We need prophets like John - Second Sunday of Advent C

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > We need prophets like John - Second Sunday of Advent C

When Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, at the birth of his son, was released from being struck dumb he launched into a hymn of praise of God, the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel…” In this hymn he announced, “As for you, little child, you shall be called a prophet of God, the Most High. You shall go before the Lord to prepare his ways before him.” Zechariah, from his own intense spiritual experience surrounding the birth of his son in his old age, knew that John’s life was ordained by God. He was to be the prophet who was to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Zechariah described his newly-born child as a prophet. Let us examine what a prophet is.

The role of prophet was a significant one in the religious life of Israel for nearly one thousand years. The first great prophet was Elijah who lived in the ninth century BC.

The work of a prophet was not a profession. They had no formal role in religious structures. They emerged from normal situations, for example, Amos was an orchardist.

They had no formal training for their role, and no qualifications to conduct their ministry. Their authority rested on the authenticity of their words. They were charismatic figures.

Prophets did know acutely that they were called to this work. Often they were reluctant to take on this very difficult and uncertain role among the people. Jeremiah protested that he did not have the gifts to speak in public. He struggled constantly during his long years of being a prophet. He said for instance at one time, “Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land!” He felt inadequate and he did not like to give the message entrusted to him. But he knew that this was his lot. Such was the personal cost involved in being a prophet. 

We could say, using a Christian term, that prophets were mystics. They all had an intense experience of the presence or action of God in their life. Isaiah, for instance, had a profound experience of the glory of the Lord as he was praying in the temple. It was this deeply individual encounter with the presence of God that inspired their ministry. Knowing the power and majesty of God from his personal experience drove his ministry. Prophets are not so much moral crusaders as men of God, men captured by God.

They were people who did not stand aloof in judgement but anguished over what was happening to the people. They would cry out to God on behalf of the people, begging God for mercy. Jeremiah, for example, prayed: “Have you utterly rejected Judah? Does your soul loathe Zion? Why have you smitten us so that there is no healing for us?” (Jer 14:19) 

Prophets lived on the edges of the society, including religious society. They did not fit in with ordinary ways. They were unable to be comfortable members of their community. Like John the Baptist they often lived isolated lives in the wilderness. Elijah found himself driven to live on high mountains like Carmel or Horeb.

They were ascetics, abandoning earthly comforts and living without ordinary means. John, we are told, lived on locusts and wild honey. He wore a garment of camel hair with a leather belt round his waist.

Their lives were solely preoccupied with the messages they were receiving from God. They experienced in a very immediate way words that flowed from the heart of God.

These words often expressed the displeasure of God for the way in which the people were living. Even religious practices were criticised as being more form than substance.

Prophets were not easy people to be with. They were critics of society. They were unsettling. Yet they were strangely attractive. They spoke the truth, the unadulterated truth. Even when difficult to accept, the truth engages us.

Prophets were often fiery in the denunciations of moral standards and societal attitudes. They were uncompromising in what they said. They were thus an uncomfortable presence in the society. Often their lot was to be persecuted and many where martyred.  As was John.

To be a prophet was not an easy lot. Prophets were, as we heard today, “voices crying in the wilderness”. Often rejected or ignored. These men were courageous. They were driven by such a powerful personal conviction that, despite all their trials, they could not but proclaim what God was giving them to speak.

How we need prophets today! How we need the clear unadulterated truth to be spoken both in the Church and in the society.

We can see how our culture is abandoning God. We can see the rise of a generation who do not know God. We can see the destruction of lives as people are blind to the truth. When God is lost man suffers. Pope St John Paul II stated that the eclipse of God will lead to the eclipse of man. He is so right.

John was sent to turn the hearts of the people back to God in preparation for the coming of Christ. We need prophets to do this in our times. We need voices that emanate from the heart of God. We need voices that declare the truth. We need voices that flow from hearts on fire from divine experience.

We need prophets as that, as the Gospel reading says today, “All mankind shall see the salvation of God.”

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday, 9 December 2018