Friday, May 22, 2015

Speaking With a Prophetic Voice

At my church during May we have been considering:  Why Worship?  Thus far, we have covered sacraments and proclamation; next week is liturgy.  When we considered proclamation, we looked at Jeremiah's call (Jeremiah 1:4-9) and our call as Christ followers to have a prophetic voice.   Our task, in the words of Walter Bruggeman is not to ask whether an alternative is possible or viable—but rather to ask if is it is imaginable. Our pastor challenged us to be prophets wherever we find ourselves. Our call is to imagine a better world, to confront the status quo wherever there is injustice, and to work toward making our hopeful vision (i.e., God’s vision) a reality.

Surely the voice of Martin Luther King is that of a modern prophet.  King's words, first preached over half a century ago, often seem like they could just as easily be commentary on today's world.  Some of the specific issues may have changed since the early 1960s, but the core human issues King confronted in his writing and speaking remain essentially the same.

In one of his sermons, King speaks of the need to have both a tough mind and a tender heart as a follower of Christ.  Certainly, any who would seek to speak with a prophetic voice must strike that delicate balance. 

On one hand, prophets have to possess a tough (or disciplined) mind.  They must have strong conviction—and thick skin.  A prophet is often called to challenge the status quo in his/her time, and that's never an easy road to walk.  It's much easier to acquiesce and go with the flow.  Because he/she typically challenges people to move from what is familiar and comfortable to them, the prophetic voice is often not a popular one.  The most vehement opposition typically comes from those who have the most to lose if things change.  By their words and actions these persons make it clear: We are comfortable where we are, thank you very much; we don't care much for your so-called vision.  If a prophet doesn't have a tough mind; if he/she isn't possessed by a compelling vision of what God longs to see that drives all that they say and do, they will likely lose heart and give up hope. 

Likewise, a prophet also needs to have a tender (or disciplined) heart—one that is able to hear the still small voice of God even in the midst of hardship and suffering. Prophets often speak words of hope amidst circumstances that seem hopeless. No, the hopeful vision will not come to pass immediately; it will not come without effort—without blood, sweat, tears, sometimes even death—but "one day", proclaims the steadfast prophetic voice, it will come. 

Jeremiah is a good biblical example of the balance the prophet must strike between tough mind and tender heart.  When God calls Jeremiah as a young man (perhaps only a child) to go and deliver ominous warnings to the people of Judah, he resolves himself, despite his youth, to obey to the best of his ability.   Jeremiah surely felt inadequate to the task before him but God reassured him:  you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command.  In other words: I am going with you.  My voice will come out of your mouth.
The message God delivers through Jeremiah is not pleasant.  Jerusalem is about to be overrun by the Babylonian Empire and the temple will be destroyed.  Many will die; the lucky ones will be taken off into exile.  Judah is about to be displaced from everything that is familiar to them.  No wonder Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. 

God’s message is a hard one for Jeremiah to deliver, but, even in the face of brutal opposition, he does not waver.  Jeremiah has both a tough mind and a tender heart

The leaders did not heed Jeremiah's tough words.  One might therefore expect him to gloat when disaster befalls Jerusalem.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Jerusalem is Jeremiah's home too.  Despite being ignored and despised by the very people he tried to warn, they are still his people, and when they hurt he hurts.  Jeremiah weeps with them; he feels compassion for them—and so does God. 

Through Jeremiah, God speaks some of the most hopeful words in all of scripture.  He reassures the people that though they are in exile far from home, God is still with them—and will never leave them.  In the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances, Jeremiah promises the people a future with hopeJeremiah 29:11.  For the time being, they must settle down in Babylon and make a life for themselves in exile—but "one day" a remnant will return.  As a sign of his faith in that future—and in the God who will bring it to pass—Jeremiah does something most unusual.  Even as the Babylonian siege ramps advance on Jerusalem, Jeremiah purchases a field the city—Jeremiah 32

Such an act would take both a tough mind, to go through with a real estate deal as an invading army advances upon the city, and a tender heart, to follow through and do what God asks even though it seems like sheer folly.

I don't know about you but most days my voice doesn't seem very prophetic. Many days, it is all I can do to get my kids to listen to me, much less speak challenging words that confront injustice in the world and offer hope for the future.  It's hard to imagine a better future when just getting through the "to do" list each day seems to take every bit of energy I have.  I feel very unfocused most of the time; pulled in many directions, I do not speak or act decisively.  I feel like most days I fear my voice sounds more pathetic than it does prophetic

Proverbs 29:18 says that without vision the people perish, and many days I feel like that describes my life

I am not sure what prevents me from seeing more clearly the future that God wants for me, my family, my church, or my world. I suspect we each have our own unique “vision impediments”, and we have to discern them for ourselves and take action to eliminate them.

Until a compelling vision of the future fills our sails, we risk continuing to drift in no particular direction, easily swayed by the ever-changing winds of this world, trying to escape the doldrums of double-minded indecisiveness.

Prophets likes Martin Luther King and Jeremiah (and also Jesus[1]) show us the value of having a clear vision of the future God desires to focus our lives and motivate us to take decisive action. I for one need to be reminded of these examples right now.  They challenge me to get off the snide and seek to discern the “next step” toward becoming the person God created me to be—and then step out in faith and take it…  Lord let it be so for me—and for all of us.

[1] I believe Jesus’ commitment to pursue God’s vision (which the Gospel writers call the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven) was the impetus for all he said and did—and ultimately the reason he was willing to face death on the cross. 

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