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Season of the Prophets

At the Guards Chapel

08 December 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

If I said, The words of the prophet are written on the subway wall, some of you might have no idea what I mean, while others would say, That dates you! Simon and Garfunkel, the nineteen sixties and the protest against the war in Vietnam. But all over the world, in times of political crisis, people will write their slogans wherever they will be seen. Even in Kilburn I saw these words a foot high, What we really want is a Garden of Eden with no fruit forbidden. Isn’t that the truth! But you and I are probably not the kind of people to creep out at night with a can of spray paint! So how do we express our deepest sense of protest against injustice, poverty, third world debt, the violence in our own society? Perhaps you write to The Times. Perhaps you pray fervently for righteousness. Perhaps you try to change the world by letting change begin in your own life.

Advent is the season of the prophets of ancient Israel - their radical critique of society and their demand for change in the hearts of men and women who wish to be faithful to God. Old Testament prophecy is not so much about predicting the future as analysing the present. Hebrew prophets were rather like the best kind of journalist - closely in touch with world affairs, with the mood of the nation, with the hopes and fears of ordinary people and with the ambitions, abilities and weaknesses of national leaders. But unlike any journalist I know, the prophets of Israel were first and foremost theologians. They interpreted history as the context of God’s purposes for men and women - seeing God not as a remote creator withdrawn from the affairs of the world, but as an active participant in the lives of individuals and of nations.

I want to point to just two key elements in the theology of the Old Testament prophets. First, they believed that history has meaning; it has a beginning and an end; it’s going somewhere; it has a purpose. So how we live matters - it matters to us, it matters to God, it matters to our eternal destiny. God cares about us; we are important to him; he watches over us. And there is something God wants for us - that we should grow up into true human maturity, what in later Christian thought will be called the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. When we turn away from this life that God intends for us, choosing instead something smaller and selfish and ignoble, God is grieved and pained - the prophets would have said angered!

That could lead to an impasse - a diminished humanity versus an angry God. But look at a further theme of the theology of the prophets. Beyond God’s anger, his grief, his pain, there is his love. Beyond judgement there is his forgiveness; beyond punishment there is restoration. The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel look towards a new age of justice when God and humanity will live in harmony, when the Chosen people will lead all other nations to join in the worship of the one true God, when God will raise up a righteous king who will rule with gentleness.

This king, of course, is the Messiah - the anointed one, the Christ. Isaiah may have hoped for this king to rule in his own lifetime but in the short-term history was deeply disappointing. There was war and famine and disease - and then defeat, the destruction of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon. Even when the people returned to Judea, it was hardly a fulfilment of the glorious vision of the prophets.

The return fell short of the vision of Isaiah which we heard a short time ago; the valleys were exalted, nor the mountains and hills made low; crooked ways were not made straight, nor the rough places plain.

The messianic hope was projected into the future, but the hope was never lost that one day a king would come to establish a time of righteousness, a time of justice in the affairs of men and women, and of reconciliation between the smallness of humanity and the greatness of God. Fulfilment dawned when John announced the coming of one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and when Jesus at last proclaimed, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the Gospel.

The season of Advent points us back to these profound experiences of the past in which our religious tradition was formed. And it points us forward to the goal of all God’s purposes when the entire creation finds its fulfilment. But above all it points us to Jesus Christ - the one in whom the prophecies are fulfilled and the one who assures us that nothing can frustrate the will of God for the final good of his creation.

Today as always, the Church needs its prophets who discern the will of God for his people in the present crisis. For believe me, every age is an age of crisis - a time of opportunity and of judgement. We must learn to see every choice we make as made in this context of the meaning of history. Either we build the kingdom or we undermine it; either we grow into full humanity or we diminish; either we follow the King or we turn away.

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