A sermon about prophets

given by Jim Forest at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh / 9 December 2018

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel reading today [Luke 3:1-6] gives us an opportunity to think about prophets and the role they might play in our lives.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Prophets, provides us with a starting point. He writes:

“To us, a single set of injustices — cheating in business, exploitation of the poor — is slight; to the prophets disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them a catastrophe, a threat to the world…. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”

Rabbi Heschel’s good friend, the often-jailed Jesuit priest and poet Daniel Berrigan, saw each of the prophets “as God’s compassionate and clairvoyant and inclusive image…. Each prophet strives for a divine (which is to say, truly human) breakthrough in the human tribe. Lacerating, intemperate, relentless, the prophets raise the question again and again, in images furious and glorious, poetic and demanding: What is a human being?”

Today we are listening to a prophet, John the Baptist, that not all of us would be pleased to encounter were he presiding at a street corner in Edinburgh today —presiding or, as some would say, ranting.

The Gospels provide us with a vivid portrait of John. He was a self-neglecting man who had chosen to live a profoundly ascetic life in the Judean desert where he lived on a diet of honey and locusts and dressed himself in a camel skin, which one must assume was rather rank-smelling. At some point he set up camp on the banks of the Jordan River and began preaching “a baptism of repentance” — that is a public washing — through which one’s sins would be bathed away. It proved to be the prototype of the sacrament of baptism.

Jesus was among those whom John baptized. John did that under protest, confessing he wasn’t worthy to touch the sandals on Jesus’ feet. It was John who first recognized Jesus as the awaited one, the Messiah.

On the occasion of Jesus’ baptism, John was privileged to witness a showing of the Holy Trinity: “Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

A man of immoderate and outspoken convictions, a man not intimidated by rulers, John said things that finally cost him his life. At the order of Herod Antipas, John’s head was chopped off. Afterward some of his disciples became followers of Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus speaking to a large assembly about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” [Matthew 11:7-11]

From the first days of the Church, Christians have recognized John as the last and greatest of the biblical prophets. In bringing many people to repentance, inspiring them to lead just and merciful lives, he has indeed made crooked paths straight and rough ways smooth.

John was not one to sugar-coat his words. His declarations were not a first draft of the all-time best-selling self-help classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, whose first rule is “don’t criticize, condemn or complain.” John addressed those who came to hear him as “a brood of vipers,” warning them of “the wrath to come” and calling on his listeners to “bear fruits that befit repentance.” You do not, he said, get a free pass by virtue of your family tree. “Don’t say to yourselves,” John declared, “‘we have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” John announced that already the axe is laid to the root of the tree — every tree that fails to bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

His alarmed listeners asked him, “Then what shall we do?” In the verses that follow today’s reading, John responded with simple but profoundly challenging advice: “If you have two coats, give one of them to the person who has none — and do the same with your food.” Tax collectors, notorious for their pocket-lining practices, are told to collect no more than is appointed to them. What a relief that would be for the tax payer of those oppressive days! He told soldiers: “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” A nonviolent soldier? Hard to imagine, but this is what John proposed and indeed this is what the early Church required of those in the military who sought baptism.

John may have been the last of the biblical prophets, but prophets have continued to arise right into our own day saying similar things that a great many of us fail to take seriously.

To give but one example, I think of those who have spent years of their lives campaigning against nuclear weapons, the most destructive of our weapons of mass destruction. You find some of these modern-day prophets living an ascetic life in tents just outside the Faslane Naval Base here in Scotland. God knows these much-ignored women and men are voices crying in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord.”

Ah, we say, but that’s politics! Let’s stick to religion! But a Christian who isn’t deeply troubled by the reliance on weapons that, should they ever be used, would destroy countless lives not to mention the great achievements of human endeavor and do irreparable harm to our planet’s environment, what can we say of such a person? Such a distortion of faith isn’t worth yesterday’s newspaper.

We are called to make straight the way of the Lord — that is to become a people who would rather die than murder the innocent.

Prophets are often dismissed as insane, which makes me think of a passage on sanity in the writings of Thomas Merton, the author and Trappist monk who died fifty years ago this month. In fact tomorrow is the actual anniversary. Many recognize Merton as one of the prophets of our era. I was privileged to know him.

After reading Hannah Arendt’s book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, Merton wrote an essay with an ironic title: “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann.” It struck Merton that Eichmann had been declared sane by examining psychiatrists. Merton saw in Eichmann an archetype of all those who are guardians and perfecters of more efficient technologies of killing. Personally, they may have nothing against those who die from their actions. Eichmann, for example, assured the court he harbored no ill will against the Jews. But he had his duty to perform. It was enough that those in higher authority required such victims, such methods, such tools, such soldiers and such civil servants. He would have been insane not to obey.

Merton commented:

“The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.”

Words to think about. They suggest to me that what the world needs from us is less our alleged sanity than our sanctity.

May today’s Gospel give each of us the courage to say “no “when a “no” is needed.

St John the Baptist, pray for us.

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The Gospel reading — Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

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