Sheepscott Community Church December 6, 2009
Malachi 3: 1-4
Philippians 1: 3-11
Luke 3: 1-6
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
The messenger I had in mind in the title of today’s sermon is of course John the Baptist, one of the chief Advent players. As you heard in Zachariah’s extensive prayer of praise, which we read together this morning, John the Baptist, the prophesied child of the high priest and his wife Elizabeth, would be the prophet of the Most High, who would go before the Lord to make a way for him.
At this point in preparing the sermon, I heard Canada geese and ran outside to try to catch sight of them, a seasonal event that never grows old. Late, at this late date, but never old. I didn’t see them, but I could hear them honking their way South, a natural harbinger of impending winter. The Canada geese in their migration, the barn swallows in their arrival and departure, the wooly bear caterpillar with its stripe of supposedly prophetic weather forecasting–– these are all natural prophets, as are the frost on the pumpkin, the sun lower on the horizon, the skim of ice on the pasture pond. Can we read these signs?
We can read John the Baptist as a harbinger of a season unlike any that had ever dawned before or has since that time. He was the prophet of the promised Messiah. Luke considers the emergence on the scene of John the Baptist so significant that he carefully lays out the political geography of the period against the world background of the Roman Empire. Because of this gospel’s detail, scholars have been able to use that roadmap to determine that John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing between about 27 and 29, the Common Era.
The writer of the gospel of Mark paints a clear picture of John the Baptist in the first chapter of that gospel. “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” It sounds like someone who may have appeared in the background of a ‘60s documentary on the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. We recognize this figure of the outsider, especially the religious outsider, the prophet with the sandwich board, walking the streets of New York City or San Francisco or Memphis or Little Rock, and often featured in New Yorker cartoons. We have certain expectations when we see that figure.
A prophet can appear in Newcastle or North Whitefield. I think I’ve mentioned before the biblical message painted many years ago on an outbuilding in Whitefield about the end times and being ready. Which reminds me of a story Jon told me about being a child in summer in Boothbay Harbor and seeing a station wagon with a megaphone affixed to its roof that would drive around the Harbor, warning people to get ready for the end. He said there was a biblical reference written around the box that held the megaphone. He is able now to calculate that it was probably the abbreviation for Second Thessalonians 5: 1-10, which his child mind of the time interpreted as the world coming to an end on Thursday at 5:10.
Anyway, we recognize the stereotypical and caricatured figure of the prophet. We do get a little uneasy when we see and hear prophets, don’t we? These odd loners who might be speaking the truth. We listen with one ear because we may be thinking, He’s a nut! but what if he isn’t? The people in Palestine in John the Baptist’s day flocked to him to hear what he had to say, to be challenged to repent and be baptized. They were thrilled by his words and many readily went down into the Jordan. They responded to his call to prepare the way of the Lord, just as we are doing in this Advent season, preparing the way of the Lord.
There was something about John that attracted people to him, in spite of his appearance, his rugged demands, and his calls for repentance. It was the Spirit of God in him, that same Spirit that drove him out into the desert where he himself prepared for his career, just as the Spirit of God drove Jesus, following his baptism by John, out into the desert to prepare for his career. Both careers––that of the prophet, the messenger, and that of the One prophesied––both careers were short-lived, but they changed the history of the world.
If we get a little uneasy when we see or hear about prophets, we also are suckers for the lists of so-called prophesies from people like Nostradamus or Jean Dixon, who have presented themselves and been recognized as seers, foretellers of future events. Here a distinction needs to be made between a prophet and a fortune teller . A true prophet, one called by God for God’s purposes, like John the Baptist or the major and minor prophets of the Hebrew Bible, for instance Malachi in this morning’s first reading, a true prophet is one who speaks for God, who is God’s messenger. True prophets do not tickle the ears of their listeners with blandishments. True prophets may speak of the outcome of ungodly behaviors, and also may offer consolation in times of suffering, and words of assurance of God’s presence at such times. They may tell something of the future, but not necessarily. It is the speaking for God that makes a prophet a prophet, not the foretelling of events.
The Spirit of God is in or upon the prophet, and speaks sometimes in a halting way because of human limitation, sometimes in an exalted way because of the Spirit of God overcoming human limitation. The prophet is the presence of God among his people.
Think of the “I have a dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King. There was the message of God delivered through a contemporary prophet. Dr. King had other words written to be preached that day, but the Spirit of God took over and the prepared text was set aside to give the people the hope, the encouragement they needed to hear to keep on keeping on, to claim the freedom that was indeed their God-given right and to act towards it. “I have been to the mountaintop,” he said. And he had seen the Promised Land, but like Moses, he was never to enter the Promised Land. Five years later, he, the messenger, the prophet, was shot dead by James Earl Ray in Memphis TN, where he had gone to support the striking sanitation workers. When the tent poles of Martin Luther King’s activism were moved to accommodate all the poor, not just the African- American poor and disenfranchised, it seemed at that point that he had become more of a threat and needed to be done away with.
Martin Luther King learned his model of leadership of nonviolent resistance from the Indian leader Mohandas Ghandi. Ghandi had read Tolstoi, where he learned about nonviolence, and Tolstoi had read Henry David Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience.” The message of nonviolent resistance, which King understood and internalized as a Christian and young graduate from Boston University School of Theology, was first articulated in Concord, MA, traveled to Russia and thence to South Africa, where Ghandi was a the time, and later put into practice in India, and then back to the homeland of the United States. The power of the written word became the spoken, prophetic word, became the activating, enabling word of God made flesh.
Oscar Romero, another prophetic voice for justice, was a bishop in El Salvador during the late 1970s. He moved from being a conservative bishop who kept his mouth shut in that oligarchic country, to being a prophetic voice for the poor of the country. His conscience was activated at the time of the assassination of a friend who was a Jesuit priest who served the poor. After that death, Romero was named archbishop of San Salvador and he unexpectedly and to the annoyance of the powers who were responsible for naming him to that post, he became the voice of the poor documenting atrocities of injustice week by week on the radio and calling to account the officials of a corrupt and repressive government.
He knew his days were numbered because of speaking out. That fact did not silence him but only seemed to stir him to bolder and bolder statements, as if to take fullest advantage of the time he had left. “I have frequently been threatened with death,” Romero said in an interview a few weeks before his death. ”I must say, that as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”He was assassinated by a single gunman while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. Shades of Thomas a Becket, whom we considered a few weeks back, running afoul of Henry II, his one-time friend.
Like Becket and John the Baptist, Romero met a prophet’s end. The messenger was shot.
I note here that neither John the Baptist nor Jesus was interested in worldly power. Nor were Thoreau or Tolstoi or Ghandi, or Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, or Mary Wollstonecraft, or Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero. On the contrary, they were interested in the empowerment of others––particularly the disenfranchised––to be able to live their lives in a godly way, which is a fulfilled way. John called for repentance by way of preparation––We’ll hear more about that next week––and Jesus called for us to simply receive all he had to give––love, peace, his very self, which we will partake of this morning in the Communion. May the mutuality we enjoy in this sacrament make each of us a prophetic presence, ourselves the message of God in Jesus to the world. Amen.