That’s the sort of thing a prophet might do. Prophets tended to do strange things, that marked them out as different and unusual and special. People said that John the Baptist was a new prophet, like the prophets of the olden times. They called him the last of the prophets, for he had come to prepare the way for the Messiah.
What exactly is a prophet? Is it someone who predicts the future? Is a prophet the same thing as a fortune teller? Do prophets read tealeaves, or gaze into crystal balls, or study the stars? John the Baptist did none of those things. What he did do was to speak God’s word, and it was a word of warning and of instruction and challenge. Like the great prophets of the Old Testament, people like Jeremiah and Isaiah, he had a clear vision of what God was calling his people to do and to be. Like those great prophets old, John said: ‘It’s time to change. If you go on behaving like that, you will come under the judgement of God.’
What John told the people was that a lip-service religion wasn’t enough. God had to be at the heart of all they did. So he called on them to re-dedicate yourselves in God’s service by being baptized. And then to live life in a new way, with God right at the heart of everything they did. You have to do this right now, John told them, because something new is about to begin.
That’s what prophets do; they challenge us to listen, to learn, to repent and to change. These are people who know they have to speak God’s word, even though they might suffer themselves for doing so, even though they might not be heard gladly, even though they might be rejected. They knew God wanted his people to wake up, to come to their senses, to let his word change their hearts, and begin to change their world.
So do we still need prophets today? Do we need the Church to be prophetic? And if so, what does it mean for us? All sorts of people still try to predict the future - in think tanks and via focus groups, by analysing the signs, the stock market trends, the opinion polls. I do sometimes wonder whether any of this is much more use than reading tea leaves - and yet there are signs we should not turn away from, directions in human behaviour, in the way we treat each other, in the way we use or abuse the earth’s resources, in the way we welcome or reject our neighbour in need. There are those in our own faith and in other faiths who are prepared to twist things round and to misread their holy books so they serves our own selfish desires or fuel our fears. There are people who claim to be godly, but who in reality are no longer living as his people.
We believe in the God who creates and loves what he has made. We believe in the God of righteousness and justice. And we believe in the God who is like Jesus. To believe these things has consequences for the way we live our daily lives, particularly as in just two weeks time we celebrate what we believe to be a moment at which the whole course of history is changed: the birth among us of the Son of God, the one hailed by angels as the prince of peace.
A prophetic Church is one that will not reserve this baby for the happy safe tinsel setting of our greetings cards along with Santa’s sleigh and some chirpy robins, but speak seriously about what this child is born to do, what will happen to the man this child grows up to be. The Bethlehem crib is not in itself the story of Jesus; how can it be? Little babies, even this little baby, are just cute and lovely and a delight.
But some of the features of the story of this birth might encourage us to be prophetic, to be aware of what this child might be born to do. To begin with, he's not born in Jerusalem but in scruffy little Bethlehem next door. His parents are poor and far from home, home itself being distinctly unfashionable Nazareth up north in Galilee, not the sort of place a Messiah should come from. And once they've travelled to Bethlehem there's no safe place there for the child to be born, only a manger out in the stables to lay him down in. It's shepherds, men with no place in polite religious society, who are the first people to hear about him and come to see him. And before long the child and his parents will be refugees, driven to seek refuge in a foreign land. So who in our world today is this child identified with right from the start, we might ask? What is his real story, and where in our world might he want us to tell that story today?
Like John the Baptist, we know why this child was born, why he was born where he was, why he was born as he was. We know that this birth begins a story that involves rejection and plots and a show trial and eventually a death, a particularly tragic death. The Gospel of Jesus could be read as the account of an heroic failure, but really it's a love story, and it's a story to challenge us into love. The world needs to hear the whole truth from God’s prophetic Church, the full story and not just the tinselly bits of it. Things are too far gone in our confused world for us only to be saying nice things. Love is too important a thing for us to be overly worried about whether or not people will like us and approve of us as we speak out. Speak out and speak the truth, that's the challenge before us as we prepare for Christmas this and every year; it's not just one day on which to be nice and peaceful, but the never-ending story of our just and righteous and loving Lord, light born into the darkness of human suffering and pain. So dare to be prophets where prophets are needed. Strive for a better world; speak and live the word of God, be people of Jesus.