Some Thoughts on Prophets
January 28, 2018
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana & First United Presbyterian, EP
Text: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
After church last Sunday, sometime between celebrating the Patriot’s victory and mourning the Viking’s defeat, Eric asked me “What’s a prophet?”
In church we’d been talking about Jonah – the reluctant prophet who had to season in the belly of the whale before bringing God’s word to Ninevah. A reluctant prophet, but a prophet nonetheless….
Prophet, seer, man of God, visionary, preacher – all words to describe one who is called by God and who calls others; one who is a spokesperson of the divine.
God calls Moses, the first great prophet, from his daily life tending flocks. Moses brings God’s steadfast love, compassion and liberty to the enslaved Israelites. He delivers God’s displeasure to the Egyptian Pharaoh. In the desert Moses becomes tribal chief, desert guide, judge, priest and general. More importantly, Moses becomes the voice of God.
When I die, Moses tells the people in his great speech now captured as the book of Deuteronomy – a great speech given to the children of the original escaped slaves, to the next generation as they prepare to enter the promised land – when I die, Moses says, God will raise up other prophets, men and whom who will speak words not of their own origin but of God’s.
“I will put my words,” Moses reports God as saying, “into their mouths.” Across scripture prophets speak neither their own thoughts nor give their own commentary. They are neither preachers nor pundits nor theologians nor scholars nor politicians. They do not compose the words they say. Also they have no choice but to say them. “Thus sayeth the Lord,” the prophet begins. And out tumbles the truth – often the hard truth.
Prophets appear across the biblical narrative. Miriam and Moses. Deborah during the time of the Judges. Samuel. Nathan. Elijah and his disciple Elisha. The great writing prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and so on. John the Baptist. Jesus – who was much more than a prophet, but still functioned as a prophet during his earthly ministry. The apostle Paul. John of Patmos and his great revelation.
Some of these prophets wandered the countryside, outsiders who spoke truth from the margins. Others were insiders, court prophets who worked within the political system to hold leaders accountable. The early prophets – Moses, Deborah, Samuel – were political leaders themselves, combining the roles of prophet, judge, general, and priest. Most of the prophets had “day jobs.” They went about their regular business and prophesied as God called. Some, such as Jesus, had intense periods of their lives when they worked as a prophet full time; others prophesied intermittently across much of their lives. Most of the prophets weren’t much liked. All were deeply respected. Many were feared. Several risked their lives.
Various prophets had different methods and different messages. Some saw visions or interpreted dreams. Others made God’s healing tangible through miracles. Some primarily delivered God’s word concerning current events. Others looked far into the future. Most mixed it up. “Thus says the Lord…” they might say as they brought condemnation upon the sins of their nation and people; “But the days are coming” they might continue, as they promise God’s restoration, God’s hope, God’s salvation.
Most of all the prophets consistently spoke up for those on the margins. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
They also consistently strove to call the people to true and right worship of God. Elijah literally went to war against the priests of the Canaanite storm God Baal and those in Israel’s royal circles who followed him. Micah denounced ritual worship, calling the people to leave the emptiness of their ritual and do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their God.
Finally prophets told the truth, regardless of the cost. They didn’t pander. They never compromised. They never self aggrandized or sought undeserved power. The Lord put words in their mouths and they spoke. The Lord put actions in their hands and they did. No matter the cost.
God still raises prophets among his people; individuals called – in certain times, in certain places – to speak truth to power, to bring liberty to the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to call us back to right worship and grace filled living. False prophets also exist – those who claim to speak for God but don’t. Telling them apart is difficult. We like to declare those we agree with to be true prophets; and those we disagree with to be false. But it’s not that easy.
So as we leave this discussion about prophets, a few guidelines. First of all, true prophets are rare. Our world is full of preachers, theologians, pundits, politicians, commentators and conversation monopolizing relatives who like to talk about God and may even be right now and then – but that doesn’t make them prophets. Even a broken clock speaks truth twice a day. True prophets speak because they are compelled to, not because they want to. True prophets root their words, and their actions, in God’s word – they are through and through people of God, people of integrity, people of truth. They name the sins of individuals and nations, speaking truth to power regardless of the cost. The lift up voices long silenced and proclaim God’s love for those overlooked or oppressed by those in power. They make us uncomfortable. They fill our lives with grace.
God calls them to speak God’s truth. In turn they call us into new relationships, grace filled relationships, justice filled relationships, with those around us, with our God.