Scripture: DEUTERONOMY 18:15-20
When I was in my early twenties and first learning to live as an adult Christian, I heard someone say something to this effect: “If we’re sitting at the figurative river’s edge and vulnerable babies come floating down the river in baskets and we pull them to safety, we’re considered heroes. If we go up the river, though, and ask why the babies are being put in the river in the first place, we’re considered trouble-makers.”
Another way to put this is to say there’s seldom any objection to charity, but when it comes to justice, things can quickly become prickly. No one will mind if we share hot meals with people who are hungry, or clothing with those who are freezing. As we start asking why some are hungry and cold, though, it can rankle people. It’s fine, in other words, to deal with the effects of these societal maladies, but when we start to wrestle with their causes, we sometimes walk on thin ice.
The ones who raise these questions are the prophets. They’re the ones who challenge economic strategies and political systems. They’re the ones who question unjust tax policies and social programs. They’re the ones who question school funding inequality and the school-to-prison pipeline and why people of color don’t seem to be able to live in certain neighborhoods and why their cars are stopped more often and why women run into glass ceilings and how gun-safety might be improved and how to undo climate change and how to resist the too-easy impulse to war. And on and on. And when they bring such matters up, we may squirm.
Prophets unnerve us because they call into question the habits and patterns of our common life. And they may do so in ways that annoy us, that upend our way of thinking. When I was in seminary, I was sitting with a group one day in the dining hall for lunch, and, in passing, I said to my friends that a woman we all knew was “a dentist’s wife.” A woman at the table said to me gently but firmly, “She’s not a dentist’s wife. She’s a woman whose husband is a dentist.” And that may seem to some like a ridiculous retort. “Who cares?” you might well think; “that’s nothing!” That verbal correction, though, was a way of letting me know that the woman we were talking about wasn’t primarily her husband’s appendage. She was a person in her own right.
Being challenged like that fried me. I stormed out of the room in a huff. It wasn’t ’til later that I came to see that the way I had expressed it made the woman into little more than an addendum, a piece of property. I came to see that my language makes a difference. This is, to be sure, a tiny example. But it clarified for me something of the difference between charity, on the one hand—which might entail being nice to the woman in question, or maybe helping her—and justice, on the other hand—which forced me to see her, not as an accessory, but as a full person in her own right. And it aggravated me. And it forced me to change.
Prophets tell us hard things. And at the same time, they make us distinctly better people. Which is why we tolerate them, and, if we’re wise, it’s why we even treasure and encourage them. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses has been the preeminent prophet for the people Israel. Moses is moving toward his death, though, and, in a kind of final speech, he tells the people that, once he’s left them, there will still be prophets. Eight times in these six short verses, Moses uses the word “prophet.” He lets the people know that “God will raise up . . . a prophet” like him, and that they should “heed such a prophet” (18:15), because the appointed prophet will be speaking in the name of God. Prophecy will be an inescapable part of this distinctive community of faith.
And indeed it is. When the Bible was assembled, seventeen of the thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, were written by prophets. Then there are the countless prophets in the other books of the Hebrew Scriptures: Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Miriam, Deborah, Joshua, Noah. And on into the New Testament with John the Baptist and, finally, and centrally, Jesus of Nazareth—who is also, of course, so much more than that. Prophets are in no way peripheral in the Bible. Far from it. They’re part of its very core.
Biblical prophets are not people whose primary task is to predict the future, which is the common misconception. They are, instead, people who speak a word from God. They utter a truth. And the huge difficulty, the enormous challenge to the community of faith, is that that divine truth may not be easy to hear. It may rile us. It may irk us. And I want you to know that I get that it’s not easy to hear that sort of challenge. So if talk about prophets makes you uncomfortable, you should know that it makes me uncomfortable, as well. Truth be told, I don’t relish having my assumptions questioned. And I certainly don’t savor the silent, cold dismissal that comes with relaying a prophetic word. I don’t thrill to the sometimes-harsh disapproval that comes when that word is spoken. To be honest, the prophetic word is likely not fun for any of us—not for you, not for me.
And yet, who would we be without that word? I’d like to help us look a little more closely this morning at the notion of prophecy, to see if it might come to seem at least as much a gift as it may now seem to be a royal pain, that we might come to cherish it as one of those roads by which we go “home by another way.” The great Jewish rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote of the prophets: “Prophets are people who feel fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon the prophets’ souls, and they are bowed and stunned at humankind’s fierce greed . . . God is raging in the prophet’s words” (The Prophets, p. 5; edited slightly for inclusivity).
The heart of prophecy is that it’s not really a human word at all. It’s a word from God. Prophets are acutely aware of something so many of us are dulled to most of the time: that there is a truth deeper than the one we usually claim or acknowledge. ‘You may not be seeing this,’ says God, ‘so I’m going to convey it to you by way of a prophet.’ Prophets feel the failings of the world and they castigate. They see the community’s inequity and callousness and they rebuke. They hold us accountable. They virtually scream at us to see the deeper truth.
Prophets are torn apart by the destruction in our midst. “They speak and act,” says Heschel, “as if the sky were about to collapse because Israel has become unfaithful to God” (p. 4). They are agonized by God’s pain. They are, says Heschel, haunted by “a bitter sense of the tremendous contrast between God’s righteousness and [human] failure” (p. 15). And precisely because of that cosmic failure of ours, the presence of God, he says, is “a challenge, an incessant demand” (p. 16). The words of the prophets are akin to a scream of divine pain.
So the prophets among us, for example, might well rail at the recent insurgency at the U.S. Capitol. The threat and violence alone were enough to make God weep. At least as bad as the violence itself, though, were the underpinnings of that insurgency. The so-called Christian Nationalism that gave that mob its energy was a conviction that Christianity, and white Christianity in particular, had the right to assert itself and to claim for itself what its adherents thought of as their rightful place atop the heap in this country. That insurgency was fueled by the assumption that white Christian faith is superior and that it is entitled to whatever it believes is properly its own. It’s the conviction, says the brilliant biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann, that “Christian faith of a particular kind . . . deserves to be dominant and justifies the use of violence to enforce and maintain that claim” (Tenacious Solidarity, p. 113). And it is not just violent extremists who maintain such a misguided perspective. As Brueggemann says, “there is much legal, polite white supremacy within the confines of the church” (p. 117). It’s this sense of supremacy that was on such blatant display at the Capitol that day, and that infiltrates us all in ways both subtle and brazen. Prophecy calls that behavior and that way of thinking out.
Some years ago, Brueggemann, likely the foremost living Christian interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures, wrote a gem of a book on prophecy. He said the prophet has two distinct tasks: to criticize and to energize. Prophets criticize the failures of a culture. But true prophets don’t just leave it at criticism. They also energize the people for a new future.
Both of these functions—criticizing and energizing—are crucial. And Brueggemann suggests that different wings of the church fail typically on one pole or the other. He praises conservative churches for painting a picture of a rich future, but pans them for their failure to criticize the injustices of the world in which we live. And he praises liberal, or progressive churches, for their trenchant criticism of injustice, but faults liberals for too often being stuck there. Liberals, he says, are only too quick to see the faults of the world, but they may well fail to see a free and gracious God doing something new. They may well miss the joy of the new creation.
Taking off from Brueggemann’s views, maybe it would be fair to say that, in general, conservatives convey a God who is extremely active and human beings who needn’t be overly engaged in change. And liberals, on the other hand, are, in general, aware of a great weight on their shoulders, a duty to act and to change the world, while having a rather thin notion of the wonder of a God who is alive and active in it all.
I’m incredibly glad to be part of a church that sees social ills and has a deep desire to address those failings. At the same time, though, I wonder if, in our denomination, we have a way to go on the spiritual side. Ethically, we have a keen sense of the wrongs that could stand to be righted. Theologically, though, we in what was once called the mainline church sometimes get by on rather thin gruel. To really thrive and be true to God, says Brueggemann, both are necessary. We are called both to criticize what isn’t working and to energize people with a vision of the world God is creating in our midst. God is creating it. And we are to join God in enacting that beautiful and just world. Which is why it is incumbent upon us not only to revile the injustices of the world, but, at the same time—to return to our theme from last Sunday’s worship—to be strengthened for the journey by nurturing a relationship with the God who never lets us go and who is always creating a luminous future.
These are tendencies, of course, and not hard and fast qualities. But from a liberal or progressive perspective, it may be worth the nudge to say that it’s not enough just to kvetch about everything that’s wrong in life. There’s also a desperate need for us to lift up a vision of what can be right in the world, what can energize us and give us joy and empower us for the profoundly unknowable and radiant future, a future that God is indeed making happen.
This is Brueggemann’s theological equivalent of a work supervisor saying to the staff, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” Criticism plays a distinct and crucial role. By itself, though, criticism is not enough to engender in the people a sense of possibility and transcendent marvels. Energizing is vital to our prophetic role. And this energizing is possible because both the prophet and God have a glorious love affair with the people of the earth. At the heart of God, says Rabbi Heschel, is a limitless “pathos,” a boundless compassion, for us. That’s where we draw our energy.
So having shared some criticism today, let’s conclude with some snippets of vision, some words of hope. We begin with a series of words from the prophet Isaiah that have inspired and sustained generations of people of faith. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low . . .. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (40:4-5).
“[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4).
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12).
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” (60:1).
Energizing words. Words from which we might appropriately draw our identity. And it’s not just ancient words, either, that energize us and call us into a new and redeemed future. Listen to these words of a contemporary poet and prophet, Amanda Gorman, as she spoke them at the inauguration of President Biden:
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
And after acknowledging the terrible events of January 6, Ms Gorman finishes this way:
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the west.
We will rise from the wind-swept north-east where our forefathers [and mothers] first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country,
our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
And Moses says, “Heed the prophet.”