listen. So the true prophet steps away from his ‘place’ – whether that place is the Jerusalem of the 8th century BC, or the desert of the 1st century AD, or this extraordinary world of the 21st century.
If we listened – for God’s voice – what then would we hear?
A true prophet is also willing to see.
And how does a prophet ‘see’?
A prophet does not look for the received wisdom of his own group, but asks for the wisdom of God.
God always sees the whole, not the part. (As Isaiah said, God is the Holy One in our midst). God not only sees comfortable, middle-class Americans wondering if their way of life will survive. God also sees miserable, mostly middle-class refugees running in desperation from their lost homes in Syria. God not only sees hundreds of westerners killed by terrorists, but thousands of Americans killed by guns, and thousands upon thousands of Muslims killed by terrorism.
If we tried to see as God sees, would we see more of the whole picture?
And then – finally – the prophet finds the courage to speak the truth.
(It’s not that prophets aren’t afraid – look what happened to John the Baptist – but what the true prophet hears and sees is so powerful it overcomes his fear.)
So what did John the Baptist ‘hear’ and ‘see’? John saw his people from God’s perspective: the nation’s leaders, sure of their grip on power, full of confidence – and the desperate poor, without power and without hope. To the nation’s leaders John said…. “ You brood of vipers…” To the desperate people John said… “Share what you have….”
And what did Isaiah ‘hear’ and ‘see’? Isaiah saw his people from God’s perspective: even the leaders had lost hope, fearing the Assyrians were coming for them next. So to a people living in fear, Isaiah said:. remember, the Holy One of Israel is right here in your midst.
To have God in our midst can be both a comfort and a warning.
When we are afraid, it is a comfort to know that God is with us.
Indeed, that is the deepest meaning of Christmas – Emmanuel, God is with us. God sees the whole picture, and with Christ in the picture the future is never as bleak as it may look to us.
But when we’re satisfied, it’s not always a comfort to hear what God has to say.
If we are rich, if we are comfortable, what about those who are poor and miserable? Can we learn to see the whole picture? Once again, God sees the whole picture….. and wants us to see it, too.
As always, Scripture always has a Word for us:
This Advent needs to be a time of listening and looking, so in the New Year we will be able to speak out with courage – about what we hear, and what we see.