Memorial of the Feast of the Nativity of St John The Baptist

St John The Baptist had the unique and rare position of a Biblical prophet— as Richard Rohr says " he was always on the edge of the inside."

"He was the one who lived in a liminal space with two perspectives held tightly together—the faithful insider and the critical outsider at the same time.  

He was not prepared to defend and collude with  the sterile and complacent status quo. 
He did not stay ensconced safely inside, but was not so far outside as to lose compassion or understanding. 

Like a carpenter’s level, he was able to balance the small bubble in the glass between here and there, between yes and no, between loyalty and critique.  

Prophets in Biblical times had a very hazardous job. They were essentially the conscience of the nation. 

This entailed many risks, but that happens when you speak truth to power, when you call out to the people and their leadership for the wrongs and injustices they commit.

Like Elijah, Nathan, and many other prophets before him, John the Baptist was an  iconoclast who did not have a problem sacrificing himself for the broader good. 

That is a characteristic shared by many big thinkers and religious leaders in the past and present.

By today's standards, the world would regard John as a failure. He didn't have a very successful career. He was isolated.

He spent his whole life and his whole ministry out in the Judean wilderness. His ministry was brief, lasting about a year. At the end of that year he was in prison for about a year and his head was chopped off. He died in his early thirties.

Jesus said of him, "He was the greatest man who ever lived up until his time." He did precisely and exactly what God wanted him to accomplish.

                                                   John The Baptist by Thomas Merton from Pinterest

John's preaching was bold, strong, it was confrontative. He gave hard truth in that he told sinners what they really needed to hear. He called on all people to repent. He told them if they would repent from their sin, God would forgive their sins. He told them that they must believe in the coming Messiah. 

His boldness cost him his life. 

John became the first martyr for Christ...the first of many.
By divine standards John the Baptist is  monumentally important.

Fr. Richard Rohr again :-
"The creative tension of a prophet is a unique kind of seeing and living, which will largely leave the prophet with “nowhere to lay his head” while easily meriting the “hatred of all” – who have invariably taken sides in opposing groups.  

Poignantly, John described himself as a voice crying in the wilderness and there are oppressed and marginal voices in the church still feeling that today.

Francesco Mochi. Source

The prophet always speaks for God.

John baptised Jesus but said he was not fit enough to undo his sandals.

John the Baptist had the unique role as the forerunner to Christ.  
His greatness is seen in his humility: He made his whole life one that pointed to Christ as the true Messiah.

When his followers were confused as to his status re Jesus he said...
He must increase ... I must decrease....

As Scripture constantly repeats, it is the humble who are exalted and the exalted who are humbled.

People inside of belonging systems are very threatened by those who are not within that group.  

At best people roll their eyes and think you're an idiot.

At worst they start throwing rocks...and in John the Baptist's case his head was ultimately severed and served up on a plate to Herod's daughter.

Prophets are threatened by anyone who has found that they cannot control the truth of “the kingdom of heaven.” The prophet who has found the pearl of great price and is utterly grounded in the passion and pathos of a transcendent God (to use Walter Brueggemann’s magnificent words), is both indestructible and uncontrollable by worldly systems. 

If you look at some who have served the prophetic role in modern times, like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, John XXIII, Simone Weil, and Oscar Romero, you will notice that they all hold this exact position. 
Each of these in their own way were orthodox, conservative, traditional clergy, intellectuals, or believers, but that very authentic inner experience and membership allows them to utterly critique the very systems that they are a part of.  

Other prophets, new and old  have been more radical , on the fringes , on the outer edge but still rich in authentic knowledge of tradition.
Their enlightened actions clarified what our mere belief systems really mean.  

These prophets critiqued Christianity by the very values that they learned from Christianity. 

Every one of these men and women was marginalized, fought, excluded, persecuted, or even killed by the illusions that they exposed and the systems they tried to reform.

 It is the structural fate of a prophet.  You can only truly unlock systems from within, but then you are invariably locked out.

When you live on the edge of the inside, you will almost wish you were outside.
( I think of Hans Kung here too.)

Then you are merely an enemy, a pagan, a persona non grata, and can largely be ignored, ridiculed or written off.  
In our contemporary situation in the church, we need to recognise that Jesus has fulfilled this role and passed on the ministry to us. 

We need  a ‘prophetic ministry’ which is fuelled by a ‘prophetic imagination’ that creates and nurtures an alternative consciousness, which in turn creates and nurtures an alternative way of living in community. 

The one thing we most certainly do NOT need is more denominations. Yet we need uncompromising truth.

Prophetic ministry, according to Bruggemann, is characterised by two actions; critique and energising.

Critique is not simply aiming darts at something that we disagree with, but it is engaging the dominant powers of the day and declaring them to be unable to provide what they claim to provide.
Prophetic criticism is not carping and denouncing. It is asserting that false claims to authority and power cannot keep their promises, which they can never do in the face of the free God.
This critique consists, primarily, with eliminating our numbness to the death of the  current organising principles of our world. It creates space to grieve.

It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering and death. – 
This grieving, can easily lead to despair and so prophetic ministry must also be energising.

Energising is closely linked to hope. It is creating an alternative vision where oppression and injustice need not continue forever.

The prophet must bring hope to break through the despair left after grief and the primary way to do this is through praise.
The question facing ministry is whether there is anything that can be said, done, or acted in the face of the ideology of hopelessness. … The task of prophetic ministry and imagination … is to cut through the despair and to penetrate the dissatisfied coping that seems to have no end or resolution. – 
For Bruggemann, both of these aspects of prophetic ministry contain three tasks:
  1. Provide symbols that confront the horror of experience that leads to denial and that are adequate to contradict a situation of hopelessness.
  2. Bring public expression to the fears and terrors that are denied and suppressed, but  also the hopes and yearnings of the community.
  3. Speak metaphorically and concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us as a critique of the current consciousness, and speak metaphorically about hope but concretely about the newness that comes to us and redefines our situation as a energising force for the new consciousness.
  4. In all of this, Bruggemann urges a presentation of the God who is free from all powers of control and who offers a new way of life which can only be received.
The only serious energising needed or offered is the discernment of God in all his freedom, the dismantling of the structures of weariness, and the dethronement of the powers of fatigue. –
Bruggemann explains how Jesus embodies these aspects of prophetic critique and energising in his own life and ministry, the epitome of both being his death (criticism) and resurrection (energising).Bruggemann offers up some notes of the practice of ministry with the aim of creating and sustaining an alternative consciousness and community.
"Prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice. …

 In a society that knows about initiative and self-actualisation and countless other things, the capacity for kneeling and giving homage to God is nearly lost. 

In a society strong on self-congratulation, the capacity to receive in doxology the new world being given is nearly lost. Grief and praise are ways of prophetic criticism and energy, which can be more intentional even in our age. – 

We were created in wholeness and goodness in the garden. We chose to rebel, and as a result humanity entrapped itself in its own selfish search for control. The power of  the cross, is that the liberating power of God liberates us from the consequences of our own sin. This liberation has an ultimate destination which is a renewal of the original communion between God, his people, and his creation.

There are things which our current church culture needs to rediscover. 
The critiquing and energising ministry of the prophets is something that is desperately needed in an age which is throughly mired in hostility , denial and indifference to the existence of God and rife with secular distractions."

John baptized all comers, fearlessly proclaiming that we need to change while condemning those who shunned God’s plan. He freed all who would give up their slavery to sin—freed them for the love of God.

 John who had spent his ministry in wide open spaces; the fearless spokesman of God; now ended his days in filthy squalor, confined to the dimness and constriction of four walls in a dank prison cell. 
The fire for God in John’s heart, compelling him to live for nothing but to prepare the Messiah’s road now  was now burnt out and he had no reason to go on. When his few remaining disciples were allowed to visit, they reported great deeds from his cousin Jesus. John knew he had faithfully prepared the way. But apparently, God had used him, then tossed him aside. Apparently, God was perfectly content to reward him with a miserable end.
Dark despair began to creep into John’s mind. This man who had never before questioned Jesus began to wonder whether his life had been worthless. Was Jesus really what he claimed to be? 

Were the vague rumours his disciples brought—about healings and walking across the lake true? He wondered if his cousin really was the Promised One of God.
One day, John couldn’t stand the uncertainty any more. He sent two faithful followers to find Jesus; find him with the burning question that haunted John’s darkest hours of the night: “Are you  the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we be looking for someone else?”

If John the Baptist had doubts it is not surprising that many of us can easily and often fall into a place of dark doubt, with dark thoughts and feelings threatening to overwhelm our trust in God and the Church.

This wonderful moving passage from the Gospels was the reply of Jesus to John and to all of us  : 

"Go and tell John what you hear and see:the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."....

As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind ? 
Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces ?Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 
This is the one about whom it is written: 'Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.'Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he....
Whoever has ears ought to hear."To what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another,'We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn. 
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, 'He is possessed by a demon.'The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, 'Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is vindicated by her works.
"I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. 
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.
 Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves yoke is easy, and my burden light." 
So John had been right to trust in Christ.  His life and hope in Jesus had not been in vain. Jesus affirmed he was the Messiah.
We too can build our lives upon Him—stake our souls upon Him. 

God is still with us.
His love is part of our lives. 

Often we doubt this presence. We lose the sense that we can be the salt of the earth, when we lose our taste for faith and the light is dimmed but we can renew it.

Who will be our John the Baptist's for the turbulence of OUR time , OUR messengers in the dank cells of OUR time ?  

Who will prepare our hearts to listen to God and help us to be patient to keep the faith, to help us continue to be open to receive and wait for the reply ?

We urgently need new messengers for OUR time like John the Baptist, people who will not be swayed by  passing fads, not wolves in sheep's clothing, but people who will refresh us with the authentic message, life and love of Jesus.

John The Baptist called the religious leaders of his day snakes and vipers.

What would he say to the religious leaders of today if he was here ?.

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claire said...

Sensational, Phil...

Who is the conscience of our times?

Did so little change before and after the coming of Christ?

What is different?

Philomena Ewing said...

Hi Claire,
Thank you for your lovely comment.
Your questions are excellent ones to consider and I only wish I had the answers.
As you know, I am fond of Jungian approaches and so I sometimes find it helpful to blend my faith in God and the Holy Spirit with faith in the role of the collective unconscious in unravelling some of this. The latter plays out in the zeitgeist of our time and so I don't see much radical change happening for the better in my lifetime but perhaps improvements will be seen in generations to come.

claire said...

What a beautiful answer, Phil. How lucky you are to have that Jungian knowledge which must help you so much understand what is going on...

Thank you for sharing it here.