Our spiritual ancestors often expressed their experience of God in terms of conversations between God and key figures of the faith story. Dialogue between the Almighty and the patriarchs or prophets is found all through the Hebrew Bible, serving to describe what our ancestors knew to be true of our relationship with God. In today’s first lesson, we hear of a conversation between God and Moses. In it God says that in the future there will be more prophets like Moses but people will be accountable for recognizing them and hearing their truth. That is an important insight into the dynamic of God and God’s people that has far reaching implications. I would like to talk with you this morning about God speaking through prophets but leaving it up to us to hear and heed them. I want to explore what it might mean to us as individuals, what it might mean in our closest relationships, and—because we are a National Cathedral—what it might mean to us as a nation.
Let’s begin by thinking about what a prophet really is. We usually picture a wild-eyed angry John the Baptist sort of fellow who tells everybody they are going to hell in handbasket or that the world is about to end. That popular cartoon image does not serve us very well if we expect to take today’s lesson at all seriously because, in fact, prophets are truth tellers. They are the ultimate realists who set before people the consequences of ignoring the facts that God has built into life. The prophet Amos, for example, speaking almost 800 years before Christ said that an economic system that stuffs the rich and stiffs the poor is simply not sustainable and leads to ruin. It is a caution appropriate to our day, as well, because it is a reality, a reminder about a consistent fact of life. Pointing to reality and the consequences of ignoring it is what prophets do.
Prophecies are different from revelation. God uses revelation to tell us things we could not figure out on our own. Things like Jesus being the Son of God, forgiveness of our sins, and the promise of life beyond death. Prophecies, on the other hand, are about things we should be able to figure out but, for whatever reason, we can’t or don’t. So prophets speak of the need to abide by God’s law, to be generous, forgiving, and loving—things we know full well but are inclined to forget when we are busy or overlook when they are inconvenient to us.
Because prophets tell us things we really already know but don’t want to remember, we almost always find them irritating. That is why history records so many unhappy ends for God’s prophets. Amos was right about the economy but run out of town anyway.
One other thing about the prophetic role. We usually think of prophets as people and many of them are. But the prophetic role of pointing out realities we would just as soon ignore has a wide variety of media. A hangover is prophetic, reminding us of something we know full well but chose to ignore. Blood pressure can do the same, as can the bathroom scale, a sudden drop in grades, absenteeism, shrinking glaciers, and rising frustration. The Labor Department is constantly producing statistics that warn our nation of facts we would rather not hear. God’s promise to place prophets in our midst to remind us of some of the fixed features of creation is expressed with more than just people.
The responsibility for recognizing and heeding all of these different prophets is made much more difficult by our lesson’s reference to false prophets—those who speak in the name of other gods, other concepts of reality. This does not just mean Nigerian business opportunities on the internet or embarrassing pastors who predict the end of the world. It is the idea that broken cookies do not have calories or that the lack of symptoms means there is no need for a physical. It is the sub-prime loan, reverse mortgage, balloon payment opportunity to buy your dream house. False prophecies are a staple of political campaigns, creating fear in face of nothing and hope in spite of everything.
And if our task of recognizing God’s prophets were not already difficult enough there is one more thing. Our biblical image of a prophet is someone who does it full-time, a person we identify with prophecy such as Isaiah or Jeremiah. That kind of prophet has not been around for a long time. What we have in our day are part-time prophets, people and processes that in the normal course of events are pretty normal but sometimes surprisingly speak God’s word to us. Have you ever had something on your mind and then in a conversation with someone who has no idea what you are dealing with a word is spoken that touches the very heart of the matter? That friend is a part-time prophet. Routine blood tests are almost always just that, routine, but once in a while they become prophetic. You listen to a political debate or speech or even a sermon, almost weeping for want of substance, when all of a sudden a point you needed to hear comes through. You have a friend whose wit and style you do not admire, yet her presence in your life sometimes glitters with love and joy. These are all part-time prophets, not as easily recognized as John the Baptist draped in camel’s hair with a handful of locusts and wild honey to ID him, but playing the prophetic role nonetheless.
So God has given us prophets who, through the Spirit, “lead us into all truth” and tell us that we must do the work of recognizing them and heeding them. Then, lest we take that task too lightly, God allows false prophets and part-time prophets into our world while still holding us accountable. It hardly seems fair but, in the spirit of the prophets, I will point out that it is our reality. The question for us is how best to go about hearing God’s prophets.
I will give you three things to keep in mind. First of all know that the prophetic role is a fact of life. God is present to us in many ways: the beauty of nature, sacraments, experiences of the Spirit, scripture, holy places like this, wisdom, and through the prophets. Mark this well: in your life and in our life together, God has provided voices and indicators to guide us on our way. That is one reason people of faith are called followers—because God really is leading and guiding us. Never forget that fact.
Secondly, remember that prophets are almost always irritating. They tell us things we should know but are avoiding or denying. So those who would hear the prophets need to develop an appreciation of irritation. Everything that is irritating is not prophetic but everything that is prophetic is at least a little irritating. God’s prophet is sometimes disguised as the elephant in the room. God’s prophet is sometimes found embedded in a really scary thought. God’s prophet is sometimes speaking on that network you don’t watch because you think they are part of a vast right-wing or left-wing conspiracy. Develop an appreciation for the value of irritation.
Thirdly, never forget that prophets are a gift from a loving God. God does not want us hung up on the rocks of life. God is not willing to move the rocks out of our way but does, in love, offer to guide us through them. That pesky backache, the frustrated sighs in a relationship, the insulting bond rating are all, in their own way, gifts of love intended to guide us on our journey.
“Moses,” said God, “I am going to put my words in the mouths of prophets. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet speaks I will hold accountable.” And God did. And we are. Amen.