Of Prophets and Messiahs
When I was a kid growing up in Spartanburg, SC, my parents would often take my sister Lise and me on Sunday nights to get ice cream cones at this wonderful little wooden shack by the side of the road. On the way there, and on the way back while we were eating our ice cream cones, our car radio was tuned to a sports radio announcer with a distinctive enunciated Southern accent. His voice and radio personality were so unique that I remember him to this day, though I don’t remember his name or the name of his show. The focus was usually the Atlanta Braves, since that was the closest Major League baseball team. The main thing I remember about him was that he called himself a “Prawg-NOSticator.” He would “prognosticate” on who would win the next game or how many home runs Hank Aaron would hit this time. I asked my dad what “prognosticate” meant and he told me it meant “predict the future.”
John the Baptist is remembered by us Christians today as the guy who “prognosticated” that Jesus was the messiah, the one to come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. So we honor John. And you could argue that being a prognosticator is a key part of the role of a prophet. In the Book of Isaiah, for instance, the prophet and his disciples prognosticate the conquest of Judah as a result of their unfaithfulness and then the return of the Jewish people to their homeland as a consequence of God’s faithfulness.
But prognostication is more of a side effect of the prophet’s job. It’s not the main thing a prophet does. A prophet speaks the Word of God. That Word is often a warning that calamity will come unless people change their hearts. So if the calamity comes, then the prophet appears to have predicted the future. But what the prophet really wants is to be proven wrong, because that would mean that the people heeded his warning and changed their hearts.
But prophets also speak God’s word of hope. John did that, too. John prognosticated that the messiah was coming after him to inaugurate God’s kingdom on earth. According to our Gospel writer Matthew, John prognosticated who that messiah would be—the messiah would be Jesus.
And it must be said, there is a difference between a prophet’s word of warning and prophet’s word of hope. A word of warning can be changed because people can hear it and change their hearts. But a word of hope cannot be changed, because it is built not on human ability and will, but on God’s ability and will. A true prophet’s word of hope is directly from God and is based not on human goodness but God’s goodness, so it cannot be controverted or changed. In fact, one of the ways you can tell the difference between a true prophet and a false one is whether their words of hope come true or not. False prophets in the Old Testament often predicted good news, because they said what their listeners wanted to hear rather than the truth. So if the good news you predict does not come true, then you are a false prophet.
In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist has been arrested by his arch-nemesis, King Herod Antipas of Galilee. As part of his job as prophet, John had condemned Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying the wife of his brother in violation of Jewish law. John had also preached against both the pharisees and the sadducees, and so had basically offended everybody who was anybody. For speaking God’s word against the powerful, John had been thrown into the dungeon of Herod’s desert fortress in Jordan, Makarios.
In the meantime, Jesus had begun preaching, but his ministry didn’t look like what John had predicted. He wasn’t raining down God’s judgment on Herod and Emperor Tiberius and the unjust priests, so the bad news that John had prognosticated hadn’t seemed to happen. But then, neither had the good news. The glorious day of the Lord and the visible and incontrovertible establishment of the Kingdom of heaven on earth hadn’t happened either.
And there was John, in prison for preaching judgment on the bad guys and the messiah’s rule on earth. My guess is that he became afraid that he was in prison for a lie—that both his word of warning and his word of hope were not God’s words, and so he was now about to die for nothing. There would be no change. Evil people would escape judgment and the world would continue its downward spiral. He had been so certain! But now doubt had entered his mind.
When John’s disciples come to Jesus, they bring his carefully worded question: “Are you the one to come, or should we expect another?” And Jesus responds by pointing to what he is doing. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” He’s fulfilling the prognostication of Isaiah 35 that we just read. He’s doing what God promised would happen on the Day of the Lord. But it’s not the way that John had imagined it, not with fireworks and finality and the end of history. It’s all happening within history, in a way that gives people one more chance to change—to repent—to accept or reject the hope that John had preached and that God promises.
John’s doubt about Jesus has its roots in something we can all understand. It is the assumption that a good thing needs to look exactly like I think it’s supposed to look, or it is no longer a good thing. I was in a conversation recently with someone who had taken a seriously wrong path when he was a young man. He was a homeless addict and drug dealer from the ages of 17 to 24. After several years of this, he’d started to want to get out of the life he’d made for himself, but he couldn’t figure out how. He started praying, “Lord, if you want me out of this life, do something. Help me change.” Soon after he made this prayer, he said, he was in a car with a friend. They got pulled over by the police, and my friend had an outstanding warrant, and the next thing he knew he was in prison. In prison he got back on track with his faith, overcame his addiction, and got job skills training that he was able to turn into a successful business when he got out of jail. But he says, “I learned a lesson that day. I do not often pray that God will change things anymore because GOD WILL DO IT, but it won’t be the way you thought it would be!”
My friend learned a new kind of faith that day—the faith that God knows better than he does what the right thing to do ought to be. But it may very well turn out to look like the worst thing imaginable in the short run.
But I’m sure that there were a lot of times during that time in prison he seriously doubted that God knew what God was doing. It was, I think, the same with John when he was in prison. He started to wonder if God knew what God was doing, but ironically that doubt opened a new door. Pope Francis preached recently that
If one has the answers to all the questions – that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.
For John, his doubt has become an opportunity for God to give him a renewed faith, a faith that realizes that God is bigger than we imagine and God’s plans are not our own plans. Nothing changes God’s word of hope—but how God accomplishes that hope may not be how we would have prognosticated it. As Pope Francis says, we need to leave room for God to do things in a way that we cannot predict or imagine. God’s word of hope never goes out in vain; that hope will certainly be fulfilled. But probably not the way we imagine it. God does things in God’s own way, in God’s own time. Trust in the Lord.
We live in a time when a lot of us are troubled and the world seems to be in chaos. We aren’t sure what tomorrow will bring, and frankly we aren’t that comfortable with what’s happening today either. With church attendance dropping, values and mores changing, climate change, political turmoil not only in this country but everywhere, it feels to some of us like the world is turning out very differently from the way we hoped or imagined. Pundits and politicians and even we ourselves predict the worst. It is easy to be afraid and uncertain. It makes us doubt.
Good. Let that doubt be a doorway. Let that doubt open our minds to new things and new possibilities, new ways that God might be at work that we could not possibly have imagined. At the core of our faith is our confidence that as Paul says, “All things work for good for those who love the Lord and are called to God’s purpose.” And in the larger sense our hope in God is our confidence that all of history is in the hands of a good God, and that God’s history is a history of redemption, salvation, and of the establishment of God’s shalom—that God is going to remake heaven and earth into a place of hope, joy, love, peace, health, wholeness and fulfilment. How God gets us there may not look the way we expect it to, and that world itself may look very different from our mortal, timebound imagination of it. But it is coming.
In the meantime, we live aware that even now, in this moment, God is working that purpose out—not only for the world but in our own lives. We may wonder about it, we may have doubts and uncertainties, but that doubt and uncertainty is exactly the place where we learn that the loving God we know through Jesus Christ is so much bigger than we can imagine—and so the fulfilment of God’s plan is going to be so much more glorious.
Of Prophets and Messiahs
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
December 15, 2019