The legendary Sandy Ray once preached of the nature of the prophetic and that it’s not so much there’s a voice crying in the wilderness, as it is that “the wilderness needs a voice.”
Wild is a pretty apt description of what has been taking place in our nation and world lately.
In China, young citizens are fighting for freedoms and normalcy, in courageous displays. Iranian girls have sustained months of protest, so that women will not continue seeing their gender voiceless. Ukrainians have reached for a David and Goliath narrative, which has the Russian Army stunned, and Russian leaders facing increasing criticism from disgruntled mothers.
And not to be outdone, we, Americans, have taken divided government to new heights, in which a month after the midterms, we still aren’t sure who the next speaker will be, even though Republicans obtained more seats.
And that isn’t touching the chaos of the Ye/Kyrie controversies, FTX putting the “crypt” in cryptocurrency, Saudi Arabia beating Argentina to get only their third win in a World Cup match, and French scientists accidentally setting loose a deadly virus that had previously been contained under permafrost for 50,000 years.
And if the lectionary is saying anything to us on this penultimate week of Advent, it’s that when we find ourselves in the wilderness, we need to seek both understanding of the wilderness and wilderness understanding.
Running through all five texts is that God’s hope is for our hoping; and that despite war, famine, marginalization or bondage, we have the privilege to pursue purpose to renew and strengthen bonds. And each text prophetically focuses us on something unseen that we need to see.
Isaiah 35:1-10 opens us up to a poetic framing of the prophetic vision of our world. The image of colorful crocuses darting the desert hillsides, overtaking its dry nature with indomitable life, is the way the prophet says that gladness will overwhelm a weariness in God’s people.
The prophet chooses oppositions (water in dry lands, hope in persecution) to demonstrate a certain defiant nature in God to perform in extremity, what most find impossible to reconcile.
The prophet speaks God’s promise to the people. And to Isaiah, this promise is beautiful, because it takes desolate places and deserted people and transforms them into oases and life-giving streams.
The prophet had his share of naysaying in other chapters, but here he speaks toward not promised land, but promised time. It’s an appointed time for the renewal of God’s chosen family.
Interestingly, the remaining four passages all are relating to relatives of Jesus.
In Psalm 146, an ancestor, David (although Haggai and Zechariah are mentioned alternatively by scholars as authors). Luke focuses on Mother Mary. James was his brother. And Matthew raises the example of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. And each family member exposes facets of the ways prophecy works in, around and to us.
Psalm 146, in contrast to Isaiah’s softer hope, takes the perspective of a narrator, trying to describe the boundaries of God’s promises and commitments to those standing alone. For God made earth, keeps truth, executes justice, gives food, sets free, opens eyes, lifts up, loves, protects, supports migrants and reigns forever, according to the psalmist.
These declarations are rooted in both history and the present: God has and does move, so be encouraged. This is less hopeful and leans more toward an exhortation of assurance. Tye Tribbett says, “If he did it before, he can do it again. … Same God right now, same God back then.”
Prophecy in Isaiah’s pericope was rooted in what God does with impossibility. Prophecy in the psalm focuses on possibility and predictability from God’s past repeated actions in the lives of the ordinary.
God is consistent. The wisdom to recognize how God moves is a spiritual gift. But the psalmist asks for recognition and remembrance of the divine lifestyles.
Luke 1:47-55 centers on what is probably the most important text about the nature of God in human affairs: Mary’s Magnificat. In the previous psalm, we see centered God’s action and inclination in everyday affairs. Here, we see God going cosmic.
But I don’t want the significance of one aspect to be lost: God saw Mary. Her society did not see her, just a girl. When they would see her next, they’d likely have judged her for this pregnancy. But she heard, recognized and remembered the sacred promise entrusted to her ancestors (as told by the prophets).
Our society, and the church, must grapple mightily with visibility. And by that, I mean who becomes visible to us.
God demonstrates their lens is finely attuned to what society looks past. God hears generational cries, and in Mary, answered the most ancient of prayers: deliver us.
And God says to and through Mary, in order to fulfill those promises, “Deliver me.” God again is teaching modernity from the perch of the past. To be God’s people, we must see all of, and all that’s in, all God’s people. Or as they used to say in the Black church, “From the Uttermost to the gutter-most!”
In a time where motherhood and womanhood have become the leading civil rights causes of our time, and that’s all over the globe, Mary’s song becomes a Womanist anthem, for her life made a mysterious God humanly searchable, tangible and vulnerable. Motherhood has that power over all humanity.
And God became human (flesh).
James 5:7-10 introduces a new perspective. James in verse 7 speaks of farmers who work in both the early season of planting and those who will reap in the latter rains. This farmer reflects the process of prophecy. And the discipline it takes to achieve generational harvests.
The brother teaches us to recognize when we are not the prophets, but the subjects they described. Prophetic times, like the wilderness we find ourselves in, are occasions where we must seek understanding. But who wants to understand the wilderness?
James underscores that the point is making it through these predicted seasons with our purpose intact. Reminding us that we have a vocation centered in breaking through hard ground, watering unknown futures, often to no obvious personal benefit.
Be they prophets or Christians, we disciples who go and speak in the name must keep the faith alive in the time in which we live. And much of that is rooted in service to the forgotten.
James’ own life would be taken, because he stood up for poor priests in the Temple, not being robbed of their wages by religious and political elites. Some prophets speak of distant shores. Others, like James, redefine the here and now.
Finally, Matthew 11: 2-11 focuses in on the penultimate moment in John the Baptist’s life, before it would be taken. John sends emissaries to Jesus, to seek first-hand confirmation that Jesus really is the one.
John, a death row inmate, afforded a last meal, eschews meat for the promise of “bread;” not simply for him, but for every captive. The prisoner reaches for hope to fuel purpose.
A friend and colleague pointed to a conversation Denzel Washington had with Jaime Fox, in which he exclaims, “I’m leaving here with something!” John says the same.
Jesus, who loved his cousin, gives more than what John asks. Jesus endorses John’s cause and prepares his name for martyrdom. Jesus steps into John’s shoes and encourages John’s disciples to not forget the deeds of their fellow fighter in bonds.
But in the end, Jesus says that as great as John is, he is but an ember to their collective light. Jesus tells the children of God they are all worthy of honor and humanity.
Jesus asks the crowd what they came to see in the wilderness. We exist in a wilderness. Now that we’re here, what did we come into this wild place to see?
Though I’m no major prophet, I pray that hope and God’s purpose work within you, to renew and deliver you.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Advent 2022. Each week, an article will be published reflecting on one or more of the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. The previous articles in the series are:
Advent Lectionary | Flood Watch | Chase Caldwell
Advent Lectionary | The Music of Peace | Kali Cawthon-Freels