Prophecy and the Churches

Advent 3C – Trinity Cathedral.

I said last Sunday that I believe John the Baptist had a two-fold ministry as he sought to “prepare the way” for Jesus. He was both an evangelist and a prophet. Last week I spoke of John’s evangelism. Today I want to speak of his prophecy. First of all, it may be important to remind you that prophecy in the Bible has little, or nothing, to do with foretelling the future. The Old Testament prophets only predict the future in the sense that they often say “If you do this, thus and so will happen.” Or, “if you do not do this, you can expect the following results!”

So, looking back at it through the lens of history, we can see that consequences often followed certain actions or inactions and it looks as though the prophets were predicting specific results. They weren’t. They were not “foretelling,” they were “forth-telling.” Telling forth, or speaking out, in God’s Name.  And so it is that in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist thunders, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3).

And even though Luke generalizes the message by addressing it to “the crowds that came out to be baptized by him,” we know from the other Gospels that John’s primary audience were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes. They were the ones who would have been most likely to say, “Why are you calling us a ‘brood of vipers?’ We’re descendents of Abraham!” John assures them that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!”  The point was not whether they were descendents of Abraham, but were they living like descendents of Abraham?

A tree is not judged by its roots, but by its fruit (Caird, St. Luke, page 73) so John says, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

He then goes on tell them what “good fruit” looks like! To share clothing and food with those who have none. To be honest in your business dealings. Not to be violent. And look who he’s talking to! Tax collectors who, of course, were not IRS agents in those days, but Jews who had sold out to the Roman government and collected exorbitant taxes from their fellow Jews, often pocketing the difference.  The soldiers John addresses are not “regular army,” Roman soldiers. They were paid mercenaries who were body guards for the tax collectors.

It’s so important to remember, when we hear fiery words from the prophets of either Old or New Testaments that these prophets were speaking on behalf of an oppressed people! The Jews had been enslaved in Egypt and, centuries later, carried off into Exile in Babylon! The prophet Zephaniah, in our First Lesson today, was just beginning to see his people return from that Exile and so was able to say, “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.  And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” (Zephaniah 3). Yet, by John the Baptist’s time, another oppressor had arisen. Roman armies occupied what we now call The Holy Land, and the Jews were at their mercy.

John the Baptist’s vision was one of world-wide and imminent judgment. The woodsman was ready to raise his axe for the first stroke, the Palestinian farmer ready to toss crushed stalks of wheat into the air with his wooden shovel so that the heavier grain could fall to the ground, while the lighter chaff was blown by the wind, later to be gathered and burned. One mightier than John was coming to inaugurate that judgment with the fire of the Holy Spirit. And John the Baptist knew he was not worthy to untie that one’s sandals. “The coming crisis would see the mighty overthrow of ancient wrong, the settling of accounts on the basis of strict justice.” (Caird, ibid).

With all these harsh words, it may come as something of a shock for us to come to the last line of today’s Gospel, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news? Yes! Not perhaps for the occupying Roman powers-that-be, not for the collaborating tax collectors and the mercenary army. But good news for sure to the poor! To the oppressed! To the last…and the least! For soon, very soon…all would be set right!

So, there are really three themes in John the Baptist’s preaching: fiery prophecy; concern for the poor and the oppressed; and preparing the way for Jesus. I’ve often thought that today’s churches often mirror one or more than one of these theme. Some churches are all about prophetic advocacy – speaking “truth to power” as it is sometimes called, as churches seek to speak out for justice in the marketplace and in the wider community.

Some churches emphasize direct services to the poor. We see examples of this almost daily in our community as the Salvation Army and Churches United and other church-related ministries provide Christmas baskets or Angel tree gifts or provide shelters for the homeless to get out of the cold at night. And some churches major in prayer and praise and in introducing people to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their relationship with him.

I think The Episcopal Church, at its best, tries to balance all three of these emphases, so dear to John the Baptist’s heart. The Lambeth Conference of Bishops, and the General Convention of our church, has adopted the following “Five Marks of Mission” as a way of defining who we are, and of offering a challenge to us all to balance all three of John’s themes. The five marks are:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

In this Advent season, and as we begin together a new year, I would invite you to think about ways we can fulfill all these Marks of Mission together here at Trinity Cathedral.

I think that would make John the Baptist…and Jesus…happy!

2 Responses to “Prophecy and the Churches”

  1. Penny Matheson Says:

    Dear Bishop Epting,

    Thank you for your posts on unity. They have been inspiring to me! I have a question: you say in this post that prophecy has little to nothing to do with telling the future. Oftentimes this is true, but what about all the Old Testament prophecies that came true with the birth, death and resurrection of Christ? And what do you make of the Book of Revelation, then?

  2. Bishop Chris Epting Says:

    Thanks, Penny. What I am trying to do is make a distinction between true prophecy and “fortune tellers” or “soothsayers” of some kind. The way a biblical prophet normally works is to say “if you do this…this will happen.” Or,”if you do not do this…this will happen.” It has more to do with the future consequences of present behavior. “Forth-telling” rather than “fore-telling.”
    As for the Book of Revelation, I believe it is less about being a blueprint for the “end times” and more about assuring the persecuted Christians of the first and second centuries of God’s ultimate victory over all the powers of evil in Jesus Christ. It is a mystical vision and one should be very careful in interpreting it as a blow-by-blow description of the eschaton.

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