Today our gospel invites us to consider the role of prophecy in helping us to prepare for the coming of Christ. This invitation comes in the person of St John the Baptist. He is considered both the last of the Old Testament prophets and indeed the culmination of the whole prophetic line. So how do prophets and the idea of prophecy help us get ready for Jesus?
The first thing to say about prophets is that they usually tell us uncomfortable truths. They seem to be plugged into the Word of God in such a way that they can discern deep cultural patterns, usually patterns that indicate we are going astray. In the Bible, prophets usually call people back to God by pointing out that people have gone away from God. Prophets point out that we are worshipping wrong. Either we are committing idolatry by creating and worshipping false gods, like power, wealth, physical beauty, or that we committing various forms of injustice by refusing to follow God’s commands.
Usually a prophet’s message is not an easy one to listen to because they demand change. They point out deep things in such a way that we instinctively recognise their truth. That is their power: prophets are hard to ignore. However, typically one of the characteristics of prophets is that the world is desperate to ignore them, precisely because their highlighting of our sins is annoying.
So prophets call people to repentance. They highlight when a nation, a people, a culture have wandered from God, and they highlight the deadly consequences of such a departure from the path of life. However, today I would like to focus on something particular to St John the Baptist, something I think is crucial to the overall pattern of prophecy. And something, in fact, I think we can see going on around us at the moment. It is a reality that can help us separate the true prophets from the false. What is that aspect of prophecy that is particular to St John the Baptist? It is his ability to recognise Jesus and point him out to others.
This week, I would invite you to consider areas in your own life in which you know prophets. And we all know prophets. As I said, they are the ones who challenge us with difficult truths we want to ignore, but, at the same time, know we cannot if we are to have any integrity at all. They might be family members or friends. It might be someone at work, or someone you listen to. It might be a particular author. Usually, it is not someone mainstream because the mainstream usually cannot cope and tries to hide them. I would ask you then this week to look closely at them, and look closely at the area in which they challenge you, because I have noticed something happening in our culture, and you might notice it, too.
What I have noticed is that people who are serious about truth, people who are dealing with really serious matters in our society, people who follow the truth wherever it leads and do not turn away when it gets awkward or their pursuit causes a backlash, a lot of these people seem to be discovering Jesus. Lots of these people, people on the fringes, people running their own podcast or newsletter or website, a lot of these people are coming to the same conclusion. Many are realising that without God at the centre of our culture, things fall apart; and they fall apart in destructive ways that always tend to damage the most vulnerable.
It could be in the area of criminal justice; it could be in the area of the environment; it could be in the area of child safety and family health; it could be in the area of mental health; it could be in the area of governance and democracy: many people are beginning to discover Christ as the only possible solution. And this is occurring even against the backdrop of the scandals in the church.
What is also interesting is when these people talk about Jesus. It has an energising effect on their conversations and their discussion, and it really shines a light on others in the conversation. People’s reactions to Jesus show whether they are fundamentally serious or not.
I think then the prophet if he or she is true somehow finds him- or herself on a path to Jesus. And so one can test the seriousness of a prophet by whether he or she adheres to the path or ducks away. This choice for Christ gradually dawns. It happens at different stages and in different intensities along the way; for example, it is easy to be a prophet in a way that makes no difference in my own life. But true prophecy will always make a claim on my own way of living. This is the cross in its embryonic form. A real prophet will accept the truth of self-sacrifice. A false prophet will not. This escalates and leads up to Jesus.
So, I would invite you this week to consider this aspect of St John the Baptist. Who are the prophets in my life? Do they call me back to true worship from idolatry? But most of all, do they point themselves and me to Christ?