An optimist is a person who, when walking through a tunnel, rejoices to see the light at the other end. A pessimist sees the same light, but believes it to be the light of an oncoming train. An optimist has no need for hope, because everything is bound to turn out fine. A pessimist sees no point in hope, because we all doomed anyway.
Neither optimism nor pessimism is appropriate within a prophetic church. But hope is. True prophets aren't optimists or pessimists, but realists. Their job is to tell it like it is. As we read through the story of Israel in the Old Testament we can see how important the prophets were. They see through the mist that obscures our vision so that we foolishly think everything's all right, and they tell us the truth that maybe we don’t want to hear. But it's not a hopeless case, for there is a God in heaven, and prophets speak for him. And with his words they tell us how things have to change, how we have to change our course, if we are to avoid disaster.
As we travel through this season of Advent we share the delight of the people as they discover a new prophet in Israel. He is John, the prophet who baptizes. Baptism was the outward sign of inward change. Now Jews didn't need to be baptized, for to be born a Jew meant you were already chosen and special. But John changed the rules, saying to the people that their heritage didn't count any more. They'd lost their birth relationship with God, because they'd veered off course, and lost touch with God's law and with God's justice. It’s time to turn back, it’s time to change. And the outward washing in the Jordan river signalled an inward washing of the heart and the soul, through which those who were no longer God's people chose to be God's people again.
But John also told those who came out to hear him that he was not the one, that he was simply the forerunner, the one who was to prepare the way. Someone is coming after me, he told them, and he is indeed already among you, who is so much greater than I that I'm not even worthy to unfasten his sandal strap. And to prepare the way, John calls the people back to the standards of justice and righteousness that the great prophets have always demanded. They must make themselves ready; the Lord is near. Like the great prophets of old, John calls for justice, telling those who come to him that they must live together in a way that reflects the love of God.
The Lord loves justice. So says John, and so say all the prophets - men like Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah.
And we're inclined to agree. Indeed, we demand justice! Again and again the voice of the people, or at any rate that voice as distilled by the tabloid headlines, is raised to demand justice, as we consider the things that are wrong in the world around us - shoddy standards, rising crime, unfairness, especially when it's about other people getting more than we think they deserve. But the justice we demand can begin to present in a negative way, so that it starts to look a lot like revenge, our desire to return a punch in exchange for the punch received. That sort of justice can be found in scripture, when we read about 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'. But it isn’t the justice John proclaimed, nor is it what Isaiah and the other prophets meant when they talked about justice.
We need justice. Justice is essential to an ordered society, as any lawyer will tell you. So we measure out a justice that is by necessity disinterested, whose symbol is the blind goddess whose statue stands above the entrance to the court, carrying in her hands the scales to weigh the evidence and reach an impartial decision. We need to be sure the justice we measure is fair. I think we can take some pride in the standard of justice we have in the UK - for the most part, anyway. But even the best run courts of law, though they may be incorruptible and fair, do not deliver not the justice proclaimed by God's prophets.
For prophetic justice can be neither negative nor neutral. It must always be a positive thing: it must involve what David Sheppard the former Bishop of Liverpool called a 'bias to the poor', so that it brings good news to the oppressed, healing for the broken hearted, prisoners set free. These are the things Isaiah proclaims, these are the things that Jesus will say have come true in him. And the same positive bias towards those in need should be the mark of the prophetic Church that calls for God’s justice today.
In the Old Testament Isaiah paints a picture of a new spring of God's mercy in which righteousness and justice, will spring up in all the earth, and will be seen in every nation. Righteousness is a word that can I suppose conjure up something that is stuffy and formal, maybe all to do with rituals and rites, just as justice is easily thought of as an impartial and impersonal process of law. But when the prophets speak of these things they’re speaking about how we should be praising the Lord, and they're speaking about the active presence of the Lord within and among his people.
To be genuinely prophetic the Church will be keeping in good balance, I would say, three facets of the jewel we call active faith: and they are worship, fellowship, and mission. That balance is important: we may have wonderful worship but if our fellowship is poor that's not enough; but then again, great fellowship without a sense of outreach to or responsibility for the world beyond our walls is also not enough. So I want to go on to say a little bit about each of these things: worship, fellowship, and mission.
Our worship at all times and especially as we approach this great feast of the nativity, must be founded on a sense of wonder. When we worship we are placing ourselves in the presence of God, and God is always more than we can imagine. In worship we praise the God the prophets knew and served, and whose call changed their lives: prophets who had been confronted by the awesome power of God's presence, the searing challenge of his word, and who knew God was not to be controlled. Prophets who spoke hard words to the sort of religious folk who acted and worshipped as though they could tell God what to do, as though they'd got God snug and safe within their pocket.
Our worship together expresses our fellowship, our oneness in Christ. In fellowship we are disciples and apostles, people who learn together, and who are entrusted with work to do together. Having said that, these days we can struggle just to keep the show on the road, to maintain our churches and their ministry. Sometimes we can feel as though money and parish shares and things are all we ever talk about in our committees and synods. Well, those things do need to be talked about, and taken very seriously, because we do need to stay in business; the world needs us to stay in business. We must always remember, though, that we’re in business for the world, for the world that is God's world and greatly loved by him, and not for ourselves. The prophets of old spoke against the sort of cultic religion that exists for its own sake, that makes of itself a cosy religious huddle that’s self-interested and inward looking. We’re not here to be like that, comfortable and safe. We're not here to recall past glories or even to nurture present friendships - we are church in this place because God has work for us to do.