We are not Messiahs.


“I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’

as Isaiah the prophet said.” – John 1:20-23

Our reading today returns to the notion of the Prophet.  John the Baptist is very clear in his response to the priests and Levites – he is NOT the Prophet, i.e., the Messiah, but rather a “voice crying out in the desert”.

Reflecting upon this verse, I am reminded of my former bishop, Kenneth Untener (d. 2004), who as the Bishop of Saginaw (Michigan) was often “a voice crying out in the desert”.  He was a wonderful person and a great leader.  To give you a sense of his “voice”, the following  excerpt is taken from an NCR article written by Peter Hebblethwaite about him published on Oct. 23, 1992.

Untener defines prophecy — a gift to which all pastors should aspire — as speaking the hard truth of the gospel. The prophet should be reluctant — not because of the flak he will receive, but because of the focus on himself.

“If you preach the hard message,” he told the National Federation of Priests’ Councils at Orlando, Fla., in April 1991, “you are standing out there, a little ahead of or apart from the others, and you are claiming to know better than the rest.”

This sounds autobiographical, as do the warnings with which Untener surrounds his remarks on prophecy. Beware the prophet who too easily wears the mantle of the prophet.

Beware the prophet who has everything figured out. Beware of the prophet with narrow horizons. Beware of the prophet who sets out to act and look like a prophet.

Pope John XXIII, undoubtedly a prophetic figure in the late 20th-century church, did not look like or act like a prophet. Says Untener, “He looked like someone who should be selling pizza.”

The prophet, in short, is an enabler and empowered. He allows the Lord to build the house, and unless we leave him that freedom we labor in vain.

“More and more I have come to believe,” says Untener, “that my task is to craft something small, something good, that the master builder will use. “ Untener has crafted many small, good things in his diocese that the master builder can use. (For the full article click here)

As we begin this New Year of 2016 may we use all the gifts and talents God has showered upon us to “craft something small, something good, that the master builder can use.”    I end with this prayer written by Bp Ken for John Cardinal Deardon (from a homily given for the Mass for the Deceased Priests of the Archdiocese of Detroit, October 25, 1979)

            It helps now and then to step back and take the long view.  The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is beyond our vision.  We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work.

What all this comes down to is the realization that everything we do is incomplete.  We have to approach it that way, with humility, a sense of mystery, a profound reverence.

That is not always an easy thing to do.  There is something in each of us that makes us want to do a complete job and call it out own.  We are driven toward wholeness.   We want to experience the fulfillment of rounding things off nicely.  We want to finish them, settle things before moving on to our next task.

It can’t be done.  Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.  No sermon says all that should be said.  No prayer fully expresses our faith.  No confession brings perfection.  No pastoral visit brings wholeness.  No program fully accomplishes the Church’s mission.  No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

To say that what we do is incomplete is not to say that what we do is unimportant.  It becomes even more important, because it is part of something greater than meets the eye.  It is as important as planting is to the harvest . . . as a foundation to a skyscraper.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.  This enables us to do something, and do it very, very well.  It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an entrée for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.  We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker.  We are workers, not Master Builders . . . ministers, not Messiahs.  We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

Photo also from article quoted



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