Prophets bring us good news that is wrapped up like fish and chips in the bad news of yesterday’s newspaper. After such a week as this, a week of shootings, deaths, violence, floods, riots, epidemics, the anniversaries of earthquakes, and endless punditry on civil discourse, or the lack thereof, gun control or the lack thereof, crosshairs as emblems of surveyors instruments or automatic assault rifles, we NEED good news. We’ll take it wrapped up in anything.
This week we have three readings and four prophets: John the Baptist, Jesus, Isaiah, and our American prophet of Monday’s commemoration, Martin Luther King, Jr. – three out of those four killed for bringing God’s message of hope and possibility and new life.
Last week we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. This week, we read the version of this same story in the Gospel of John. There is no crowd scene here; John is alone as Jesus approaches. He admits that he had not met this person Jesus before, but recognizes him immediately: “Behold the Lamb of God!” Nor does John actually baptize Jesus: “I saw the Spirit descend as a done from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
Baptism and witness: the crux of this story of Jesus’ baptism is that from now on all creation is under a new reality, and John, and all of us who read this gospel, are to be witnesses to it. This very act re-creates creation; the water itself is made new. As Jesus says elsewhere, you cannot put new wine into old wineskins. Jesus is not the “cleanse” here, but the cleanser. Jesus whooshes in from God, making the creation come alive in the way God intended it to be. This “Lamb of God” is not the temple sacrifice offered up by flawed and sinful human beings in hopes that God will forgive. This is the Lamb OF GOD, sent BY GOD to break all those old wacky patterns and to bring sinful human beings back into a relationship with God. Come back, God is saying to us. Come back. I offer YOU the Lamb as a way to begin the restoration of OUR relationship.
The passage from Isaiah also speaks of God’s yearning for a restored relationship with humanity. This reading is from Second Isaiah, the author of chapters 40 through 66, writing to the people Israel, still in exile in Babylon but about to be released and sent home to Jerusalem. Cyrus of Persia has conquered the Babylonians, and to Isaiah, he is God’s agent of redemption, even though a non-believer.
The Good News which Isaiah proclaims is that Israel’s suffering is over. The exile was God’s punishment for the people’s faithlessness, but their agony has exceeded their guilt. The graciousness of God now triumphs and what pains they now feel, as they head home, are the birth pangs of the new Jerusalem. If older prophets were harsh with the people for their failings, this one wants to strengthen and comfort these weary people, and to encourage them to be the people God created them to be: the people who seek justice, who live righteously, who are witnesses to the nations of how God intended the world to be.
God’s revelation continues. God still says new things to all of us. God still sends prophets. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood his call to be God’s agent in a troubled time in our history. To a nation that in part understood itself – ourselves – as the new Israel, the city on the hill, to which the nations will flock, a beacon of righteousness, Martin Luther King’s message and words resonated. Some believed God sent him with a message of hope; to others, his words were dangerous and destructive, or rash and impudent. In the most simplistic terms, King the prophet was calling our nation to live up to God’s expectations for us – and even our expectations for ourselves – for our civil society, for our abundance, our justice, our fairness, our openness. For Christians, theologian James Cone writes,
“God’s revelation has nothing to do with white suburban ministers admonishing their people to be nice to black people. It has nothing to do with voting for open occupancy or having a memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. God’s revelation means a radical encounter with the structures of power which Martin King fought against to his death.”As I write this, I can only imagine the barrage of words we will get this weekend, as pundits on the left and right claim the legacy of King and pronounce what they tell us is the (or at least their) final word on the dreadful shootings in Tucson. These pundits will not likely notice, as James Cone does, that what happens is not about them. They won’t get it that what Martin Luther King did and said is not about them, either. What happened last week was a horrible rupture in the relationship God yearns to have with us, the relationship that God has been working on and yearning for since creation. At the end of the above quote paragraph, Cone asserts,
“In a word, God’s revelation means liberation, nothing more and nothing less.”This is the prophets’ good news, wrapped up in all the troubles the world can dish out.
i James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: J.P. Lippincott Co., 1970), p. 92