12/7/2014 sermon: “Who’s a prophet?”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11/Mark 1:1-8
2Advent, Year B

Who’s a prophet?

I want to let you in today on a private conversation that I have been having with God. The conversation has to do with prophets. And my questions are these: “Who’s a prophet, today?” and “What’s the message that we are to hear?”

If this were Forum, and I asked you how we could identify a prophet, you might say, “Well, they always looked different.” And you would be right. Prophets were either too old, or too young, or had some kind of obvious defect of person or personality that would make them most unlikely to be chosen of God. But then, God always chooses people who are obviously defective, so that we will know God is working through them, that their own abilities have been aided, amped up, by God.

You might then turn to the message, because the job of a prophet is to speak some message that is not their own, some message sent by God. And you would be right. Prophets are God’s message-bearers, the “mouth of the Lord.” The trouble is, there are all kinds of people running around in our world claiming to speak for God. The problem is not that we lack for prophets, so much as figuring how to choose among the messages they bear.

So next you might consider authenticity of message a vital criterion for being a prophet. We can’t define authenticity, really, but (as the saying goes) we know authenticity when we experience the authentic. The ring of deep truth lands in our hearts, stirs our imagination, and motivates us to take action; deep truth motivates us to take God’s action.

Still, something’s missing. Was Jim Jones a prophet, when he took his mental illness and over a thousand followers to Guyana and inspired them there to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid? At some point we have to test the message, to see whether the truth and the action of the message line up in relation to the Fruits of the Spirit that we know so well: love, joy, peace, and the like.

Still, prophets are shocking people. Their appearance shocks us, and their message often shocks us. So I wonder, can a prophet simply BE,can a prophet simply embody a truth that God would have us learn? Can a prophet simply stand here and preach God’s Word and help you discern what God is calling us to do, or must she use wild gestures, and speak in a booming voice, and claim the authority of the Lord Most High to tell you what God wants you to do?

For example, God used Absalom Jones, the first Black Episcopal pastor in America, to teach us the truth that God loves absolutely everyone. But Absalom’s message was not that “God loves ME, so you should, also.” Oh, no. The authentic message that Absalom shared was about God, not Absalom. The AUTHENTIC message is, “God loves YOU and I can prove this, because God loves me.” That was Absalom’s message to share, the message sent by God when he anointed Absalom a preacher. But did that make Absalom a prophet?

I know that you will think of another Black preacher, Martin Luther King, Junior, and think, “Surely that preacher was a prophet.” And you’d be right. Martin had the God-voice, the God-message, and he inspired a generation to adjust their own egos enough to act on God’s love. And Martin did pay the ultimate price that prophets often must make, as God’s Word often is not popularly received.

Let me give you one more modern prophet―a White one, this time, a South American who goes by the name Francis. Here’s a man elected to run the largest franchise operation in the history of the world, and he spends his spare time in the slums praying with people who literally having nothing. Who does he think he is, Jesus?

We know who he is, though, and Pope Francis is definitely not Jesus. Francis baptizes only with water, but Christ baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. Yes, we know who Francis is. I think Francis should actually wear the camel skin and the crazy belt. He carries the staff. He speaks the language of truth. And the words he shares are not about himself; oh no! His words point to someone else, someone whose coming and re-coming have and do and will rock our world. His words point to Jesus, the Christ, God-made-man.

Isn’t this always the message of a prophet? Not me, but the One who is coming, and coming again?

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be make low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

How shall we act on this message?

  • How shall we make straight a highway for our God in the economic wilderness of our lives today? I say to you, “Blessed are the downwardly mobile, for they shall see God.”
  • How shall we make straight a highway for our God when some lives are held more cheaply than others? I say to you, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
  • What valley shall we lift up, with homeless and near-homeless people all around and among us? What mountain shall we make low, if not the mountain in which we worship God?
  • Isn’t God doing the leveling? Hasn’t God shaken our hearts and stirred up our imagination? We pray that God also will level our anxiety and calm our fears during the leveling process.

Our Old Testament lesson tells us the point of all this: “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord [the Prophet] has spoken.”

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