On this second Sunday of Advent we remember the prophets and the role that they fulfilled, and we may perhaps be encouraged to consider:
- how much we need prophets within the church today, and
- how the church is called to speak with that prophetic insight.
I find it strange that even though the Bible tells us to seek “earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially the ability to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1) I am not sure how much that is actually reflected in our prayers. I must confess when I read, re-read and reflect on that passage I am deeply challenged. Do we really seek the gifts of the Spirit in earnest? Do we yearn for and eagerly desire to be blessed with the gift of prophecy?
I would like to ask who is your favourite prophet? But before you volunteer to answer this question, I would also like you to say why they might be your favourite prophet.
When we think about the prophets we know of from the Bible, I gave to say I am not sure if I have just one who is my favourite. I like several, and for different reasons. One of these is Jonah. When people wander off the path, and when people seek to follow their own way, God may raise a prophet to come along to pronounce judgement. Jonah simply proclaimed eight words (five if you read it in Hebrew): “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Nothing more and nothing less. He didn’t impose any conditions. He didn’t say what the Ninevites needed to do to avoid calamity. And yet, these words pierced the heart of a people who had turned their back on God and were doing things in their own way. They were so convicted by the knowledge and realisation of their sin that even the animals repented! And as we know in God’s grace, the city was spared. The people had been brought back on track. So one thing a prophet does is to bring us back on course, to get us back on track, to bring us back into that depth of relationship and fellowship with God.
How might we describe a prophet? The theologian Goldingay suggest that prophets share a set of “family resemblances” that include:
- a prophet shares God’s nightmares and dreams
- a prophet speaks like a poet and behaves like an actor
- a prophet is not afraid to be offensive
- a prophet confronts the confident with rebuke and downcast with hope
- a prophet’s task is mostly to speak to the people of God
- a prophet is someone independent of the institutional pressures of church and state
- a prophet is a scary person who mediates the activity of a scary God
- a prophet intercedes with boldness and praises with freedom
- a prophet ministers in a way that reflects his or her personality and time
- a prophet is likely to fail
Whilst I may not fully agree with all of Goldingay’s statements, I think you get the point. Goldingay concludes “Only a fool would want to be a prophet. A wise person would run away from God’s summons, as Jonah did. But the person who fails to escape becomes a blessing and finds great fruitfulness.”
Do we know or recognise any of these family resemblances in people we know?
Prophets can be a pretty hard bunch to get along with – they can be offensive, confront the confident with rebuke, and be scary people. That means they can sometimes say things we need to hear, but don’t like hearing!!! Put your hand up if you like being told off when you have done something wrong. None of us like it do we? But is it unfair when a prophet is used by God to warn, rebuke and correct a wayward people in order to bring them back on track and out of harm’s way? Is it unfair when a parent says to their child, don’t place your hand in the flame of the candle because it will hurt and damage you? Of course it isn’t unfair, but sadly we sometimes tend not to see beyond the warning or the rebuke and understand why.
The Bible has many words that are used to define sin. Paul wrote, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God has a high and holy standard of what is right, and so long as we have the courage to follow the Divine standard we will see ourselves as we truly are in God’s eyes. We all have fallen far short of God’s required standard; and there is nothing we can do in our own merit to attain that standard.
The problem is that sometimes we forget that; God’s people have often tried to do things in their own way, turning their back on God. We need discipline, and we need standards. The problem is that we tend to prefer our own standards rather than God’s! They try to create their own standards of what is good, right and acceptable. Some people measure themselves on the basis of human intelligence, some by educational attainment, some by financial success, some by cultural environment, and others by religious performance. However, God has established His standard of perfection for entry into Heaven, and we all have “missed the mark” as an archer’s arrow would fall to the ground because it fell short of its target.
So it seems clear that one thing a prophet does is to help God’s people to get back on track; to get right in their relationship with God. A prophet helps to recapture our imagination and open our eyes to see God’s holy way. That might involve a nation, or a group of people, being called into repentance and to help people to do that Isaiah called out to the people to prepare the way for the LORD, and make straight paths for him.
But that is not all a prophet is called to do. Goldingay reminds us that a prophet confronts the downcast with hope. And the theme of hope is echoed in our first reading from Romans. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” When we read the words of the prophets in Scripture we are still confronted with hope even today. And when we are in a wilderness, when we are lost, when we find ourselves to be spiritually dry or barren, in order for us to prepare the way for the LORD, and make straight paths for him I think we need to be confronted with that eternal hope. That Advent message of Christ will come, Christ has come and Christ will come again should give us that hope. Christ was and is and is to come. We prepare a way for the LORD in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirits – in every aspect of our lives.
A prophet can not only speak to us in the wilderness, or the desert – into the times that we are spiritually dry or broken – but also that we can invite God into that barren place and He can make it fruitful – we can prepare the way – that’s like rolling out the red carpet. Let’s remember that in Isaiah’s time the entire nation was in a spiritual wilderness – in exile – a place it had been for 70 years, and each Israelite needed to get ready spiritually for the restoration of their nation and freedom from exile.
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
So what language would you use to someone who is in a spiritually dry or broken place? You would use language that was gentle, tender, compassionate, comforting and loving – language of hope. No wonder then that Isaiah was told to comfort God’s people – to address Jerusalem tenderly – speaking into the heart of their brokenness, as a mother would speak to her child. Yes, there had been a time of rebuke – and there often needs to be that time of rebuke to wake us up, to snap us out of that fog we can find ourselves in – but it was followed by a time of comforting. Judgement has to come before a blessing can follow.
So the Church today can speak with prophetic insight by taking a stand against injustice, corruption, selfishness, deceit, and lies. It can buck the trend by helping to rebuild communities, by loving the people on the fringe – the lost, the lonely, and the outcasts. It can stand to make a difference and bring people together and offer a message of comfort and hope. As the church, we all have a role to play in this. We are the body of Christ and ambassadors of Christ. Do you feel like that when you are sent out from this place? You are an ambassador of Christ.
How can we be confident of this? Well, we are in that season of Advent…that time of waiting, expectation and hope. People may come and go, but God never fails – for His Word endures forever. If you have had a spiritually dry year, a wilderness journey, a time of brokenness I hope and pray you take double comfort from this message. Remember, blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
May you be filled with expectation, and in this advent season roll out the red carpet for God and know his comfort and his peace. May you have the courage to seek “earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially the ability to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1) But may you also know that whenever you speak out words of truth – the Good News to people – yes, it may be challenging for them, but it can also bring deep hope because God cares and God can and will comfort his people.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.