speaks prophetically through the Church and through some individuals,
and the prophetic task is inseparable from humility,
constructiveness, graciousness, love, patience and generosity.
Like many churches in our day, we have not talked a lot about prophecy here. Many of us have been, at some stage, part of churches where the claim to be speaking a prophetic word from the Lord was quite common. There were plenty of people always saying that the Lord had spoken to them about this, that or the other thing and anointed them to pass this word on to the community. And many of us have become a bit wary of that kind of thing. For various reasons we became dubious of the truth of some of these prophecies and the prophets who delivered them. But the well known human phenomena of throwing the baby out with the bathwater has almost certainly been in play here. Perhaps there is a valid understanding of prophecy and prophets that we need to recover. And since prophecy is a prominent theme of all three readings today, now seems like the time to consider it.
In the first reading we heard the story of God calling and commissioning Jeremiah to the role of prophet in Israel. “The Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you.” Jeremiah protests that he is not up to the job, that he is too young, and has no public speaking skills, but the Lord assures him that he has known him and loved him since conception and will be with him in everything.
In our second reading, taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, love, not prophesy, is the main focus. But prophesy is spoken of too, precisely to make the important point that love, not prophesy, is the main focus. “If I speak in words of prophecy, but do not have love, I am nothing.” A “keep it in perspective” message about prophecy, if you like.
And then in the gospel reading, we have a picture of Jesus the prophet at work. We heard the first part of the story last week, when he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue. Tonight we get a snapshot of the prophetic sermon he preached after that reading and the angry, even murderous, response of the people. We also get Jesus’ warning that “no prophet is accepted in their own hometown.”
So what are these passages of scripture calling us to learn about prophesy? What can we take from them? I guess we should start at the beginning with the first obvious question: what is prophesy?
It is an important place to start because it is commonly misunderstood. Outside of the Bible, the word has come to mean foretelling, predicting the future. So a prophet comes to mean someone who can tell you what is going to happen in the future, and a prophesy is a message predicting future events. But in the Bible, although prophesies sometimes include messages about future events, that is not the main meaning. A prophesy is a message from God, and a prophet is the spokesperson who brings the message on behalf of God. In our gospel reading, for example, Jesus is not bringing a message about the future. In fact, quite the opposite; he is bringing an interpretation of the past. What makes it prophesy is that he is acting as an authorised representative of God. He is speaking the word of the Lord. And if it wasn’t that Jesus refers to it as prophesy himself, we might not of thought of this as prophesy, but simply as preaching. But that itself is an important point. Biblically, the words prophesying and preaching mean pretty much the same thing and are virtually interchangeable. Not all prophesy happens in the sermon slot during a worship service, but all preaching is supposed to be prophetic — an authorised word from the Lord. Do we have regular prophesying in this church. I sure hope so, because if we don’t then I’m not doing my job and you should be looking for a new preacher!
But I am not supposed to be the only prophet here. Prophesying is not reserved to the designated preacher. It is the task of the church as a whole. I don’t mean by that that it is the task of every individual acting individually. Rather, it is the task of the church, the body of Christ, acting collectively. Together we are called to proclaim God’s message to the world, to bear the word of the Lord to all. Our congregational covenant affirms this, reminding us that we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, sent into the world he loves to represent and promote Christ’s values of life, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, and sustainable stewardship in the places where we live, work and play. That is our collective mission, given to us in our baptism.
But what of individuals? We are all naturally and correctly wary of self-appointed prophets, but what can we say of real ones. How are we to recognise those who God really has commissioned to speak to us with the word of challenge or comfort or correction or commission? Well, let me briefly identify five things that emerge from these readings that might be of help to us here.
Firstly, the prophet is appointed and anointed by God. A self-appointed prophet is a contradiction in terms. You can only speak on behalf of somebody else when that somebody else has authorised you to do so. Now this, of course, is not necessarily an easy thing to discern, because self-appointed prophets almost always claim that they have been appointed by God, and how are we to know? Without further information, we may not be able to know, which is why this is only the first of five points. But two things might be safely said about it. In order for a prophet to be appointed by God, they are probably going to need to be a prayerful person; someone who spends time contemplating the scriptures and listening openly to God. And secondly, other wise and prayerful people are likely to recognise and affirm their prophetic anointing. The powerful people and designated leaders may not, because we will often be the ones who the prophet has to challenge on God’s behalf, so we are likely to resist. But the true prophet is validated by the community of the faithful, the prayerful and the wise.
Secondly, and also evident in the story of Jeremiah’s call, the true prophet is usually reluctant. Jeremiah, like Moses before him, protested and tried to persuade God that he was not the right person for the job. Once again, most false and self-appointed prophets will tell you, and perhaps even persuade themselves, that they accepted this role only reluctantly. But what we usually notice in the true prophets, in the ones that God has truly anointed to speak to us, is that there is a continued reluctance about them, especially when they are called to challenge and confront and denounce. They are not looking for opportunities. If they begin relishing their adversarial role and looking for every opportunity to oppose something, they are probably not acting on the authority of God at all. The true prophet always finds the nay-saying side of the prophetic task to be a painful one they’d rather avoid if the Lord was not constantly lighting a fire in their bones.
Thirdly, the true prophet does not only denounce and oppose, but edifies, encourages, and builds up. To Jeremiah, the Lord says, “I appoint you to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Not just to pull down, and destroy and overthrow, but to build and to plant. To tend and nurture and create. So true prophets are constructive. They may often be called upon to knock something down, but they are seldom called to do that without having plenty to say about the new and wonderful and life-giving things that are to be built in its place. God’s challenge to us is always a call to something good and true and worthy, and the nay-saying is only ever a clearing of the decks to make way for that. So God’s messengers will be known for what they are calling us to, even when there is something to be challenged and demolished first.
Fourthly, true prophets are recognised for their graciousness. It is true that the crowd in Nazareth lost their temper with Jesus and wanted to kill him for what he said, but before they took offence they were all speaking “well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” This is related to the previous point, because it shows that, as a true prophet, he was not just an angry young man getting up everybody’s nose. His basic message was gracious and positive and affirming. In this case the sting came when he would not confirm their prejudice that God’s grace was for their privileged selves alone, but was for all people, no exceptions, no favourites. There was no question about his graciousness; it just went too far for their liking.
Fifthly, and perhaps most importantly, we turn to the Corinthians reading. “If I speak in words of prophecy, but do not have love, I am nothing.” True prophets are not motivated or characterised by disdain or resentment or contempt for the community they are addressing. They are motivated by and characterised by love; love for God and love for the community. It will be love that is most apparent. Real active experienced love. Not the false “I’m saying this in love” type of farce that tries to invoke the name of love to disguise the contempt and bitterness that is really straining at the leash. The Apostle Paul is not going to let us get away with cheap-words love. That’s why he goes into such detail to describe love. And he didn’t mean this as a wedding reflection either, despite where you’ve most often heard it read. This is about the nature of love in the church, in the body of Christ, in the prophetic community.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful... It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” So let me spell out the implications of that for our topic. The true prophet is patient; the true prophet is kind; the true prophet is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. True prophets do not insist on its own way; they are not irritable or resentful... True prophets bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.
As Jesus says elsewhere, by their fruits you shall know them, and the number one fruit of the Spirit is love. So ultimately, not only is it those who love patiently, kindly, gently and humbly who we will look to and trust as bearers of the word of God, but it is those who truly love who are likely to be bearers of the Word, even when they are not imagining themselves as prophets or being conscious of any special calling and anointing to the task. Love and truth go hand in hand. True prophesy is inseparable from love, and while prophesy will pass away, love remains. And this, I trust, is a prophetic word of the Lord.