…prophets are we
December 1, 2019
Scripture: Selections from the first Chapter of Luke
There is another amazing birth narrative in our Christmas story other than that of Jesus…and it is the story of the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist. And that story is the subject of our reading today from Luke’s gospel…let me share it with you from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel…
As with Mary, John the Baptist’s story also started with an angelic announcement. It seems that his father, Zechariah, was a priest who served in the Temple. His wife was Mary’s cousin and a descendent of Aaron, Moses’ brother. Her name was Elizabeth and she and Zechariah had not been able to have children though they had dearly wanted to and had pretty much given up hope as they both were getting on in years. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were devout believers and followed all of God’s ways faithfully.
Serving as one of the Temple priests carried with it a lot of responsibility and the priests took turns offering incense in the innermost room of the Temple. On this particular day, Zechariah had been chosen to enter into the Holy of Holies to make the offering to God. He went in by himself while all the rest of those assembled prayed fervently on the outside. When Zechariah was inside and all alone, he suddenly saw an angel of the Lord, standing before him at the right side of the altar.
When Zechariah saw him he was terrified and overwhelmed with fear. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Still afraid, Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people outside of the Temple were waiting for Zechariah and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service at the Temple was ended, he went back to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear and amazement came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This is the word of our Lord…thanks be to God…
And as I read through the reading for today, I was struck by the actual words contained within Zechariah’s prophecy regarding his son…for somehow, they still seem relevant today, almost as if they are timeless…as though they could have been written just as well for us.
And so, I truly believe that indeed, much as John was, so too are all of us called to be those who proclaim out loud and with great enthusiasm the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. As was John the Baptist, so too are we called to speak aloud the truth of our Lord’s love into the hearing of all who will listen…in short we all are called to be prophets for our Lord and God.
Which of course, sounds pretty scary I suppose. I mean, what exactly is a ‘prophet’ anyway? Aren’t they like old men with wild eyes and long hair and scraggly beards shouting out and beating their chest against the wind with great passion and fury? And weren’t they called in a special way by God, with a very difficult message to share? And do they really exist anymore today anyway? Or are they somehow just an artifact of the ancient biblical past?
Actually, there are many misconceptions concerning prophets and prophecy. Yes, very often they were older men who were depicted as quite scary and odd. And yes, they were filled with great passion because they believed that God had given them a message to share of great urgency and import. And yes, they still are being called by God today to share very important messages with all who will hear. Because now, as much as or perhaps more than ever, there are critically important things God is seeking to share with all of humanity.
Another critical misperception concerning prophets and prophecy is the nature of what they are called to share. And that is the difference between ‘fore’-telling, and ‘forth’-telling. Most often people associate prophecy with fore-telling…meaning telling about or predicting things before they happen…sort of seeing into the future…or fortune telling…speaking about things before they actually occur. It is also something that some people still engage in, and often in dangerous and manipulative ways…professing to speak for God and predicting all sorts of mayhem…but doing so for their own ends and their own evil designs. Which is not to say that such looking into the future and predicting a particular outcome can not, or does not happen at all…but rather to say that if and when it does it must always be couched within the authority and embrace of the Holy Spirit so that people are not led astray for ungodly and very human reasons.
However, in truth almost all of the prophecy found in the bible is of the latter type, or forth-telling…which means to tell forth or to speak out into the public arena the truth of what is going on at that time. Modern day prophecy as well, concerns this practice of talking about the current state of affairs and of how those affairs do or do not conform to the hopes and plans of God for humankind. Telling forth the ‘current state of affairs’ is the primary assignment that was given to all of God’s chosen representatives.
And as such, everything was on the table…nothing was off limits…everything that impacted the lives of the people of God was fair game for the prophets to discuss and comment on…including very often the political and socio-economic conditions of the time, as well as any inequity that might exist between peoples regarding wealth and access to resources… things are still critical to God in our day.
And ‘forth-telling’…speaking aloud God’s concerns concerning how humankind is living together and caring or not caring for one another is I believe what we are all called to be engaged in as well. And in fact, the dictionary definition of prophet itself seems to leave open the door to applying to a much larger group of individuals as well. The dictionary defines ‘prophet’ as ‘a person regarded as an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God.’ Surely we all can find ourselves within that definition…if we are willing.
It is perhaps helpful as well to mention that not all of those God called in the bible were exactly willing either…for a prophet’s job was not without risk and sacrifice. Even Jesus quoted an old proverb in his own ministry when he said in Mark chapter 6, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own relatives, and in their own house.” Which is not exactly a winning job description for one to consider when seeking to begin serving our Lord. But it is also one that often turned out to be quite accurate for those who responded to the Lord’s call to go forth and speak the truth out loud. The prophet Jeremiah was that anxious to put on the cloak of the Lord’s chosen. We hear him say in Chapter 1 verses 4-8, “ Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you…” And so, if we are hesitant to prophecy for the Lord, at least we are in good company!
Now, my ‘job’, is to teach with the hope of inspiring others to take up this call of Christ…the call to proclaim the goodness and promises of God in such a way that others gain the ability and the desire to speak truth to life in their own lives. My job is to be one among many who are convinced that God is still alive, still seeking to usher in the kingdom of peace among humankind, still unwilling to transgress upon our ‘free-will’ to choose whether or not we wish to follow the ways of God, our God who is still merciful, and still…so much in love with each one of us.
Building up and being a part of a professing community of faith remains a critical need…for if one individual shouts out into the darkness, the darkness can and often does easily ignore it…but if many, together with one voice, and within the power of the Spirit, shout aloud together of the saving love of our God…then real change is not only possible…it is quite probable.
Now…that is why and how we are all called to be prophets in our own right…but what did Zechariah say exactly that seemed still so important for us to hear today? After giving deepest thanks and praise for God’s fulfilled prophecy in sending the promised Messiah to earth, John’s father addressed his infant son directly saying, “And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” And it is in these words of Zechariah that I find much hope and relevance for today…as well as great challenge and opportunity for us.
… “you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways”. We are asked to be the messengers of the Good News…to ‘go before’ our Lord in such a way that the Lord becomes known to others through our words and through our actions. We are to let the love of God shine through us in such a way that others are attracted to the light of love that is within us and come seeking to find out just what it is that we have that gives us such peace. For truly, we have freely received grace abundant enough to share with everyone the Lord places within our path.
Secondly, Zechariah says, “You will give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. You will make salvation known to others…by the forgiveness of their sin. Forgiveness of sin shall be a marker which illumines the saving grace of our Lord…we are called to show the Lord’s salvation through the way we offer and extend forgiveness to others. This call to forgive one another goes to the heart of how God wants to relate to us. For it is only in forgiveness that we are restored to wholeness and healed relationship with God and with one another. If we refuse to forgive one another we are closing ourselves off to the flow of God’s love not only from us, but to us as well. Forgiveness brings healing and wholeness, forgiveness brings salvation.
And that’s it…that is all we hear in the words of Zechariah as to how it is we are to be and to act in order to be chosen and sent by our Lord. We are to let the Lord become known through the lives we live…and we are to preserve the community of God’s mercy and love through actively forgiving one another as well as ourselves…“forgive us our sins…as we forgive those who sin against us”.
After this, Zechariah’s prophecy shifts to the fact that our call is a call to partnership…a call to go forth in the name of the Lord…with the Lord alongside…not a solo effort, but rather a full and active partnership between the Lord and us. Zechariah says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us”…a new day of grace will be seen…because it is just the way of God…not by our goodness…not because we deserve it…but simply by the mercy and grace of God we will be blessed.
And Zechariah follows up this by saying that we will dwell in this new ‘dawn from on high’ not simply for our own sakes but rather, in order “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”. We are called not just for wholeness in our own lives but for the sake of others…our call is to illumine the pathway in front of those who are still seeking the Lord, those who are still in darkness and fear…that through the example of our lives they might come into holy relationship with our Lord of love.
Zechariah then finishes off his prophecy by saying that this dawn from on high that we will come into is not only to offer us an opportunity to light the way for those who are still seeking…but also “to guide our feet into the way of peace”. God’s mercy and love not only reaches out to the lost and the lonely through the lives we live in their presence…it also empowers us to be the agents of a new dawn for all peoples, a new day of real peace and unity among all humankind…something that speaks truly to this time and into our current circumstances.
These words…first spoken into life almost two thousand years ago still resonate today. Zechariah spoke God’s truth to life that day…he knew the goodness of God and he shared that all we need do is to hear it, believe it, and then act on the promise. Hear the call…accept the call…reflect the image of God’s love through your every word and action…be ever willing to forgive as readily as you yourself have been forgiven…and in so doing…lead those who are lost to the place reserved for them at the table of our Lord. We are those who are called to proclaim the message of God’s goodness into life, we are prophets. Let us take up the call and walk…