Sermon, 1/21/24: Searching for a Prophet

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3 Epiphany

Psalm 62; Jonah 3:1–5,10; 1 Corinthians 7:29–31; Mark 1:14–20

Instead of citing a word from scripture, as is traditionally the case when clergy announce the thesis for homilies, sermons, and meditation, I begin today my meditation with a poem written by Arthur Campbell Ainger.  Ainger was born 4 July 1841 to a priest in the Church of England.  Like many of his class at the time, he attended Eton College, a prestigious boarding school for boys and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge.  After university, Ainger returned to Eton, where he served as assistant Master from 1864 to 1901.  He died 26 October 1919.  In 1894, at the age of 53, he composed the following poem:

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year;
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

From utmost east to utmost west, wherever foot hath trod,
by the mouth of many messengers goes forth the voice of God;
give ear to me, ye continents, ye isles, give ear to me,
that the earth may be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

March we forth in the strength of God, with the banner of Christ unfurled,
that the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world:
fight we the fight with sorrow and sin to set their captives free,
that the earth may be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed;
vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed;
yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
(The Hymnal 1982, #534)

This poem, which became the most widely known of the 10 plus hymns which Ainger composed, is based on a verse from the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk, one of the minor prophets of biblical Israel.  Habakkuk lived around 617 BCE.  He followed the tradition of his predecessor Jonah, from whom we heard just minutes ago.  Jonah, also a minor or lesser prophet, lived ca. 785 BCE, during the reign of King Jeroboam (792 – 753 BCE).   Despite a chronological distance of almost 200 years, Habakkuk and Jonah had similar tasks.  Because the people of Israel had abandoned the teaching of their forebears, to love God first and neighbor as self.  Each was charged by God to call the people to repentance.

Indeed, if the prophet is to be believed, to live a god-centered life was low on the agenda of the people of Israel.  As Jonah’s appeal to God caused the city of Nineveh to be spared, so did Habakkuk’s trust in God cause the nation to be spared another generation of captivity, this time not at the hands of the Egyptians, but of the Babylonians.  Habakkuk, as did other ancient prophets, trusted in God’s wisdom and generosity of spirit.  His was a faith so strong, that he foresaw and proclaimed a time, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (2:14)

I plead your patience, that I subject you this morning to this brief history lesson chronicling the activities of the lesser or minor prophets.  However, returning to these minor prophets makes clearer that portion of today’s gospel just read.  Despite the centuries between the minor prophets Jonah and Habbakuk on the one hand, and the gospel of St. Mark appointed for today on the other hand, there is a close and direct connection.

Jesus, God’s Messiah, bears the mantle, the religious stole, that has been passed down from the major prophets Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, to the minor or lessor prophets, such as Jonah and Habbakuk.  Having received the devastating, anxiety-producing news that John the Baptist, his cousin, has been incarcerated and knowing or sensing the probable outcome of John’s imprisonment, Jesus is moved to gather new compatriots, in this case determined by generational norms, men who could proclaim the good news of God’s greatness and generosity of spirit.  They were, Peter, Andrew, Phillip, James, John, to become the new Jonahs and the new Habbakuks.    The word of God had to be proclaimed, and by individuals who trusted in God, that God had plans for the Creation.

This past Monday, a day commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many of our fellow citizens paused to reflect on the purpose of God and how the purpose might better and more truly be expressed and realized.  I must confess that I did not seek out a religious or secular observance of Dr. King’s birthday.  Rather, I remained at home, where I retrieved from my bookshelf a compilation of his speeches and writings.  I turned to his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 

I was reminded that Dr. King, as an incarcerated person and living in a time filled with anxiety, fear, and division across our nation, did not have access to his library.  Instead, his attorney brought during each visit to the jail a newspaper, and it was on the margins of those newspapers that Dr. King wrote in longhand and, swapping newspapers with his lawyer, smuggled out his now famous letter.  Here are several of the words which leaped out to me from the printed pages.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“… time itself is neutral, it can be used either destructively or constructively… We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that time is always ripe to do right.”

“Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”

Dr. King came from a religious tradition which, admittedly, places much emphasis on the Old Testament, and therefore, he would have been familiar with the major, as well as minor prophets.  But he was equally persuaded that for Christians the voice of Jesus of Nazareth carried greater weight.  Although no longer among us as a living Jonah or Habakkuk, King’s words urge all people, but especially those of faith, to heed the call of Jesus of Nazareth to become the contemporary replacements for Peter, and James, and Andrew, and John, and Phillip, for God has not given up on the Creation.    As people of faith, as followers of Jesus Christ, God’s Messiah, we wear now, individually and collectively, the mantle, the stole of the prophets and of Jesus the Christ, to carry the Good News of God’s love to the rest of the world:  “that the earth may be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”