Thursday, December 08, 2016

The greatest of the prophets

Matthew 3.1-12 / Matthew 11.2-11
John the Baptist was an Old Testament prophet living in New Testament times. He clearly branded himself as an Old Testament prophet by dressing like one, eating like one, acting like one and speaking like one. What you saw on the outside of the tin, the packaging if you like, the label, was certainly what you got inside the tin. He was genuine Marmite - and, just like Marmite, some people loved him and others hated him.
He was like an Old Testament prophet in that he hung out in the Wilderness and collected his followers there. Then he took them to the Jordan River in conscious imitation of Joshua, who led the people of his own day out of Exile and into the Promised Land.
He was like an Old Testament prophet in that he forecast trouble ahead and then warned people that just saying your prayers and going to the synagogue on the Sabbath would not be enough to ward it off. John wasn't like some of the other protesters of his day. He wasn’t trying to launch a renewal movement, putting right what had gone wrong with conventional religion. He wasn't trying to inject new life into the temple or the synagogue, or make them more relevant. He wasn’t trying to set up Messy Synagogue sessions. Even though - like many other prophets - he was the son of a clergyman, for him conventional religion simply wasn't the right way to get closer to God.
Instead, the only  answer was a radical fresh start, a new life in which people could literally remake themselves and begin all over again, symbolised by baptism in the murky waters of the River Jordan itself. John was like an Old Testament prophet because he spoke of ancient warnings coming true, of a national catastrophe that only those who joined God’s new covenant people might hope to escape, and of a way to inherit that promise by turning back to God.
And last but not least, John the Baptist was like an Old Testament prophet in that he wasn't afraid to tell kings that they were on the wrong side of the argument, propping up a bankrupt system instead of making room for something new and challenging. And, like an Old Testament prophet, he wasn't afraid to condemn kings and rulers for doing morally dubious things or living dissolute, immoral lives.
Whatever he’d actually intended, John was certainly the forerunner of Jesus’ own ministry because it was when he met John that Jesus felt the time had come to embark on his own mission. John is then, for Christians, the hinge between the Old Testament way of thinking and a radically different New Testament approach to holy living. This is because John’s warning that the old way of doing things was no longer good enough was certainly taken up and amplified by Jesus.
Different he may have been, but there were similarities between Jesus and John. Like John, Jesus thought of himself as a prophet inspired by God. But not an Old Testament prophet. The crowds called him the Prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee and he told the people of his home town that a prophet is always without honour when he goes back to his roots. In one of his parables he even compared himself to the last of the prophets sent by God to challenge Israel to repent and he told the king’s representatives that, like the prophets of old, he would be put to death in the capital city, far away from the king’s jurisdiction. One of the charges against him at his trial was that he was a false prophet who couldn't even predict who was going to hit him next.
So how is the Prophet Jesus different from John. Like John he consciously imitated and repeated the words of some of the Old Testament prophets, but unlike John he burst out of the straitjacket of Old Testament prophecy. He didn't simply imitate the old prophets or compare himself to them, he modelled a new way of being prophetic. He dared to say that the exile of God’s people really was over and that this time the people weren't being expected to make their own way home, instead God was coming to meet them, to be with his own in an exciting new way.
Jesus spoke with an entirely new kind of authority. He wasn’t simply recycling what the Old Testament prophets had said. He wasn’t even setting up a new school of thinking, like John or some of the other famous rabbis, who reinterpreted the Old Testament for changing times. Everyone who heard him recognised that he was saying something new. Tom Wright says, ‘He was not reshuffingly a pack of cards that had already been dealt.’ Instead he was a game changer.
He was a bit like someone launching a new political party and inviting others to join him. Lots of people have tried it, haven't they? The TV presenters David Icke and Robert Kilroy Silke, the former MP George Galloway and the former Trade Union leader Arthur Scargill have all tried to break the mould of British politics. But Jesus was more like the Scottish Nationalists or the UK Independence Party. He was announcing the coming of a new era, a new kingdom. It remains to be seen whether their new dawns will yet prove to be false ones, but his was the real thing, the start of a new dawn in history, a new worldwide movement. His teaching wasn’t like Donald Trump’s pitch to the voters, a load of exaggerations and wishful thinking, but a solid blueprint for remaking society in the way God wants it to be.
Another distinctive thing about Jesus is that he used a lot more stories than earlier prophets had done. I heard about a project the other day where, instead of constantly bemoaning mobile phones teachers were being shown how to use them to help young people tell their own stories. One young woman had put together a photo story using her phone. Another had made up a rap about her feelings of despair when her boyfriend was sent to prison and had then uploaded it onto the internet. Instead of being the enemy of education, an unhelpful distraction from what they ought to be doing, their phones had become a means of self-expression, of telling their stories.
Jesus realised the power of storytelling. He was certainly not the first person - or the first prophet - to take an example of something happening in the real world and use it to tell a story that reveals a totally new approach to life. Some of his stories build on images and stories first used or told by earlier prophets and rabbis. But like the people using mobile phones to create a new way of storytelling, Jesus’ parables take storytelling to a new level. Other people told a few memorable stories. He told lots.
And the totally stand out thing about Jesus’ stories is that they’re always tales of the unexpected. Tom Wright says that people would have thought the stories sounded familiar but that the ending or the meaning was wrong somehow. In other words they were subversive, just like Jesus’ new movement in which he could speak with authority because he was setting up a new order, a new way of living and a new understanding God’s world.
But perhaps the most distinctive way in which Jesus was a different kind of prophet is that he did wonderful things to back up his message.  His opponents never called him a phoney. They never said he was manipulating people into thinking they’d seen a miracle.
Now, of course, Old Testament prophets sometimes did miraculous things too, just as they sometimes told stories, and there were other faith healers doing the rounds at the time of Jesus, just as there are now. But once more Jesus’ wonder working is on an epic scale by comparison. However, to call what Jesus did miraculous or supernatural is an anachronism. That is to say, it projects back into the past our own way of thinking about how the world really works. For the contemporaries of Jesus what he was doing was surprising, unusual and wonderful, but not completely outside the natural order of things.
They thought of Jesus the wonder worker more like we would think of a surgeon operating on someone’s brain tumour by inserting a microscopic wire into a vein in their leg. We know that it’s possible, but it’s totally out used our normal experience.
Like a groundbreaking surgeon, Jesus came across yet again as someone with great power and authority, a very different kind of prophet. And Jesus himself seems to have understood his healing ministry as a way of beginning to include people in the new world order that he was bringing about. Like the stilling of the storm and the sharing of bread with a huge crowd, they are signs of the new world breaking in upon the old one and subverting it. Things that by rights should have made Jesus unclean, like touching a dead person or someone with leprosy, actually brought them back to life or made them well again.
All of this is pointing to one inescapable conclusion, that Jesus was not only a prophet but more than a prophet. In fact, the Gospels also say that John was more than a prophet; someone extra special who was more than just the sum of his parts. But if that were true of John it must be even more true of Jesus. In the end Jesus himself told his disciples that to describe him merely as a prophet was not enough, leading Peter to confess that Jesus was also God’s chosen representative on earth.
So what does all this mean for us, two thousand years later? Do we recognise that Jesus is giving us a blueprint for a completely different way of living from everyone else, or are we still trying to squeeze him into a mould that works better for us, perhaps by allowing us to carry on more or less like our friends and neighbours - but just trying to be a little bit nicer or holier than them, or a bit more forgiven.
Are we still resisting some of Jesus’ more radical claims upon our time, our hopes and aspirations, our future lives? Do we truly recognise his authority and power over us, or do we merely pay lip service to him? Do we treat him just like any other prophet or great figure from history, or do we see him as supreme over all things - and not just in theory but in practice?
Are we letting Jesus shape the way we tell our stories? Like those young people who were set free to tell their own stories by a radical new way of using their mobile phones, do we allow Jesus to set us free from the predictable version of our life story, the well-worn version of where we are heading, so that we can explore - hand in hand with him - unexpected possibilities, surprise outcomes, new twists and turns?
Finally, are we allowing Jesus to heal whatever is broken in our lives, to restore our peace and wholeness, and to include us in the new world order he has ushered in? That doesn't necessarily imply that we should expect supernatural or miraculous things to happen. As we've seen, Jesus and his contemporaries didn’t even use those categories. They wouldn't have seen anything supernatural about what he can do, but they would have been prepared to expect the unexpected. I think Jesus wouldn't want us to rule anything out, but instead to trust in his power and authority, his capacity to surprise us and to do something more or different from what we might expect.
And all of this is possible because Jesus is a prophet like John the Baptist but, also like John, he’s more than a prophet, and he’s greater than John or all of the other prophets. He’s God’s chosen representative, bringing an end to our exile from God, not by asking to make a tortuous journey to God but by coming to be God with us.