Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Problem with Prophets

Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6.20)

Wild and Crazy

If John the Baptist lived today, where would we put him? By no stretch of the imagination could we leave him to his own devices—that’s for sure. John’s a prophet cut from a decidedly old-fashioned mold, the inheritor of a longstanding tradition of loony quirks like those Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so many others employed to get Israel’s attention. We never see John in a temple or synagogue, politely debating theological nuances with the religious elite. As far as we know, he never stood in anyone’s pulpit. He’s so far beyond the pale of traditional faith that even he realizes it. That’s why he sets up shop miles from Jerusalem, the epicenter of all things holy, alongside the Jordan’s muddy banks.

If you’re curious about this wild and crazy man, you’ll need to go looking for him, because he most assuredly isn’t coming to you. He’s not going to clean up, swap his camel’s hair coat for clerical garb, mind his manners, or do other “appropriate” things just so he can tip off the Sabbath crowd that the Savior they’re praying for is due any minute. John is going to be what God tells him to be. He’s going to say what God tells him to say. And if his demeanor and message offend your refined tastes, hang back in Jerusalem with the rest of the fancy set. But know this: you’ll miss the Breaking News that God is sending via this filthy, cantankerous character. And once you figure out that the world as you know it is no more, you’ll be so far behind you may never catch up.

A Kicker and a Screamer

John is everything that respected religious leaders seldom are—a kicker and a screamer. These are not affects he invents as his “brand.” They’re evident in him before he’s born. While in his mother’s womb, he kicks up a ruckus when her cousin, Mary, shows up pregnant with the Christ Child. And that little prenatal dance of his will set the course for his life. As the first human to recognize Who Jesus is, God will entrust him with the task of alerting the public.

John declares this big news in a big way, a dangerously unconventional way meant to shock people back to their senses. He doesn’t ask approval to preach his prepare-the-way message. He doesn’t author a controversial bestseller that launches him onto the speaker circuit. He heads off to the middle of nowhere—a place where he’s entirely dependent on God’s protection and provision—and starts yelling his head off. “Get ready! Somebody’s coming!” he screams. “It’s the One you’ve been waiting for and you better prepare yourselves, because He’s gonna turn the world upside down!” Strangest of all, he reconfigures the Jewish mikvah, a ceremonial bath to purify someone made unclean by touching a corpse, into what he calls “baptism.” It’s the centerpiece of John’s ministry, as he baptizes his followers not to cleanse them from the stench of death, but to prepare them to receive God’s promise of new life.

So we ask again: if John showed up today, where would we put him? It’s highly doubtful we’d open our pulpits to him, or offer him a seminary position, or invite him to join a talk-show panel discussing faith’s role in society. No, John would end up exactly where he is in the gospels—as far from us as he can get, a roadside attraction not unlike alligator farms and gigantic dinosaurs and other weird tourist traps strewn along desert highways.

The problem with prophets like John is that we find their outré behavior fascinating, but we don’t take kindly to their words. This is the root of the tragedy in Mark 6.15-29. John’s kicking and screaming in the hinterlands have made him famous. Everything he says gets back to Jerusalem, where it falls on the ears of the objects of his tirades. Chief among them is Herod Antipas, the puppet king of Galilee. Through some very untidy dealings, Herod has married his half-brother’s ex-wife, Herodias, who is also his niece. As John sees it, this creepy arrangement epitomizes everything that’s wrong with Israel and stokes his urgency for the Promised One to appear. None of the gospels quotes John’s diatribe against Herod, but we can safely imagine it goes something like, “Look at this mess! This so-called ‘king’ better get his act together, because he’s in for serious trouble when God’s King gets here and sees what’s going on!”

Once word of this reaches Herod, it’s all downhill for John. The king arrests the surly prophet, but isn’t sure what to do with him. The rest, as they say, is history. Herod throws himself a birthday party and asks his stepdaughter to dance for his guests. (In legend, she’s called “Salome,” but Mark identifies her as “Herodias,” which means either she’s named for her mother or Herod’s family is so screwed up the writer can’t keep the players straight.) Mark does, however, clue us in that Herodias—Herod’s wife—isn’t as ambivalent about John as her husband seems to be. Before the dancing starts, he tells us Herodias “had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him.” (v19) When the daughter asks her mother what she should request as payment for entertaining Herod’s guests, Herodias doesn’t flinch. “Ask for the Baptist’s head on a platter,” she says. Somewhere between blowing out the birthday candles and turning off the lights, John’s head arrives.

Offending Powers That Be

We’ve heard this story so many times, seen it play out in at least a half-dozen kitschy movies, that it’s become a cliché—literally. When we push too hard, when we start kicking and screaming about the travesties of justice and moral responsibility around us, we’re told to button up or else they (whoever “they” are) will have our heads on a platter. And Mark appears to bear this out. But he also tucks away a fascinating detail in the narrative that merits attention. After noting Herodias’s grudge against the Baptist, he tells us, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (v20)

We are not called to save our own necks. We’re called to be righteous and holy, eager to do what God requires of us. John’s calling comes straight out Isaiah, another prophet who didn’t know when to shut up. “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” (Isaiah 58.1) It is a calling we, as messengers of God’s grace and power, must also honor. The problem with prophets isn’t that they’re loud and messy. It’s their courage to speak truth to power. And though we may never land in John’s shoes, declaring what’s just and holy will perplex people. We may never wind up in jail for offending powers that be. But we will find ourselves at plenty of birthday parties, barbecues, and social functions where those who care only about saving their necks will think we’re out of our heads. So what if they do? God charges each of us with delivering the Breaking News of the Gospel. It’s our job to keep kicking and screaming. Get ready! Somebody’s coming and He’s gonna turn the world upside down!

The biggest problem with prophets today is the vast majority of them—meaning us—don’t have the guts to do the job.

The problem with prophets like John is that we find their outré behavior fascinating, but we don’t take kindly to their words.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In Flux

The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1.2)


No other Bible story matches Genesis’s first creation narrative for sheer theatricality. The curtains part on what appears to be a barren stage cloaked in impenetrable, silent night. As our eyes adjust, we detect something is there, yet we’re not quite sure what it is. We sit in the darkness for what seems like an eternity—actually, for what is an eternity—staring into the blackness, feeling the gravitational pull of a shapeless void at center stage.

Going in, we know that this is a one-Person performance piece. We’ve read the reviews, seen pictures based on the drama, and many of us can quote much of the script from memory. So suspense is high as we await God’s spectacular entrance on the scene. The theater buffs among us are pitched with excitement, speculating what sort of stagecraft will accompany God’s arrival. Will there be a blinding bolt of light at God’s command, after which the Creator comes into full view? Will a tremulous rumble swell beneath our feet, followed by the Maker’s revealed presence? Will God’s voice roar out of the night, setting off a rapid chain of events that summons everything that is into being?

In what will become God’s chief characteristic, this drama opens by subverting every expectation. Before the Creator arrives, a wind sweeps over the stage. We hear the ripple and slap of water rising and curling into waves. Still unable to see, we perceive the stage is engulfed in an endless sea. It’s the pregnant medium out of which the entirety of Creation will rise in obedience to God’s voice. Then we hear the Creator call for light. The inky vacuum splits in two and once our eyes adjust to the bright blaze of day, we surmise that we’re watching the dawn of time. Thereafter, the drama unfolds, as God aptly and adroitly assumes an off-stage role via the narrative device ancient dramatists called deus ex machina: the introduction of divine, supernatural power to shape and propel our story.


Regardless how we view Genesis’s creation accounts—as myth, metaphor, miracle, or all of the above—we should own them as the first act in our dramas, not only on the impersonal, epic scale of time and space, but also as the origin of our highly personal, individualized, and intimate relationships with God. As such, we’re compelled to note how God initiates the sacred communion we share. Before God speaks, appears, or commences creation, God moves. God exhales divine breath across the empty waters, brushing their surface with movement. From there on, God is constantly in flux—walking with us in mutual fellowship, seeking us out of our shame and disarray, going before us to light our way, meeting us at our point of need, and rising above us to lead us to higher summits of existence. Movement is how God maintains our equilibrium and that of the world we inhabit. As individuals and communities, we are in constant flux. The human condition is in flux. All of Nature is in flux. And God is in flux.

We often ask God to move on our behalf, as though God were a sedentary monarch who must be pried from his/her throne. Yet that image has no reality in Scripture. Psalm 46.1-3 tells us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” While we move through lives of perpetual change and upheaval, God is very present, moving with us. It is in God’s nature to keep moving; that’s the first thing we discover about God and, alas, it’s often the first thing we forget. Thus, when we’re tossed about, when the ground beneath us gives way, when life’s seas threaten to swallow us alive, we have no cause to fear. God is moving in the midst of our uncertainty and terror, because God moves with us. We remain in flux together.

An Altar in the World

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of America’s most highly esteemed preachers, speaks of making “an altar in the world,” i.e., heightening our sensitivity to God’s movement around us. Where do we see God move? The big answer, of course, is “everywhere.” But I don’t think that gets us very close to appreciating the extent of God’s movement. Sure, God moves in Nature—in seasonal transitions, in thunderheads gathering on the horizon, in the majestic eagle soaring overhead and the annoying housefly that lights on our table. Yet human ego and self-sufficiency habitually weaken our ability to see and feel God’s movement in others and ourselves.

God moves in the friendly smiles of strangers, in the surprising embraces of people we presume to hold us in low regard, in the sorrow that washes over us when witnessing another's suffering, in mundane touches and voices and exchanged glances that fill our days. God arrives on the scene in flux. God shapes Nature, our world, and us to be in flux. “God is not far from each one of us,” Paul declares to the Athenians, quoting one of their own poets to remind them, “For ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’” (Acts 17.27-28) We live and move in God because God lives and moves in, around, and through us. Next time, just before asking God to move for us, perhaps we should pause long enough to see God is already, constantly moving wherever we look.

God arrives on the scene in flux and remains in constant movement wherever we look.