I always find the picture of John the Baptizer in the Gospels a striking one. To me he is the quintessential prophet. His life pictures the life of the prophet in every age and time:
First his message transcends religion. We see this in who records and remembers it. Early Christians wrote the Gospels telling the life of Jesus which necessarily include the life of Jesus’ mentor John the Baptizer. Though we don’t know if they viewed themselves as a different religion than the Judaism John practiced when they wrote the Gospels, very quickly Christianity became its own religion. Today it is mainly Christians following the life of John the Baptizer. But also I find Muslims also read the story of Jesus, as they revere him as a prophet, and are drawn into John’s story.
A prophet’s message transcends the bounds of the organized religion of their day. The have insights through mystical encounter with God which reveal religion to be what it is: a set of props. Masks used to represent and point to the face of God, without being the face itself. Rituals which act like plays, re-enacting the move of God in history to help point us to the movement of God in our lives, but which if they do not do so are just so many empty gestures. Prayers that, yes, can invite us to deep encounter with the Sacred in our whole lives and the Sacred in others but which also can be just hot air which we blow out in our fancy words in order to weave a barrier to hide from our eyes and the eyes of others our moral emptiness.
And so John can up-end religious tradition, calling people who have gone through the motions of the worship of Judaism their whole lives into the bathing ritual reserved for those who are converting to faith in the God of Scripture and Israel from lives empty of knowledge of this God. It is a powerful statement that moving through the motions is not enough, without in our own hearts and lives having that reality birthed.
In every faith and culture those raised up by God as prophets have brought such a message. In Islam, I cannot but think of Rumi who in his stirring poetry raised an image of God as Divine Love that draws all people & creation into union. In language reminiscent of John’s language of fiery judgment on religion, this Muslim mystic said he to not look for God in mosques and temples: they do not on their own hold God as a dwelling, for if God does not dwell in your own heart God is not there but if you through faith discover God in your own God you can see God anywhere. It reminds me of the words of Kierkegaard who questioned who was truly experiencing God – the dignified worshipper of Christ at church who voiced all the “right” words of faith on Sunday morning but whose heart remained untouched or the one who worshipped the idols of non-Biblical faiths which his contemporaries viewed as superstition but did so with the intensity of infinity? He was suggesting a reality behind the outward symbols of religion which those religious symbols point to, which is what we are invited to encounter and yet without which the symbols are all empty, pointless.
This prophetic vision calls for a life of social justice. When Matthew quotes Isaiah about making paths straight, it is a prophecy of God working through individuals to create a great levelling. Every age has its great haves and have-not’s, where the resources of life which God gives to be freely and equally available to all now are held in the ownership and power of a select few. One cannot stand on the heap of the pyramid of human life without crushing someone – usually many someones – underfoot. This vision of Isaiah in whose steps John walks is one we see expressed in many other prophets in our time. I think of St Hildegard of Bingen who broke with the convention of the Middle Ages which, against the Biblical example of women preachers like Deborah and Priscilla and Junia, told women they most be quiet and not speak out. In that world, Hildegard publically preached, proclaiming the insight her mystical encounters with Christ gave her, envisioning a world where humanity joins the Holy Spirit in Her mothering work of greening all creation not forcibly ripping its resources in a rape-like way from the Earth’s body. She cried out against the men of her day who used power as nobles and as church leaders to crush underfoot the poor and in so doing the torment the earth and the greening Holy Spirit who dwells within all life. I think of Gandhi who called for a radical reorganization of life in India where empire ended and all women & men are recognized as equal and equally bearers of the divine. I think
of Dorothy Day who called out for recognition of workers as not deserving being crushed under foot by the wealthy captains of industry. I think of Dr. King and Desmond Tutu who called for an end to racial oppression by means of systems of segregation, oppression, and marginalization. John like them speaks out against the system of economic oppression inherent in the Roman rule and the religious practitioners of his day who had to accommodate this oppression in order to keep their place in society.
This flows from an alternate vision of the world, in which the power structures and patterns of piety are revealed to be empty and toxic when removed from a connection with Spirit that produces justice. And so John sees a vision of a blazing fire coming soon to tear down the structures of society, revealing their emptiness and also revealing new ground upon which a new world can build. Although such prophet’s words can be misunderstood into a kind of apocalypticism which makes people fear the end of the world and life itself, in truth the judgment is never so much against people and the end never of all life but always the end is of the structures and systems which destroy life, destroy harmony and community, and oppress. In this way John’s vision is like Martin Luther King’s dream. A dream of universal brotherhood and sisterhood unites them all – and all true prophets of God – but the way to such brotherhood and sisterhood coming is a tearing down of every barrier to them. That always feels like fire and destruction, for it comes at the pain of laying aside cherished beliefs, practices, systems, and ways of relating. Those will fall – either through us willingly embracing personal and social change or through them falling by collapsing on their own weight. For structures built on the few thriving on the pain of the many are not sustainable.
The way forward is modeled by John and by many of the prophets of history. The way forward is a path of downward mobility, of renunciation. John lives is a man of the wilderness, living off the land, and not buying into the structures of wealth and power. Yet his father is a well to do priest, who works as a part of the temple establishment which survives by accommodating religion to allow for Roman oppression and for ripping off the poor. John had to give up comfort, give up stability, give up many treasured aspects of his life, to be able to receive this vision of unity, harmony, which his experience of God gave him.
The same has been true of other prophets as well. Francis of Assisi’s vision of God was actualized by renouncing a life of wealth, living among the poor as one who is poor. Jesus gives up the work of his earthly father of a carpenter to become a wandering preacher, living among the poor of Palestine. The Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment only after giving up the wealth and security of nobility.
The path John paves calls and challenges us all. It is not that all of us must become poor, but rather we must be willing to lay aside our securities. Our notions of ought and right. You see, we are part of the problem, a part of what keeps the universal vision of the prophets which Jesus called the realm or kingdom of God from bursting forth – a vision of universal human brotherhood & sisterhood, of lives that heal the earth, of creativity rather than chaos & violence. We hold onto notions and practices that support systems of oppression, patterns of marginalization, and ways of destroying life itself. The many who choose to be baptized by John do not enter lives in the wilderness as John does but they commit to begin to change their pattern of life, so that in small and big ways they start to create tiny ripples of healing in the world.
We have to do the same. It might be hard to quit only having friendships of people like us, but if we put aside our commitment to feel safe a little bit and build friendships with people in a different class, of a different race or religion, of a different sexuality or gender expression than our own, we will come to see ourselves & our world differently. If we choose to put away the rhetoric of violence or war, trying to learn the practices of peacemaking in our small ways we might not stop armed conflict, but we might add push to the voices calling for less armed conflict in the world and create a space of safety in our families, our homes, our offices, our schools.
I could go on.
But the call of Acts 2 is that all of us can like John become prophets in our own small ways, by pushing beyond the outward forms of religion to encounter Spirit for ourselves both within ourselves and also outside – in nature, and in others. We can be voices calling for the building of a better world here and now, and hands and feet of God working to make small changes to build that better world.
That’s a call worth hearing. It’s worth answering. Let’s do our small part today.
And I ain’t whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,