January 28, 2018


Passage: Deuteronomy 18:15-20

“Moses said: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deut. 18:15).

Throughout the history of God and the history of God’s people, there have been prophets. Some true. Many false. I heard on the radio this week that this year marks the 25th anniversary (if you can believe it) of the catastrophe at Waco, Texas of the Branch Davidian cult. That man claimed to be a prophet.

But what is it, exactly, that makes a prophet a for-real-prophet?

For many people in our day and age, we never really think about it. At best, it’s something we give passive assent to as something legitimate from Biblical days – Isaiah, Jeremiah or John the Baptist. But we don’t think of prophets as existing in our day.

Unless, of course (as I often hear the term used in clergy circles), sermons are called “prophetic” when it’s a radical call to social action. When you’re rallying people to rise up and confront systems of injustice and inequality – those are often called “prophetic sermons,” because they fall in line with the long history of such preaching, going way back to Old Testament days when the prophets confronted the political and cultural systems of injustice head-on, declaring with authority how contrary they were to all that God stands for.

I don’t know if that automatically makes someone a prophet or not. Does being a prophet require that the person receive some direct, supernatural message from God, or can someone just as legitimately be called a prophet if their understanding of the Kingdom of God developed in the more usual way? that over the years their faith has formed them in such a way that they perceive the urgent political implications of the faith and they’re prepared to preach that message unabashedly, regardless of the consequences.

I suppose for me, the hallmark of a “prophet-prophet” is the convergence of three distinct elements:

  • That their message is clearly consistent with the heart of God
  • That the messenger himself or herself embodies that message with integrity
  • And finally – when there is an indisputable authority that comes with their message – such that when you hear it, you know it’s true. It cuts you to the heart.

That’s what people experienced with Jesus. When he appeared on the scene and started preaching, there was this universal reaction that something extraordinary was happening in their midst. What he said, the way he behaved, and what they experienced within themselves when they were in his presence, all gelled together and convinced the crowds that they had  the “real deal” on their hands.

Even the demons had to admit it! That’s what happened in this morning’s story. Jesus is preaching, the crowd is amazed by his authority, and then – all of a sudden – there’s a man in the audience who’s possessed by evil spirits, and he starts crying out, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” Isn’t that fascinating? Even the evil ones can’t help but react to the authority they perceive in Jesus.

And this demonic response brings up another important point. Just because you witness the authority and the truth-speaking of a prophet, doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to respond in kind. Some do. When they hear the truth of the Kingdom of God proclaimed with such authority it elicits from within them the appropriate response, which is repentance. That was the message in last week’s service: repentance is when you have the humility and the courage to admit that some aspect of your faith or worldview or behavior is inconsistent with the heart of God. So you admit it; you seek forgiveness from God and from whomever you’ve hurt, and then set out to live in a truer way.

But the alternative is perhaps the more frequent response: and that is to harden our hearts. Our consciences may have been pricked; we may have known in our gut that the call to compassion and self-emptying, generosity, humility and forgiveness were the pathway to true humanity, but the cost was too high. So up go the defenses; up go the rationalizations and justifications and the huddling with those who will agree with us. And then comes the attack. It’s time to silence the prophet. And whether that’s finagling to get the preacher fired or to get the Messiah crucified, the spirit is the same: You make us uncomfortable and so you must go.

But you know, the real shame in all this, is that God only wants what’s good for us. The cost of repenting and following God may seem high – it may seem like giving up all we’ve known, all the security we’ve found in possessions or in our worldview. But the point of it all is God’s assurance that there is something better. We’re only being asked to let go of those things that have deceived us, that have promised more life and more goodness than they have power to deliver.

Over the course of my life there have been many voices that have served as prophets (as I’ve been defining it today). Most of them aren’t people I knew or even had any first-hand encounter with. They were authors – people who wrote with such clarity and such authority that my spirit knew the Spirit of God through their words. Who I discovered God to be and who I discovered myself to be was changed by them – changed in such a substantive way that my whole sense of personhood and way of living was affected. Julian of Norwich, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., they have all shaped me. And amongst living authors: Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, author and mystic.

But there was one time when I did encounter an honest-to-God prophet who spoke to me directly. (I may have shared this story before, so indulge me with your patience if I have.) I think I was nineteen years old at the time. It was the summer after my freshman year of college. And life was going great. For the first time in my life I was making friends who were like me. I was stepping into this big, exciting world. And throughout that first year of college I was beginning to discover Jesus for myself and was fascinated by this alternative vision of reality and what life was all about.

But as of yet, there were still whole areas of shame and fear within me that I hadn’t learned to confront.

And out of the blue, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go with him to this house church where friends of his belonged. They were hosting some travelling prophet from England who was going to be their guest speaker. I was totally skeptical (having never thought that there was any such things as prophets in our day), but I went anyway – prepared to be amused, if nothing else.

The living room was packed, I remember. And I was pretty much in the back of the crowd. And there at the front was this old, dignified British man. He didn’t look at all like the itinerant hippy prophet I was expecting. He wore a tweed coat. With patches on the elbow. And then he started preaching. Simply, gently. Nothing extraordinary. He didn’t even stand – just sat there talking about God. I don’t remember anything specific that he said, but it was all solid, regulation Christianity, if you know what I mean.

And then he stood up and, one by one, he began pointing to different people in the room and telling them things. Specific things about each of them – specific enough to make them believe that the man indeed had a legitimate spiritual gift that was being employed in their presence! And then he would say something to the effect, “and God wants you to know…” and he’d give them a personal message. And the interesting thing was, these words from God were rarely predictions or anything like that. They were more often general truths we believe about the gospel, but the way they were paired so intimately to the recipient made them burst with life and hope.

And all the while I’m sitting there watching it and believing it, but equally convinced that there would be nothing for me – that I would be one of the overlooked ones. (And just to give a little insight into my warped psyche – that was how I regarded myself, that I was the overlooked one, especially by those whose approval I would want. I believed that my presence was tolerated but never really desired.) And so, sure enough, his time came to an end and he took his seat across the room from me.

But no sooner had he sat down, than he popped up again. And began scanning the crowd, clearly looking for someone. Then he saw me, and pointed at me and said, “You. You’ve been sitting here watching and listening all night and believing everything you saw. But you also believed there would be nothing for you. And God wants you to know that you are not overlooked and that he wants to make up for lost time.”

And for nearly thirty years now, that’s just what’s been happening. I’m still a broken sinner. When fear and insecurity set in I’ll still easily revert to the overlooked one. At diocesan social events I can quickly convince myself that I’m the last person in the room the bishop would want anything to do with. But that’s no longer the only message, or even the dominant one. God has continued to make up for lost time and to bring me to a truer world where God and I and all of us belong.

Repentance still needs to happen – daily when I’m attentive enough. But the role of the prophet has found its mark – both that old man whose name I never knew and the many authors who have guided me over the years – to say nothing of all those who have loved me in the name and spirit of Christ.

In the atrium, where our children’s spirituality is fostered at St. John’s, they teach that a prophet is “someone who listens to God with their whole heart and then tells the people what God said.” And so I would say to you, do not be afraid to seek the prophet’s voice in your own life – to be both challenged and courted by the God who made you and seeks for you a life that is freed from all this is false, all that is belittling and condemning, freed to be the beloved of God that you already are.