I’m leading the service next Sunday, and as today is a day with no lessons planned, I wanted to get ahead and plan the service… Of course, if something horrendous happens between today and Sunday things may change dramatically!
I am using a sermon I’ve preached before, but I have changed it a little, to link with the readings, and to be relevant to our church. I thought you might like to read it…
Readings: Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
There is the test that psychiatrists are supposed to carry out in order to understand some deep aspect of the psyche, when they say a word and the patient has to say the first thing that comes into their head, thus giving away their very secret thoughts. Of course, with us, the image that would pop into our heads would perfectly normal – because we are all normal people… So, if I say the word “prophet” I wonder what you think of?
Now, I don’t know about you, but if anyone said the word “prophet” to me, my first thought is someone rather grubby, dressed in a hairy garment of some description, wandering in the desert, and declaiming gloomy predictions of doom and despair. No offence meant, but I certainly wouldn’t think of someone like Father Rob or Laurie. But I would be wrong. You see, “prophet” means “one who speaks God’s word”: that’s all. It doesn’t mean prediction of the future – although that is often part of a prophecy – it doesn’t mean someone who wears hairy clothes. It simply means someone who speaks God’s word. And that is anyone of us here today.
I think that most people would think of the prophets of the Old Testament if that word was said to them, possibly assuming with me that they were all the grubby, hairy creatures of my imaginings. But of course, they were as many and varied as we are today. There was not a blue-print, a template labelled “Prophet” from which all of them were cut. They were different. There was Amos, from whom we heard this morning, who was originally a shepherd and a dresser of trees, before he was called to be a prophet, while Zephaniah was a person of considerable social standing, possibly related to the royal line. There was Elisha, who appeared to be a farmer of some type, as Elijah first came across him ploughing. Ezekiel was a Jew in exile, married and living in his own home in Babylon. And the list could go on for some time longer, for there were many prophets.
All very different people, with different backgrounds, and different ways of delivering their message.
But however different the Old Testament prophets were, they had two things in common.
First, they all had a living relationship with God. This relationship was not bounded by conformity with the world around them, and did not follow the rules that bounded the religion of the time. It was real, it was dynamic and it fuelled their whole lives.
We see this in the passion that Elijah had for God, and the understanding of the great holiness of their Lord that shines through the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel. All the prophets stress the need to follow the laws of God, but not the legalistic nightmare of prohibitions and demands that the Jewish religion seemed to be becoming, but rather as a way of understanding God’s will, and thus finding the way to true holiness of life.
The second thing that was held in common was that the prophets all had a firm grasp of the situation and the needs of the people around them. They rebuked the religious people for their compromise and insistence on the minutiae of the Torah, while ignoring the needs of the poor and vulnerable. The prophets had a passion for justice, angered by the oppression that they saw going on around them and they spoke up, condemning the complacency that they saw everywhere they looked.
Every Old Testament prophet, whoever he was, spoke a message that was unwelcome to those who heard, but carried on regardless of what this would mean. Almost all the prophets in the Old Testament were either ignored, or positively persecuted because of what they were saying. Some, like Ezekiel did not meet opposition, but rather indifference. Those who listened to Ezekiel were condemned for having “eyes to see but do not see, and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people”. Ezekiel had to struggle to light a flame in the hearts of people who didn’t really care about what was going on around them, for they were too concerned about their own lives. We heard how unwelcome the message of Amos was, as he was accused of conspiring against the King with his message prophesying the end of Jeroboam’s reign. Other prophets were hounded near to death: there were death threats against Jeremiah, for criticising the King, and Elijah had to flee the wrath of Jezebel, only to discover the still, small voice of God, as he hid trembling and downhearted in a cave on Mount Horeb. A prophet’s lot was not a happy one, and the reason for this was their message. They pulled no punches, they didn’t dress up what they had to say in pretty pictures. No, they went in, straight for the jugular ~ and that made people very uncomfortable!
And the message that was so unwelcome? It was that failing to follow God’s way would lead to disaster. The prophets understood that actions have consequences and that humankind is responsible before God for the results of its actions and attitudes. It was this message that they were trying to get across to the people.
But to be honest, these prophets were fairly few and far between. These are particular men called by God to speak to one nation, to Israel, the Chosen People, and to say that God was displeased by the actions and attitudes that he saw, and that there would be judgement on the people for these. One such prophecy was that of Joel, who foretold a plague of locusts and a severe drought that would devastate Judah, and he saw this as judgement from God, a harbinger of the “great and dreadful day of the Lord. Confronted by this crisis. He calls on everyone to repent, describing the locusts as the Lord’s army, and as a reminder that the day of the Lord is near. He smashes the popular notion that the Day of the Lord will be a day of judgement on the other nations but a day of great blessing for Israel; rather he points out that in its complacency and its unfaithfulness to God, Israel too will be judged and found lacking. Restoration and blessing will come only after judgement and repentance.
But as well as this, Joel looks forward to a new time; a time when God will pour out his spirit on all people, when sons and daughters will prophesy, and all will see the wonders of God. He anticipates the time when everyone could enjoy the inspiration and vision of the Spirit when only a few had done so previously. This was a highly radical vision, with no distinction being made between old and young, or male and female. Equality at last!
This is the time that Moses too, had dreamt of, saying in Numbers 11, v 29 “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them”
And this OT hope was realised in the new covenant with Jesus. It is through his coming that we can all know God more clearly, and that we can learn what the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, can mean for us. It is no longer the men only situation of OT times; Joel’s prophecy has come to fruition, as we read in Galatians 3 “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”
I find it fascinating that it is Joel’s prophecy of what will happen after the judgement and repentance of the people of Israel that is used by Peter at Pentecost in his speech to the people of Jerusalem.
It is as though Peter was saying that before the coming of the Messiah, only the chosen few could be the prophets, for it was only they who were authorised to speak the word of God. But now, the Messiah has come. In a way, the judgement of God has come, and the punishment has been meted out, as threatened in the prophecies of old. But the punishment was not borne by us, even though we deserved it. Somehow, in the great mystery of our faith, the punishment was meted out by God, but also borne by God; he condemned us for our sinful attitudes, but he took the consequences. With the repentance that comes after judgement, as Joel foretold, then God’s Spirit is poured out upon all God’s people, and all will become prophets.
It is no longer only certain men of God who are called to be prophets, but all those who have repented and received the Holy Spirit are the prophets of God.
So what does this mean for us, today, here in Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand, called to be prophets in our time, as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Micah were called?
Well, if we go back to look at the very roots of the message that every prophet from the Old Testament gave, we find that it means the same for us as it did to them.
First, we can do nothing unless we have a living relationship with God, and that relationship begins with repenting of our past life and accepting that Christ carried our sins with him to the cross. With this true repentance comes the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who filled the prophets of old and gave them the words to say and the strength to say them. But now, through Jesus the gift of the Spirit is now available to all instead of to the few prophets of OT times.
Jesus has opened the way to a new relationship with God, bringing a clearer understanding of what it means. He said “On that day” that is, the day the Spirit comes,” you will understand that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you”. When we receive the gift of the Spirit of truth we come into a deeper relationship of understanding and truth with God. If we are Christians, then we too have been anointed as Jesus had. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us also, regardless of whether we have spoken in tongues, as the first disciples did. If we have accepted Jesus as our Lord, then we have also received the Holy Spirit. We are anointed as children of God, and we have been anointed to bring good news to the poor.
And then, together with the prophets of old, we need to see the world around us as it is, to have a grasp the situation and the needs of the people. Our challenge is the same challenge that those prophets had – to speak out to individuals, to the church and to society on the issues of the day, and to show that the status quo, the way it is done, is not the way that God wants to see life led. As Hosea speaks out about the cheating that he sees going on around him and the Israelite’s unfaithfulness to the God who saved them, as Isaiah condemns Israel for its treatment of the most vulnerable members of society, so we are called to challenge what we see in society as contrary to the will of God.
Each prophet had his own particular message for his particular time; each had their own way of presenting this message. As Jesus used parables to teach his message, using simple, everyday experiences to point out the truth of what he was saying, so too did the prophets. They told their message in such a way that people could understand, in such a way that people could not fail to see what God was telling them.
In this way, for example, Hosea was led to act out his prophecies in his own life. He told of God’s sorrow at the faithlessness of Israel by marrying a wife who took lovers; as Israel had turned her back on God, so Gomer, his wife, turned her back on Hosea. Israel had become as a harlot, immoral, uncaring and false. Jeremiah was told to announce the words of God through examples – he was at the potter’s house, and used the example of the potter breaking a clay pot to remake it as a better pot as an allegory for how God will punish Israel. Each prophet knew how to get through to the audience he was speaking to, and he only knew this because he had lived among them.
In the reading from Luke, we heard the lawyer asking Jesus a question to trick him into saying something that could be used against him. Jesus, like the Old Testament prophets before him, told a parable that spoke of the issues of the day. When asked “what does God require of us?” Jesus sketched out a story of a divided community, where it was the outsider who cared for the person in need. He spoke to the people around him with a message that went straight to their hearts and their understanding.
So it is with us. We are all different, and we will all have different ways of speaking out God’s word to the community in which we live. But speak it out we should. We should be telling people that the way life is lived in this world of ours is not God’s way, that the poor and vulnerable are oppressed, and that there is cheating and a lack of care for everything around us. As the prophets of old, we need to demonstrate that we will all be responsible before God for the results of our actions and attitudes.
Maybe your prophecy is action, feeling called to be involved in providing relief for the refugees who are still desperately searching for safety; maybe your way of speaking out against oppression is to join Amnesty International; maybe you are show God’s way by getting involved in the Fair Trade movement. Or maybe you are just called to speak God’s word by living as a Christian in your place of work, unafraid of standing up for your beliefs, challenging racist attitudes or standing up for the vulnerable when refugees and asylum seekers are slagged off as “spongers”. Whatever it is, we have been anointed by the Holy Spirit to do this task. As each of the Old Testament prophets had their call, when they accepted the mantle of prophethood, so we have had ours. As Christ declared himself to in the synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. When we became Christians we were anointed for that same task, and we should embrace it. In Colossians Paul prays that those to whom he writes “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and this is my prayer today – that all of us here might be filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit, calling us to stand up for the weak, the oppressed; to speak God’s word in a world that has eyes to see but does not see, ears to hear, but does not hear; calling us to love the Lord your God with all our heart, our soul, our strength, our mind; and calling us to love our neighbours in a way that reveals God’s love.
And so, the prophet of my imagination, of grubby hairiness, is not the prophet God has anointed us to be. He has anointed us as today’s prophets, to go out into the world, secure in our relationship with him, and determined to speak out against oppression and the injustices of this world we live in. He has called us, in the words of another prophet, Micah, “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”