Over the centuries, the people of God have come to an awareness of something out there ahead of us, way out ahead of us. We have a sense of some destination, or destiny. Although we don’t know exactly where it is or how it will be, this destination often goes by the code name of the Kingdom of God. Isaiah’s prophetic visions of God’s future have given us some clues about the destination, that is, when we will know we’ve arrived in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Listen to his poetry again: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…” [Isaiah 11:6]
One way to think about the Bible is as a book of clues, clues about where this human-divine enterprise that we’re caught up in is heading–and clues about how we get there. John the Baptist is one of those clues. John is a very colorful character and has gained a lot of traction in the human imagination. Camel skin clothing and a diet of locusts and wild honey, his threatening language, his speaking truth to power, the lurid story of his death. The head on a platter after a royal birthday party. John the Baptist looms large; each of the four gospels and the Book of Acts tell about John, as does the Jewish historian Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews.
And John has even made his way into the Qur’an, where he is called Yahya. The name Yahya is related to the Arabic and Hebrew verb “to live”. And John certainly lives on, not only in the Resurrection, but in the human imagination. He is for us the very archetype of the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. His story is very much part of the story of Jesus: he is the forerunner of the one who is coming who is greater than he. The one who will baptize in holy spirit (or wind or breath) and holy fire.
But he lives on in other ways. He represents to us the vital role, the essential role of the prophetic voice—the prophetic posture and the prophetic voice. The prophetic posture and the prophetic voice are essential to our finding our way to the Kingdom of God. We must have in our company the voices of those crying out in the wilderness, or we will lose our way.
There are two opposing energies, actually two complementary energies needed by the people of God as we make our way into God’s future. One of those energies consists of all those things that make for cohesion, for stability, for continuity. The other, the opposing, but complementary energy, consists of that which is critical of and subversive of the status quo. We need both these opposing, but complementary energies. We need to have John the Baptist with us—figuratively speaking–or we shall lose our way. The role of prophecy, that is, the critique and subversion of the status quo, is critical. To put it simplistically, we need the man or woman in the three piece suit and we need the man or woman in the camel skin outfit. We need both the stabilizing and destabilizing energies. That way we keep together–and we keep on the move.
Some of us, by nature or nurture, may gravitate more toward energies of cohesion, stability and continuity. And some of us, by nature or nurture, may gravitate more toward energies of critique and subversion and destabilization. But real, substantive progress is made by the interplay of these opposites. So we may find ourselves in both roles. One day we may find ourselves in the three piece suit. One day we may find ourselves in the camel skin outfit. The Church, as a body, as the Body of Christ, may find itself in both roles. Being institutional one moment, being prophetic the next. (I’m trying to imagine camel skin vestments for Advent…) The prophetic role is fluid and can move around. The camel skin could land on you.
Not everyone wearing camel skin clothes and eating bugs is a genuine prophet, of course: sometimes a guy running around in camel skin and eating bugs is just a guy running around in camel skin and eating bugs. Not all that calls itself progressive is true, substantive progress. We still need discernment as a counterbalance to critique and subversion. There are such things as false prophets. There are destabilizing energies that are actually constructive; and there are destabilizing energies that lead us in the wrong direction.
I’ve been thinking of leadership; both leadership in the church and political leadership. Effective leadership manages both energies within the same body, so that the body maintains cohesion, but keeps on the move into God’s future. The two living Roman Catholic popes offer a study in contrasts. Benedict seemed to have preferred the three piece suit mode—or the papal equivalent. Francis seems to prefer the papal equivalent of the camel skin outfit. Benedict seems to have prioritized stability and cohesion. Francis is shaking things up. Paradoxically, Francis’s shaking things up seems to be creating more cohesion rather than less. It will be interesting to see how this develops.
A prime example of leadership in the political sphere is, of course, Nelson Mandela, who died this past week. Mandela’s early life and 27 years in prison were very much in the John the Baptist mode of prophecy, of critique of the status quo of apartheid South Africa. After a very energetic international movement to put pressure on the government of South Africa, Mandela was released from prison and not very long after was elected president of the country. It fell to Mandela to summon the energies of cohesion and stability to bring unity to a divided country.
Much of this cohesion and stability was achieved through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission lead by Abp. Desmond Tutu. This process was very much Christianity in action. (Mandela was a Methodist, I believe.) Ironically, when Mandela was in his John the Baptist mode, he wore suits, as attorneys are accustomed to doing. When he became head of state he broke with sartorial custom and wore casual shirts of Indonesian style batik. Perhaps this non-conformity was his way of signaling that he had not completely abandoned his identity as prophet.
We’re going and a-going; the people of God are on the go. But where are we going? Clues can be found among the obscurities of the ancient prophets. We’re going to where spears are turned into pruning hooks and war is studied no more [Isaiah 2:4]. We’re going to where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing spring [Amos 5:24]. We’re going to the mountain of the Lord of hosts who will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear [Isaiah 25: 6].
Listen to the poetry of the prophets for clues; the ancient seers will tell us where we’re going. It’s still out there ahead of us. And we won’t get there if we rest too comfortably in one place. John the Baptist is still among us to afflict the comfortable, to goad us on.
Come, O Wisdom from on high; come, Branch of Jesse’s tree; come Key of David, Dayspring from on high, Desire of the nations. Come, King of Kings. Come, little child and lead us. Lead us, little child, lead us out from the dusk of this present Now. Baptize us in your holy wind and fire and lead us into the full daylight of your glorious Kingdom.
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