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Advent - The Prophets

It was Martin Luther who said: “The prophets have a queer way of talking” and they do rather.  Part of the difficulty comes from our modern use of the word “prophecy.”  In Greek, the word “prophetia” meant simply “The gift of interpreting the will of the Gods.”  Prophets were inspired deliverers of God’s message and their primary job was not so much to talk about things to come as to reflect upon the present.  “What,” they asked, “is God saying now?” and the prophets were there to tell us.  The prophets of Israel and Judah were in a long line of this tradition but these, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Ezekiel and others were particularly disposed to overtly challenging the authorities of the day (without, may I say, the benefits of press freedom so much debated this week, as Jeremiah’s story illustrates).  They wanted to be sure that the leaders of the nations heard God’s message.  God though may have a very different notion of time to us and was sometimes speaking through them of the present but also of a future far away.  Jeremiah was writing in the 6th century BC so six hundred years before Jesus’ birth, yet he speaks of:

 “A righteous branch springing up for David who shall execute righteousness and justice in the Lord.”  

This was designed as a message of hope for the people of Judah who were in fear of defeat and destruction at the hands of the invading Babylonians; a message to say that God will not desert you but rather will come and once again Jerusalem will be restored and live in safety.

We take that as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth and I do not doubt that it is but I wonder if, speaking of immediate things and things six hundred years ahead, Jeremiah may resonate more with the Gospel reading which concerns Jesus’ second coming.  After all, as we have seen only too recently, Jerusalem is hardly living in safety, even now.

Our Gospel reading, title hough this time from Luke, follows the scene we read a couple of Sundays ago about the Temple stones being thrown down but here he is more clearly speaking of his coming again:

“Be on your guard so your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life and that day does not catch you unexpectedly like a trap.  For it will come upon all who live on the face of the earth.”

He is not, you see, talking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem but, because he refers to it as coming upon us all who live on the face of the earth, he speaks rather of the end of the age; the apocalypse.  Now in Jewish thought, the beginning of a fulfilment was seen as a guarantee of the whole and as we know Jerusalem was comprehensively destroyed along with the temple itself in 70 AD.  Jesus’ first thought: “See these stones, not one will be left upon another, all will be thrown down” came dramatically true, so serving as a confirming precursor to what is eventually to come.  Jeremiah’s first thought, that the Jewish people will be restored, also came true with the return from exile.  The fig tree has been sprouting its leaves, announcing the certainty of the summer to follow.

Another thing about prophets is that they often had a sign, something that distanced them or marked them out from others.  We might think of John the Baptist whose clothes were made of camel’s hair and who ate locusts and honey, of Isaiah, who went around naked for three years, or of Jeremiah who wore a yoke made of straps and crossbars around his neck.

Now these were signs to make people sit up and take notice, as I quoted at the beginning “they had a queer way of talking” but then, as Jesus said, we must not be caught napping, not be weighed down with the worries of this life but be alert awake and praying.  The prophets you see are there to make us take notice.

Amen

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