John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:1-2
This Sunday we light the second candle on the Advent wreath. This flame commemorates the prophets who – after the patriarchs – are the second group of people to say ‘Yes’ to God, and to look forward to the coming of Jesus. In today’s readings we see two diverse examples of prophets as each proclaims the advancement of God’s kingdom in a particular way. These prophets are Isaiah and John the Baptist, and both of them are very important figures is the season of Advent.
On one hand, Isaiah foretells the arrival of the Messiah as the coming of the ideal king. This is the Messiah who will restore such unity between God and humanity and who will usher in such peace as they have not been witnessed since the beginning of creation.
On the other hand, John the Baptist interprets the arrival of the Messiah as the time in which all creation will be gathered up and judged according to the fruits that each has produced.
These two messages are very diverse but not mutually exclusive; rather they are the product of each prophet’s chosen focus of attention. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist may express the future ideal in very different ways but the substance of their prophetic message remains the same because it is wholly dependent on God: the Messiah comes to usher in the kingdom of heaven and to change creation for ever.
Prophecy is not a “vision” – at least not a “vision” in the sense in which companies and businesses understand it nowadays. We often hear about mission statements, company visions, and other paper-wasting policies, but quite frequently these so-called visions are something completely arbitrary, buzzwords that mean absolutely nothing, totally dependent on the whim of one single person. In fact, it is easy to see how in many companies, form the smallest to the biggest multinationals, when the chairperson changes the company vision – or mission statement – often changes as well. It is not like this with prophecy. The Biblical prophets may be a motley bunch, each with their own peculiar traits and particular focus but the provocative importance of their message is always the same – Repent, and live just lives in expectation of God’s manifestation in the Messiah.
So, who are the prophets?
Prophets are those who speak on behalf of God. As Fr Andrew reminded us a few Sundays ago, prophets are not necessarily future-tellers; rather they are people who can read the signs of the times in the light of God’s kingdom.
Prophets are individuals on the margin of society, either because God has called them to live there, or because others have cast them out, rejecting their ideal.
Prophets do not blend in the given social construct in which they are sent; in fact, they are very likely to stick out like a sore thumb – think the prophetic people of our age, they do not and did not blend into the social order.
Prophets are not individuals who set new visions for the Church according to the flavour of the month; rather they recall everyone to the original vision, the original mission statement intended by God.
Prophets may come across as hardy individuals well-used to speak tough words, but they preserve in themselves the capacity of dreaming of a better future.
However, prophets primarily “speak out” and the purpose of this ministry is twofold. First, they call people to repent – that is, to turn around completely and reorient themselves towards God. Secondly, they invite people to produce fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8) – that is, to live according to the original divine vision for creation, obeying God’s commandments and gladly putting His kingdom as the first priority in life.
As we light this second candle of Advent, may we strive to live the message that it represents. May we learn what it means to reorient our lives towards God, to repent, because in the birth of Jesus Christ the kingdom of heaven has come near.