It was a small village an hour or so from Jerusalem, along the bank of the muddy stream called the Jordan. Not much happened there, unless you count Lazarus’ resurrection, but that hadn’t happened yet. Lazarus was just an ordinary guy, who, with his ordinary sisters, lived an ordinary life. But outside their house, which would one day be the setting for a day of sorrow and joy like no other before it, there was a lot of not so ordinary activity.
A strange man, who some said had come to Bethany from the desert plateau called Qumran, where the prophets lived, was splashing about in the Jordan. He was not dressed for swimming. His long brown gown, soaked in mud and water, clung to his thin body. There were nearly always people around him, mesmerized by his teaching. One by one they came and knelt in the water before him, and he would plunge them beneath the stream and declare their hearts clean, their souls cleansed, their begun anew. Wolves and lambs, lions and serpents, all filled with joy at the heavens and earth shining anew before them. They were saved and they knew it. The Lord had restored their fortunes. Something big was about to happen.
The baptized would often look over their shoulders at the strange, thin, man with a voice like thunder and wonder “Who is he, really, this man who eats bugs, and calls us back to Yahweh’s flock?” He might be Messiah. Or he might be Elijah, finally ready to sit in the empty Passover chair, ready to usher in the rebirth of all things. Or he might be Moses, finally home in the Promised Land, raised from his lost tomb on Jordan’s far shore.
When the religious people would come to him, he was never impressed. They were sinners as depraved as the rest. He called them vipers and said that God could make better children from the rocks along the riverbank. And finally they could stand it no more. Some among them whispered that his father had been a priest, but that he had renounced the priestly call. They had to find out who he was, for the people believed that he was a prophet, if not The Prophet Himself. So they sent a delegation of their finest priests and the Levites who served in the temple, whose long gowns and trailing phylacteries flowed and jangled about them as they walked. They watched him in silence for a while.
Finally they asked, “Who do you think you are, the Messiah?”
He tossed back his head with a laugh. “No, I am not the Messiah.”
“So, then, you think you are Elijah?”
He eyed them, with one raised eyebrow. “Good heavens, no.”
They looked at one another, with a knowing grin. This guy was a fake. “So, are you the prophet?”
He chuckled. “Three strikes, I’d say you’re out.”
They fingered their phylacteries. “Not so fast, Mr. Baptizer. We have come down from the temple, to ask you straight out just who you think you are, and just what you think you are doing with all this baptizing business. What do you say about yourself?”
His voice was steady and deep. “Well, since you asked, I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
“Well, you just can’t come here, into the sacred river and start baptizing God’s people without permission. And if, as you so readily admit, you are not the Messiah, Elijah or the Prophet, what, in the name of God, are doing? Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
And John the Baptizer answered them, “I’m baptizing people, with water, setting them free, making them ready. Because any day now, There is someone coming, someone you don’t know, and will refuse to know. Someone who is so much greater than I, that I would not even untie his sandals to wash his feet.”
The shouting, camel-hair clothed, bug-eating, baptizing son of a priest would meet with the Coming One the very next day. And the world would be turned upside down.
But neither of them would look the way that anybody figured they would.
For that is the way with prophets. They are fig-nippers, or husbands of prostitutes or crazy people who lie on beds of dung, or little girls with big secrets in their bellies. They never look the way they are supposed to look. And the things they tell us, about our selves, about God, about salvation, are not the things we expect them to say. They make us uncomfortable, in direct proportion to our everyday comfort.
Two weeks ago, on Thanksgiving weekend, Tom Fox wrote, from somewhere in Baghdad: “Why are we here? If I understand the message of God, his response to that question is that we are to take part in the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. Again, if I understand the message of God, how we take part in the creation of this realm is to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbors and enemies as we love God and ourselves.”
Tom Fox was not in Baghdad because he was at war with the Baathists or the insurrectionists. He was in Baghdad because he believed with all his might that God had called him there. He believed that the people of Iraq had been brutalized by their own government, and were now suffering in a war that was supposed to be a peace. He believed that showing them the way of Jesus’ nonviolence would set them free. He worked as part of a team of Christian peacemakers, among the most vulnerable of the Iraqi people. He spent five weeks last summer, camped on the Syrian border with 19 Palestinians, trying to get them out of a country where it is no longer safe to be a Palestinian, shielding them with his own body. Tom Fox did not look the way we want our peacemakers to look. He carried no weapon but prayer. His faith was in Jesus and Jesus’ power alone. He knew he might die as a hostage to those he had come to help. And, that very Thanksgiving weekend, as we watched football and shopped for Christmas presents, Tom Fox and three of his friends were kidnapped by the people they had come to help.
Before he was taken, he had warned that even that would not dissuade his faith in the One whose sandals he was not fit to untie: “We will try to understand the motives for these actions and to articulate them while maintaining a firm stance that such actions are wrong … We reject the use of violent force to save our lives, should we be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a violent conflict situation. We also reject violence to punish anyone who harms us … We forgive those who consider us their enemies, therefore any penalty should be in the spirit of restorative justice rather than violent retribution.”
Over the past two weeks, thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other people of faith have been praying for the safety of this quiet musician prophet from Virginia and his friends, in prayer vigils around the world.
A Buddhist poet, Yorifumi Yaguchi, wrote a plea to the kidnappers:
Why did you abduct those
Who tried to make peace without weapons?
Why did you abduct them?
Aren’t they the ambassadors of
Peace and love from God [in whom] you believe?
They are gentle people who never retaliate
Against those who harm them.
Aren’t they a God-given
Thread of hope?
Please do not cut it.
If you did it,
The stones on the road will cry with sadness.
But not all who heard the story of a faithful prophet were moved to sadness. Some people, like the priests and Levites questioning the Baptizer, wanted to know: “Just who do you think you baptizing these people with all this prayer and love business?” Rush Limbaugh, who has no use for prophets, went so far as to say: “I’m telling you there’s a part of me that likes this. I like it any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality.”
Writing from his prison cell, St. Paul told the Thessalonians: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
Paul went to his death, convinced as ever, that the God of peace would sanctify him and finish his work. That the Spirit should not be quenched nor the prophets despised. Paul was not rescued. Tom Fox and his friends may not be set free either. But is their testimony any less valid? Are their words any less true? Is their hope any less sure?
Third Isaiah foretold the new heavens and new earth, where joy would replace weeping, where laughter would replace tears, where life would replace death. But he didn’t see it. His feel-good hand wringing might have seemed in vain. That is, if you had never looked into the wild eyes of the prophet at the river Jordan. If you had never heard the songs of those who sowed with tears, reaping with songs of joy. If you had never looked at the sandals of the Coming One and seen for yourself that the Lord has done great things for us. “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”
The coming of the new heavens and new earth happens amid our disbelief, our violence, our sadness, our tears. The prophets are a strange bunch and Messiah even stranger. Yet, through them the Lord has done great things for us. Let us not despise the words of the prophets.