We live in turbulent times. From our stark social divides to the looming dangers of climate change, we face a future that by many measures feels increasingly tenuous. But do not be afraid. Instead, let us get to work. For times like these were familiar territory for the biblical tradition of prophecy. In fact, 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, he continued the same vital prophetic tradition that we are called to reclaim in this Advent season.
Prophets speaktruth 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; live with humility (Micah 6:8). They demonstrate God’s loving-kindness to the left out and oppressed (Isaiah 58:6-9; Luke 15); prophets “love the alien/immigrant as we love ourselves” (Leviticus 19:34) and share resources with refugees (Genesis 46:5-7; Matthew 25:31-40). So to be prophetic, one does as Jesus did. In other words, a Jesus follower ought to be a prophet.
Then as now, prophets are not called to predict the future (this was strictly forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:9-12 and Leviticus 19:31). Rather, in the tradition of Jesus, we are calledto changethe future. We thus reclaim the time-tested covenant relationship with God fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Then there is 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.
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 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, hunger, unequal opportunities and inequitable distribution remain pertinent issues. And to these we now add homelessness, violence, addiction, the proliferation of guns, environmental concerns, skewed values, gaps between rich and poor, vastly unequal educational opportunities, divisive rhetoric, bigoted perspectives, increased competition, decreased compassion, solicited prejudice … and the list of prophetic concerns continues.
A good friend of mine has a baseball cap in response to the red “Make America Great Again” cap; his says: “Make Racism Wrong Again!” This is prophetic; and it is the continued critique Jesus expects.
Let us be vigilant this Advent season. It is the prophets of the day, not only speaking truth to power, but continuing to incarnate the spirit of Jesus in 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 meaning of Christmas.
So as we celebrate Jesus birth, let us more fully imitate his life. Reclaim the power of prophecy. Doing so could make this Advent season more of an adventure than we ever imagined.