31 January 2012

Are There Still Prophets Among Us?

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20 & Mark 1: 21-28 

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany/ 29th January 2012

 Prophet – one of the more problematic words in the Christian vocabulary and the wider public.  There’s something about this word, this role that makes us uncomfortable.  We probably think of those wild and wooly Old Testament prophets preaching death and destruction or someone like John the Baptist preaching out in the wilderness warning, “Repent!”  Say the word “prophet” and we think of someone like Nostradamus (1503-1566), who predicts the future and reports back what it coming, and it’s usually not good, it’s usually downright bad and scary, cataclysmic.  That’s why when many hear the word “prophet” they immediately think “doom and gloom.” We generally don’t have good associations with either the word or the role.  Prophets are controversial, adversarial. We don’t imagine them as particularly happy people.  They’re loners, outcasts, people who live on the fringe and a little odd.  They’re not people we aspire to be or become. Have you ever heard someone say, “One day, when I grow up, I’m going to be a prophet!”?  Have you? I haven’t it. A psychologist might say such a person suffers from unhealthy fantasies of grandeur or struggles with a messiah complex. Or given what often happens to prophets, such a person suffers from an unconscious death-wish.

            My meanderings here on our associations of this word serve to demonstrate that we have, yet again, an example of how our assumptions and culturally-determined definitions of biblical words can hinder us from hearing scripture and therefore hinder us from living faithful lives.  The Bible, however, casts a different light on the meaning of the word.

            A prophet is, quite simply, one who speaks on behalf of God.  It’s right there in Deuteronomy:  “I will raise up for [Israel] a prophet” like Moses, who spoke for God, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (18:18). Note several things here.  First, one does not ask to be a prophet.  One is called.  In fact, it looks like one doesn’t have a choice.  Second, the message of the prophet does not belong to the prophet, but to God.  The prophet becomes the mouthpiece for God.  The personality of the prophet remains, of course, God doesn’t take over his body and kick him out.  The prophet lives, as it were, close to God, close enough to hear the heart-beat of God, close enough to know the heart and mind of God, intimately close enough to hear what God has to say, close enough to understand that Word, close enough to know that the message given is holy, that it’s a matter of life and death, and that once heard, it has to be said. 

            This means we have to set aside notions of the prophet as a kind of seer predicting the future.  The prophet does not predict the future, per se, but rather imagines the future.  When the prophet preaches it’s always cutting edge and future oriented, yet it does not predict the future.   What the prophet offers always has a public and social dimension to it.[1]  The prophet has a burden in his heart, a concern for people – widows, orphans, the most vulnerable among us, the oppressed – for communities and nations.  Because the prophet is close to God, knows the heart and will of God, because the prophet has been given a glimpse of what matters most to God and what God hopes for, the prophet’s message will confront us with a choice:  either embody God's vision for creation and find life or ignore, reject, refuse God’s vision and deal with the consequences.  The prophet, speaking for God, helps us to see the world as it is and then imagines what it shall be and calls us to live into that reality. 

            Because the prophet usually has a very good sense of the values and priorities of the prevailing culture, he or she also knows that hearing this message and heeding it will entail considerable resistance and opposition.  The prophet knows what he’s up against.  She knows it won’t be easy, but she doesn’t have a choice.  The prophet didn’t have a choice.  As Jeremiah said, many will try to shut him up or expect him to be quiet. “But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’” that is, if I tried to withhold God’s message, if I tried to stop talking about God and God’s vision, God’s “word,” he said, “is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).  To contain that fire is exhausting.

            You see, a prophet – and even preachers now and again by God’s grace – have “received a window into the reality of God”[2] and know that that view is so amazing, so extraordinary and beautiful, that if fully acknowledged and embraced, it has the power to transform existence and the world.  A prophet is someone who has been drawn into the heart and mind of God and once there can no longer be content with conventional wisdom and values and superficial existence and unjust social structures that do not reflect the heart and mind of God.[3]

            In this way the prophet is actually more like a poet who, by grace, can imagine another world in this world, another reality, a different future.[4]  Biblical prophets are probably closer to poets – good poets – who through the power of language give us the ability to go deeper into reality, they help us to see things we might otherwise miss or ignore, and then they transfigure the way we see with our own eyes and hearts.  The nineteenth century American poet James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) captures this way of being in one of his poems.  He’s not talking about being a prophet here, but it applies:

            For I believed the poets:  it is they
            Who utter wisdom from the central deep,
            And listening to the inner flow of things,
            Speak to the age out of eternity.[5]

            Because the glimpse, the vision into “the central deep” of God – I love that – is so precious and holy and good and wise, the prophet feels called, obliged, compelled to stand against everything in the world that threatens God’s intention for creation.  And God’s intention is righteousness and justice – which is not vengeance! (another biblical word often misunderstood) – two words used over and over in scripture that point to God’s desire for healing, for wholeness, for relationships mended – with our neighbors, with God, with ourselves.  If God’s desire for creation is wholeness and healing, for things put right, then that means God is against everything that hinders this.  It means that God’s heart breaks with every breaking heart.  It means that God wants compassion for everyone who knows or is a victim of brokenness – and God calls upon us, through the prophets, to do something about it.

            The message of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1926-1968), comes on strong – to put it lightly – but we must not fail to see the heart that stands behind their urgings, of the compassion, of the desire for change and reform, for the sake of suffering people.  The prophet has a call to liberate, to heal, to redeem, to make whole. 

            When God’s message of justice (again, not vengeance) is heard and heeded it will inevitably clash with the prevailing powers that be, because the powers that be generally don’t want to hear this message.  That’s why its feels controversial or adversarial. Prophets say things the majority doesn’t want to hear and because the majority has considerable power and influence, it does everything it can to silence, mock, ignore, and – if need be, even kill – the prophet to maintain the status quo, knowing full-well that status quo, the way things are, is not offering liberation, healing, redemption, wholeness to everyone.  Yes, to some, the majority, but not everyone.  You can also see why the prophet is always the voice of the minority.  I can’t think of a prophet, ancient or contemporary, who spoke from the center of society.  They’re often on the fringe – on the left, but also on the right of things.  The message is always unpopular.  That’s why prophetic preaching in the church, especially today, is unpopular.  It’s never been popular.  It doesn’t build churches because it’s not the preaching the masses want to hear.  It’s also why we generally don’t find prophetic preaching in today’s megachurches.[6]  For example, you don’t find Joel Osteen – the pastor of the largest church in the United States, the Lakewood Church, in Houston, TX, with 43,500 in attendance each week – preaching prophetically.  They also took the cross out of their sanctuary because some might view it as a downer.

            How can you remove the cross from Jesus’ message? It’s easy when you remove the prophetic element of Jesus’ message and ministry.  Jesus knew that prophets often got killed.  The cross itself is a reminder that we often refuse to hear the Word of God; we often resist the message of the prophets.  We would rather he just go away so that we can carry on with our false pieties that comfort us and our values and our priorities.  Jesus comes preaching from a long line of prophetic preachers with a message of liberation and healing that was really more than the powers could tolerate, either then or now. 

            Just look at this healing story in Capernaum.  Jesus comes with considerable authority to heal, to make whole.  The text says that the people were amazed, startled by his authority, that he was able to heal.  But why are they so amazed?  Isn’t this what one would expect from the community of faith?  Isn’t this what one would expect from someone coming in the name of God, with good news, and a word from the Lord?  That is, unless, the community in Capernaum, at some level, really didn’t expect or want such display of power and authority, did not want God’s presence in their sanctuary messing things up too much, did not want God coming in and telling them that all is not well in the world and then try to change it, did not want anyone coming among them in the name of God and claiming an authority that would make the Roman Empire nervous.  No wonder Jesus was escorted from many a synagogue and village.

            I think it’s important to remember, as J. Herbert Nelson (director of the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) in Washington, DC) reminded us several weeks ago here in worship, the prophet speaks truth to power in love.  When Jesus spoke truth to power he did so in love.  Jesus’ message was radical and controversial, but that was not his aim.  If it was, then he didn’t come in the name of God.  Yes, he came to tear down and overturn, but in order to build up and love people into the kingdom, into God’s vision of justice.  And Jesus could do this, he had the authority, because he knew the message and was faithful to it because he knew the heart-beat of God, he lived close, intimately close to God and shared God’s dream and promise of a world made new, he knew the heart and will of God.

            Are there still prophets among us?  Who are the great prophetic preachers in our age?  Can you name them?  What about prophetic elders and trustees and deacons?  Prophetic members of congregations? What about prophetic congregations?  The fact that their names don’t come rolling off of our tongues probably says something about the nature of Christianity in the world today.  Dr. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School, believes that “We have lost our will to preach prophetically because we have lost the prophetic vision that comes from being intimately connected to God, with God’s world, with God’s people.”[7]  What do you think?

            This past week global leaders gathered from around the world for the annual meeting of World Economic Forum in tony Davos, Switzerland; the brightest among us came together to discuss the future of the world economy.  A sobering statistic emerged this week, given in a report to one of their committees. There are problems with throwing out statistics, but this appears reliable and was presented to help raise our awareness of things.  “At the end of the 19th century the ratio of the 20% in the world to the poorest 20% in the world was about 7:1; at the end of the 20th century, it was 75:1.”[8]  In other words, the richest 20% had 7 times what the poorest 20% had at the end of the 19th century; today, the richest 20% have 75 times what the poorest 20% have.
            Now, how does that make you feel?  Now imagine, from what you know is near and dear to God’s heart, how do you think God feels about this?  And then imagine, what do you think God would say about this situation?  Then ask, what would God have you do about this?  Then ask, what would God have you say?  What needs to be said? That’s how prophets are born.  That’s how the prophetic voice emerges.  So, are there still prophets among us?

Image: The prophet Ezekiel (14: 1-21), August Doré's (1823-1883), English Bible (1866).

[1] Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Prophetic Preaching:  A Pastoral Approach (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 1-4.
[2] J. Philip Wogaman, Speaking the Truth in Love:  Prophetic Preaching to a Broken World (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 3, cited in Tisdale, 4.
[3] Wogaman on preaching, Tisdale, 4.
[4] Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, for example, often interchanges poet and prophet in his writings.
[5]James Russell Lowell, “Columbus,” The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell (Boston:  1876), cited by Wogaman.
[6] One notable exception would be Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL, a theologically liberal, socially progressive megachurch that has grown in membership precisely because of its prophetic stance.  See:  http://johnvest.com/2012/01/30/worth-holding-on-to/
[7] Tisdale, 20.
[8] This statistic was shared by Dr. Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, who participated in discussions on economic justice with the Global Agenda Council on Values. See also this very informative presentation by Hans Rosling on the growing economic disparity:  http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/hans_rosling_at_state.html

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