We know from the gospels that John the Baptist was the last of the long line of Old Testament prophets that started with Abraham, and ran through Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and the like. There is a line of New Testament prophets, too. On the one hand, prophecy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and some members of Christ’s body, the church, possess the gift in a greater degree than others. In Ephesians 4 St. Paul calls these people “prophets” and ranks them just below “apostles” and just above “pastor-teachers.” On the other hand, “all God’s people are prophets,” if not individually, then collectively. At least four centuries before the birth of Jesus the prophet Joel foretold this, and on the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter claimed it for the fledging church:
And in the last days, it shall be, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your old men will dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
Prophets are problematic. In the Litany, we pray that God might keep our bishops and ministers sound in doctrine and holy in life, and that everyone who serves the church might be faithful in matters great and small, and that we are kept in the faith until the end of our lives. Nowhere in our Litany do we pray that God will send us prophets, or make us more prophetic, for you know that prophets are a pain in the pulpit, and I know that prophets are a pain in the pew. I had a friend who pastored a large Pentecostal church. He used to worship with us regularly at New Philadelphia. One day, he said to me, “Worth, you don’t know how lucky you are. Your church not only has wonderful worship it does everything “decently and in order.” I have spent my ministry dealing with ram-rod prophets, all of whom think, rightly or wrongly, that they have the mind of God.”
He was right. Prophets stir up trouble, and prophets seldom have a happy ending. These are they who are thrown into cisterns and dungeons. They are stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, like James the son of Zebedee, or shot with a .30-06 Remington rifle, like Martin Luther King, Jr. Some prophets are beheaded like John and others are hanged on a tree, like Jesus the Christ. Jesus himself said that the best a prophet can hope for is to be loved and supported by God even as he or she is despised by friends, neighbors, and members of his or her own household.
The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus grew out of their common understanding of what it means to be a prophet.
John spoke of Jesus saying, “After me comes one who is mightier than I… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” This statement is easy to understand. Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Prophecy. Wherever there are prophets there is fire. Sometimes the prophet starts the fire and sometimes the prophet, like John Hus, is used for kindling, especially on social media.
Jesus had something to say about John. In Luke 7:28 he said, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” This statement is also easy to understand. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was born under the Law; he was born of a woman. Those who are “least in the kingdom of God,” including you and I are born of a woman, but we are also born under grace, “born anew by the Holy Spirit, in which Jesus baptizes us.” This means that if John was trouble to those who do wrong, each of us should be trouble times two, or trouble times ten, or trouble raised to the highest power.
Despite our protests, from time to time, God sends us a prophet, and the church becomes a prophetic community. The 17th Century poet Lawrence Tribble understood this when he wrote:
One man awake can waken another.
The second can waken his next-door brother.
The three awake can rouse a town,
By turning the whole place upside down.
The many awake can make such a fuss,
that it finally wakens the rest of us.
One man (one woman) up, with dawn in (their) eyes, multiplies!
Now, we might reasonably ask, what do prophets do? Many things, but this morning I would mention just three things.
First, Prophets speak truth to power. John challenged the politics of his day. He aimed his attack not at far-off Rome, but at King Herod and his consort Herodias. Herod had married Herodias, but according to Jewish law, she was still the wife of Herod’s half-brother, Philip. She was also the daughter of Herod’s other half-brother, Aristobulus. Thus, Herodias was Herod’s wife, sister-in-law, and niece, all in one. This means they were guilt not only of adultery but of incest, and to make matters worse, they paraded their guilt before the people day after day.
Compared to King Herod our most philandering politicians, whether presidents, or governors, or senators and lowly members of congress look like amateurs. Compared to John, the church of today, which is supposed to be a community of prophets, has become a handmaid to politicians. If the church of today is going to continue to engage in politics—and many local churches do, we must learn to hold our candidates to a higher standard. Many of us support them because of what they can do for us, and ignore their wrongdoing. We must learn to see them for what they are, opportunists. T.S. Elliot was right when he said, “the highest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
John also challenged the religious leaders of his day. According to Matthew, when John saw that many of the Sadducees and Pharisees had come out to be baptized, he called them “a brood of vipers.” John asked them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In the Bible, real prophets, like John and Jesus, never tire of calling out false prophets, corrupt priests, and shepherds who look after their own interest rather than those of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd and his flock. St. Paul so wanted to be faithful to his calling that he wrote “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Sooner or later all who stand in the pulpit worry about disqualification. Not long ago I was confronted by a man I had long considered a friend, a man I greatly admired. He said he was angry with me because I had failed God miserably by failing to stand in the pulpit and denounce what he considered a particularly heinous evil. I agreed with him that I had failed God miserably—more than he could possibly know, but not for the reason he advanced. I then showed him my rationale for doing what I was doing from Scripture and then quoted the words of a favorite hymn. It was John Greenleaf Whittier who wrote:
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.
We must onward still, and upward, who would keep abreast of truth.
The truth is, despite my knowledge of Scripture and poetry, he will continue to oppose my ideas. I hope and pray he will continue to accept me. And I will continue to oppose his ideas, though I most certainly will continue to accept him. The fact that the church is a prophetic community does not mean we will always agree. That is why Jesus said, “Think not that I have come “to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mat. 10:34)
People worry about the squabbles in the Moravian Church perhaps we should, perhaps we should not. According to Scott Peck there are four stages in community, especially in a prophetic community like the church. The first stage is pseudo-community during which everyone thinks we are all alike. The second stage is chãos during which hen we realize that we are all different. The third stage is emptiness when we realize our differences will either signal the end of our fellowship or open us to something new. The fourth stage is true community, during which we accept our differences at least in part because we do not want to lose one another and at least in part because we yield to our Higher Power. The revival of August 13, 1727 was an act of God that made the pseudo-community of Renewed Moravian church a true community. Those early Moravians were united not in what they believed but in Whom they believed. That was their genius; that may still be our salvation
Second, prophets speak words of consolation and hope to the powerless. John spoke to the people of Israel saying, “The ax is already laid at the root of the tree…and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” And people came out in droves to the Jordan River to be baptized by him. He baptized them with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And after people were baptized, they asked, “What should we do?” And John said, “Let him who has two coats give a coat to him who has none. Let him who has food do likewise.”
And when certain tax collectors were baptized by John and asked him what they should do differently, John did not tell them to stop collecting taxes, he said, “Collect no more than is appointed you.”
And when the soldiers who had been baptized asked John what they should do, John did not tell them to stop being soldiers. John said, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Soldiers get a lot of respect from John and Jesus! Perhaps because of John 15:13)
There is a theme, here, and whether we like it or not, it is about wealth, money. If the church of today is to be a prophetic church, we will eventually realize that according to the New Testament both John and Jesus had a lot more to say about our use of possessions and money than about anything else, including sexuality.
This is particularly important to us today because we live in the richest country in the history of the world. However, our riches are not well distributed as they once were. Today, the average CEO of a company listed on the S&P makes 288 times as much as the production workers who work for the same companies. And did you know that the top 1% controls 32% of the wealth in the United States, while the bottom 50% controls less than 4% of the wealth? Today, CEOs and billionaires pay less in taxes than middle-class people like you and me, yet we reward them by helping them keep their jobs and by electing them to political office. It appears we are bowing to oligarchy and setting up a new nobility, a nobility based on money, not blood.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not against making money. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, said, “Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” And I am not against security. None of us wants to outlive our money. However, if we want real security, we ought to be concerned not just with our security, but with the security of others. If we are not, what remains of the middle class will simply continue to disappear, and our grandchildren will be in a war of haves and have nots that will make the American Civil War, and any potential race war, look like picnics. I cannot be sure of this—but I think I am right. I believe in capitalism, but hitherto capitalism has survived in American because it has been regulated capitalism. I believe in trade, and I rejoice when developing nations get jobs, but I fear we in America have already lost more jobs than we can afford to lose. The American consumer must assume at least some of the blame. I think we ought to “buy American” and “buy local” all that we can.
Third, to be effective, a prophet must face his or her doubts and overcome them. St. Luke tells us that Herod eventually shut John up in prison and then ordered his death. It was while John was in prison, alone, in the dark, that he began to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah he looked for after all. Jesus was not the Messiah John expected, so he sent a delegation of his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you him who is to come or should we look for another?” When John’s disciples came to him with that question, Jesus did not answer them right away. Instead, continued his work among the people. After an hour or so, Jesus turned to them and said:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. (Luke 7:21-22)
John died not long after and we don’t know if the disciples made it back before he did. If they did, then John died confident that he had done the right thing for Jesus was the Real Thing. Some people think that faith means never knowing doubt. That is not true. John had to deal with his doubts, and we must deal with ours. Let me suggest the following:
1) If you have doubts don’t entertain them too lavishly A reporter once asked the late Ruth Graham if her husband the late Billy Graham ever had doubts. She said, “Yes, they come to him like the birds of the air, but he does not allow them to build nests in his head.” If you focus on your doubts, they will grow. If you focus on your faith, it will grow. 2) Remember all those who faced doubt before you, apostles and prophets among them. Indeed, Jesus himself faced doubt. Remember how he cried out from his cross saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was vindicated only after his death and three days in the belly of the earth: but not before. In your darkest hours, remember that he suffered the same doubt you sometimes suffer. 3) Remember that we can feel our way into a new way of acting, or we can act our way into a new way of feeling. Success means getting up one more time than life knocks us down. Faith means getting up one more time than doubt knocks us back. The best way to overcome doubt is to live a life of faith.
Take this matter of the security of others. Just this week I read that William Blake once wrote:
“Those who would do good to another must do so in minute particulars, for the general good is the refuge of the hypocrites and scoundrels.”
This statement haunted me. I decided that, at the very least, it mean it is not enough to support good economic legislation; we must also get involved with the needs of individuals that cross our paths. I determined to do more good in minute particulars, and I soon had my chance. On the way back from conducting a lovefeast at Holden Beach Chapel, Elayne and I went into a Bojangles and enjoyed a steak biscuit and a coffee. I saw three young soldiers enter. With Elayne’s affirmation, I took out a $20.00 bill and gave it to them. I thanked them for their service and told them I wanted to buy them a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich. They were grateful, but also easy. I walked away knowing I would never see them again. Then things accelerated. I was working in my yard. A neighbor came to me and said “Worth, I am seventy-five years old and in poor health. I don’t have any family or close friends. Sometimes, at night, I worry I will need someone, and there is no one I can call.” I was moved. I said, “You have been a good neighbor, I am your friend, please call on me, day or night.” We talked for a little while, then went our separate ways. As we parted I realized that I had started down a path and did not know where it would lead, but I felt it was the right path, and I felt closer to God for taking it. Now, this is old stuff for most of you. Like my wife, Elayne, You have been doing good in minute particulars for years. As a pastor in a large church for more than thirty years, most of the time, I felt it was my job to “equip the members of the church for the work of ministry,” and support them as they went out into the world to do good.” I missed the minute particulars. That is no longer true. One of the great things about coming back to Fries is getting to serve alongside you to do good in minute particulars. You not only make this possible—you show me the way! Thank you for that. I cannot help but feel it will do me more good than I can imagine. I only hope I can return the favor, as we seek to be, more and more, a prophetic community.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.