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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Making of a Prophet

Texts:  1 Samuel 2. 18-20, 26; Colossians 3. 12-17; Luke 2. 41-52

Today’s lectionary readings encourage us to reflect on the process by which God raises a prophetic voice in the world.  In reading the stories about Jesus early life in Luke, we find that Luke knows very little about the concrete historical circumstances in which the infant Jesus became a boy and then a man.  That is why New Testament historians call this period ‘the hidden years’.  Instead of writing a history of Jesus’ boyhood, we find that Luke presents a deeply theological reflection upon the way in which the bearer of God’s message is made or formed.  With a deft hand, he explores the environment and influences which create a prophet – one who can both hear God’s voice and become a vessel by which that voice becomes audible for a particular place and time in the world.  And we find that Luke is profoundly influenced in this endeavour by the portrait of another great prophet: Samuel, the first prophet of Israel’s nationhood.

Luke’s account of Jesus birth and boyhood is closely modeled on that of Samuel.  Like Samuel, Jesus is conceived by the direct intervention of God.  Like Samuel, Jesus is specifically set aside from the beginning for a life of divine service.  The song of Mary in chapter 2 of Luke, which celebrates the coming of a liberator for God’s people, is closely modeled upon the song of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in chapter 2 of 1 Samuel.   And today’s story of Jesus in the temple also follows many of the leads which Luke found in the story of Samuel.  As with Samuel’s parents, Mary and Joseph visit the temple each year for the Passover festival.  As with Samuel, Jesus seeks out the instruction of those who know God’s law, in the precincts of the temple.  As with Samuel, the young Jesus is described as one who increased in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favour.

What is Luke trying to tell us about Jesus, by entwining his life so tightly with that of Samuel?  Well, to put things very simply, Luke wants us to know that Jesus will be a great prophet in Israel, just like Samuel.  And he wants to show us how great prophets are made.  I’d like now to spend a little time exploring that theme. 

According to Luke, great prophets are both born and made.  On the one hand, it is clear that both Samuel and Jesus are destined before their birth for particular purposes known only to God.  But exalted destinies and plans do not a prophet make.  They must also be trained, placed in environments where they will learn how to fulfill that destiny.  Skills need to be acquired, skills for interpreting both the wide world and human nature. Passions need to be discovered and nurtured.  Ethical and spiritual disciplines need to be practiced and perfected.  But most of all, that native spiritual sensibility, that gene for listening to God, needs to be exercised and honed to a high degree of sensitivity.  A prophet with a destiny but no discipline is no prophet at all.

Luke emphasizes that both Samuel and Jesus were training in the religious lore of Israel.  He places both in the temple at crucial stages in their adolescent development, listening there to the wisdom of the elders and exploring the ways of God with obvious dexterity and depth.  By learning the stories of the faith, they found out who they were, and what their destiny was to be.  By attending to the teaching of their elders, they learned a particular way of seeing the world, a way which cut through the nonsense with which most people fill their lives, seeing instead into the very heart of things, where God dwells.  To my mind, the one thing that distinguishes prophets and mystics from everyone else, even the most devoted of religious practitioners, is their capacity to see and to hear what very few others can see and hear.  Luke tells us that Jesus could pick up an ordinary mustard seed and see there a profound lesson about the designs of God for the small and unassuming.  So it goes with the prophet.  He or she has a native spiritual intelligence, but that gift needs to be nurtured and honed within the discipline of a religious tradition, and within a community of dedicated religious teachers, before it can ever come to fruition.

Now here’s what I reckon all this means for us this morning.  There are people talking these days about the demise of Christianity, the demise of the church, the demise of all things to do with God.  And there is no doubt in my mind that our culture is becoming increasingly secular, increasingly unconscious about the things of God.  But that does not mean that we are all headed for a godless future, where the gains of Christian civilization are lost forever, and our kids are condemned to ever-deepening crises about the meaning of their lives.  For I believe that God always raises up prophets – still small voices in the wilderness, spiritual intelligences who continue to listen for God, and continue to speak the very words of God for a hungry and thirsty generation.  When Samuel came along, we are told that Israel was in disarray, that the nation was like a sheep without a shepherd.  When Jesus came along, the Jewish people were occupied by a foreign power, and were bewildered and confused about matters of spirituality and ethics.  In both cases, God sent a prophet, a person with special passions, to lift the vision of the people towards God once more.

And God continues to send prophets.  In the fourth century, when Christianity was becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire, God sent St Anthony and St Pachomius to call his people back to the simple gospel of poverty, prayer, and dependence on God.  In the fourteenth century, when the church had become rich and powerful, God sent St Francis and St Dominic, to remind us that Christ was a poor traveler who healed and taught the simple lessons of the gospel.  In the twentieth century, God sent Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day to challenge the dominance of economics as a theory which legitimizes the permanent impoverishment of whole classes of people.  And Martin Luther King, and Bishops Romero and Belo, who stood with their suffering people against the might of evil armies of murderers.  And Thomas Merton, who lived and wrote in solitude, to remind a busy world that noise and rush and accumulation are killing us all.

And so here we are on the brink of a new century and a new millennium.  Even now, somewhere in the world, God is choosing, and training, and nurturing prophets, people who will remind us of the most significant fact of our world, a fact most of us so easily forget.  The fact of God.  And the prophet might be from your small town.  It might even be you.

This sermon was delivered at the Longford Uniting Church, Tasmania, on the first Sunday after Christmas in 1999.

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