What is a Prophet?

Luke 1:68-79 | Luke 3:1-6

Jeremy Richards

What does it mean to be a prophet?

In our first reading from Luke this morning, Luke 1:68-79, Zechariah says his newborn son, who will become known as John the Baptist, will be a prophet. In Luke 1:76-79 Zechariah says:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John, the last of the great prophets to pave the way for the Messiah.

John will be the prophet of the Most High. That’s quite a title – “the prophet of the Most High.” John will be the last in a long line of great men and women (though the men get most of the credit), who were prophets.

But who were these men and women? What does it mean to be a prophet? What is this calling John has thrust upon him while still a newborn?

That is, perhaps, the first thing we should note about prophets: they usually don’t want to be prophets. It’s thrust upon them. John had no say, the angel told his father Zechariah that he would be prophet before he was born. Moses begged God to find someone else, he was a poor speaker. Jeremiah tried to refuse as well, appealing to his age. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for a I am just a boy,” he said. But God wouldn’t let him go. When he tried not to speak the words of God, words of justice for the oppressed and condemnation for those in power, he couldn’t hold it in. “…Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot,” Jeremiah said. Amos, the prophet of justice, in the midst of prophesying, declared, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.”

Even prophets don’t want to be prophets. To be a prophet is to be ostracized and disliked. To purposely make a scene and bring down scorn upon yourself. Often it’s physically demanding, like Jeremiah wearing a yoke around his neck, or Ezekiel, who had to lay on his left side for 390 days straight and on his right side for 40 days, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he had to cook his food over cow dung.

To be a prophet is almost always to become a criminal, to set yourself against unjust laws. It often comes with a death sentence. Because prophets confront social sins. They take on the most powerful, the most dangerous. They critique rulers and whole governments. They point out the people being swept under the rug, pushed to the margins, and pull them to the center, scandalously declaring that they are the ones God identifies with, people like the shepherds we heard about in our Advent wreath reading this morning. Those in power generally don’t like that.

Our second passage in Luke subtly pits the message of John against that of the establishment. Luke 3 begins with a long list of the rulers: Tiberius over Rome, Pontius Pilate over Judea, Herod over Galilee, his brother Philip over some places that are very hard to pronounce, Lysanias over Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas the high priests over Israel’s religious community. But they aren’t the ones preparing the way of Jesus. John, out in the wilderness is. John, whose message conflicts with theirs. John, who’ll eventually be killed by Herod, by the establishment.

As we know from the story of John, and almost every prophet, there are consequences for calling out the powerful, for committing civil disobedience, for breaking humans laws in order to obey the law of God, the law of Love.

When I was 5 years old, I broke my arm. My friend Matt and I were outside the only grocery store in our little town, which sat along the only paved road in town. It was summer and we were barefoot, running back and forth along the sidewalk, trying to get trucks to honk, while Matt’s mom shopped inside. In the midst of our fun, I realized that we could hurt ourselves, running wildly back and forth, so I ran to tell Matt that we should stop running. I was so intent on my mission that I didn’t look where I was going. I ran into a large planter and fell, breaking both bones in my right forearm, the radius and the ulna.

Just to clarify: I hurt myself running to tell my friend that we shouldn’t run because we might hurt ourselves. How’s that for irony?

I think being a prophet is something like 5 year old me, being so caught up in the Spirit, so caught up in one’s mission, that one can’t help but run blindly, without looking where we’re going, without realizing the collisions that might occur. “…Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot,” Jeremiah says. Prophets catch hold of God’s future, the one we talked about last week when we talked about apocalypse. Prophets see the end of the old age and the beginning of a new one, one in which the lion lays down with the lamb and the leopard with the child. Zechariah, himself a prophet, at least for a few minutes, sees it and says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Zechariah sees God’s future, and is filled with joy. His prophecy is a song. He sings of God’s future, and through his singing God’s future begins to take hold.

John also testifies to God’s future when he grows up to fulfill his father’s prophecy, to be the prophet of the Most High. Luke says he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (how strange it must have been to be a prophet other prophets prophesied about!): “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the cooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh – not spirits, flesh. People. Bodies. – shall see the salvation of God.’”

Prophets see what the rest of the world doesn’t see yet: the dawn breaking, the crooked made straight, the rough made smooth. In other words, the salvation of God, which is the salvation of flesh as well as spirit. And this, this is the tension. Because the world doesn’t see it yet, there is conflict. Prophets run into the world the way I ran into that planter – full speed ahead, with eyes set on the future of God – and the collision often leaves them battered and bruised, with broken bones or worse.

What does it mean to be a prophet?

To be honest, I don’t think there are many individual prophets today. I’m always skeptical of people who too quickly dawn the mantle of prophet. In my experience, they’re usually self-righteous people who want to judge others without holding themselves accountable, and they exist equally on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide.

No, I doubt many of us as individuals are called to be prophets, but I believe the church, as a whole, is called to be prophetic. We are, as a people, those who have caught a glimpse of God’s future, of a world of peace, love, hope, and joy. That’s what Christmas is all about. At Christmas we sing of a different world, one where there’s peace on earth and mercy mild, where God and sinners are reconciled. We sing, “Light and life to all he brings / Risen with healing in his wings / Mild he lays his glory by / Born that man no more may die.” That’s quite the claim, isn’t it? To most, that’s just sentimental, wishful thinking, but to the Church it’s the truth. We actually believe Jesus can heal the whole world, that light and life are available to all. No one is beyond the hope we proclaim. Most shockingly of all, we believe Jesus really has defeated death in his own resurrection, and death will ultimately be defeated through the resurrection of all, when God’s future becomes creation’s present.

This is the hope we hold on to. As a prophetic community, we sing the songs of Christmas, about a little baby born in a manger saving the whole cosmos, and we believe these songs. And as we sing them, we pray that they take root in our heart, changing us and changing the world. Like Zechariah, we sing of God’s future, and in our singing God’s future begins to take hold in our lives, and hopefully, through us, begins to take hold in the world.

We live at a time when the church must be prophetic, where the hope of Christmas is given lip service by those in power while peace, hope, joy, and love are far from their hearts. During this season of Advent, when we wait for Christ’s return and the redemption of all creation, we must understand that we don’t wait passively, but actively. We pray “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” and then we work toward that end, to make the hope we sing of during Christmastime a reality all year around.

I would like to show you a video of what I believe it means to be prophetic today, what it means to carry on the tradition of John the Baptist and Jeremiah and Deborah and Anna, not as individuals but as a community.

A little background on the video: this video documents the arrest of Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who legally entered the United States in 2014. Samuel was the sole provider for his wife, who has lupus and other health issues, and his 18-year-old son. When he received a deportation order, City Well UMC in Durham, NC provided sanctuary for Samuel and advocated for him. Samuel, doing his best to go through the proper legal channels, left the safety of City Well on November 23rd and arrived at an appointment that he was told was necessary for his request for deferred deportation. It quickly became clear that this was a setup. There was no appointment. It was a lie. As soon as he got there, Immigration and Customs Enforcement violently tackled him and arrested him. In the midst of this heartbreaking video, we can see the Church take up the mantle of prophet. We can see the hope of God’s future collide with a world that hasn’t yet grasped the Good News.

Watch the video.

What does it mean to be a prophetic community? What does it mean to be the church?

It means we move our feet when we pray. Sometimes that means moving our feet in front of vehicles. It means we wait for God, but we wait actively. It means we humbly but boldly prepare the way of the Lord, proclaiming salvation to all flesh, as John did.

It means that through the power of the Holy Spirit we sing God’s future into being, letting it take hold in our lives, the hope of God flowing out from us and into the world in which we live.

Being a prophetic community means singing with Zechariah, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace,”

It means singing with the Herald Angels of “peace on earth and mercy mild,”

It means singing with the young woman in the video, “We shall not be moved,”

It means singing and believing the songs we sing.