“Prophets”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 7, 2014 – The Second Sunday of Advent

Scripture:  Mark 1:1-8

 

He’s a familiar figure to many of us in this Advent season. He is described in all four of the gospels, and the four texts agree pretty well on who he was and what he was about. Every year, around this time, the lectionary brings us at least one version of his story.

He was—there’s no other way to put it—strange. He dressed bizarrely, in camel’s hair and leather. He ate bizarrely, locusts and wild honey. He spoke bizarrely, of repentance, of the kingdom of God, of baptism with water and baptism with spirit.

He’s a familiar figure to many of us in this Advent season. He is described in all four of the gospels. We hear about him every year. But he was not a familiar figure to the people who first encountered him, two thousand years ago. John the Baptist was a weird, marginal figure, the sort of guy you would probably regard with some suspicion if he showed up in your neighborhood.

John was not patient. He did not play by the established rules or abide by the established norms. He was not easy-going or soft-spoken or politically-correct. He called the people to repent—to change their hearts, to change their minds, to change their ways. He refused to believe that the way the world was then was the way it would always be. He pointed out the sins of injustice and inequality and called people to a more ethical way of living, a way rooted in the mercy and the love of God.

The version of the story we heard today, Mark’s version of the story, tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him,” visiting John in his wilderness cave by the River Jordan, listening to his preaching, asking him to baptize them. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” But I have to tell you, I’m not sure this version of the story is one hundred percent factual.

See, I’m pretty sure there were some people in Judea who didn’t want to hear what John had to say. I’m pretty sure there were some people in Jerusalem who were not the least bit interested in a message of repentance. I’m pretty sure there were some people—the privileged ones—who thought things were just fine the way they were, thank you very much. I’m pretty sure there were some people—the timid ones—who knew things weren’t quite right, but preferred the comfort of a familiar set of struggles to the uncertainty of a whole new way of living.

It is true that John the Baptist was a compelling preacher, and that he reached a lot of people with his message. But I’m pretty sure there were some people in Judea, some people in Jerusalem, who were not ready or willing to listen to a strange, weird, marginal figure like John.

 

If you remember what comes a bit later on in the gospels, you’ll know that among the people who did not like what John had to say were some of the major power brokers of the day. Herodias, the wife of King Herod, held a grudge against John because his prophecies had criticized the decadent and morally-ambiguous ways of the Roman ruling authorities. As a result, Herod had John seized and bound and thrown in prison, and eventually, at his wife’s request, he had John executed in a rather gruesome fashion.

The thought of John languishing in prison because he had offended the powers that be makes me think of another prophet who was thrown in jail because his words and deeds made people uncomfortable. Fifty-one years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was imprisoned with several of his colleagues for their role in demonstrations again segregation and racism in Birmingham, Alabama. While he was in prison, Dr. King received a letter from eight white Alabama clergymen. The letter criticized him for his civil disobedience, for “creating tension” by standing up against the injustices that people of color were experiencing. Those white clergymen were not ready or willing to listen to what Dr. King and his colleagues had to say.

In response, Dr. King penned a letter that was later published widely—in the New York Post, and the Christian Century, and the Atlantic Monthly, among others. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” contains one of Dr. King’s often-quoted lines, one that I have shared here before: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In his letter, Dr. King also makes a powerful distinction that is as relevant today as it was in 1963. He distinguishes between “violent tension” and “constructive, nonviolent tension,” between “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” and “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

See, prophets sometimes make us uncomfortable. They point out the things that are not right with the world. They look at things we might prefer not to see. They talk about things we might prefer not to hear. They reveal the tension that is present when there is injustice anywhere, when there is bigotry anywhere, when people anywhere see other people as anything less than brothers and sisters, siblings and equals in the eyes of God.

Prophets make us uncomfortable, because they move us toward God’s positive peace—not a watered-down, sugar-coated, fairy-tale peace, but true peace that comes with justice, that transforms the world as it is into the world as God would have it be.

And if we are to help move this world from the way it is to the way it should be, if we are to live out our call as agents of God’s positive peace, we will have to start by hearing the voices of the prophets, even—or especially—when they make us uncomfortable. We will have to start by listening closely to John the Baptist, and to Martin Luther King, Jr., and to the people who are even now crying out for justice from the margins of society, from the wilderness caves by the River Jordan, from the streets of Ferguson and Cleveland and New York City.

We will have to start by listening deeply to the voices of people of color in our nation who are still experiencing unequal treatment under the law. We will have to start by listening to the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people who are still not fully protected from discrimination. We will have to start by listening to the voices of people living in poverty, people for whom the American Dream is slipping further and further out of reach. We will have to start by cherishing these stories as closely as we do our own.

We will have to start by listening carefully to the voices of people who are different from us—people we may regard with suspicion if they show up in our neighborhoods, people who may not be patient, people who may not play by the established rules or abide by the established norms, people who may not be easy-going or soft-spoken or politically-correct. We will have to start by listening to people who call us to repent—to change our hearts, to change our minds, to change our ways. We will have to start by listening to people who refuse to believe that the way the world is now is the way it will always be. We will have to start by listening to people who point out the sins of injustice and inequality and call us to a more ethical way of living, a way rooted in the mercy and the love of God.

And when we do this—when we learn to value the perspectives of people who are different from us, when we learn to seek out the input of people whose experiences vary dramatically from our own, when we learn to prioritize hearing from people who are most often ignored or discounted—we will hear nothing less than the gospel itself, the good news of God’s impending, in-breaking realm. We will hear nothing less than the promise of Jesus, the promise of John the Baptist, the promise of the prophet Isaiah:

 

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

      make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

      and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

      and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

      and all flesh shall see it together,

      for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.