Saturday, December 6, 2014

Would That All God's People Were Prophets

RCL Advent 2B
7 December 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            Over the course of hundreds of years the history of the Hebrew people was interpreted in a series of writings we now call the Hebrew Scriptures.  In those writings we learn that this history was shaped by forces from inside the people and from outside.  Three ‘inside’ institutions that were most influential were the monarchy, the priesthood and the prophets.  Of these three the oldest and most enduring institution was the prophets.
            It was only after the people had left Egypt and had begun their journey to the land of Canaan that the priesthood emerged to lead the corporate ritual life of the people.  It was only after the political crises of the early tribal confederacy, perhaps a century or two after the people arrived in Canaan, that the monarchy emerged.
            But it was Moses the prophet who led the people out of Egypt and towards the promised land.  It was Samuel the prophet who yielded to the cries of the people and anointed Saul and then David to be king.  When the Babylonians threatened the people and eventually destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, taking the monarchy and leadership of the people into exile, it was the prophets we know as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and eleven others who tended the embers of the Hebrew people and their covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
            And closer to our own times, when the Romans occupied the land, turning the monarchs into a series of client kings and the priesthood into a cautious, self-preserving religious elite, God raised up other prophets.  One of these prophets emerged in the wilderness east of Jerusalem in the Jordan Valley, a man we know as John, who called the people to a renewed commitment to God.
            These prophets were agents of God who risked their reputations, their fortunes and their very lives to fulfill the ministry God had entrusted to them.  Although they were separated from each other by decades, by centuries and by political and religious contexts, they have many things in common.
            After all, what makes a prophet a prophet?  We sometimes think that a prophet is someone who predicts the future, a divine fortune-teller.  But that is not what the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and the prophet John were.  Prophets are men and women who speak the word of God to the people of their own times and places.  The words of the prophets are meant to be heard in the midst of current events, even when they may suggest the future consequences of the actions of the present generation.
            A prophet, even those whose words are sometimes fierce, knows that the love of God for us and for all of creation is unrelenting and passionate.  Sometimes this love is expressed in words that are compassionate and nurturing.  Sometimes, when this love is sorely tested, God’s beloved people are left to experience the consequences of their poor choices.  Sometimes the prophet speak words of encouragement and offer insights into God’s purposes and visions of creation as God sees it and wills it to become.  At all times and in all places, this love seeks the ultimate good and well-being of the beloved.  As the writer of the letter to the Ephesians puts it, God acts in many and various ways so that “. . . all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13).
            The prophet’s knowledge and dependence upon the steadfast love of God for us gives her or him hope.  Hope is the inevitable product of love.  When we are loved and love, we look at our times and our circumstances with new eyes.  Hope dares to believe that the present, with all of its conflicts and tragedies, with all of its uncertainties and disappointments, is not God’s last word to us.  The beauty and good that we glimpse and experience in the present anticipate and whet our appetite for the beauty and good that God intends for all creation on that day that shall so surely come.
            Because the prophet is convinced of God’s steadfast love and inspired by that love to hope in God’s purposes for us, he or she can act in faith, daring to speak God’s word to the powerful and to the hopeless, to the faithful and to the seeker, to those who are for us and to those who are against us.  Faith is the choice to act as an agent of God’s purposes despite our doubts not because we have none.  During a time of political crisis, the prophet Habakkuk proclaimed that “(there) is still a vision for the appointed time; it will testify to the destined hour and will not prove false.  Though it delays, wait for it, for it will surely come before too long.” (Habakkuk 2.3)  Faith chooses to trust in that vision because of the love already made known to us and the hope that love engenders.
            In the Book of Numbers, Moses is described as having become overwhelmed by the obligations of his prophetic leadership.  God offers to share some of Moses’ prophetic authority with selected members of the community.  Two of those selected don’t arrive on time for the ritual, but they receive the power to prophesy nevertheless.  When Joshua protested this to Moses, the tired prophet responded, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.” (Numbers 11.29b)
            You and I, my friends, have been called to be a prophetic people.  By choosing to follow in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, we have chosen to be agents of God who speak God’s word to our times.  Unlike some voices in today’s world, our words are ones that arise from our conviction that God loves all humanity not just some.  Our words are sustained by our hope that God’s last word to all humanity is life in its fullness.  Our words are spoken in the faith that God’s purposes will be fulfilled.
            I cannot under-exaggerate the importance of this message in today’s society, even one as wealthy and relatively peaceful as ours here in Canada.  Despite our culture’s search for the ‘true meaning of Christmas’, that search continues to be misled by messages of over-consumption, fear and self-interest.  The material advances of the last century have not led to greater satisfaction nor to a stronger sense of our responsibility to care for one another with compassion and dignity.

            But throughout the world there are prophetic communities such as ours who dare to resist the pull of the message that ‘the one with the most toys at the end wins’.  Like John we invite people to look at the world with a new yet ancient perspective, a perspective rooted in our common humanity and in our common identity as children of God in whose image we are made and in whose likeness we are invited to live.  This, my sisters and brothers, is ‘the real meaning of Christmas’, a world in which we remain firm in the hope God has set before us, “. . . so that we and all (God’s) children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise (God’s) name.  Amen.” (The Book of Alternative Services, 215)

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