Waiting with the Prophets

It isn’t often that you see a priest breaking into a car, but on Friday afternoon that is exactly what the families of our Grandparents as Parents Support Group were watching as they assembled near the Parish Hall in our car park waiting for their Christmas outing.  Car keys are very useful, except when they are locked in a bag on the back seat of a car!  I had not realised before that I had the skills to break into other people’s vehicles, but now a whole new world of petty crime is opening up as a possibility before me having successfully achieved what I previously thought to be impossible.

We all know the importance of keys, to help us to keep things securely and to be able to unlock what we need at the right time.  If ever we lose our keys, or lock them in the wrong place, we become particularly aware of how vital they are for us.

For many centuries in the life of the Church men were ordained to the order of door keeper, one of the four minor orders, to show the significance given to those who were responsible for being the keepers of the keys.  Whilst the Church no longer ordains door keepers today, it did do so from the Third Century until less than a hundred years ago. When Luisa and I and our family arrived in the Rectory we were handed a whole box of keys, and we are still in the process (a year later) of working out what some of them are for.   We have not yet found a door that we cannot open, but we do have plenty of keys that don’t fit into any of the locks which is intriguing!

In this second weekend of Advent, as we light our second Advent candle, we remember the Prophets of the Old Testament – those men and women who looked for and anticipated and kept alive the hope that one day a Messiah would come to bring in the reign of the Kingdom of God,  and who called people in their own day to live lives that reflected God’s priorities of faithfulness and justice.

This weekend, as we continue to look forward ourselves in anticipation to the celebration of the first Advent (the first coming) of Christ amongst us two thousand years ago in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night, and as we looking forward as well to his second Advent (his second coming) one day as the righteous judge of all,  we also look back in time to those who lived before Jesus and who waited as we do now, for him to come amongst them.

The most important thing to say about the prophets of the Old Testament, as we remember their waiting for the coming of the Kingdom, just as we wait too in this Advent season,  is that the Prophets act like a key for us to understanding the life and ministry of Jesus, so long anticipated, and the Kingdom which he inaugurated and which we are a living sign of today.

In our first reading today we heard from the Prophet Isaiah.  We (like the first Christians who read through the Old Testament texts to find anticipations of the coming of Jesus) find resonances I am sure, between the hope that we have in Jesus, and the picture image that the Prophet Isaiah paints for us.

Isaiah the Prophet who had served four kings in Judea, looks at the world around him, in which there has been great disappointment because of the leadership of those kings, and he offers a new vision for the people, of a world in which, from the same family of David (the stump of Jesse) will come a king who – unlike the ones that he has experienced – will not only rule fairly and with justice,  but who will even bring about a change in the whole natural order in which even the wolf and the lamb, the bear and the cow, the snake and the child (all natural enemies of each other) will live together in harmony.

It is an extraordinarily beautiful image, that has been turned from words into art work all over the world.  When the first Christians heard this description of the ideal Jewish King, a righteous ruler who would bring peace to the world, because he possessed the wisdom and power of God’s Spirit, this resonated powerfully with their experience of Jesus of Nazareth. They began to presume, as we probably do, when we hear it, that that was what Isaiah was intending.

But I think that most Biblical scholars would want to caution that we hold on a moment before going too far down that track.  They might say to us, “it is really easy to see why the Early Church grasped this and other writings of the Prophets like it and used them to point to Jesus and to confirm the faith that they had in him, and there’s nothing wrong in them doing that then, and us doing it today – just as long as we remember that that would have been news to Isaiah himself.”

Those same scholars would want to say to us, “just remember that the Prophets were chiefly concerned, not with events that might happen hundreds of years later, but with what was going on around them, in their time, in response to which they sought to give people a vision that would bring them back from their wanderings to the faithful service of God.”

In other words, as Isaiah paints a vision of a world in which people live lives of equity, justice, service, righteousness and faithfulness – he is primarily calling the people of his own day to repentance, to change their ways, rather than acting as a fortune teller about what might happen in the future. He is saying look, we need a king right now who can help us to live the lives that we should be living before the God who has created and who sustains us.

The word ‘Prophet’ means ‘someone who tells forth’ or ‘someone who proclaims’.  So to see the Prophets as people who were primarily interested in predicting future events is to miss what they were primarily on about, which was to speak for God – to proclaim God’s words as they understood them – to their contemporaries, as we affirm in the Creed when we say, “he has spoken by the Prophets.”For many of us, that is quite a different way of understanding how we approach the Prophets of the Old Testament.  Although we hear excerpts from the writings of the Prophets as we gather together throughout the year, in our first reading from the Old Testament, weekend by weekend, if we are honest we often don’t take much time to consider the message that they bring to us.

When we think about the Prophets the first thought for many of us is that their main concern was trying to predict when the Messiah would arrive.   We probably have that idea in our minds particularly because at Christmas it is the words of the Prophets that are quoted to confirm to us that the one who was so long awaited has arrived; and there is a good reason why we expect the Prophets to be talking about the coming of Jesus.

We need to remember that when the first Christians, who were also Jews, tried to reflect together on what they had experienced in Jesus, they did not have the New Testament as we do today to help them in this task.  They had to work hard to try and sort out in their collective minds and to start to piece together exactly who Jesus was, and how the Church should act, without the kinds of guidance and the accumulated learning of 2,000 years of experience of being the Church which we have today.

The New Testament was itself generated from these reflections, but the books of the New Testament and a systematic approach to understanding Jesus had not yet been formulated when they were thinking through these things.  The first Christians turned to the books that they did have to help them, and as good Jews, these were the books that we now call the Old Testament.   They studied those texts to find any similarities, and indicators that would help them to explain their experience of life with Jesus. It was texts like the one that we heard in our first reading today that encouraged them, because they found in that vision of a new world, the kind of Kingdom that they believed that Jesus had inaugurated.

I say all of this today, because this year in our cycle of readings we too will be reflecting on our life as the Body of Christ, through the lense of the Gospel of Matthew, and it is the Gospel of Matthew more than any of the others, that seeks to justify and explain the ministry of Jesus with reference to the texts of the Old Testament and particularly the Prophets.  Yet only 2% of the whole of the writings and sayings of the Prophets found in the Old Testament say anything at all about when the Messiah would come for the first time,  and less than 1% concern the events of when he will come again in glory. But the reality is that it is those small amount of texts that we hear in our great Christmas festivals, and of the course the danger is that if we think that the purpose of the Prophets was to foretell the coming of Jesus, then we will allow the other 97% of what they had to say, to simply pass us by.

The Prophets of the Old Testament were, in the main not trying to act as soothsayers for people who would hear their message a long time after them.  Isaiah the Prophet looks out on the world around him, and declares that a better world is needed: a king who will act justly, people who will repent and turn from what they are doing in order to be faithful, so that a new and better world can be created, not in the future but there and then: where the widows and the orphans and the poor will be cared for.

Our own Anglican Communion defines the mission of the Church in five ways, through what are called the ‘Five Marks of Mission’.  One of those marks of mission affirms that we Anglicans (that’s all of us) are called “to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation”.  To do these things is to continue the ministry of Prophets in our own time: to be people who point to God’s vision for his world. The Prophets act as a key for us in not only understanding Jesus and his prophetic ministry, but understanding the life and agenda of the Church.

On this Second Weekend in Advent we light a candle for the Prophets and we wait for the coming of Jesus, as they did before us.  To wait with the Prophets is not a project in spiritual navel gazing.  It requires of us the bravery to put forward a vision for our local community of what life can be like now, if we order our lives according to God’s rule of love.

As we wait with the Prophets, we pray for imagination and creativity to speak the word of God, about his vision for his world, to those who live around us.