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The Prophet Said...

Matthew 3: 1 - 12

3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’[a]

4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt round his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.6 Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptise you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’

Prophets! The picture that pops into my head is that of the wild eyed ranter, standing on a street corner, insisting that the end is nigh, doom is upon us, it is all up for us.

Living in a mess of his own imagining (and these folk in my head are always men) he accuses, and shouts, points the finger, and declares that all is lost, because he is lost.

Yet the prophets of God speak, not just with their mouths but with their lives, we have Elisha, stalking the land of Israel, staying with widows and restoring their sons even as God restores Israel, we have Elijah declaring God’s power only to run for his life and collapse in isolation to be nurtured by the God who through Elijah nurtures Israel. Prophets, authentic, consistent, human, vulnerable, often struggling, and at times lost in the evil of that which they oppose, finding themselves stoned, executed, and abused for speaking that which they glimpse on the heart of God, that which burns within them, that which brings about change.

Whatever was written in former days, wrote Paul in today’s reading from Romans, ‘was written for our instruction’ The prophets and the truth they speak, is meant to prod us too, prod us into growing godwards, becoming Christlike, shining as lights in a darkening world.

So what did those prophets have to say? Well there are all the bits about the coming Messiah of course, then there are those prophets who called us to repentance, an Advent theme, the reason for the purple.

No one is coming to fix us, they declared; unless we turn around and walk a different way.

“Dear God”, the little girl breathed her prayer silently as she read her answers to the geography exam, “please make Bosnia in Asia!”

If we are waiting for a God shaped like a knight in shining armour to gallop into our lives wave a wand and fix us, we will be waiting forever. In the Old Testament the people of Israel groaned again and again about their oppressors, about how mean or cruel they were. And the response of the prophets? ‘Your widows die alone and your orphans are on the streets’. In other words for goodness sake take some responsibility for your own actions We are in this mess because we ignored the one who is the source of all life so turn around and repent. And the call to repentance is a call to for us to say, this is me, there are parts I like and parts I don’t, but owning all those parts is the first step towards wholeness. We are all wounded, and we have all wounded others, the wholeness we are called to0 isa about us becoming all we are that we may flourish, not about God saying, ha, I told you so!

Life will never be perfect.

The prophets said it as it was, there is a time for everything, a time to kill, to die, to be wounded, to weep, and yes to enable life, to know recovery, and to rejoice. Yet it seems to me that our culture lies to us all the time. Get a happy meal, I'm lovin' it – say McDonalds, but then There are some things money can't buy. For everything else there's Mastercard –Mastercard! It gives you wings - Red Bull, and it goes on and on, everything is presented as the route to perfection and happiness, while our mental health problem soar. Then there are the times we are victimised, or abused. When I was at school, there was a guy called Stephen, who took every opportunity to mock or bully me. “love your enemies” said Jesus, “pray for those who persecute you” (just a few hints as to ways to respond to life’s many imperfections). It was a tough call but between gritted teeth I did it, and as I continued to over the next few weeks the mockery and the bullying all stopped and he took every opportunity to be a pal. Did I change? Did he? I don’t know but I remember grumbling to God, ‘I just wanted it to stop, I didn’t want to be his friend.’

Tomorrow is not certain

The prophets were great on uncertainty, ‘don’t rely on horses and chariots’ said the gloomy Jeremiah, they will all let you down. How we are learning once again what people have historically lived with, tomorrow is uncertain. We are all going to die, they prophets lived in a place where they had one foot in eternity and one foot in the now and they often found themselves in eternity quicker than they would like. I was once described as being ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly good’. To live like eternity is now, while every moment matters as though it is the only moment is the challenge we are given.

According to one estimate, the revenues of the global anti-ageing industry will increase from about $200bn today to $420bn by 2030. One sure sign of its rosy prospects is the involvement of high-profile people in the US who have made vast fortunes from the internet. If many of them can avoid taxes, why not death?

For the prophets were clear, it is given to us once to live and once to die, and death takes us into the presence of God, the one who was, and is and is to come. And death, whilst we may not feel like this as we grapple with loss, death is a gift that teaches us how to live.

Finally being religious means nothing if our lives don’t speak truth.

“Bring your worthless offerings no longer”, wrote the prophet Isaiah, “Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies-- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. 14"I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. 15"So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you;"

In other words we can pack our lives with all the religious stuff, all the cultural stuff, all the me stuff that we want, but if we are not standing honestly before our God, owning ourselves, living to be shaped by him, demonstrating that in the love we show to others, we are doing nothing.

No wonder prophets were not always popular yet this is why advent matters, it is a time to listen to the prophets, not just with our ears, but with our hearts, and not just with our hearts but with our lives too.

Edward Hays wrote: Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can make our hearts a place where a blessing of peace would desire to abide and where the birth of the Prince of Peace might take place. Daily we can make an Advent examination. Are there any feelings of discrimination toward race, sex, or religion? Is there a lingering resentment, an unforgiven injury living in our hearts? Do we look down upon others of lesser social standing or educational achievement? Are we generous with the gifts that have been given to us, seeing ourselves as their stewards and not their owners? Are we reverent of others, their ideas and needs, and of creation? These and other questions become Advent lights by which we may search the deep, dark corners of our hearts.

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