Saturday, June 11, 2011

Would That All God's People Were Prophets

RCL Pentecost Year A
12 June 2011

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

        If there is any biblical figure whom I do not envy, it is Moses.  he escapes from Egypt with the law nipping at his heels and finds refuge along with a wife and family with Jethro.  But God cannot leave Moses alone and a vision takes him back to Egypt and to a confrontation with Pharaoh that will eventually lead to the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt.
         After Moses leads the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt, helped in great part by significant interventions by God, he suffers the trials of a people who are never satisfied.  Defeat Pharaoh’s army and all they can do is complain about the lack of food and water.  Provide them with water, manna and quail and all they can do is moan about Egyptian cuisine and its superiority to their present menu.  Establish a covenant with them and all they do is erect statues of false gods so that they can be like every other people in the region.

         Even when God helps Moses and the people by sending the Spirit of leadership upon seventy other men so that the burden of leadership can be shared, all the people can do is to complain that God’s generosity has overflowed the designated location and has touched two men who, for whatever reason, weren’t with the other sixty-eight at the designated time and place!

         Then Moses speaks words that surely reach into our own times:  “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  (Numbers 11.29b)  But what exactly is a prophet?  And what does God’s Spirit have to do with becoming a prophet?

         Nowadays when we describe someone as a prophet, we usually mean someone who can predict the future, someone who can foretell events before they happen.  During the last few years the airwaves have been filled with television programmes that claim to examine the prophecies of Nostradamus or the Mayans or the Bible.  Less than a month ago a Christian preacher predicted that the Rapture would occur on the 21st of May and the end of the world on the 21st of October.

         The problem with this kind of prophet is that it is so easy to prove her or him false.  Predictions that do not come true are significant career killers for anyone who needs the credibility generated by being right.  This is particularly true in our day and age when we crave experts who can give us precise answers that will result in definite outcomes.

         In Judaism and Christianity we have different criteria for prophets.  For us the prophets do not foretell the future; they ‘forth tell’ God’s word to God’s people in particular times and particular places.  In other words a biblical prophet does not predict the future as much as he or she speaks God’s word in the hope that this word will lead the people back to fidelity to God and to working with God to achieve God’s purposes.

         When God’s Spirit comes upon the seventy elders, they do not suddenly begin to predict the future.  What they begin to do is to exercise leadership in a way that aids the people to become the people God wishes them to be.  When God’s Spirit comes upon the disciples gathered in the upper room on Pentecost, they do not suddenly begin to predict the future.  What they begin to do is to proclaim Christ, crucified and risen, to peoples from every corner of the Roman empire and beyond.

         In our baptismal liturgy we actually have a working definition of what a prophet does.  Our working definition is found in the prayer that follows the anointing of the newly-baptized.  I want you to open your pew copies of The Book of Alternative Services to page 160 and join me in this prayer.

Heavenly Father,
we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit
you have bestowed upon these your servants
the forgiveness of sin,
and have raised them to the new life of grace.
Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.
Give them an inquiring and discerning heart,
the courage to will and to persevere,
a spirit to know and to love you,
and the gift of joy and wonder
in all your works.  Amen.

This is what a prophet is in the eyes of the Christian tradition.  A prophet is a man, woman or child who lives in the new life of grace.  To live in a new life of grace is to live a life of thanksgiving, the recognition that everything we have, everything we are, everything we hope to become is a gift from a generous God.

         Prophets also have an inquiring and discerning heart.  They are not satisfied with looking only at the surface of life and events.  They want to understand what serves God’s purposes for us and what hinders God’s purposes.  By God’s Spirit working in them they are able to discern what builds up God’s people and what tears them down.

         Prophets are courageous.  Courage does not mean the absence of fear; it means the willingness to act well despite one’s fear and to persevere in acting well even when this may not be popular or safe.  I sometimes think that this is the greatest gift that the Spirit gave to the disciples on that first Pentecost:  the courage to lead them out of their locked room to speak about their experience of following Jesus of Nazareth.

         Prophets know and love God.  They pray and study the Scriptures.  They actually seek to have a living relationship with God and are not afraid to be honest with God, both in their prayers and in their struggles to understand what God is trying to do in our lives and the lives of all human beings.

         Prophets live lives of joy and wonder.  They are prepared to find God at work in unexpected places and, in contrast to the complaints made against Eldad and Medad, rejoice when God’s Spirit is seen at work outside the envelope of our expectations.

         My friends, each one of us who has been baptized has been given the prophetic Spirit spoken of in Numbers, manifested in Acts and promised by Jesus in John.  We do not need to look around us in the hopes that a prophet will emerge who will help us move into God’s future.  The prophets are already here.  Look to your left and to your right.  Look in front of you and behind you.  We are the prophets.  We are the ones to whom God has given inquiring and discerning hearts  We are the ones whom God calls to be courageous to will and to persevere.  We are the ones who know and love God.  We are the ones to whom God has given joy and wonder in all that God has done.

         The only question is this:  Will we remain silent?  Are we reluctant to forth-tell what we have learned and gained through our life in this Christian communities and all those communities that have shaped our lives and led us to maturity.

         There are many religious groups that are not silent.  Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses regularly send out people, two by two, to share their religious beliefs with others.  While I do not share those beliefs and am critical of some aspects of those religious traditions, I admire their willingness to share their beliefs with others.  Anglicans, on the other hand, are often reticent to share their faith with others when the opportunity presents itself to do so.  Our reasons for doing so are complex and I do not have time today to explore them, but I believe that our reticence needs to end.  We have good news to share and we live in a society that needs this good news.  If we do not share it, if we do not exercise our baptismal prophetic ministry, then we fall short of God’s expectations.

         “Would that all God’s people were prophets,” Moses exclaims.  Well, my friends, all of us here are prophets.  God’s Spirit has come upon us all and marked us as God’s very own.

         May this Pentecost mark the moment when we left the security of the upper room and began to share what we have come to know and to feel in this community of Saint Faith’s.  May this mark the moment when people began to hear us share the good news of God in Christ.  Amen.


1 comment:

Daniel Graves said...

Good words, Richard. This is certainly a good time to reflection on what is and what is not prophecy.
Dan Graves+