Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Being A Prophet
A Sermon on Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23
by Griff Martin
For the People of First Austin: 
a baptist community of faith
On The Second Sunday following Epiphany
Jan 15, 2017

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter. 

A few weeks ago Doug came in my office early one Monday morning and told me that the Monday morning Bible study discussion had veered a bit off track that morning and had somehow settled and centered on the question: “Is Griff a prophet?” I just assume this is a pretty normal start to a Monday morning around the coffee pot conversation for all offices, right?

Before Doug revealed how the group ranked my prophet skills or, even more fittingly perhaps, my lack of prophet skills, I quickly let him know that I am no prophet. (And please don’t think this is my plea for affirmations or encouraging words as you leave this morning, this is not that).

My gut reaction was I was not a prophet because I have not done anything crazy recently… no diet of honey and locusts and no clothing of coarse camel hair like John the Baptist, I have not been publicly walking around naked declaring my faith in God alone like Isaiah, I have not worn a set of iron horns strapped to my head like Zedekiah, and I have not used the sermon time to set my hair on fire like Ezekiel (although let’s be honest, with the way my hair is disappearing this might not be much of a trick today).

But it’s deeper because I know that being a prophet is about more than a snarky side comment in a sermon that I know is safe because 70% of the congregation will like it and see it as risky or making a political critique in a Facebook status where I can delete and unfriend everyone who does not agree with me and it’s more than a bumper sticker on my environmentally friendly car… try as I have, I just can’t find the verse in Scripture where God tells a prophet to “go say something that 70% of those listening will agree with and then to make a snarky Facebook post and drive a Prius.”

And then the more I sat with it, there is more to it that I had to face. I am not a prophet because of the plain and simple truth that I love safety. That I am way more comfortable than I would like to publicly admit about the status quo. That even though I see flaws in our systems and the powers that be today, I am also more than willing to take the benefits that I get from that system and from those powers. And because I don’t have the imagination and the vision to see more, I get stuck in the headlines and the 24-hour news cycle and forget that God is bigger and that the plan is More.

And those are the things prophets do: they challenge safety, they confront the powers that be and the systems of the world, they challenge every form of domination and violence and oppression, they step on everyone’s toes, they have an imagination that allows them to see as God sees. And in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “They act out. They act out truth that no one else can see, and those who stand around watching either write them off as crazy or fall silent before the disturbing news the prophet brings from God.”

They see what is impossible for most of us to see and then they speak into it.

This is what Isaiah is doing in the first text that we read this morning. He speaks into the reality of those listening. He begins with the name of two tribes, Zebulun and Naphtali. Folks knew these peoples because they were constantly in the news, in the every going battle with the North and Southern Kingdom and the powers of Assyria both of these places are conquered over and over and over again. They are constantly in a state of limbo and their people are suffering. These tribe names were synomous with vulnerability, subjection, oppression and suffering. These are lands of deep darkness: lands of brutality, poverty, hunger, a land without hope and a people without hope, these are a conquered people that have no safety and security, that only know slavery and children born into slavery.

And Isaiah takes his listeners here because this is the world they are experiencing as well and he takes them there to say this: The people who walking in darkness have seen a great light because God is coming to deliver us! These systems of the day are temporary and not of God…. And God, with us, is about to do a brand new huge thing. Words of hope and light are spoken into the darkness. Reality is named and transformed by prophetic imagination and words.

Which may be exactly why in our second lectionary reading for today Matthew chooses these words out of Isaiah to introduce Jesus Christ. Because it’s another challenging time (don’t miss the opening line: When Jesus heard John the Baptist had been arrested…. When Jesus hears that his cousin- the prophet who is boldly speaking truth to power and bringing light to darkness, when he’s arrested, Jesus begins his work) and Matthew wants to remind us that God has worked in and through challenging times before, that there is no darkness too dark for God, that God cannot be conquered and that God is always doing a new thing.

And after that introduction Jesus begins his own prophetic ministry, doing exactly what prophets do: challenging safety, confronting the powers that be and the systems of the world, challenging every form of domination and violence and oppression, stepping on everyone’s toes, all with an imagination that allowed Jesus to see as God sees.

And folks immediately begin to follow him because that is what happens to prophets, they gain a following simply because they are often the only ones brave enough to name what the rest of us feel in our hearts and know in our souls. We are just waiting for truth to be spoken so that we can follow our way into More.

In times of great darkness, we need someone to point out the light. In times of great darkness, God needs someone to point out the light. So thank God for prophets.

Thank God for baptist boys that grow up singing the song “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus” and not only sing that song but allow it to become the song of their soul, so that when he grows up, he becomes the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama and when a woman refuses to give up her seat on the bus, that man is ready to begin a protest and takes on a prophetic role in American life that is sadly still transforming us and is sadly still needed.

And despite the fact that his house was bombed for his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King kept on. Soon the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was birthed and provided King a platform to be a prophet to all of the nation calling forth the black church in America to conduct nonviolent protests for Civil Rights reformation and asking the white church to heed the call of Christ and to join the boycotts as well.

And despite continual threats on his life and his family’s life, despite the FBI trying to block him every chance they got, despite being beaten with high powered hoses and with fists, despite being bitten by dogs, despite everything that was trying to stop him and destroy him, King spoke and King performed prophetic acts with boycotts and sit ins and marchs demanding what he knew was the truth of God: we are all kin and we all deserve to be treated equally.

His dream that all people are created equally which allowed him to prophetically preach:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

And that equally allowed him to prophetically call us out (and I do mean us), again Dr. King’s words: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistic-ally believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season"

Dr. King knew the truth that drove Isaiah, that drove John the Baptist and the truth that drove Jesus Christ and he was willing to speak it and to act on it, no matter what that brought about.  Dr. King was our prophet.

So where are our prophets today?

Because this week marks a turning point in our nation, we are on the cusps of a new politics and just like with any politics (no matter what political party is in office…. and I truly mean that, no political party yet has the whole of God’s kingdom and no matter what political party is in office we must never forget that power more often that not is corrupting)- we are going to need some men and women who are willing to remind us of God’s dream, who are going to speak truth to power, who are going to imagine what God wants of our world and who won’t shut up until it happens. Our world will only survive if we always have folks like that because ego and safety are so strong and numbing and power is so intoxicating and we can so quickly forget those who we are stepping on and we notice what benefits we get and fail to notice what is being taken from others…. And the world’s survival depends on folks who won’t get lost in all of that, but who will stand apart from that and call us out.

We need prophets.

This church needs prophets who will call us out of the doors of this building and will lead us into the pain of the world, to find places we can stand in solidarity with our hurting brothers and sisters and demand more for them…. To lead us to places where we can stand not as protestors but as protectors, protectors of our sacred brothers and sisters and our earth, of those who are vulnerable and those who are oppressed and those we have made weak and stolen their voice…. To lead us into action where we take the imagination of God and make it into a reality…. To dare us to look at our own privilege and lay that at the altar in order to be one with the people of this world…. To speak truths that make us uncomfortable (and all of us… not just 70% here and 30% there).

We need prophets who will keep us awake for as Dr. King once warned, the failure to stay awake during periods of social change are “one of the greatest liabilities of history.”

We need prophets who will be willing to force us to look at issues and ask: “Are you avoiding this one because the truth is you benefits a bit from it and you are not yet willing and wanting to admit that?” and to keep asking that question until we either confess our sin of privilege and work to change it or confess the truth that we like the benefits…. We need prophets that will lead us to the places of power and demand that we speak truths that might get us in trouble…. We need prophets that will lead us to continually stand against any form of domination, violence or oppression that exists… We need to cozy up to the folks who are going to step on our toes… and we need to pray for an imagination that will allow us to see as God sees.

Because the world needs some prophets… because salvation and the Gospel always begins with a prophets voice.

In the words of another modern day prophet, Archbishop Desmund Tutu: “Without God, we can’t…. without us, God won’t.” Let that sink in… “Without God, we can’t… without us, God won’t.”

Salvation always begins with a prophet’s voice… where are our prophets today… who is going to shed light in our world and call us to join God’s dream?

Who here is going to stand up and lead us, because we are counting on you and God is counting on you.

Amen and Amen.


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