Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; 1 Corinthians 13; Luke 4.21-30
The path of the prophet of Yahweh is a difficult one. Called by God in an irresistible fashion, the prophet is usually snatched away from what might be called a steady, secure job, and sent off to get him or herself into trouble with whatever religious and/or political authorities are in power at the time. Take Jeremiah as an example. According to the account in the book that bears his name, Jeremiah was little more than a boy when he was called, having just finished his apprenticeship to become a priest at the shrine in Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. In those days, being a priest was about as steady a job as one could get. It was like being a public servant today. For priests provided not only what our own government would call strictly ‘religious’ services – daily and weekly rituals, funerals, weddings and the like. They also provided the literary, mathematical and administrative skills that kept the public sector going. They represented the repository of the nation’s history and the main intellectual pool from which advisors to government on all kinds of issues of policy were drawn. There was no safer job in the country, therefore, than that of a priest.
In this context it is understandable, is it not, that Jeremiah is fairly unhappy about being called to be a prophet? ‘Ah, sovereign Lord’ he says to God, ‘I am only a child; I don’t know how to preach’. Priests, of course, were rarely preachers. They were administrators and liturgists, primarily. Prophets, on the other hand, were preachers through and through. So Jeremiah was probably right, technically, to mention these things. Yet I doubt very much if Jeremiah’s youthful lack of experience with preaching were at the heart of his wariness. For when the Lord replies to his excuses, he does so with these words: ‘You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you’. So here is the more substantial source of Jeremiah’s concerns: prophets get into trouble. Prophets are seized by the word of the Lord that is able – now as much as then – to uncover the secret motivations of the hearer’s hearts. Jeremiah knew very well that preaching like this tended to be very unpopular with the people in charge. He knew that the path of the prophet was therefore a lonely one, a dangerous one, and very often a hungry one. For who would pay a prophet to tell them the truth?
Now, it is well-recognised in the Jewish and Christian traditions that prophets perform a very important role. Their task, as the text from Jeremiah succinctly puts it, is to ‘uproot and to tear down’ corrupted governments and religious institutions so that more just and godly forms of human society can be built or planted in their place. The prophet reminds those who run both nations and churches that they are straying from the blueprint for truth and goodness that is the word of Yahweh. The prophet deconstructs the propaganda of corruption and injustice, if you like, in order to reconstruct the good, the noble and the true in the image of the word of God, which the prophet never ceases to embody both in word and in deed. Of course, in order to fulfil this vocation, the prophet must place his or herself in a place of risk. Prophets must tell the truth, a truth given them by God, even when it marginalises them from the ‘main game’, the ‘business as usual’ of churches, governments, or communities. Prophets are never welcome, therefore, in their ‘home town’, as the text from Luke points out. For the prophet knows the sins and weaknesses of his or her home town very well. It is likely that the prophet has even participated in those sins. It would be difficult not to, for sin is systemic and communal before it is individual and voluntary. But the prophet is pulled away from the fabric of a sinful community by the word of God, which seizes him or her from the outside and grants him or her such a radiant vision of what the community could be in God, that its current form will no longer satisfy. The prophet is pulled away from the community, in other words, in order to see it more clearly – pulled away in order to speak as from another place, the place of God. That is how the priest, Jeremiah, ended up preaching against the very system that had nurtured him, the system of the temple and its priestly administrators.
This is how it was for Jesus as well. In order to speak the very words of God to his Jewish brothers and sisters, God had to pull him away from the finely textured fabric of what he, along with his community, had always believed. That is how Luke would have it, anyway. Having always believed that the people of God were the Jews, that God had no interest in anyone else, Jesus was seized by the Spirit of God at baptism. Driven into the wilderness, he was shown that God’s love was far more universal than tribal Israel would allow. By reflecting upon the preaching of the prophets of days gone by, it occurred to Jesus that God had very often, in Israel’s history, chosen to heal and honour people who were not members of the covenant God has made with Israel. By this, Jesus became convinced that ‘Israel’ could no longer be thought about in biological or even geo-political terms. For the Jesus of Luke’s gospel, ‘Israel’ was no longer a nation-state or a biological tribe. Israel was the company of those who were grasped by God’s love, whatever their country or ethnicity, so that their lives were covenanted to God through their obedience to the call of love. Of course, when Jesus returned from the desert to share what he had learned, when he stood among his own people to speak the new word he had received from God, they were not particularly impressed. Indeed, as Luke tells it, they became so angry that they drove him to the brow of the hill overlooking the town, and threatened to throw him over. Jesus was able to walk away, on this occasion, but we know that he eventually died for his cause. Not in vain, of course. But the cost of reform was his very life.
This prophetic pattern of being torn away from the community in order to reform the community in the image of its maker is repeated over and over again in the history of the church. It begins with Jesus and his followers, but continues in the desert fathers of the Constininian era, who left the increasingly wealthy and powerful church of the Roman Empire in order to protest its forgetting of simplicity, poverty and compassion. It continued in the founding of monastic communities by Pachomius and Benedict. It continued in the resistance of the Celtic churches to Roman authority and the Franciscan reforms of the 13th century. It continued in the protestant reformers, and in Wesley’s re-introduction of primitive Christian evangelism and discipleship into the Anglican Church. It continued in the liberation movements within South-American Catholicism, in Vatican 2, in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, and even in the formation of the Uniting Church.
But where is the openness to prophecy in the church today? We allow our prophets to critique government and the social organisation of the wider community (sometimes). We allow them to be scathing about all that is going wrong in that sphere. But what do we do when our prophets call the church to reform, to abandon (for example) its increasing comfort with the ideologies of secularism and consumerism and turn, again, to the covenant with a God of universal love? Or how do we respond when the prophets call the church to abandon its oh-so-rational neo-liberalism and turn, again, to the wild and generous word of the gospel? And which way do we look when the prophets call us to put way our many celebrity cults, with their Amway-like gathering around gurus and material success and turn, instead, to the simple poverty of the Christ who said that true life only came to those who were willing to let such things go? I put it to you that the voices of the prophets are seldom heard or taken seriously where the most important decisions are being made. At worst, they are branded heretics. At best they are simply ignored, just as governments now ignore street protestors. Sometimes the prophets are simply done away with, banished with guns or with bureaucratic machines, as in the Philippines at present. Again, it seems, even in a church which formally honours the prophets, we are loath to hear what the prophets are trying to telling us right now.
I pray, with the Australian poet, James MacAuley, that God would raise up contemplatives and prophets to remind us of the pearl of great price that is the love of God, are pearl we are constantly in danger of putting aside. Listen to MacAuley’s prayer:
Incarnate Word,in whom all nature lives,Cast flame upon the earth:raise up contemplativesAmong us, men whowalk within the fireof ceaseless prayerimpetuous desire.Set pools of silenceIn this thirsty land.God grant that it may be so.