The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
When I was training to be a chaplain, I sat at a long, heavy table in the Spiritual Health office with my supervisor, and he picked up a coaster and put it down in front of me.
“People in power are always trying to cover things up,” he said, shifting the coaster around on the table. “Power doesn’t want us to look at suffering. They don’t want us to see injustice. And nice people, good people, don’t want to see it either. Church people don’t want to see. Nice white people don’t want to see. Cheerful straight people don’t want to see. They put a rock on top of everything ugly, everything uncomfortable, everything that tells them they’ve done something wrong.
“A prophet,” my supervisor continued, “takes that rock that they’ve put over that uncomfortable truth,” and he ran his finger along that coaster, “and the prophet – flips it over.”
He flipped the coaster over on the table.
“Then,” he smiled, “the people in power will go ahead and put it right back.” He set the coaster back, right side up, on the table. “So then the prophet, she walks up to the rock and flips it over again. And again. And again. As many times as the folks put the rock on top of the thing they don’t want to look at, the prophet walks up, flips the rock over, and points and yells – ‘LOOK. LOOK at this.’ Look, again again and again.”
He was the first black chaplaincy supervisor in the United States, so I imagine that my supervisor flipped that rock over more times than I can ever imagine.
Look again. Look.
Ta-Nehisi and W.H. Auden for Advent
It’s the second week of Advent, so we’re talking about repentance and listening to the prophets.
It’s the second week of Advent, so I am discouraged as hell.
Me and my writing buddy are reading heavy stuff these days – she’s reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, “We Were Eight Years in Power” and I just finished “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.” Both of them are histories of violence – how America has abused and destroyed marginalized people, how American intentionally created a society where blackness and otherness would not be welcome. Both of them tell stories about how racism is not just an accident in America, but the foundational belief of the American Dream. Reading these books will wear you down. We’re both a little worn down.
“There were never any gains made,” she said, holding her place in the book with her finger. “There was never any real justice. It was just fake progress, fake justice. Everything is still so bad. It will never be better.”
They Kill the Prophets
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
W. H. Auden, Sept 1 1939
I didn’t use to understand when people called poets and artists “prophets.” It seemed demeaning to the role of the prophet – prophets call out against injustice, they rage against evil, they stand outside the city gates and warn people about the judgment of God! Poets and artists … just make art.
But good poets and good artists are doing exactly what good prophets are doing – demanding that we listen, demanding that we don’t look away. Artists are truth-tellers. Their job is to observe very closely, and then, without flinching, tell us what they saw. “All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie,” Auden mourns. “A voice crying out in the wilderness,” Isaiah says.
All we have is a voice.
And often, a voice doesn’t feel like it’s enough. The lie isn’t undone. The road isn’t made straight. The rock doesn’t stay flipped over. Auden couldn’t do it. Dylan couldn’t do it. Malachi couldn’t do it, either.
I see my friend holding her finger in the book with her shoulders heavy, saying, “there were never any gains made.”
This past fall, I read this Auden poem at the same time that I was reading Coates, and it was overwhelming to hear these words come from the past, while great evil was committed and the world watched. Despite all the voices of all the poets and prophets and theologians, the war came anyway. The concentration camps. The bomb. “Never again” – nah. Always again.
Maybe there’s an arc of justice, but it feels like waves of justice and injustice, rolling through time, with power corrupting absolutely, and the powerless becoming the powerful, and corruption being passed on generation to generation. Powerful people get richer, invade more countries, pour amounts of money we can’t even imagine into being more powerful at the expense of the autonomy and flourishing of other countries. We are modern day Panems, wallowing in excess of food and makeup and clothes while people outside the Capitol starve. It’s been seen before, and it’ll be seen again. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” the poet and prophet of Ecclesiastes says.
But the poets notice it. The prophets notice it. The artists notice.
And they stand, yelling look at this. Look at it. You can keep repeating the past, but we’ll be damned if you repeat it without us making a scene while you do.
Our job is to just keep flipping that rock over, as many times as they cover it up.
With our words and paint and music. Every time they put that rock back on top, we flip it over.
Advent for the Prophets and Artists
Advent is a flipping over time.
Advent is a time when we acknowledge that the world is deeply broken, and acknowledge that there is a suffering that runs to the center of the world, that there is evil that is darker than we imagined, that the stories of good and evil we grew up on aren’t just stories but realities that marginalised people are living. Advent is when we take time to stop pretending it is OK, and yell with our brother John (who will be killed by a king, because prophets are always killed by kings) that it is not OK.
Advent is when we walk up to that rock and flip it over again.
They’ll put it back.
But in Advent, we join with all the artists and prophets and those who bear witness and join hands, calling out: who the hell cares if they put it back, my job is to cry out again and again – “prepare ye the way for the Lord,” no matter what it costs, and no matter how useless it can feel.
We aren’t at justice yet. We aren’t at Christmas. But we are coming to Christmas, and we are coming to justice, and God is not done with this world, because as the other lectionary texts this week remind us, our God is a covenant God. Our God makes promises and keeps them.
John calls out in the moment right before Jesus comes around the bend.
We don’t know when the last time that rock will be flipped over for good. The promise of God is that one day, it will be.
We don’t know when that is. John, our weird and wonderful Advent brother, couldn’t have known at what moment Jesus would walk down the hill to be baptized. Anna, my favorite prophet, showed up day after day after day at the temple, getting older and lonelier – and one day, she held Jesus and sang a song of the one who has seen that all that daily faithfulness fulfilled by the promise of God.
But we aren’t there yet.
We’re in-between, in the time after the promise and before the fulfilment. We’re in the time of endless rock-flipping and exhausting injustice and daily faithfulness that sometimes feels like it doesn’t do a damn thing.
Advent, though, is our secret weapon, because Advent is a promise from the past that God always, always comes through on God’s covenant, in unexpected, enchanting, world-altering ways.
Advent reminds us that Jesus can be right around the bend. Advent tells us that we are always only a heartbeat away from seeing the fulfilment of the promises of God.
Keeping flipping over those rocks, Beloved.
Christmas is coming.
God of the prophets and God of the artists,
keep us strong,
keep us fierce,
and hold us steady.
Give us courage when we’re on the edge of giving up.
Grant us hope to believe in Your covenant nature this Advent.