Sermon preached by Brian Merritt at Renaissance Presbyterian Church 1/31/16
I hear preachers who often extol their role as prophetic preachers. Then I listen to their preaching and wonder why my definition of the prophetic is so radically different than theirs. Am I just being contrary when I contend that many of the “prophetic” acts that our churches and society celebrate are merely political pep talks for their clan? Maybe they will endure a harsh argument or negative feedback on social media, but there is no real risk to them in the United States as so-called prophets. They are neither a threat to the institutions of the church, corporate structures or the political leadership of their communities. Rarely is there the type of danger that a true prophet in Biblical texts would have to face with regularity.
Jesus shows us this in the Luke passage this morning. There is always an assumption that I have had with this text. I had always believed that Jesus had enraged the crowd by reading the Isaiah scroll and saying, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Unfortunately, this merely confused the listeners of Galilee. They knew Jesus and thought it odd that he would make such a claim. They, of course, knew his father Joseph and it was quite impossible for Jesus to be fulfilling the prophecy in the text.
This is where the narrative changes from what seems like banter to anger. Jesus begins to teach history on the rejection of Prophets in their own communities. Jesus makes the unpardonable assertion: miracles do not occur in the areas where their prophet is rejected. He makes the inference that if Elijah or Elisha was in your midst you would reject him too. That is why the widow of Sidon and Naaman the Syrian were shown miracles by Elijah and Elisha instead of any widow or leper in Israel.
This enrages the synagogue. They want to kill Jesus. The once rejected Elijah and Elisha have become a part of the holy texts. They are celebrated now by the religious institutions. There are religious ceremonies in their honor. After his ascension in the chariot, Elijah is considered a prophet in the most holy texts recording his teachings and actions.
This inside argument for people who are Jewish is interesting to those of us who follow Christ, not because we have any opinion on how current Jewish people view of Elisha and Elijah, or to judge their religious texts, practices or prophets. For us it can only be an internal argument between Jesus and his faith.
What is incredibly illuminating about this text is that what Jesus is describing is exactly the way we treat the truly prophetic in our modern church. We need look only at one of our current saints to understand how this has worked.
By the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death his popularity was hitting a low. Gallup was tracking public opinion on Martin Luther King Jr. from 1963 until 1966. King’s unfavorable percentages went from 37% to 63%. The much sainted and cooped King was largely unpopular for stances on Housing, the war in Vietnam, income redistribution, union support, poverty, scathing criticism of the white liberalism, interfaith tolerance and a shifting understanding of non-violence. To indicate that King was the happy warrior, supported by the liberals and all of the civil rights world would be a naïve changing of history.
More than these poll numbers are the fact that as a prophet King withstood more than just withering public criticism and ridicule. King was stabbed, endured bomb threats, was blackmailed by his government, recorded, bricks thrown at him during marches, followed, harassed and eventually assassinated. King’s life was not one that many of our so-called prophets even closely approach.
Yet, in his death it is like the most controversial parts of his message and his unwavering commitment to the radical direct action of non-violence are pushed aside for a bizarre corporation or ideologically friendly spokesperson.
King has become a saint. Sainthood is one way that the church can incorporate and institutionalize messages that might actually change them. If they can pretend that the justice is outside of them and that King was talking from amongst them, they will look like allies in the cause. They take the conviction, the fire, the radical message away so that they can have inspiration. This is not prophetic, but it is pathetic.
Do not aspire to be prophetic unless you want to follow a road of pain, derision and danger. Do not think that the prophetic message allows you to remain the same. It will tear at the very soil of your being, digging, digging and digging until it has revealed the source of sin in our societies. Christ was a prophet with no honor in his hometown. Eventually it would get him seditiously hung from a cross until he suffocated to death. This is the path of the prophet. It is dangerous and a threat to society as a whole. How often can we really claim this path? We are more often safe in our faith than a part of something that could change the world. The prophet is a tenuous and dangerous road. Yet, it is a road required of those who are disciples of Jesus Christ.