Feasting on Prophecy

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2012 Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-20

Seminary doesn’t teach you everything. I remember the first church I served, very small, on Chicago’s north side. I typed the bulletins, shoveled the walk, made the coffee – and every once in a while got around to preparing sermons and visiting the hospital. There were times, like when I was looking at a financial statement or negotiating a building use agreement, when I wondered why seminary hadn’t taught me that.

But there are other things my seminary, and perhaps any seminary, teach well. One is the balance between being “pastoral” and being “prophetic.”

The word “pastor” is related to the word shepherd – a shepherd tending to and caring for her or his flock. Much of a minister’s role relates to being pastoral, but, I would say, much of any person of faith’s role is to be pastoral. We are all called to care for and tend to one another. A minister has unique pastoral roles, but not to the exclusion of all of us caring for all of us.

And as much as we are all called to be pastoral, we are all called to be prophetic as well.

Our modern-day world would foist at least two understandings of prophets on us. One, of course, would be the person standing down at the Liberty Pole, signboard in hand, slightly out-of-touch with reality, if not more so, proclaiming “The End Is Near.” When we see that kind of prophet, we avert our eyes and get to the other side of the street as fast as we can.

The second kind of prophet appears on TV late at night or early in the morning. They have read the Bible thoroughly and confidently, and have focused on particular parts of it – the apocalyptic parts. They have sliced and diced mysterious language and strange imagery and have discerned, with divine authority, how current events correlate with biblical pronouncements. Some even go so far as to predict when the world will end, the end of times.

As much as we are all called to be pastoral, we are all called to be prophetic as well, though neither of those kinds of prophets. The word means “one who speaks” or “one who sees.” In the best of the biblical understanding, to be a prophet is to be one who looks around – who sees – and who speaks the truth on God’s behalf. It might be a difficult thing for the rest of us to see, and the truth might be a difficult one to say or hear, but nonetheless it is the calling we share.

Sometimes sports slides over into real life. A week ago yesterday, a young man named Jovon Belcher, 25 years old, killed his 22 year old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, with a legally-registered handgun. He did so in front of Kasandra’s mother as well as their 3 month old daughter, Zoe. Belcher got in his vehicle and drove ten minutes to work, in this case, the practice facility of the Kansas City Chiefs, for whom he played as a linebacker. Often when we read of these all-too-frequent instances, a shoot-out follows. In this case, Belcher spoke to the team’s general manager and coach, thanked them, and then with the police arriving on the scene, shot and killed himself. It is as tragic as it can get.

I am a sports fan, though the NFL is lower down on my list. I thought a great deal about this event this past week. The first question was whether the Chiefs would play their game the next day. It’s a murky discussion, but ultimately they did, and won, in an emotional game. Another question was how they should respond.

Here is a pastoral response, from the team’s quarterback, Brady Quinn.

“… The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people. I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

The team, Quinn said, will establish a fund for the baby girl. “I think it is important that she understands what type of love that she should get from a family… at one point in time she might have some questions in life and we want her to understand how much she is loved…Hopefully she can understand, try to find a peace with it and move forward with her life.”

What an extraordinary pastoral response, compassionate and aware.

Here is another response, a prophetic one, from Kansas City sportswriter Jason Whitlock, whose comments have been quoted heavily and have been added to by broadcaster Bob Costas, among others. Whitlock wrote:

“You may argue that we all grieve differently. You may argue that playing the game is the best way to move on and heal. You may argue that canceling or delaying the game would serve no purpose and would be unfair to the …

I would argue that your rationalizations speak to how numb we are in this society to gun violence and murder. We’ve come to accept our insanity. We’d prefer to avoid seriously reflecting upon the absurdity of the prevailing notion that the second amendment somehow enhances our liberty rather than threatens it.

How many young people have to die senselessly? … Our current gun culture simply ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy, and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead.

Who knows? Maybe brain damage triggered his violent overreaction to a fight with his girlfriend. What I believe is, if he didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.

That is the message I wish… all of us would focus on Sunday and moving forward. Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.”

We are all called to be pastoral. A pastoral response would have us respond to the situation at hand, with sensitivity and compassion. It would also invite us to think about bigger questions, including how we are sensitive and aware of the struggles of those around us, especially those who might be facing depression, a condition so insidious because it is so invisible and so complex.

And we are all called to be prophetic, easy or not, clear or not, controversial or not, comfortable or not. A prophetic response would have us respond to the deeper issues at play, which include not only the use and availability of handguns, but their acceptance in our culture. And it would have us ask questions about domestic violence, again, difficult questions, controversial questions, questions that don’t usually arise when we position ourselves on the couch on a Sunday afternoon ready to watch a game and escape for a few hours.

We are all called to be prophets, not to calculate the end of times or proclaim the world’s doom, but to look around with clarity and to speak the truth with love and hope.

Advent is a time for prophets. Each Sunday in Advent offers us a little snippet of a prophetic book, not much, but enough to get the point.

Last week it was Jeremiah, who foretold of justice and righteousness coming into the land. Hint: when you think prophet, think “justice,” and think also about “injustice.” Last week it was Jeremiah. Next week it will be Zephaniah, who will speak of renewal and love and healing and redemption and restoration and homecoming – a beautiful, beautiful vision. In two weeks it will be Micah, who articulates God’s vision of peace. And we will encounter that great prophecy, Mary’s Magnificat, that foretells of a new day and a new way of living.

Feast on these prophecies in Advent. They are not filled with doom and gloom. Rather, they are filled with hope and justice. They are directed, though, at the same time, to all those who perpetrate war and injustice and oppression, with calls for an end to the ways that keep God’s people down, and in particular the people who live at the fringes.

That’s what makes being a prophet such a difficult calling. Despite injustice, despite violence, despite oppression and discrimination, it is always easier for us to shrug our shoulders, to stare at the ground as if nothing is happening or we can’t do anything about it. Yet we can. That’s what we are called to do. We are all called to be prophets, to, as Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” even when it is not easy.

This morning we encounter the prophet Malachi, who tells us that God’s messenger is coming – who will treat us and the world like metal that needs refining, or something so deeply stained that only a strong soap can clean us. These are not easy words to say or hear. It would be so much easier to ignore the imperfections in the metal, to pretend that the stains and marks don’t matter. But think, Malachi says. Think how good it will be when we are bright and polished, when each of us and our faith community and our culture sparkle and shine, living in righteousness.

And John the Baptist, perhaps the most well-known prophet of them all, calls people of faith to repent. We often associate that with old-time vices, dancing or playing cards. Perhaps it is. But more deeply, John is calling the world to change direction, to a cultural and religious course correction that will hear God and take God seriously and offer up an alternative vision, an alternative way of living and serving. It would get John killed. It would get the one whose coming he foretold killed as well.

We are all called to be prophetic. We are given eyes to see and voices with which to speak and values – ethical and moral values – that serve as benchmarks to measure how we are doing with how God would have us live. It is not an easy calling, nor comfortable. It would be much easier this week to think about sleigh bells and winter wonderlands (things, mind you, I love thinking about), rather than depression and domestic violence and handguns.

But to be claimed by the God of hope is to be claimed by the God of justice, and to prepare for the birth of this vulnerable little baby is to follow one whose words and actions would lead to Calvary.

We know the world needs our eyes and voices, to discern the signs of the times and with poetry and power share God’s vision. We know as well that we are transformed when we look around and speak out. When we do, we will sparkle like silver and gold, and the world will be healed, and God will be pleased. Amen.



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