Prophets – To Be or Not to Be
The Lord said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and God’s chosen people were exiled to Babylon. It was a time of great turmoil. In response to the crisis God commissioned Ezekiel as prophet to his Israel.
Prior to his commissioning, Ezekiel had an amazing vision of fire, winged creatures, a chariot, and someone seated on a throne. He must have been smokin’ some good weed. When Ezechiel saw this vision of the glory of the Lord, he fell on his face. And then he heard the voice of the Lord.
The voice said to him “Go to the people of Israel – a nation of rebels. Speak my words to them whether they hear or refuse to hear. And do not to be afraid or dismayed.”
This is pretty standard stuff, in terms of what we know of Israel’s prophets. They are sent by God to call the people back to the covenant. They are ignored, forgotten, berated, mistreated, tortured, and killed. Nobody listens to them. This plays out over and over again.
Now fast forward to Jesus. Though we confess Him as Lord, to most of his contemporaries Jesus was just another prophet. And as a prophet his experience was no different.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is in Nazareth, his hometown, teaching in the synagogue, and no one is very happy with what he has to say. These are the people with whom he grew up, who know him and his family. And how do they respond? They are scandalized. “Hey, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy? What does he know? Who does he think he is?”
“Who do you think you are?” is a familiar epithet. We use it to rein someone in when we think they are starting to think too highly of themselves, when they start getting “too big for their britches.”
Everyone thought Ezekiel and the other prophets had a lot of nerve saying they spoke for God. And the people of Nazareth knew for certain that Jesus was getting too big for his britches, coming home and preaching to them that way.
We have not changed much over the centuries. Human nature being what it is, we are wary of people who claim to know truth, or claim to know “God’s will.”
Our suspicion and skepticism are often warranted. There are just too many instances of people being led astray by self-proclaimed experts and zealots, usually with very bad results. Remember the Jonestown story. Think of all the televangelists and other fundamentalist bible thumpers. We’re right to be careful, to be skeptical. It can be dangerous not to be.
So who is a prophet of God? Who is telling us what we want to hear, or what they want us to hear, and who is telling us the truth? For Christians the standard for truth is Jesus. And so we ask, “Is what is being said congruent with His mind, His heart and His will?” When it comes to the big issues, if we think there is a great deal of ambiguity in the truth that Jesus is and in the truth that He proclaims, we are probably in serious place of denial or woefully ignorant of the Gospel.
When a televangelist tells us that God wants us to be rich and to be bathed in material prosperity, that preacher has traveled light years away from Jesus. Or when a voice would have us believe tribalism is of God, that voice is totally out of touch with the Jesus who never advanced the interests of the nation to which he belonged or the tribe from which he sprang. Rather Jesus proclaimed a universal kingdom, which defied all boundaries and borders, and a beloved community from which no one was excluded. Again, Jesus always put law in its proper place and never gave it preeminence over compassion, mercy and love. Yes, disciples of Jesus generally know what sin is and on what side they must come down. Yes, we have what we need to distinguish truth tellers from liars.
And so who among us are called to be prophets? Who are called to speak the truth to sinners, to power and even to powerful sinners? In the Bible we often read of God using the least expected people to do His work, and very often the people involved weren’t too happy about it. Moses said he was not eloquent, that he was slow of speech: “Oh My Lord, please send someone else.” Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Nobody with any sense wants this job! But God says again and again, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll tell you what to say.”
Most often the truth is inconvenient. In our day, the truth has been rendered less important: than what pleases, galvanizes and excites the fearful crowd; than the sound bites; than the tweets and twisted rhetoric used to push not just another point of view but even an ugly, divisive and hateful agenda.
In these past two years truth has become the casualty of a fascist renaissance where racism, nativism and xenophobia display themselves with pride.
In November 2016 were we were not carried off into an exile of sorts? Do we not find ourselves living in a strange land? Is this not a time of great turmoil? We have been exiled from reality and carried off into a land where a bully’s voice babbles on with no sense, no sensitivity, and no sensibility. Yes, we are living in a Babylon of nonsense and are being invited again and again to see it as normal, as legitimate, as legal and even as of God. Just ask Robert Jeffress, Dallas mega church pastor, spiritual fraud and so-called religious advisor to the bully.
A child as young as three years old is made to appear before a federal judge without an attorney and without his parents, to plead his case for asylum. Yes, this is actually going on. As we struggle to get our heads around such a patent absurdity, let us not for one moment shield ourselves from the pain of these children reduced to such terror and tears. Their fear and their cry must remain immediate for us. These alone can keeps us in a place of heightened alert and move us to take every opportunity we are given and to create as many opportunities as we can to speak and to act on their behalf.
Yes, in this time of exile, it behooves us to remember that each of us is one of those least expected people whom God has chosen to be a prophet. At our baptism we, like Ezechiel of old and Jesus Himself, were commissioned to be prophets. The voice said to us, “Go to the people of this nation of rebels. Speak my words to them whether they hear or refuse to hear. And do not to be afraid or dismayed.”
And as we discern our way forward, we must listen to those voices that beat with the pulse of the gospel and speak the gospel’s truth. That pulse and that truth are really not all that difficult to detect and discern.
If we fail to do this work, if we excuse ourselves from it, if we indulge ourselves with distractions, and if we instead wander into other intellectual considerations and arguments, if we shield ourselves from the pain and the tears, then we fail to be the prophetic disciples that we have been called to be. We become complicit by our silence, indifference and the lies we tell ourselves, to the unconscionable abuse of children and the brutal violation of all asylum seekers.
How do you think Jesus would weigh in, in the case of children being brought before a judge to plead their case for an asylum of mercy and compassion? Has he not weighed in on the imperative of our welcoming the stranger? Has He not made his priorities and the priorities of the Kingdom transparently clear? If we don’t have a problem with what is going on, or if we manage to make it remote to our lives and our concerns, the living Christ challenges us to make it otherwise.
Life in Christ is life in truth. Who is speaking the truth to us today? And how are we called to speak the truth? When and what do we hear or refuse to hear, speak or refuse to speak?
Speaking the truth starts with heeding “the still, small voice in our own hearts” and telling the truth to our selves. We may not all be called to be one of prophets to the nations remembered by history, but we are called to discern the truth, to listen to the truth, and to speak the truth.
It starts with deconstructing our own carefully built walls of convenient assumptions and half-truths. Once we begin to tell the truth to ourselves, we will be better able to hear the word of the Lord all around us, speak God’s truth in our conversations with others and be about the task of engaging saving actions on behalf of the most vulnerable.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
July 8, 2018