(Advent 2, Yr A. Isaiah 11,1-10; Matthew 3,1-12)
In the time in which our Old Testament passage was written, there were three groups of people through whom God communicated with the Jewish nation.
The first were the monarchs, descended from David, the son of Jesse. By the time first Isaiah was writing, the high hopes raised by the reigns of David and Solomon had diminished, the early promise of the dynasty was unfulfilled. The kingdom had split into two, the Northern Kingdom was about to be destroyed by Assyria, and there had been a number of kings who ruled badly and served foreign gods as well as the one true God. The kings were supposed to defend the people from attack, and administer justice in God’s name, according to the laws set out in the Mosaic covenant. The later Jews also believed in another covenant, between God and the House of David, which promised that his house would rule for ever.
The second group were the priests, from the tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron. Their task was to serve in the Temple, offering the daily sacrifices, and the sacrifices for sin and of thanksgiving, as set out in the covenant. They also offered prayers on behalf of the people and the nation, and, initially, they were also responsible for teaching the people about the law of God. By the time of Isaiah, there was also some disillusion with their role as mediators between God and his people, and some criticism of the cult. Later their role of explaining the law was taken over by the Scribes.
Then there were the prophets. Some of the original prophets were associated with the temple, and were ‘seers’ using methods of divination to try to foresee what would happen; but the great prophets whose words are recorded in the Bible were those who spoke to the people on behalf of God. Their Hebrew name comes from a root meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘open’, indicating they were completely open to be filled with God’s Spirit, and to offer warnings, rebukes and commentary on events as God’s mouthpieces.
Some may have come from within the religious establishment, but some (such as Amos, the shepherd) were outsiders. However they began, all of them tended to end up as outsiders, because they frequently voiced criticism of the king and the cult as they recalled the people to the full implications of the Covenant. Some of them, as well as speaking and writing, acted out their messages, performing often bizarre actions to make their point. Many of the prophets suffered ridicule, persecution, abuse and some were even killed, since their messages inevitably disturbed those who were in power, and sought to change the old ways of doing things. Their message was sometimes about the religious practices of Israel; but more often they criticised kings, judges and politicians, for acting unjustly, and oppressing the poor and the weak. Social justice was as important to them as ritual purity.
Our passage from Isaiah begins by looking at the reality of the moment – that the royal house of David is now so degraded that it is no more than a stump or a root. But then the prophet looks forward, to anticipate the reign of a new king, another descendant of David, who will fulfill the promise of the covenant. Like a prophet, he will be filled with the Spirit of God. He will rule not with physical force, but through the power of his words. He will carry out the traditional roles of the king and administer justice without favour, giving justice equally to the poor and the rich. He will be both righteous and faithful.
This is a picture of an ideal monarch, one who follows so closely the will of God that the conditions of the Garden of Eden will be restored on the earth – traditional enemies in the animal kingdom will be reconciled, and even the snake, symbol of the Fall, will no longer injure human children. The benefits of this king’s rule will be enjoyed not just by his own people, but by the whole world.
No one king of the House of David ever lived up to this ideal – and the portrait of the ideal ruler came eventually to be applied to a Messiah who would be sent by God to save and rule his people – and Christian writers naturally applied the prophecy to Jesus, which is why we hear these Messianic passages from Isaiah during Advent and Christmas.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, it was felt that prophecy in Israel had ceased – but then along came John the Baptist. You can see him as the last of the Old Testament prophets, recalling people to the Covenant; or the first Christian prophet, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus; but either way, he is a difficult character to understand, with a fairly unpalatable message for his people. If Luke’s account is to be believed, he came from a priestly family, but he rejected that vocation to become a prophet.
His way of life was an acted parable: he lived in the desert and ate food from the wild, as did the people of Israel during the Exodus, when they found God again and entered into the Covenant. His dress recalled that of the first great prophet, Elijah. He baptised people in the Jordan, a ritual which carried two messages. First, it was the rite through which Gentile converts entered Judaism, so he was saying that Jews could not rely on their birth to make them children of God: they had to repent and make a new start. Second, the Jewish nation passed through water to escape slavery in Egypt and to take possession of the Promised Land: to be ready for the Kingdom of God which was coming, John was saying, they needed to pass through water again.
John’s proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom was an disconcerting message for those who were comfortable in the existing religious regime. His picture of how God would judge his people was far from reassuring: he used images of violence – the winnowing fork, the threshing floor and the fire. Like Isaiah, John also looked forward to the arrival of a major figure, a servant of God endowed with the Spirit, who would separate out the righteous and punish the wicked.
Like the Old Testament prophets, John warned people that something new was about to erupt into their world, something that would disrupt all that was old and destructive in their religious, social and political lives. He warned them that they needed to make concrete decisions to re-order their lives in accordance with the rules of God’s Kingdom. He told them that they didn’t have much time to do this. He instructed them not to rely on their traditions, or their previous religious practices, or their birth, but only on God, his Spirit and his Anointed One to bring them salvation.
That is also his Advent message to us, as we prepare to welcome Jesus, God’s Messiah.
Our monarchs don’t really have much influence on our religious lives today, although the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That simply means that she opens new sessions of General Synod, speaks to the assembled delegates, rubber stamps the appointment of bishops and signs any church legislation that goes through Parliament. Some people want to get rid of even that slight involvement and disestablish the Church of England.
The priesthood disappeared from the Jewish religion with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Christianity, however, adopted priestly leadership, and was run exclusively by priests for most of its first 2000 years. The Church of England may now give the laity a voice through synods, but they are still outnumbered two to one by clergy representatives in the houses of priests and bishops. A religion run by priests tends to be traditional and conservative. This can bring stability and comfort in times of change – but can also lead to inertia and ossification.
And what of prophets? There has been no recognised role for prophets within the Christian Church since the time of Paul. But, of course, there have been prophets, people who have spoken out in God’s name, criticised the church’s practices both ritual and social and urged it to return to the teachings of Jesus. Like the Old Testament prophets, like John the Baptist, many of them were persecuted, punished and killed by their monarchs and priests and their representatives. Some of them, however, were heard and they became the great reformers of the Church, like the founders of monastic movements and leaders of the Reformation and social reform.
And do we need prophets in the church today?
Not if we want a quiet life!
Prophets are always disturbing and disruptive. They call us out of our comfort zone, and challenge us to listen anew to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
There are several voices claiming to be prophets within the church today, from very different parts of the theological spectrum. One such is a website run by fundamentalist Christians, which seems simply to be promoting hatred of Muslims, gays and women. Other groups see themselves as prophets, calling Anglican Christians back to what they claim is orthodox belief and practice. But from the other end of the theological spectrum, are people who claim that attempts to define and impose orthodoxy will stifle the prophetic voice in the church; they would say the radical voice of prophecy is coming from those who want Christians to go back to its roots in the example and practice of Jesus Christ, rather than the written word, those who want to include everyone within the covenant people.
But, as in Old Testament times, the voice of prophecy may sometimes come from outside the religious establishment. Those of my age will remember a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s, which contained the line “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”. John the Baptist spoke his prophecy from the wilderness, outside the limits of society. God is not confined to speaking through official channels; the word of the Lord may come to us from a place we don’t expect. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern the true from the false prophets.
As we prepare to welcome again the One who is both Prophet, Priest and King, may we always be alert to hear the words of the prophets, no matter how they come to us, and how disturbing they may be.