I invite you to close your eyes for a minute and imagine a prophet. An Old Testament prophet. We read about the calling of the prophet Ezekiel this morning, famous for the story of the valley of the dry bones and the “wheel within a wheel a turnin’”. What was he like? Or think of others, Isaiah who we hear so much from in the season of Advent. A stem springing up from the root of Jesse. In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord but also, “Comfort, comfort ye my people”. Or Jeremiah, standing at the gate of the city calling out for the people to repent. And a new covenant written upon the heart. Or Amos, a shepherd from the little village of Tekoa. “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Or Micah, who prophesies about the little town of Bethlehem and tells us what the Lord requires of us – to seek justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. Or Malachi, “who may abide the day of his coming – for he is like a refiner’s fire”.
Usually pictured as stern and foreboding old men with lots of white hair and beards shouting out at us from the painting or movie screen. Not friendly. Eccentric. Not wanted in pleasant company. Absolutely politically incorrect. Probably would be arrested for disturbing the peace. Their threatening behaviour might bring out tasers and side arms in our world. You get the picture. Now, open your eyes if you haven’t done so already.
Would we want a prophet to come into St. Andrew’s today? Or perhaps better, would we want a prophet to meet us out on King Street as we are coming into the church, shouting at us about what hypocrites we are and how much God despises our solemn assemblies? Isaiah or Jeremiah might do that naked. Or would we think it was the appropriate role for a faith leader to burst into the office of the Prime Minister and tell him to change his ways or the country would be invaded and most of the Liberal Party would be carried off in chains into exile. Perhaps not, unless of course you have a particularly bad opinion of the Liberal Party.
Although we dutifully read the words of the prophets when they come up in our scripture texts, we may feel a little uncomfortable with them. As long as they stay safely contained in the pages of the Bible, we can cope with them. But please, don’t let those prophets loose among us. That would be a little too much.
Well, Jesus walks into the synagogue in Nazareth. His home town. He was among the people he had grown up with. They all knew him, and loved him. Such a sweet boy, gentle Jesus, meek and mild they sometimes called him. He loved his parents and looked after his mother when his father had died. He was the oldest of many children and always seemed a bit special. Something different about him. There was that time that Mary and Joseph thought they had lost him when they had gone on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem but he turned up a few days later. He had been in the Temple all along and it seemed he was teaching those know it all ministers there a thing or too. Good on him. There were some stories spreading now about him travelling around the countryside and by the lake, teaching people and especially healing people. Lots of people saying he was a miracle worker.
Well just to be clear, he’s nothing special here. Just one of us. No matter what they might say in Capernaum, no matter what he might have done over there, he is just a boy from Nazareth. And damned if we’re going to bow down to him and tell him how wonderful he is. Who does he think he is? A prophet? We have lots of them in the scripture, we don’t need anyone else telling us what to do and what not to do. Maybe it’s better that he just go on his way and leave us be. It must be hard for his mother.
Jesus was a prophet. He had a prophetic role and followed in the steps of the biblical prophets and of his cousin, John the Baptist. We sometimes forget that. In the teaching of John Calvin in the Reformed tradition it was emphasized that Jesus is our great prophet, priest and king. He fulfills the three roles that are found in the Hebrew scripture. Like most prophets, he had a hard time getting a hearing in his own town. In Luke’s version of this story, the people in the synagogue got much more riled up and took Jesus to the edge of the cliff on which the town was built and were ready to throw him off. I have been in Nazareth, and I can attest that it is a long way down that cliff. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ message was not always well received, especially by his own townsfolk. We don’t like being told there’s a problem with the way we’re living our lives, especially by an upstart little boy who we taught in Sunday School.
Jesus’ prophetic message, that the kingdom of God is at hand and we need to change our ways and live into that kingdom, isn’t a hometown message. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, make us comfortable in our pews or comfort us that we’re fine just the way we are, thank you very much. It is a message that challenges us to wake up. To move out of our comfort zone and into the new thing that God is doing. Nazareth is a beautiful town. But Jesus couldn’t and didn’t stay there. His message was bigger and his mission was bigger. His disciples had to learn this. In today’s reading, immediately after the time in the synagogue, Jesus begins to send his disciples out two by two. Like the prophets before them, they were to travel pretty sparsely. No food, no suitcase, no money. Only a walking stick and one set of clothes. They were to expect hospitality and a hearing from the people they went to, if not they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on. Now this would never make it in any organized mission trip. You need to be prepared for every eventuality. You need to have a check list of all the things you might possibly need for any possible emergency. And you better have a credit card, or two, to make sure you’re covered. Don’t leave home without it. That’s the way we do things. But not Jesus.
These prophets are quite annoying, aren’t they. Think about some more contemporary prophets. They probably weren’t very comfortable back home either. William Wilberforce or Nellie McClung, or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Elijah Harper or Malala Yousafzai or Harvey Milk. They make us angry sometimes although the further back in history they go, the more popular they become. They’re never just going to go back to their home town and settle back in. And if we listen to them, we’re never going to be happy just living our lives as they have been. It might be easier to toss them off a cliff and be done with them. Violence often stalks them and there are many who think that silencing the prophet is the way to end their threat. But the trouble with prophets is that the message is often taken up by others and their followers become a movement. Two by two, or in small groups, in their own way and their own time, they continue to spread the message. That there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we are living our lives. That we need to change, to turn around, “metanoia” is the Greek word that is used in the New Testament, and live into a different way that reflects God’s reign of justice and peace.
We need prophets, much as they annoy us. Maybe we find it difficult to hear those who are among us. Their message gets lost in their familiarity. But we still need prophets. To call us out of our complacency. To open our eyes to what is going on outside the walls of the church and outside the walls of our homes. It is tempting to just look after ourselves and feel that everything is alright. It never is. The quotation on the front of the bulletin this week is from George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community in Scotland. George was a prophet in his lifetime. Early in his life he was deeply moved by his time in the trenches of the western front in the First World War. On his return to Scotland he became a minister in the Church of Scotland but left his comfortable parish to be minister at Govan Old, a community where unemployment and poverty were rife. Although part of his vision for the Iona was the rebuilding of the 11th century abbey on the island as a place of community and renewal, the building would ever only be justified when those in it went out to the tough and gritty places of the world. Something was wrong with the world and MacLeod never tired of calling out to those who would follow Jesus of Nazareth to seek justice in a world full of injustice and peace in a world hell bent on war. There were many who would have liked to see him dead but his message inspired more than one generation of young people and older people to find new and authentic ways to live into the kingdom of God.
The trouble with prophets is that prophets are trouble. They make us uncomfortable. They make us angry sometimes. But we need them. And in the world we live in we need them more than ever. They call us to a table where all are welcome. Where there are no greater or lesser folk. Where there are no borders or barriers. A table where whole wheat or pitas or chapatis or tortillas or mealy meal are all bread and fit into that one little wafer and is shared among friends. A table where a cup of wine is enough to gladden the hearts of many. Where people come from north and south and east and west. A table where we are fed and a table from which we are sent out to feed the world. A table that was first spread by that prophet from Nazareth but can now be found in every corner of the world he came to save. It is a difficult table, because we don’t make the guest list, or choose the menu or determine the time. We could have an angry old prophet sitting next to us or the person we passed begging on the street. But thank God for prophets who are never at ease in their own home towns and who call us out of our comfort zones to this table and into the amazing world of the kingdom of God. Amen.