I often hear our roosters crowing while I’m getting ready for work. Mind you, this is around 4 o’clock in the morning. Popular culture has commonly portrayed roosters crowing at sunrise. In my experience, however, their boisterous morning song begins long before daylight.
I’ve wondered if they detect some nearly unperceivable changes in the air or light as dawn approaches, or if they rely on some form of intuition. Poultry experts suggest it is closer to my second guess. Like many birds, their circadian rhythms help them anticipate sunrise. Their cry announces the arrival of a new day. It is time to wake up! Arise and shine!
The wakeup call is one of the themes that compose the prophetic voice in scripture. It’s common to think of biblical prophecy primarily as prediction. That perspective is especially prominent in the way the Gospel writers apply quotes from the Hebrew prophets to the life and ministry of Jesus.
There is much truth to that approach, but we need to be careful not to ignore the original context of these passages. Overall, scripture speaks in the rhythm of promise and fulfillment to encourage faith in the present and the future. While hope is always part of the story, it requires facing unpleasant truths about our society and ourselves.
Prophecy in this light is less about forecasting and more about truth-telling. The wakeup call comes as warning: If we remain on this path, danger lies ahead. The prophetic voice speaks from a position between the world as it is and as it should be and can be. It offers a clear-eyed account of the past and present from a spiritual perspective.
Those insights are often at odds with the official proclamations of powerful institutions in our society—public, private, or even faith-based. However, the message is not only addressed to people in positions of concentrated political and economic power. In the context of a pluralist democratic society, their words are addressed to any and all of us who have agency to make choices in our collective and individual lives.
Yes, hope remains even in the midst of the direst consequences of our worse choices. However, hope does not instantly dispel the gloomy circumstances. We will live with the scars of our scratches and scrapes. Prophetic hope simply points us in the right direction—a way to crawl out of the pit. This new direction can lead us to a more faithful, just, and loving society.
Advent is a time for heightened anticipation. It is a time to remain alert to the realities of this less-than-perfect world and awaken to new possibilities. John the Baptist issues a wakeup call. It’s not enough to be “woke.” We have to get out of bed and get to work—“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Part of John’s preparatory work was to question the motives of those who presented themselves for baptism. While Matthew’s account (3:1-12, NKJV) quotes John’s basic message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Luke 3:1-20 gives three concrete examples of what repentance—changing direction—should look like. His instruction in each case was to live honestly and justly with each other. John was well aware that his ministry was merely a prelude to something greater. While John’s baptism intended to purify those who came to him, Jesus would empower them—set them on fire, kindle God’s love in their hearts—with the Holy Spirit.
As we ponder the meaning of “God with us” in this season, let us consider how each of us can in turn incarnate the love of God in this world. That would truly be the beginning of a new day.
Tom Wagner is a former pastor in the Church of the Brethren and serves Muskegon (Mich.) Cooperative Churches as clerk and archivist.