Sermon, 6/9/24. Prophets: Plan A and Plan B

Posted on ; Filed under News

3 Pentecost

Psalm 138; I Samuel 8:4–11; 2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1; Mark 3:20–35

Sometimes, when reflecting on the lessons appointed for our hearing at Eucharist, the non-religious, non-liturgical world intrudes.  And so it was this week that I thought of Kermit the Frog of Sesame Street fame, who used to sing, as perhaps you may recall, “It’s not easy being green.”  The producers of this children’s show, which spoke to adults as well, highlighted the difficulty encountered by being different, whatever that difference may be, from those around you.

Kermit the Frog caused me to think this week about Samuel, about whom we heard last week—no longer the young confused protégé of Eli, but now himself the elder statesman, the elderly prophet of biblical Israel; he was being pushed aside by the Hebrews.  They wanted to replace him (a prophet) with a king.  I thought also about Jesus who appeared never to get it right in the eyes of his detractors, who this week was considered insane or having made a pact with the devil—called here Beelzebub—because he is able to cure individuals of disease. 

I confess that the temptation was great to use today’s lectionary as a launching pad for reflections on, [of comparing] groups and individuals in our own political system who seem desirous of a king, an absolute monarch, a dictator, as did the people of biblical [times].  However, Kermit the Frog admonished me to let the media deal with that and to investigate our role as prophets at a level where change can be brought about.  Heeding  Kermit’s instructions, the following thought occurred to me: Samuel and Jesus of Nazareth should have enrolled in the college the course “Prophets 101: How to become a prophet”.  I admit, I have never seen a course with that title in a college catalogue, but surely both Samuel and Jesus could have benefited from such a how-to course.

Moreover, it occurred to me that of all the professions and vocations listed on our census forms, “prophet” is not one of them.  I have never heard anyone exclaim that he or she wishes to become a prophet when he/she grows up—doctor, lawyer, fireman, baker, …, nurse, astronaut, backhoe driver, but no prophet.  One does not have to hold a high school diploma or a college or graduate school degree, in order to understand that “prophet” is not a desirable profession. 

The hours are long, the pay is abominable, there is no glory or glitter!  No honorary degrees awarded.  Indeed, society sees the prophet as a sore, to be gotten rid of.  If today’s lessons tell us anything, it is that one has to be insane, or inspired by a higher power, if one takes on the job of becoming a prophet. In fact, if one treasures life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, one should avoid at all costs anything that may remotely lead one into believing that one should become a prophet.  Regarding prophets, the Russian author Dostoyevsky writes in his The Brothers Karamazov (Pt. II, Bk VI, ch. 3): “Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs, and honour those whom they have slain.”

For reasons that are much too long to be explained here, today’s lessons sent me scurrying back to the Book of Deuteronomy (18:15-22), one of the five ancient Hebrew texts attributed to Moses.  The Book of Deuteronomy clarifies why a prophet was necessary.  There I see two plans: God’s plan A and God’s plan B.  Samuel and Jesus are, in my understanding of the divine purpose, part of Plan B.  In these two historical biblical references, Samuel and Jesus, separated by centuries, are united in their articulation of the genius and flexibility of God’s plans.   

Plan A was a simple one: God says, “I will create a universe that will include human beings with power of reason.”  Plan A did not succeed.  Long story!  Because human beings thought themselves to be without limits, Plan B was needed.  In Plan B, God sent forth special emissaries, whom we call prophets.  Prophets were forth tellers.  It was, and remains, their obligation to remind us of something very basic: As human beings, we are limited and we are obligated.  We are limited by the fact that just as we are about to get it right, we pass off the scene; but we are obliged to hold sacred the universe, which gives us our being and which sustains us.

In Plan B, God made a promise to Abraham, a simple one: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  It was a promise for all eternity, never to be broken, never to be forgotten.  It was a promise that sustained the people of Israel through the thick of religious fervor, and the thin of political upheaval and subjugation, of dwelling in the Promised Land and of surviving in the diaspora.  However, that promise came with a caveat, with a condition: Thou shalt have no other gods and kings before me.

The history of biblical Israel reads like a Who’s Who for prophets, beginning with Abraham and ending with John of the Book of Revelation.  There were Elijah, who refocused Israel’s attention on Yahweh’s power over the alluring attraction of the Baals (1 Kings:18-19); Amos of Tekoa, who confronted Israel with the perversity of religious hypocrisy in the face of dire human need (Amos 5-6); Hosea, who recalled the dauntless love and forgiving and embracing nature of God for all people, even those who would throw themselves before lesser gods of self-indulgence; Isaiah, who proclaimed hope in the midst of suffering, elevating the sights of the people to God’s new possibilities; Jeremiah, who prophesied a new covenant that God’s will would be written on their hearts (Jer. 31:33); John the Baptist, who claimed a place in history as he baptized “one who was greater than all the prophets.”

The people of Israel, having forgotten why they were chosen to be the example of how one could live according to the Divine Plan B, or in their prosperity, clamored for a king, desiring to be like other nations without knowing what kind of reign an earthly king would install.  God gave them kings, all flawed, the one after the other, not because of God’s will, but because they failed to live by God’s long-range plan.  And if biblical record is to be believed, God said enough is enough.  Time for me to bring to fruition Plan B, and so it was that God sent to the people a king, not of their image, but of God’s image, God Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. 

Not only did Jesus proclaim God’s undying love for all humanity, but [also] in his person, in everything that he said or did.  His teaching and life inverted the values held by those among whom he lived.  Forgiveness, not vengeance, became the sign of a true follower; human dignity, not domination; compassion for the impoverished, not isolation; peacemaking, not violence; reconciliation and reconstruction, not walled off tribalism; extolling learning, not elevating ignorance.

Still, Plan B, God’s work of redemption, is not complete.  We miss the point of prophecy and prophets should we allow ourselves to believe that to prophesy is to tell or predict the future.  The prophet, in the biblical sense, is one who forth tells, who sets forth the good news that God’s Spirit is alive and that God’s desire is for models of behavior that hold God’s power and human freedom in a healthy and empowering tension.  Thus, it might be said that the prophetic voice is still very much alive and among us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised his voice against the totalitarianism of Hitler during World War II and was martyred for his faith.  Rosa Parks challenged the societal rules of racial separation and inspired a dormant civil rights movement.  Nelson Mandela broke the grip of apartheid in South Africa, despite the fact that he spent over 25 years in prison for his beliefs.  I forget not Bobby Kennedy who, like prophets of old preaching hope and unity, was silenced.  There are so many more prophets who have stood before the world and proclaimed a message of love and hope, a message that challenges the restrictive status quo and opens sealed eyes to a new understanding and appreciation for life, a message that encourages people to let love of God and neighbor be the inspiration for new models of behavior and for living.

I believe fervently, that the God of all mercies, God of the universe, will certainly raise up a prophet from among us—without benefit of the college course “Prophets 101”—who will tell forth again and again the good news that God is very much alive and well and has not forsaken those with whom a covenant has been made.  Who might that prophet be has yet to be determined.  I maintain, you see, that every time we make a stand for justice, or proclaim peace instead of war, we are being or speaking prophetically.  And that each time we are so engaged, we are casting out the demons of Beelzebub.

Every time we engage in acts of love, we bear witness to the covenant of grace that God bestowed upon us from the beginning of time.  We become forth tellers—prophets.  Armed with such knowledge, individually and collectively, we stand to be that prophet of the future.

And so it is that Jesus of Nazareth becomes our beacon for our own life’s journey.  Jesus of Nazareth gives us that feeling of security in the rightness of his message, for when faced himself with those who would not recognize him or accept his message of goodwill toward all humankind, he did not become indifferent or discouraged.  Rather, he instructed his followers to move on to the next town.  To give up was not an option, for God had not, and nor has God, given up on Plan B for us.