Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Today marks the seventh sermon in our series on the stained glassed windows. It features the prophet Jeremiah and points us to the gift of prophecy, not only for Jeremiah, but for all those men and women who, through the years, displayed the courage to speak the truth of God’s Word in love. As you listen to the sermon this morning, I hope you’ll consider how God is calling you to offer a prophetic witness in this time and place.
Let’s begin with a simple question: What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the words, “Biblical prophecy?”
When I was in high school and college, I took several long road trips at night. As I drove, I’d find a clear channel station on the radio and listen to whatever happened to be on in the middle of the night. Often, I’d hear a radio evangelist by the name of Herbert W. Armstrong, and later, his son, Garner Ted Armstrong. They had a program called, The World Tomorrow, and it usually had to do with the end of time, mostly based on passages from Daniel or the Book of Revelation and often having to do with Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East.
And I wondered: Is this what Biblical prophecy is?
When I was in seminary, one of the hottest books on the market was a paperback by Hal Lindsey entitled,The Great Late Planet Earth. It, too, was purported to be based on Biblical prophecy and it had to do with – you guessed it – the end of the world.
Then, more recently, we have the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins depicting the 2nd Coming of Christ, the Rapture and – once more – the end of the world as we know it.
I repeat: Is this what Biblical prophecy is all about? It may be for some, but it certainly doesn’t represent the prophets of the Old Testament.
The great prophets of the Old Testament – Samuel, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah … Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah … were far less concerned with predicting the future than with proclaiming God’s Word to the people of their day. They didn’t distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys – who’s saved and who’s not – instead, they confronted everyone with their sinful nature and called them to repent and live in right relationship with God and each other. In the words of Micah, “What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Biblical prophecy is not so much about foretelling the future as it is forth-telling God’s Word. It has far less to do with predicting the end of the world than it does with taking seriously the responsibility we have to live each day in such a way as to exemplify God’s kingdom on earth and so do our part to reconcile the world to God. Amos put it this way:
“Woe to you who desire the day of Yahweh…It is darkness, and not light. As if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; Or he went into the house and leaned his hand on the wall, and a snake bit him…I hate, I despise your feasts, and I can’t stand your solemn assemblies. Yes, though you offer me your burnt offerings and meal offerings, I will not accept them…Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty.” (Amos 5:18-24)
The prophets took God’s Word and proclaimed it to the people, whether it was what the people wanted to hear or not. They spoke the truth in love. And that’s the essence of biblical prophecy.
But then, that’s the Old Testament. What about the New Testament? We only have to look to Jesus to answer that question. For example, Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. But you ought to have done these, and not to have left the other undone. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and unrighteousness.” (Matthew 23:23-25)
Jesus carried on the prophetic tradition in his day, and so did the Apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire… Now the works of the flesh are obvious, which are: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these; of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith.” (Galatians 5:16-23)
But the prophetic tradition doesn’t end here. It goes on into the early church in the likes of St. Augustine and Jerome; it continues into the Middle Ages with great theologians like Thomas Aquinas; and into the Reformation with such giants as Martin Luther and John Calvin; to the 20th Century with modern-day prophets like Dag Hammarskjöld and Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. In their own way, all these and more dared to stand against the status quo and speak the truth in love.
And it makes me wonder: Who are the prophets of our day? Where is our prophetic witness?
In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin identifies three distinct roles Christ played in his ministry. He was a priest – that is, he met people where they were with a word of forgiveness, healing their sins and restoring their brokenness. He was a king – he faithfully administered God’s love and righteousness. And he was a prophet – he spoke God’s Word of truth and judgment. (Institutes, II, XV.1)
Well, Calvin says if we’re to walk in Christ’s footsteps, we should strive to fulfill each of these three offices: Priest, King and Prophet. And, to be honest, I think we do a pretty good job with the first two. We’re quick to respond with tenderness and compassion when someone is hurting or in need. And, for the most part, we try to be good stewards and live according to high moral and ethical standards.
It’s the prophetic office that gives us the most trouble. It goes against our nature. From earliest childhood we’re taught to avoid conflict and get along. “Share your toys,” we’re told, “be friends … if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
And while that makes for good social etiquette, it gives us an easy out when it comes to dealing with the hard core issues of life. For example, what do you say to a friend who’s having an extra-marital affair? Or abusing alcohol? Or dabbling into pornography over the Internet? What do you say to a parent who’s overly harsh with his or her children, a man who’s consistently rude to his wife, an employer who makes inappropriate sexual advances?
These things happen, and, when they do, our tendency is turn our heads and look the other way, to distance ourselves from the other person. Instead of saying, “Can we talk?” we say things like, “What about them Aggies? This may just be the year we go all the way!”
We avoid confrontation like the plague. We do everything possible not to embarrass or offend or impose our values on others. “Live and let live” – that’s the mantra the world would have us live by.
And yet, God calls us to offer a prophetic witness – to speak the truth in love. Paul told the Galatians, “Brothers, even if a man is caught in some fault, you who are spiritual must restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…” (Galatians 6:1)
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That often involves a certain amount of confrontation. But what’s the alternative – look the other way and pretend that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”?
This happened to a minister friend I knew years ago. He started drinking more and more, then he turned to drugs. Before he knew it, his life was spiraling out of control. In time, his wife and children left him and he was forced to leave the ministry. When he finally hit bottom, he turned to AA and, as he was working through the twelve steps, he got to the part where he had to go back to the people he had offended and do what he could to make amends.
He had been a United Methodist minister, so one of the people he went to see was his former bishop. He told the bishop everything he’d done – he made a full confession – and asked for his forgiveness. Of course, the bishop was quick to say, “Oh, let’s just let bygones be bygones.” They shook hands and prayed together, and, as he got up to leave, he said, “Bishop, can I ask you something? When I started going downhill, why didn’t you or one of the District Superintendents – or somebody – say something?”
He said the Bishop just looked at him pathetically and then said, “I guess we should have tried to do something to intervene.”
I’ve often heard it said – and I bet you have too – that, as Christians, our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Well, it’s true: We are a priesthood of believers who are called to nurture those in need; yet, we also stand in the line of a great prophetic tradition and are called speak the truth in love.
But, before you say, “Amen!” and set out to save the world or confront your best friend, remember two things: One, there’s a price to pay. Jesus said,
“Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
To stand up for what’s right is to stand out from the crowd, and to stand out from the crowd is to make yourself an easy target for others to take a shot at. Being a prophet is not the way to win friends and influence people – at least, not at first. So, don’t be surprised if others don’t appreciate your candor.
And two, make sure that your prophetic witness reflects the truth of God’s Word and not your own outspoken opinions. This is what I like about the Prophet window in our church – Jeremiah is pointing to the risen Christ.
This is the test of genuine prophecy – it leads us to Jesus and God’s kingdom of forgiveness and grace and love. So, when you speak the truth in love, just make sure you speak in the name of Jesus Christ and be prepared to pay the price.
When I think of the gift of prophecy in our day, I can’t help but think of Pope John Paul II. For over twenty-six years, he traveled around the globe promoting peace and justice and greater equality among the nations of the world. On more than one occasion he came to the United States. Speaking on our own soil, he chided us for our materialism and greed, our decadence and godlessness. He didn’t mince words. Instead, he called us to repent and use our resources to serve others. He was a tireless advocate for the poor and marginalized people of the world and an uncompromising witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Well, this is what I’d like for you to take home with you today: While you and I may never rise to the level of Pope John Paul II, God has entrusted to each of us, in some small way, the gift of prophecy. Each of us has the ability to speak and act in the name of Jesus Christ.
Don’t let that gift go to waste. Speak out against the evils of the world, speak up for Jesus Christ. I promise: By the power of the Holy Spirit, your voice will be heard, and your witness of faith will help transform the world around you into the Kingdom of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Copyright 2006, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.