Preached at Renaissance Presbyterian Church 6/25/17
What makes a good preacher? I have been wondering my entire calling. What makes someone attempt to interpret a holy text in a way that moves people and points them to the divine? What type of person has the confidence to mold words from texts thousands of years old and then believe that they can live on in the life of others? Is it hubris, arrogance or raw stupidity? Yet here I am, every week returning to the scene of the crime.
That is not to say that we should overly praise the modern orator in the pulpit Too often there is something missing in many modern sermons. They are either incredibly shallow in their dedication to overly easily accessible platitudes, or they are on elitist in their over educated banter from bloviating pseudo intellectuals.
On the other hand can we blame the flowery orator for his or her dedication to ingratiating themselves to an audience? It is, after all, their bread and butter. If a tree falls in a forest, or better yet, if a preacher preaches from a pulpit and nobody hears it, did it ever really happen? It is an extremely difficult job and one that only has this one thing that offers unhindered control. So, it is not surprising that pastors will often take the lowest common denominator toward being liked. I know I have. Yet, I know very few pastors that are my friends that are not troubled by the state of their preaching, who want to strive for something different or better.
Yet, even stronger that being better is being in the position of actually communicating words to convey the divine direction from ancient texts to people who are more communication savvy than any other time in the history of human existence.
Too often we answer the question of what a preacher is and then think we are done. It is here we are confronted with the bizarre world of the prophet. These seem like times where the holy message is ripe for a prophetic vision. I have heard too many times the moniker of prophet thrown around too liberally. I cringe when those who think it to be a great compliment say that the words I might say or write are “prophetic” in any way.
Listen to what at first seems like inspiring words from the prophet Joel that end in an entirely sour note:
“It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
“Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.
“I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth,
Blood, fire and columns of smoke.
“The sun will be turned into darkness
And the moon into blood
Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.
“And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD
Will be delivered;
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be those who escape,
As the LORD has said,
Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.
Prophets, like angels, are best to be avoided by good company. Angels most often bear terrifying news and may usher burning destruction, fiery swords or venomous snakes in their wake. Like angels, prophets do not bring the types of heart warming encouragement that, “gets your week off to a good start.” They are strange people who rarely want to say the words crammed in their mouths like burning coals or honey flavored scrolls. Like Ezekiel they are told by the divine to craft visual lesson plans that would make the edgiest performance artists envious. Or like Hosea take family values to a perverse and troubling new low. Even our prime example of the prophetic word, Jesus, spit, cried, cursed and in the end was crucified for his words.
Maybe looking toward the most eloquent, the one who glides the most elegantly through the party or the one who is the greatest leader might not be what is meant for a time of prophecy. maybe we should look in a much different direction for those who are selling something that no one wants to hear. People who are trying to convince the skeptic of something that is much too fantastical for them to behold. Maybe we should look to the flimflam artist, Svengali, the carnival barker, the traveling sells person, or the midway carnival games operator.
Maybe, just maybe, we have been looking for solace in the simple answer where we should have looked for the hard road of our true identity. We might have waited to hear that everything I going to be alright instead of peeking behind the sideshow tent to reveal what we might find to be overwhelmingly part of our own humanity. We may have straightened our backs and walk with dignity by the Mermaid woman, Siamese twins and the bearded lady posters because we are afraid we might find a reflection in those images that look too familiar, too painful to acknowledge.
Yet, that is the prophetic word. It is what seems to be an irrational view of the world because it is our sin that has marred the horizon of our reality. We do not see the good possibility of our wholeness as good, because sin has mesmerized us into thinking that this is all we were intended to be. It is only the prophetic word that shakes us from the false idols we seek and bring us back to the humans that God wants to commune amongst. The prophetic word is free from sin and our control.
The prophetic word does not require a master’s of divinity, a life of understanding the hermeneutical underpinnings of a text or the top notch skills of administration. What does the prophetic word require? It requires a burning word from the divine that we cannot ignore moving us from the way we are, to the way that we are supposed to live. It is neither a psychological, economic, sociological, philosophical or political assessment of our condition, it is the divine’s judgment about the Spirit of this age. This judgment is weighed in relationship to the revelation that God has already given us through the living Word in and amongst us.
Here again we might lazily fall into familiar tropes. Well, we know that the prophetic word aligns with our own opinions of the world and how it should be. We listen to safe prophets whose words make us cheer and buoy or opinion of how the would should look. If the prophetic word fits too nicely into gaining a particular theology or a particular political movement power in this moment then it can almost be guaranteed to not be prophetic, but propaganda. Neither Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn are prophets, they are politicians who want power in this world.
If the prophetic word does not cause revulsion and indignation can it truly be called prophetic? If it doesn’t make those who wield power, politics, manners, morals or religion as their backbone violently indignant can it really be seen as an effective prophetic word? No.
So, listen, speak or live out the prophetic word if you dare. Open yourself up to the burning texts of change that are being conveyed to new generations of prophets listening to the voice of the divine. Beware. Do not seek the prophetic word if you wish to live a normal life. Hear what the prophet Jeremiah has to relate about being a prophet:
O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.”
But the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten.
O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.
Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers
That is a terrifying and awesome view of the prophetic word. It is not something to be taken lightly. What is the prophetic word here, now and for our community? If we humbly seek that word we may not be more inspired, but we will know that we will be moving toward the divine. More importantly we will courageously be moving toward the creation that will glorify the divine every day of our existence.