Who would like to be a prophet? Is anybody here interested in being a prophet, God’s prophet?
Here’s the job description: needs to proclaim God’s message – which often is not good and comforting, but rather inconvenient – to the people. Needs to be capable of taking criticism, and mustn’t be afraid of being ridiculed; often prophecy involves incarceration, torture, exile – sometimes even death.
Prophecy is an unthankful business. Take Jeremiah, for example. We heard the story of his calling today in our first lesson. The message he is called to proclaim to the people of Judah is inconvenient: You have abandoned me, you have abandoned your neighbors in need. I am grieving deeply, says God. Change! Turn to me again, if you want to live!
It shouldn’t surprise us that Jeremiah, from the very beginning, seems reluctant to accept God’s call – ‘But Lord, I am only a boy!’ But who could resist God?
Jeremiah suffers immensely. Nobody is listening to him. He is ridiculed, he is harassed, he is thrown in a dried-up well, imprisoned and physically abused. He gets to the point where he cries out to God, why, o why didn’t I die in my mother’s womb? I don’t want to live the life I am living. God, what did you get me into?
In the end, Judah is conquered by the Babylonians, Jeremiah is sent into exile by his own people, and we lose track of him somewhere in the desert on the way to Egypt.
Prophecy is an unthankful business.
Jesus comes back to his hometown of Nazareth (and we heard that story last week) after leaving his home and family, his job and his responsibilities as an orderly member of Jewish society. He comes back after preaching to and healing people of neighboring towns and villages, and of course the people of Nazareth had heard about it. Did you hear the news about Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter? No, tell me. He is now a prophet, teaching great news and healing people. Now, who would have thought, young Jesus…Well, I always knew there is something special about him. My, his family must be so glad to hear that he is coming back. Yes, and he is coming back to us! After all, he is one of us – this is where he belongs.
Can you imagine the gossip? And at first, when Jesus returns to the synagogue of his hometown to reclaim his place among the men of the community, everybody is gracious. Even the scripture reading he chooses from Isaiah, about how God will do wonderful things, the blind will see, the lame walk, the captives will be set free, and how this scripture is fulfilled today, this hour, in this place. Isn’t that a great message to hear? God’s promise for us? It doesn’t surprise me that, at first, the men in the synagogue speak well of him.
But this is not the entire message. No, Jesus, the prophet, proclaims an inconvenient truth: God is not your property. Just because God made a covenant with you, that doesn’t mean you could claim God exclusively. No, Elijah and Elisha, prophets of the ancient Scriptures, were sent to pagans to those outside the chosen people, to proclaim God’s good news.
Now this enrages the people. The hosannas turn into crucify, so to speak. The graciousness and favor turn into violent hostility. Jesus is too big, too bold, too daring for those small town people. We don’t know exactly what makes them tick – that Jesus refuses to take his proper place in the community of Nazareth? Maybe it dawns on them what Jesus’ claim is – that he, the carpenter’s son, is the Messiah? That’s blasphemous! But maybe it is because Jesus proclaims something that is rather off-putting: you are not the only chosen ones. God’s love extends far beyond anything you could ever understand.
The men of Nazareth don’t want to hear this. It seems they want to feel special, chosen, saved – exclusively. They want to be the ones healed, liberated – exclusively.
Now it’s easy to point fingers at those men in Nazareth. Isn’t it also part of our Christian culture to think that God is there, exclusively for us, for some, not for all? That some are saved, and others are not? That, because Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life, that Christianity is the one and only way to reach the kingdom of heaven? That we deny God’s amazing grace and saving power to embrace those who don’t believe the same way we do?
In my talk on ‘Religion and Identity’ this past Sunday in Oakland, I talked a lot about the experience of separation between Lutherans and Catholics in my hometown back in Germany. Not even Christians, believing in the very same God, could agree that ‘the other’ would be saved, just because they believe in a different way. For the longest time, Lutherans and Catholics weren’t even buried in the same cemetery – it was believed, that not even death in Christ unites us. Fortunately, that has changed. Even Pope Francis has reached out to the Lutherans in so many ways and even asked for forgiveness for the Catholic persecution of Lutherans.
But my point is: we often derive our identity from differentiating us from someone else. And often, we make ourselves feel better by disrespecting someone or putting someone else down. We know something about this weird longing to be the favorite – the chosen ones.
Why is there this hunger for exclusivity? Why is there this longing for being the chosen ones? How did we come up with the idea that God will pick some – and of course I am among them – whereas many others will be left behind or left out?
Now faith, hope, love remain, these three: but love is the greatest among them.
If you listen carefully to what Jesus has to say, you’ll find that more often than not, he talks about a God who defies our expectations: Elijah was sent to the pagan widow, Elisha healed Naaman, the Syrian – an infidel, according to the Jews. In Matthew 25, the famous passage about the goats and the sheep, Jesus is not talking about the Christian believers who do all good things to Jesus by helping their neighbor – or their failure to do so -, but about the pagans. According to Jesus himself, there are those among the non-Christians who will enter the kingdom of God – and that it is more important to do God’s will than to adhere to a certain creed.
God’s kingdom is ever growing, like a mustard seed, like a field of wheat. God goes those who are lost. Jesus is talking about a God who is not with those who claim him exclusively, but a God who ever expands lovingly, embracing the whole world. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
It often seems that the message of God’s love which encompasses everything is a foolish and ridiculous one. At least it is countercultural. Love thy neighbor? Love thy enemy? Offer the other cheek? Love all of God’s created world? Follow a God who demonstrated strength and power by dying? We don’t really see that lived in this world, do we. And those modern or post-modern prophets who proclaim a message of love are still ridiculed today – what fools, what dreamers!
As a society, we value strength and raw power. Survival of the fittest, the strongest, the wealthiest, the smartest, the one with the biggest gun. But, as we see in this world today, we are far from God’s kingdom if we follow the ways of the world.
And so we still need prophets today. Maybe more than ever in a world where people are polarized, and where many live as if there were no future, not even God’s future.
We need prophets who speak the truth in love, who proclaim a God who is infinitely loving and merciful and doesn’t cease to surprise us by accepting us, flawed as we may be. We need prophets who have visions of a future, God’s future, which isn’t shaped by exclusiveness and superiority, but by faith, hope, and, most importantly, love.
We need prophets who are not silent where the dignity of and of God’s created children or God’s creation is violated.
Prophecy is an unthankful business. One you speak up, don’t expect to be embraced by the world. But be assured that you are always, always embraced by God, who has known and loved you since you were in your mother’s womb – a God, who promises to make all things new in faith, hope, and love.
This post is also available in: German