Prophets Among Us
By Joan Bigwood
For Sunday December 14, 2014
Third Sunday in Advent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:47–55
1 Thessalonians 5:16–24
John 1:6–8, 19–28
A guest essay by Joan Bigwood. Award-winning novelist, playwright and inspirational speaker Joan Bigwood is a descendant of too many Episcopal clerics to count, including her grandmother, Jane Cleveland Bloodgood, who was one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal church. This spiritual legacy informs Joan's creative work, which she believes "introduces Christ into the human story in many guises."
My most enjoyable and spirit-filled faith practice is currently Lectio Divina. I love steeping myself with other spiritual questers in just a few powerful lines of scripture. We always come away enriched, enlivened and emboldened to see God’s will for us for the week.
Lectio Divina is a spiritual sleight of hand. The tinier the bite, the greater the feast of insights. Simple, suddenly-seized ideas and images blend into new perspectives. Equally, by studying scripture in a circle of fourth- and fifth-graders, one finds radical new meaning in familiar passages. These are two of the countless ways in which I have encountered The Word. Always, my work is to stay alert for the still, small voice that helps make straight my path.
The lectionary for Third Advent is more like a long, loud bellow. Taken individually, the texts fall into place like candles on a wreath. But when viewed as a whole, it is one glorious blaze of witness to the light.
For this week’s lectionary is all about witness. Isaiah trumpets: “(God) has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoner."
Whether it is to comfort those in mourning, “to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit,” or he means “to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” Isaiah is bearing witness with his signature heartfelt enthusiasm.
The same has to be said of Mary, in one of the most famous of witnesses, and expressed magnificently so:
He puts forth his arm in strength *
and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones *
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things, *
sends the rich away empty.
Note the similarities in prophecy with that of Isaiah; and their echoes reverberate throughout John’s Chapter 1. Like the saints and martyrs of old, they all speak of humbly answering a call. They speak of reversal, and its promise of salvation. They cry out from places of solitude, each of them, and their chorus rises up before us in a roar.
We feel ourselves drawn into the fable-like first chapter and verse of the Gospel of John. There once was a man…sent from God…and his name was John. Once upon a time…
And yet this fable is not like the others. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. Think of the well-loved I AM parables. I am the true vine says Jesus. I am the Way, the Truth and the Light. I am, he says to the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the great I AM.
In Chapter 1 of John, we experience the great I AM NOT. No, I am not Elijah, I am not the Messiah. I am not the Prophet. It is John the Baptist’s NOT-ness that gives one pause. We are none of those people, either, yet are tasked to spread the good news just like John the Baptizer.
Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said."
They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"
If this wild and woolly man with bees in his beard is NOT the Messiah, then why is he baptizing people? He points out the simple distinction: I merely baptize with water. This begs the question, what’s the next guy going to baptize with? Cristal? In fact, it rings so strangely that his response could very likely offer a clue; the kind of doublespeak we find in the New Testament that carries the key message. If so, we have two clues now: 1. John the Baptist is not a lot of the same people we are not. 2. He baptizes with water. We are people of baptism, and as such, we all share in the same water.
With that, we all find our place in this story, which makes us, by divine association, witnesses to the same light. It follows that we are the ones who prepare the way of the Lord. John was referring to Isaiah when he spoke of the voice in the wilderness. We know Jesus himself invokes those exact lines in the book of Luke when he introduces himself as the long-awaited Messiah. But these words are our words now. We are the witnesses.
There once was a man sent from God. His name was John. What is YOUR name? Or, as the Pharisees demanded to know, Who are you?
Are you a prism for the light, spreading that light in the world? Or are you huddled under the covers shining it on your worn page of scripture? And as a lone voice in the wilderness, what are you trying to say?
Whatever our prophetic ministry — be it local, global, personal, political or all of the above, these readings should remind us that we walk a well-trod path of prophets. If all of us could join our lone voices together we would have not so much a feeble cry of warning as a chorus of praise! All it takes is a little imagination and a world of faith.
John’s gospel begins with the word There. Imagine the worlds contained in that one word. There. It is the first word of an immense and important tale. Now take away one letter: here. Where it all begins. Again.
Image credits: (1) TraditionInAction.org; (2, 3) Wikipedia.org.