College campuses tend to attract some interesting people. There’s always something going on, something to take your mind off of classes. Political protests. Impromptu jam sessions. Maybe a flash mob or some dance routine.
But one that you may have seen are the, shall we say, very devoted religious people. I remember seeing them from time to time during my days in Chapel Hill—and I think they make the circuit of all the godless public schools here in North Carolina.
They stand in the center of the quad holding up these tall five foot signs. “You’re Going to Hell” it would say in big bold letters. Then a colon. Followed by a list of all the people destined to eternal torment. Not individuals of course, but categories of people.
There’s the boilerplate stuff: cheats, liars, thieves, fornicators. There are some that are too offensive to really repeat here. But then, towards the bottom of the sign, the list gets a little strange. Video gamers. Wine drinkers. Sports nuts.
Sports nuts? You’re going to condemn sports nuts?! In Chapel Hill, North Carolina. What kind of evangelism strategy is that?
When we hear descriptions of John the Baptist, it’s hard not to picture him as one of these crazed street preachers. After all, here’s a guy who runs around the land, totally unkempt, wild eyed, screaming down the authorities, raving about the one who is coming after him.
The people who see him don’t quite know what to make of him. “Who are you? Are you Elijah?” they’d ask. But John always seems to defy the easy definition.
John, in spite of his reluctance in today’s reading, is what we’d call a prophet. A bonafide biblical prophet.
Now, let’s clear up a few things about the title prophet. Those street preachers in the campus quad, condemning everyone, predicting the date’s of Jesus’ return, those aren’t prophets. The mysterious soothsayer, like Nostradamus, who somehow “predicted” great catastrophes in the future—they aren’t biblical prophets either.
No, a biblical prophet is someone touched by God, called out by God, to spread the word. As we hear in the first reading today, the spirit of God rests on them, and they speak a certain truth. Like a voice crying out in the wilderness.
To understand what a prophet truly is, let’s turn to a beloved story we hear a lot this time of year—A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
I’m sure you all know this story by heart, considering all the adaptations that are out there. But let’s review the basics: There is the miserly man Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s a cold man. Concerned only about the bottom line. Abusing his employees, dismissing calls for charity.
But one night he’s visited by a trio of spirits—ghosts. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. They shock him awake at night, each one yanking him out of his warm bed and into the world.
Now, the Ghost of Christmas Past visits to remind Scrooge of how he was in the past—his generous spirit, his tribulations, and ultimately what went wrong. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge what’s going on around him at the moment. He shows him how his clerk lives, long neglected by Scrooge, but scraping by with his family. Finally, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future—a silent, grim ghost that points towards a bleak, cold future if he does not change his ways.
Confronted by the loss of the past, the reality of the present, and the threat of the future, Scrooge wakes up in his bed a changed man, bursting with generosity and love.
A biblical prophet like John embodies all these qualities, this spirit that Dickens captures in his story. A prophet turns our attention to the past to remind us of where we’ve been as a people. “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt, they’d say, and remember what God has promised you.” Prophet’s lament the mistakes of the past, show us where we’ve done wrong.
And, at the same time, they show us what’s going on today—they show us the people we do not see—the Bob Crachetts and Tiny Tims of the world. This can get uncomfortable, because we are forced to confront our own neglect, our own mistakes, our own ignorance. They show us the injustices of the world—people thrown into prison or gunned down on the streets, children who go hungry in their own homes, nations forgotten, lost to disease or warfare. And they demand we do something about it.
Finally, prophets do one more thing. They give us a little glimpse of the future. Sometimes that future doesn’t look so good. “If you don’t change your ways,” they’d say, “bad things are going to happen.” Yet, within that warning, there is also reassurance: The spirit of the Lord is upon you. You can change this future. In spite of everything, God’s promises stand.
John promises that the one who comes after him will indeed be the mighty one that has been promised. And Jesus, who comes after him, fulfills everything that the prophets promise.
He doesn’t condemn us to eternal torture, like those misguided—dare I say false—prophets protesting on the streets. No, Jesus faces that tribulation, takes upon himself our trials, our failures, our injustices. He embodies the bright future that God promises us—not a list of the condemned, but a list of the blessed.
Jesus fulfills what Isaiah proclaims:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
Jesus came to us so that we could go to all the people on the “bad list” and embrace them, bring them the good news, set them free. And in the midst of this Advent season, we wait with great longing for the One to come and do the same for us. Because, the truth is, even the greatest prophets can only take us so far. We wait for the One who comes after John. The Lord. The Savior. He’s coming. He’s near. Ready to yank us out of our beds and bring us into the world.