Advent and Prophecy: The Forgotten Message of Christmas
The Advent season is drawing near. For for many Christians, this is a time we celebrate the coming of Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecy, a realization of God’s plan for the people of God. We can and should continue to affirm this deeply held and meaningful aspect of our faith. Yet we do ourselves a grave injustice if we limit our vision of Advent solely to prophetic fulfillment. The hopes of God continue to to be far broader than Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. So let us explore this idea of prophecy more fully and these people God called then, and whom God still calls today.
It began in the early days of our biblical tradition. A group of people known as prophets were called to speak and preach on God’s behalf. They had a primary mission: they were called to speak about justice and truth. Sometimes, their words were heeded; other times, they got themselves thrown in cisterns, or jail, or worse.
But they were doing what they felt God wanted and needed—to get the people back on track, to get them realigned to the laws and hopes God envisioned. Specifically, they needed to expand their society’s sense of community, and to broaden their individual sense of compassion.
Their job was not to foretell the future. This was strictly forbidden in Deuteronomy and Leviticus:
No one shall be found among you … who practices divination or fortune telling (or soothsayer) … (Deuteronomy 18:9-12).
Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them; I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:31).
Instead, the prophet’s role—in serving God as the spokesperson to the people and on behalf of God’s desires—was to speak truth to power. That is, the prophets often told kings and influential people what they did not want to hear. They did the same to everyday people. They were to be aware of God’s expectation for an equitable society, where the poor and widows and orphans would be on equal footing with the rich and famous. The prophet offered consistent reminders of the following:
- God’s ideas for what is best and what ought to be—or what ought not to be
- What they, the king, the leaders, and the people were doing wrong
- What they all needed to do to repair, restore, and reconcile what was wrong
- What repairing, restoring, and reconciling would look and feel like
And while they were not foretelling or predicting the future, they were attempting to change the future. That is, they were calling on the people of the community to cease their selfishness, repent from their sinfulness, and reclaim the time-tested covenant relationship with Yahweh of justice and righteousness. And they were proclaiming what could happen if policies, perspectives and the accompanying actions did not change.
For a period of roughly six hundred years, from 1000 B.C. to 397 B.C. (Nathan in the time of David was probably the first; Malachi during the time of the Persian Period was probably the last) biblical prophets came and went, rose and fell. Repeatedly, voices were raised out of concern for the covenant, calling for repentance, humility, kindness, caring, fairness, and justice.
The Forgotten Message of Christmas: Now, to get a sense of our biblical trajectory, let’s look at the words spoken by Mary in Luke 1, and by Jesus in Luke 4. Both of these proclaim the fulfillment of prophecy. Mary’s comes in response to the news from the angel Gabriel that she will bear the son fulfilling what the prophets declared. Pulling extensively from Isaiah, Jerimiah, Micah and Amos, Mary raises a troubling series of images to those of us in places of privilege.
“… 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)
In Mary’s perspective, this was the fulfillment of prophecy. It was not just that Jesus would come, but it was even more why he was needed, and what should occur as a result. Society wreaked of inequity. Something needed to be done and Jesus would initiate the changes. The prophets had declared that God would not forget or forsake the people called to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3) and be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6). But the people of Jesus’ day (and now) felt surrounded and overpowered by the injustices.
In Luke 4, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus proceeds to speak very clearly to the people he knows best, families and friends at his home synagogue in Nazareth. Again, the focus is less on the fulfillment of time and place, and more on prophetic expectations. His understanding of his role follows exactly with the prophets’ proclamations of old: to set things right and in line with God’s hopes for the people. Jesus reads from the prophet 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).
In both cases, these two passages from Luke 1 and Luke 4 offer often overlooked perspectives on prophecy that reverberate through the ages. Justice, truth, equality, righteousness and genuine compassion remain front and center for the people of God.
So speaking truth to power did not stop with Malachi. Prophecy was not just a matter of predicting Jesus’ coming. Prophecy continues and is now to be the proclamation of Jesus’ presence and the changes that can and should occur as a result.
Jesus gave us clear indicators of the prophetic hope coming to life and blossoming in the advent of those early disciples. And Jesus left them – and us – with clear commands: to live with compassion, to care for the least of these, to welcome the stranger, to love the enemy, and to do exactly what he did throughout his ministry. His expectations remain; his calling continues.
Therefore, living as his followers and living out this prophetic hope necessitates listening carefully, studying well, understanding fully and recognizing the ongoing revelation of God’s concerns in our day. As Christians, God calls us further to interpret issues ourselves, and when appropriate and needed, to speak to the current events and issues of the time. As it was in those days, every era needs that prophetic conscience to bring us back to center, to refocus time, attention, and resources to those critical points of society most bereft of attention.
What today would Jesus and the prophetic voices in his tradition address? Poverty, hunger, unequal opportunities and improper resource allocation remain pertinent issues. These are not new—homelessness, violence, the proliferation of guns, environmental concerns, skewed values, gaps between rich and poor, vastly unequal educational opportunities, increased competition and decreased compassion.
We still need prophetic interpreters of trends; we need voices of eternal values to speak always with fresh perspective and vital insights. Too often in every generation, we waver, distracted from the eternal and entranced with the superficial.
Let us be vigilant this Advent season. It is the prophets of the day, speaking truth to power, who offer the invaluable service of relevant faith in every age. Often unwanted, consistently unheeded, these prophets remain necessary always.
The questions remain now as then—are we ready, able, and willing to listen? And can we make the changes necessary and in time? Living with faith, then as now, demands that we answer these questions wisely, faithfully and quickly. In doing so, we can follow Jesus more readily. And we can make this Christmas season be more than we ever imagined.