Not For Prophet

notforprophet

Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 2:1-13, 29-32, Romans 1:16-25, John 4:43-54


Popular culture, and even some corners of Christian culture, portray prophets as a breed of mysterious oracles revealing the future through puzzle-like symbols and coded language. Modern self-styled prophets are famous for predicting the end of the world, and infamous for batting zero while collecting millions. We lump this distorted image of prophets in with psychics, clairvoyants, and fortune tellers.

The Biblical prophet, however, was not on a road to popularity and wealth. Prophesying was dangerous work; some prophets paid with their lives for confronting a community that had lost its way to idols and injustice.

Prophets like Jeremiah used language and symbols that may need clarification today, but would have been familiar to their audience. Their ultimate goal was not to mystify and condemn, but to convict and save. The warning of a harsh future came with a promise: God loved his people too much to abandon them, and when once again the people learned to properly love him back there would be reconciliation. It was never about God leaving the people, but about the people leaving God.

Consider these words of the Lord delivered by Jeremiah:

          They have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

These words were about more than disobedience; they addressed how the people brought ruin upon themselves. When we substitute our own values and plans for those God has given us, they will ultimately fail us. Like cracked cisterns, they may seem to hold water for a while, but eventually we will find them to be empty and we will be desperate for the real thing.

Jesus also referred to himself as the living water. His message echoed the messages of the prophets who preceded him, and he knew “a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country.” When a prophet tells us what we don’t want to hear, it’s not time to get defensive: it’s time to seek hope through repentance. Christ’s message of radical justice and inclusion was most difficult for those who believed they had a lock on God and religion. When listening for prophetic voices, humility serves us well.

Comfort: God would rather forgive us than condemn us.

Challenge: We have to seek forgiveness before it can be granted.

Prayer: Merciful God, I will listen for your authentic voice. Teach me to hear it. Amen.

Discussion: When have you benefited from hearing something you didn’t want to?

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Humble Piety

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 147:12-20, Isaiah 65:1-9, Revelation 3:1-6, John 6:1-4


The Gospels may be “The Good News,” but many of the things Jesus taught us – or perhaps more accurately re-taught us – were good and old. Centuries before Jesus reminded the people of his day that true obedience to God meant embodying a spirit of mercy and justice – rather than mercilessly following the letter of the law – Old Testament prophets had tried to deliver the same message. Isaiah told the exiled nation of Israel she had lost God’s favor because of her “holier than thou” attitude (not even paraphrasing – see Isaiah 65:5). Their burnt offerings, once a pleasing fragrance, became a stench in God’s nostrils as they substituted superficial piety for love and mercy.

Flash forward 800 years, and no one seemed to have learned anything. The occupying force may have changed from Babylon to Rome, but the Jewish people still needed to hear they were like whitewashed tomb: dressed up on the outside, but decaying inside. Flash forward another millennium or two and – no surprise – followers of Jesus need to hear we might be a little too focused on displays of piety and not enough on mercy. Who are the prophets of the message this time? Certainly many voices from within the church, but more telling are the voices of outsiders looking in. Surveys consistently reveal that non-Christians perceive Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. When non-believers are filling in for Isaiah and Jesus, it’s time to take note.

Misplaced piety seems to be a chronic condition of the faithful. And lest we begin to feel too superior for reigning in our own pious impulses … that’s a form of it also. The good (old) news is that prophets speak because there is always hope we will listen and change our ways. Sowing mercy and justice is challenging work. It’s much more comfortable to check off lists and to follow familiar rules than to listen to the voices telling us we need to reevaluate what we think God wants from us – especially when that might mean others will look down on us. When we feel challenged, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 3:6).

Comfort: God’s message to us has remained constant.

Challenge: We have to do the work of properly understanding it.

Prayer: God of Grace, teach me to be merciful.

Discussion: We are all sometimes guilty of hypocrisy. What do you do when you find yourself acting like a hypocrite?

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Unthinkable Donkeys

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Christ Entering Jerusalem by Ernst Deger

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab):
Psalms 84; 150, Zechariah 9:9-12, 1 Timothy 6:12-16, Zechariah 12:9-11, 13:1, 7-9


The Sunday before Easter is Palm (or Passion) Sunday, when we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the height of his ministry and controversy, Christ entered the city riding a donkey, and the huge crowd gathered for Passover greeted him by throwing palm fronds on the path before him. This gesture was a sign of respect for victorious warrior kings … but that donkey told another story.

The prophet Zechariah wrote about the coming messiah as someone who would “command peace to the nations.” Traditionally a warrior king rode into conquered territory on an armored warhorse to signal his victory and dominance. A donkey, though, sent a message of humility. To a people hoping for a military savior to conquer their oppressors, this idea would have chafed. Yet Zechariah was not the only prophet telling the people of Israel to expect the unexpected. Christ’s reign was accomplished not only through peace, but through subservience, including submission to death on a cross. It was unthinkable. It certainly wasn’t what people wanted to hear, but prophetic voices told them anyway.

Like the Israelites, do we hope to assert our future through force? Every year churchgoers read the passion story and join our voices to those who shouted: “Crucify him!” By Easter we’re back to celebrating the resurrection, and little has changed. Rather than humbly live as we believe, we try to pass laws imposing our beliefs on the nation. We fail to speak truth to power – because in this time and place we are the power. All our talk of peace crumbles when we feel threatened; surely Jesus didn’t expect us to suffer for our faith when we could defend ourselves by going on the offensive?

Jesus enters the world through the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Through our enemies. When we treat them with love we aren’t doing it on behalf of Jesus – we are doing it for Jesus. Christ reaches us not through merely unexpected avenues, but through unthinkable ones. Following Christ means choosing the donkey instead of the warhorse, even when that palm-strewn road leads to the cross.

Comfort: There are voices telling us how to follow Christ. We just need to learn to listen for them.

Challenge: Be careful not to confuse civic and secular authority with salvation and grace.

Prayer: God of Love, teach me the humble way of Jesus. Grant me ears to hear the truth, even when I don’t like it. Set words of peace and justice on my lips. Amen.

Discussion: What leaders appeal to your sense of anger, force, or division? When they speak, are you able to separate what you want to hear from the truth?

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Sour Grapes

Turnthenandlive

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Philippians 4:1-9, John 17:9-19


It’s a prophet’s job to tell us what we don’t want to hear. The more righteous or justified we think we are, the less we’re going to want to hear it … but the more we need to. The prophet Ezekiel told the Israelites in exile that God was banishing a particular expression: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In other words: stop blaming your past for your current problems.

The Israelites liked to blame their exile on the sins of the previous generation. Ezekiel told them to stop making excuses and get right with God. Like children who d on’t want to be responsible for themselves, they replied: “It’s not fair!” God brushed off their protests. Maybe their parents had made terrible mistakes, but now these children were all grown up and needed to control the one thing they could: their own behavior.

Some people undergo years of therapy to unlearn the toxic habits of an unhealthy past. Others with less traumatic experiences grow on their own. Understanding the root of our problems is only ever a starting point. Unfortunately, many people who identify the origin of their unhealthy behaviors use it as an excuse to justify the poor choices they continue to make in the present. According to Ezekiel, God’s not having it.

As we live through Lent, let’s be honest with ourselves and God about our own shortcomings. After all, there’s nothing about us God doesn’t already know. He loves us anyway, and too much to let us keep fooling ourselves. When He tells the Israelites: “Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” He could be talking to us. Sometimes our hearts and spirits are like homes cluttered with junk we’ve inherited. Because we fear loss we cling to it long after it’s useful (if it ever was) when we need to be clearing out the old to make room for the new, or maybe just for some light and air. We must repent of it to follow Christ. In the words of Ezekiel: “Turn, then, and live.”

Comfort: With Christ’s help, you can clean your spiritual house and let in the light of God.

Challenge: Clean out a closet. As you decide which things to discard, also think about what things from your past you are allowing to hold you back.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, show me how to turn and live. As I face the dark corners of my soul, fill them with your light and make them new. Teach me to set my sights not on where I regret having been, but on where you would have me go. Amen.

Discussion: What changes you have already made give you confidence about the making the changes you still need to face?

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Hope Justly

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Readings: Psalms 33; 146, Amos 3:1-11, 2 Peter 1:12-21, Matthew 21:23-32


The Old Testament contains over a dozen books named for prophets. Most of them contain the same message for the people of God: repent and embrace the justice God requires of you or the consequences of your actions will destroy you. God seems to have no desire to punish his people — why else provide them so many warnings? — yet when we read the words of the prophets we can’t help but feel the inevitably of their self-destruction.

Amos tells us “the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” and says the people hear the lion roar yet do not fear. Rather, they content themselves with fulfilling the letter of the law while ignoring its purpose: to bring justice to God’s people. Nearly 800 years later, Jesus was the roaring lion the people chose to ignore. His message to the leadership of the time could have come from Amos: while paying lip service to the Lord, you are ignoring holy truths. When faced with the question of Jesus’s authority, they feigned ignorance rather than risk losing their grip on the people by telling the truth.

To what prophetic cries for holy justice do we turn a deaf ear today? In what ways are we trading the demands of justice for personal convenience? What groups of people do we allow to be vilified or victimized for political or financial expedience? In this age of information overload, any failure to recognize the voices which cry out for an end to poverty, racism, sexism, exploitation, and countless other ills requires a willful ignorance rivaling the pharisees. We are being warned. Will we be as hard-hearted as those who denied Amos and Jesus?

It’s not too late. Whether Christ returns tomorrow or a million years from now, today we can choose to be a people whose actions court blessing rather than wrath. Advent is a time to say: “I hear you. I see you. I long for the justice denied you, and tremble before God that I have been party to it.” Advent is the time to roar like a prophet.

Comfort: Christ comes into the world to deliver justice to the persecuted.

Challenge: Read about human trafficking and the seafood industry. Think about how you can value justice as part of the price for goods and services.

Prayer: Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:8-9)

Discussion: Who does it seem God might be warning today? Through whom is God speaking?

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Buzzkill

DCF 1.0

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 17:1-24, Philippians 2:1-11, Matthew 2:1-12


Jesus once said, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” If Elijah is any indicator, maybe that’s because they’re royal pains in the neck. And in Elijah’s case … a pain in the royal neck. God sent Elijah to tell King Ahab the land would be subject to famine and drought until Elijah said otherwise. After that Elijah went into hiding in the wilderness where he was fed by ravens and drank from a wadi (riverbed that is dry except in rainy seasons) until it dried up. After that he lived with a widow whom God had commanded to take him in. Her meager portions of grain and oil held out for as long as Elijah stayed with her, but living with the prophet took an emotional toll on her. When her son fell so ill he stopped breathing, she thought Elijah was punishing her sins, until through prayer he restored the boy to life.

Prophets never show up to tell you you’re doing a good job. They are single minded and obsessive. They threaten your sense of security and control no matter how powerful you may be. They keep you off balance. They don’t care if your feelings and desires are incompatible with their mission.

And they are absolutely necessary.

Not every prophet is on a mission like Elijah, challenging the blasphemy of a king. Some of them are more low key annoying. They’re pulling recyclables out of the trash when we’re trying to clean up after the potluck, and asking us to volunteer at the food pantry when they know we just did it last weekend, and interrupting our gossip sessions by suggesting we pray for those people instead. We want them to just lighten up once in a while. They don’t get invited to a lot of parties.

Yet by refusing to let us get too comfortable, these people further the work of the kingdom in a mostly thankless way. The courage of conviction may feel like a real buzzkill, but our reaction says more about us than about them. These prophets are the conscience of a community. If we lean into the discomfort they cause us, we just may find reasons to thank them.

Comfort: A call to repentance is sign of love. 

Challenge: Listen to the voices that remind you to better, even if they are annoying.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to listen well when you speak through others. Amen. 

Discussion: What do you think today’s prophets are saying?

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Expect the Unexpected

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Job 4:1-6, 12-21, Revelation 4:1-11, Mark 6:1-6a


No Bible stories are about God telling a prophet: “All is well. Carry on just as you have been.” Rather, He promises to make a childless, elderly couple the parents of a nation as numerous as the stars. He appoints an adopted Hebrew into the Egyptian royal house to free slaves. He transforms a persecutor of Christians into their greatest evangelist. These stories? There are plenty of them.

When Jesus preached to the residents of his hometown, “he was amazed at their unbelief.” They asked “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” This guy? They were actually offended by his teaching. Jesus as the messiah was doubly unexpected: both a hometown boy, and a preacher of peace.

Self-proclaimed messiahs before Jesus had led rebellions against Rome. The crucified bodies of these men and their followers literally lined the road to Jerusalem for miles. Another messiah promoting bloody rebellion was expected, but not needed.
We like preachers and teachers who comfort us. We are much more skeptical of radicals, of people who make us uncomfortable, of people challenging the status quo. But these are requirements for prophets. It’s their vocation to make us question our beliefs and behaviors. People in powerful or safe situations have little motivation to question a system that works for them. Instead, injustices are brought to light by those for whom the system is not working, or those who become willing to sacrifice the privileges the system affords them.

Is every outrageous character a prophet and every outlandish claim a prophecy? Of course not. But when God demands change, He demands it for the poor and oppressed, and their voices sound jarring, unsettling – even threatening – to those in power. They call us to recognize how our actions and beliefs negatively impact the lives of others. Sometimes the voice of God is still and small because it comes from those who have been silenced. Our modern prophets are not those who comfort us, but those who challenge us.

Comfort: God doesn’t challenge us to change because we have failed, but because we can succeed..

Challenge: This week, try to learn something from people who have made radical commitments to living out the gospel.

Prayer: God of growth, show me how I can change, and bless me with the courage to do so. Amen.

Discussion: Who has challenged you to change the way you understand the gospel?

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