(1 Thess 5,16-19)
In our two readings from the prophet Isaiah and from the gospel according to John, we hear of individuals being called by God. We can be sure that these parts of those two books were the last to have been written. It is only in hindsight that it was clear for Isaiah and for John the Baptist that they had been called by God. Prophets do not know the details of their ministry from the beginning.
Let us take the text from Isaiah (Is 61,1-2.10-11). Isaiah eventually discovers who benefited from the words he proclaimed. These were the lowly, the brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. I doubt he began his ministry with that specific audience in mind. But the prophet was convinced that “the Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me” – this is the first line of our reading. In the beginning of his ministry, Isaiah had no idea how this service to his people would evolve, but he knew that he received a mission from his God. Is there a master plan when God calls a person to be a prophet? No, “God’s calling someone to be his prophet” is not accompanied by a hidden master plan! That is rarely the biblical case!
John the Baptist provides an example. Let us look at the prologue to John’s gospel from which today’s passage is taken (John 1,6-8.19-28) the gospel according to John the Evangelist…. – not the Baptist, by the way). We see that John the Baptist was quite certain about the details and direction of his ministry. John the evangelist tells us about John the Baptist:
There was a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He came as an eyewitness to testify about the light so that everyone would believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.
John understands his place in salvation history so well that he can confidently proclaim: “I am not the Messiah! I am not Elijah! I am not the prophet!” When pressed, he replies,
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as Isaiah the prophet said. Among you stands one you do not know. He is the one coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.
From the beginning, Christians have regarded John as the precursor of Jesus: as the person who spent and gave his life to prepare the way for Jesus. No one today denies John the Baptist did this – he did prepare the way for Jesus. But today, already for a long time, one thing has been clear– and this is due to research in the Bible and its context: the historical John the Baptist probably didn’t recognize his role in God’s plan. And he did not understand the meaning of his own death. He did not understand why he was beheaded by Herod. It probably never crossed the mind of John the Baptist that he actually was preparing the ground for the seed Jesus would later plant.
In the light of this, our passage from the letter of St Paul to the community in Thessaloniki (1 Thess 5,16-24) becomes significant. This section is one of the earliest Christian writings we possess. What Paul does is not so much to point out the meaning of the past. But what he does is to try to help his community experience the present, understand the present. I am convinced that Paul wrote this passage for the community in Thessaloniki – and for this community only. Do you really think that Paul wrote this passage with the idea in his mind that it would be read and reflected today, two thousand years later? Paul composed these lines to help his followers imitate Jesus even when they were not 100% certain where the imitation was leading them. Paul commands his people:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks. Do not extinguish God’s Spirit. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Keep away from every kind of evil.
I think this is not a bad way to live – especially when we’re not exactly certain where our living is taking us in this time of the pandemic, in this time when we are not certain about so many things that change our lives.
Fr. Wolfgang Felber SJ