I frequently remind my students that the “call narratives” are usually the last part of a prophetic book to take shape. Only toward the end of their ministry are prophets finally able to surface what God was calling them to do. But since these narratives are frequently placed at the beginning of our collection of oracles, we presume the prophet knew all the details of his or her ministry from the beginning.
It’s significant today, for instance, that Third-Isaiah eventually discovers that the only people who benefited from the words he proclaimed were the lowly, the brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. I doubt he began his ministry with that specific audience in mind. Yet, no matter how his divinely commissioned service to his people evolved, the prophet was convinced that “the Spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me.”
We falsely presume God’s anointing is accompanied with a master plan for carrying out the mission for which one has been anointed. Rarely is that the biblical case.
John the Baptizer provides a perfect example. According to the prologue to John’s gospel from which our third reading is taken, no one was ever more certain of the details and direction of his ministry than the Baptizer. “There was a man sent by God,” the evangelist tells us, “who came as a witness to testify to 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 a voice in the desert, crying out: Make straight the way of the Lord! . . . There is one among you whom you do not recognize – the one who is to come after me - the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten.”
From the beginning, Christians have regarded John as Jesus’ precursor: the person who spent and gave his life to prepare the way for Jesus. Though no one denies he did this, scholars have been telling us for a long time that the historical John the Baptizer probably didn’t recognize his role in God’s plan until he walked through the pearly gates. One among many reasons for their belief springs from the fact that centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection followers of John were still going around teaching that he, not Jesus, had been the Messiah the Jews had been anticipating.
Most commentators today presume John was somehow allied with the community of Qumran – the people who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. And like other members of that community he simply went around proclaiming the belief that Yahweh was coming soon to rectify the wrongs they had suffered at the hands of their enemies. It probably never crossed his mind that he actually was preparing the ground for the seed Jesus would later plant.
Understand this; our I Thessalonians pericope becomes very significant.
In this section of the earliest Christian writing we possess, Paul’s not so much pointing out the meaning of the past as he’s trying to help his community experience the present.
Following the direction of this article, I presume the Apostle never thought this particular piece of correspondence would still be being read and reflected on almost 2,000 years after he dictated it. He composed these lines to help his followers imitate Jesus even when they weren’t 100% certain where the imitation was leading them.
“Rejoice always,” Paul commands his people. “Never cease praying, render constant thanks. . . Do not stifle the spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good. Avoid any semblance of evil.”
Not a bad way to live – especially when we’re not exactly certain where our living is taking us.