One crying in the wilderness

Edward Burtynsky’s beautiful and unsettling photography

In this season of advent, we consider the role of the prophet. Perhaps the greatest of the prophets, who harks back to the ministry of Elijah, is John the Baptist. We are told in the ancient scriptures, he appears from the desert and people flock to him confessing their sins and getting baptised. As foretold by the angel Gabriel before his miraculous conception, John prepares the way for Christ saying, “I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John appears very much the radical, an extreme provocateur dressed in animal skins, calling representatives of the religious elite a ‘brood of vipers’ and warning everyone of the terrible judgement that is coming to them.

And this is the role of the prophet, to warn and to rebuke, as well as envision for the new thing God is doing in our midst. Jeremiah talks of the ministry of the prophet as to build up and to tear down. To critique and call out injustice, but also to renew hope for a better world, a restored Creation, that is the ultimate fulfilment of the coming Kingdom of God. 

If prophets didn’t adopt what we might consider inflammatory language and offensive tactics, we wouldn’t notice them and be forced to hear the message they bring. They make us feel uncomfortable. Deep down we know the truth of what they have to say, but we don’t want to face it. To acknowledge our mistakes or wilful wrongdoing means we must change and this will be disruptive and humiliating, if not down right destructive. We would rather stay in denial and get on with life as we know it, even if we are aware this is evil and unjust. So we hate the prophet, and those in positions of power will seek to silence her and punish him for pointing out their folly.

This prophetic ministry didn’t end with the death of John. The great contemporary theologian, Walter Bruggemann, says in his book ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ it is the poets and artists today who provoke us out of our comfort and complacency and articulate the newness God desires. I think the street artist Banksy is a fantastic example of this. I particularly love his version of the crucifixion with Jesus holding a shopping bag in each nailed hand to highlight our society’s unquestioned reliance upon consumerism, despite the untold damage it does to our souls and to the environment.

Over the last few weeks, I have been enjoying ‘Simon Schama’s History of Now’ on the BBC. I would really recommend this if you want to find out more about the prophets he identifies in his lifetime. These include Charlie Chaplin, Nina Simone, Vaclav Havel and, author of the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood. But someone I was particularly taken with, who I hadn’t heard of before, was Rachel Carson. She was fascinated by the natural world and wrote a number of books about the sea which passed on this love of nature to a generation of children in the 1950s, including historian Schama. However, she observed and became increasingly concerned by the negative impact of the use of pesticides in American agriculture. In 1962 she wrote ‘Silent Spring’ documenting the environmental harm she was witnessing and came under fierce criticism by the chemical industry who did all they could to discredit her findings. Despite this, she swayed public opinion leading to a nationwide ban on the use of DDT and in 2006, Silent Spring was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of Discover magazine. Her legacy has now passed to photographer, Edward Burtynsky, whose currently seeking to capture with his lens the devastating reality behind the relentless pursuit of materialism.

But being a prophet doesn’t make you popular and comes with a huge cost. Carson died of cancer shortly after the publication of Silent Spring, Chaplin was not allowed to return to the US because of his so-called Communist views and John the Baptist finds himself imprisoned. He has angered and shamed the ruler, Herod. And, having heard what Jesus is doing, John wants to be assured that He is indeed the Messiah he was to prepare the way for. Has John fulfilled the purpose of his life that was foretold by the angel Gabriel even before his birth? So Jesus tells John’s disciples to recount what they see. It is the prophetic vision of the Lord’s coming as presented in Isaiah where the blind are enabled to see, the deaf hear and the lame walk. 

I think it is a terrible burden to be a prophet and the success of their ministry is not usually seen in their own lifetime. Yet Jesus commends John, and we get the sense that he can die assured of his faithfulness to the divine calling, having achieved all God set out for him to do. May we too be so committed to fulfil God’s purposes, that we’ll be able to live, and die, content in the knowledge we have been obedient and the fruit of that obedience will have a lasting legacy of goodness and mercy in this life and in the life to come.