The Second Sunday of Advent (Year A)
4 December 2016
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The phrase “speak truth to power” is something very much in the water these days. It is very popular among clergy and activists and if you have spent any time in progressive circles, it is practically a cliché. It is generally believed to be an old Quaker saying and was first widely disseminated as the title of the American Friends Service Committee’s 1955 book, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. In reality, the term was most likely coined by gay African-American Quaker civil rights activist Bayard Rustin in the early 1940s.(1) Regardless of its origins (although the erasure of its author is quite telling), it is a handy and powerful way of summing up what prophets do. Prophets, quite simply, speak truth to power. They always have and it has always made them deeply unpopular.
It isn’t simply that they “tell it like it is.” That’s different. That is a handy way of excusing bluster, often of a populist variety, that is just cheep talk. The prophets who speak truth to power, however, are often themselves figures from the margins (like Rustin) and have constantly and at great personal risk to themselves called the powerful to account, demanded they act not for their own personal benefit, but for that of others, demanded that they execute justice and righteousness. True prophets act out of the deepest personal faith in (that is to say, relationship with) the ultimate reality of the cosmos, which is Love, and that we would name as God. The prophets who speak truth to power risk their own lives in order to cooperate with God’s purpose, to advance God’s priorities, the priorities of Christ the King.
Religious authority has always had a complex relationship with prophets because it has always had a complex relationship with power. Prophets often get in as much trouble with their religious bosses as they do with the civil leaders they call to account. Nevertheless, the lessons we read in Scripture, the examples of the prophets, including today’s voices, Isaiah and John the Baptist, not to mention the supreme example of our Lord, all proclaim loudly that we are called to be witnesses for justice and for Love.
Advent is the time of prophets, of speaking truth to power, and of inverting our expectations of what real power looks like. In these days we hear from the likes of Isaiah and John the Baptist, speaking to the powerful in their age in a way that still resonates profoundly in ours. Isaiah calls forth a vision of peace and justice among nations in which:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them .... They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
God will call forth a time when natural enemies will lay aside their conflicts, and God’s values will reign. This time will come because of the advent of a leader, about whom Isaiah speaks:
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord .... He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
This is a leader, a messianic leader in the mold of David, who is wise and who judges according to God’s values, not the values of those who gather power for themselves. Isaiah tells us, “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.”
In Jesus’ day, those who continued to share this divine vision of God bringing a shift in the priorities of the world were still on the lookout for these signs and open to being prophets themselves. Matthew saw John the Baptist, a popular Jewish preacher who advocated participating in a water ritual for purification from sin, as the one “who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Matthew recognised a preacher calling the powerful to account in the name of divine change and saw that people were drawn to him. Matthew recognised in John one pointing to that branch of Jesse who was not afraid to tell the powerful and the comfortable that, perhaps, they had it all wrong and needed to make changes in how they lived and in what they valued:
When [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance .... Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John, wearing his “garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and ... [eating] locusts and wild honey,” did not look someone whose message would easily have been received by those powerful, but he still spoke out of the depth of his conviction that God was coming to change the world, to bring about the kinds of changes of which Isaiah and the other prophets spoke.
John spoke because he knew he was living in a moment on the cusp of great change. He knew, although he would not have named it as such, that he was living in Advent Times. John knew he had recognised the coming of the one of whom Isaiah was speaking:
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John spoke in powerful language about the one who was coming and in a way that caused people to take note, that caused people to react, that caused people to be uncomfortable, that caused people to think him dangerous to the status quo. John knew what he was doing and he trusted in his message, was willing to risk everything in speaking to the powerful of his community in this way, and ended up being killed. Prophets act knowing the risks.
Advent times, in which we await the coming into our lives of nothing less than our God in all God's glory, are times when we wake from our torpor. They are times when we realise that the stakes are high, that God is inviting us into the work of Love, and showing us that when Love breaks into the world, the vulnerable, relational, unconditional love of a child, everything changes. Advent times are the moments when those on the margins are centred as we invert our vision of power. Advent times are times for prophetic, risky speech that calls not just our leaders, but all the powerful to account. Advent times are when we are most strenuously called to speak truth to power and centre “the shoot from the root of Jesse” and ensure that it “shall stand as an ensign to the peoples” for the nations to seek and fill us with confidence in the power of Kingdom of God.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Advent Feria, 3 December 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume