The Lessons for Proper 7, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42 and 43, Galatians 3:23-39, St. Luke 8:26-39
How do we recognize Prophets?
In our readings from Scripture today, we have situations in which it was quite easy to recognize God’s messenger … Elijah, the Prophet of the God of Israel, just before going out to spend his time in the desert cave described in today’s reading from the First Book of Kings had, as our reading tells us, slain the false prophets of Baal, the god of the Sidonians, in a sort of battle of prophecy. It was pretty clear from the outcome of that contest that Elijah was a man of God.
I assume that the Gerasenes would have recognized the man freed from demonic possession and, because of his miraculous healing, would have recognized him as some how special, perhaps even as a prophet as he told them about what Jesus had done for him.
Paul assures us in his letter to the church in Ephesus that the gift of prophecy is an on-going charism of the Holy Spirit and that throughout the church “some [will] be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry….” So, how do we recognize Prophets?
First of all, I think we need to know what we’re talking about, what we mean by “Prophet”, before we can know how to recognize them….
Contrary to popular misconception, prophets are not seers, diviners, fortune-tellers, or predictors-of-the-future. Niels Bohr, the physicist who pioneered quantum theory, once said, “Prediction is a very difficult art, especially when it involves the future.” But that is not what prophets are about. They are not concerned with the future, although from time to time they may pronounce God’s warnings or promises. The prophets’ concern is with the present. One definition says that a prophet is
Someone who is the mouthpiece of God. He stands between God and man to communicate to man the word of God. When the prophet spoke as the mouthpiece [of God] he was inspired … The prophet, though, is not a puppet or a mindless repeater of what he hears. Instead, he retains his own will, mind, and thoughts as he speaks for God. …. A prophet is God’s servant and messenger.
It is frequently said that the prophet’s job is not “foretelling”, but “forth-telling.” The prophets’ concern was and is to speak God’s word to the people of the prophets’ time. Prophecy is the word of God addressing today, not tomorrow!
In our hymnal is a piece entitled God of the prophets. It is designated particularly for use at ordinations, but perhaps we ought to look at it more often. In it we are given a pretty good description of the role of the prophets’ heirs and this may help us recognize the prophets of our day and time. If you would like to follow along with me, pull out a hymnal and turn to Hymn 359 (as found in the Episcopal Church Hymnal 1982).
Verse One says this:
God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ heirs
Elijah’s mantle o’er Elishah cast
Each age for thine own solemn task prepares
Make each one stronger than the last
“Each age for thine own solemn task prepares” Here is the first mark of the prophet; preparing for … and doing … the work of God in his or her own age, in the here-and-now.
Anoint them prophets! Teach them thine intent;
To human need their quickened hearts awake
Fill them with power, their lips make eloquent
For righteousness that shall all evil break.
“To human need their quickened hearts awake” The prophet is one who recognizes and calls to our attention the needs of those around us. It is hoped that the prophet will speak with “eloquent lips,” but that’s not always a sign of one who speaks for God. Moses, who clearly spoke for God, you may recall, had a speech impediment, while Adolph Hitler, one of the most gifted orators of modern times, clearly did not speak for God.
Anoint them priests! Help them to intercede
With all thy royal priesthood born of grace:
Through them thy Church presents in word and deed
Christ’s one true sacrifice with thankful praise.
“Christ’s one true sacrifice” David Watson, in his book Called & Committed: World-Changing Discipleship (Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL; 1982), suggests that one test of prophecy in the Christian world is to ask of it, “Does it glorify Christ?” Says Watson, “The prophecy may not mention Christ by name, but does the whole message honor and glorify him? This is always the Spirit’s primary work.”
Anoint them kings! Yea, kingly kings, O Lord!
Anoint them with the Spirit of thy Son;
Theirs not a monarch’s crown or tyrant’s sword;
Theirs by the love of Christ a kingdom won.
Not a monarch’s crown or tyrant’s sword” Prophets are concerned with the here-and-now, but they are not concerned with the rewards of the day. Prophets are not worried about their own well-being … Isaiah, it is recorded, wandered naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years! We probably don’t have any prophets in this day who are doing that, but a public spokesperson dressed in Giorgio Armani suits and stylishly coiffed should probably be tested fairly severely before being considered a prophet.
Make them apostles, heralds of thy cross;
Forth may they go to tell all realms thy grace;
Inspired of thee, may they count all but loss,
And stand at last with joy before thy face.
“Make them apostles” Every Sunday we proclaim our faith in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” without really considering what it means for the church to be “apostolic” … that word doesn’t mean that we have bishops in the “apostolic succession” (although as Episcopalians we do), nor does it mean necessarily that we preserve the “deposit of faith once delivered to the apostles” (although as Anglicans we certainly try to). It means that the church is sent … that’s what the Greek word apostoloV means: “one who is dispatched or sent out with a message. “
Who, then, are the heirs of the prophets? And how do we recognize them?
Sometimes they don’t even recognize themselves. My favorite prophet is Amos, who did not recognize his own prophetic ministry. When addressed as “prophet,” he protested: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” (Amos 7:14)
The heirs of the prophets, some of them, are sitting here today. Each person in this church, at baptism, was given the commission of a prophet and made a promise (or had a promise made for them) to exercise that commission: we call it the Baptismal Covenant! Look around you, and if you have a mirror handy, look into it…. you will see prophets and heirs of the prophets! You may, like Amos, consider yourself merely a herdsman, or a dresser of sycamore trees … but you are a prophet!
Everyday, test your prophecy.
First, are you living in the here-and-now? Are you concerned about today? Or, like so many others ignoring the present, are you more worried about tomorrow, or the next day, or the week after, or some year far ahead. Remember what Jesus said: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:27,34) Live in the here-and-now and encourage those around you to do likewise.
Second, are you attuned to and responding to the needs of those around you? Or, like so many others ignoring the present and those present, like Gerasene demoniac before his healing, are you focused on your own wants and desires? Remember what Jesus said:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matt. 25:36-37,40)
Live in the here-and-now and respond to the needs you see today.
Thirdly, do your words and deeds glorify God in Christ? St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are a reminder to us as well: “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) Live in the here-and-now, responding to the needs around you, in a way that reflects well on the faith you profess.
Fourth, consider this: for what reward do you do what you do? In his letter to the church in Caesarea Philippi, St. Paul sets himself before us as an example of one who “press[es] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14) For what prize do we strive? Financial rewards? Security? Status? These are not the rewards promised by Christ for those who follow him. Remember his words: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Live in the here-and-now, respond to needs, glorify Christ, and strive for the rewards of the cross.
Finally, take all of that and go out into the world ! Be an apostle; live the life of one who is sent. Remember the Great Commission given us by Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all people.” (Matt. 28:19) Remember his words to the Gerasene man in today’s Gospel: “Return to your home [town], and declare how much God has done for you.”
You are the heirs of the prophets. Do as they did. Live in the here-and-now, respond to the needs around you, glorify God, strive for the rewards of sacrifice, and encourage others to do the same. And if you feel unequal to the task, remember what Paul wrote today’s epistle: “… in Christ Jesus you are all children of God.” And remember the declaration in today’s Psalms:
Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
You are the heirs of the prophets and to you has been given the grace and power to do all that they did and more. Now go, and do likewise! Amen.