We live in turbulent times. From our stark cultural and religious divides to what Bill Leonard has called America’s pre-existing condition of firearm violence to the looming dangers of climate change, we face a future that feels increasingly tenuous. As Christians, however, this is not a time to be afraid. Instead, it is a time to get to work.
In the biblical tradition of prophecy, times like these were familiar territory. Indeed, this was the kind of time, place and political environment for which Jesus was born. According to the Bible, Jesus was not simply a fulfillment of prophecy. In fact, Jesus modeled the kind of vital, prophetic tradition that we are called to reclaim in this season of Advent.
Prophets speak truth to power. Prophets understand God’s expectation for an equitable society, where the poor and widows and orphans stand on the same level ground and with the same dignity as the rich and famous. Prophets act with integrity, work for justice, practice kindness and live with humility (Micah 6:8). They demonstrate God’s loving-kindness to the left out and the oppressed (Isaiah 58:6-9; Luke 15). Prophets “love the alien/immigrant as we love ourselves” (Leviticus 19:34) and share their resources with refugees (Genesis 46:5-7; Matthew 25:31-40).
A Jesus follower should be a prophet. And to be prophetic, one does as Jesus did.
“Jesus modeled the kind of vital, prophetic tradition that we are called to reclaim in this season of Advent.”
Then as now, prophets are not called to predict the future. (Indeed, this was strictly forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:9-12 and Leviticus 19:31). Rather, in the tradition of Jesus, today’s prophets are called to change the future. We thus reclaim the time-tested covenant relationship with God fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Consider also Mary’s Magnificat. Mary emphasizes an overlooked adventure of Advent and a forgotten message of Christmas through surprisingly subversive words:
“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
Mary’s perspective shared in Luke was not just that Jesus would come. It was why he was needed. The lyrics to her haunting song infuse a discomforting commentary into our traditional Christmas cheer: the proud, powerful and rich have squandered their roles. Society then and now wreaks of inequity. The prophets of old had declared that God would not forsake the people called to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3); the people of God are to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6). But the people of Jesus’ day felt surrounded and overpowered by rampant injustice. Swirling controversies and harsh rhetoric can paralyze even the best of us, then and now.
In Luke 4, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus addresses this familiar condition at his home synagogue in Nazareth. Prophetic expectations echo as he reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).
Both passages in Luke reveal overlooked perspectives on prophecy that reverberate through the ages. Jesus has come; Jesus changes everything.
“With wisdom, we are to interpret the issues and clearly address the events of our time.”
Prophetic hope then blossoms in the advent of the early church. Jesus gave them – and us – clear commands: to live with compassion, to care for the least of these, to welcome the stranger, to love the enemy and to do as he did throughout his ministry.
Therefore, living out prophetic hope this first week of Advent necessitates that we listen carefully, study well, understand fully and recognize the ongoing revelation of God’s concerns in our day. With wisdom, we are to interpret the issues and clearly address the events of our time. As it was in biblical days, every era needs a steady prophetic conscience to bring us back to center, to refocus attention and reallocate resources on those critical points of society most bereft of attention.
Poverty and hunger continue to be challenging issues. To these we can add homelessness, violence, addiction, racism and bigotry, the proliferation of guns, environmental concerns, skewed moral values, a widening chasm between rich and poor, vastly unequal educational opportunities, divisive and vitriolic rhetoric, and decreasing compassion. The list of prophetic concerns goes on and on.
A good friend of mine has a baseball cap that expresses his response to the red “Make America Great Again” caps. His says: “Make Racism Wrong Again!” This is prophetic. And it is the continued critique Jesus expects.
Let us be vigilant this Advent season. Let us be prophets for our day, not only speaking truth to power, but continuing to incarnate the spirit of Jesus in our life and work. We are called to offer a relevant faith in every age. Usually unwanted, consistently unheeded, often persecuted, the prophetic call remains a vital but often forgotten part of the meaning of Christmas.
So, as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, let us more fully imitate his life. Let’s reclaim the power of prophecy. Doing so could make this Advent season more of an adventure than we ever imagined.