In 2009 I went with several of my class mates on a trip to Israel. One of the places we visited was St. Catharine’s monastery in Egypt. St. Catharine’s is located on and associated with mount Sinai, the burning bush and with Moses. While there I purchased my very first icon.
This particular icon featured Moses, but not Moses as I usually think of him…a kind of wild scraggly Charlton Heston sort, but rather a young Moses…maybe in his 20’s. The icon depicts the moment when Moses is removing his sandals at the command of God via the burning bush. This is the time when the prophet Moses receives his call as a messenger from God
and what I saw written clearly across his young features was…oh no…please God…make it stop!. It was a look of incredulity, anxiety and almost misery. Moses did not look happy God was calling him.
And why? Because a prophet generally is called to say what people do not want to hear…and say it loudly.
Throughout the bible there is a bit of a theme around God’s calling of the prophets. Typically, the people of God have been caught in a rut, or have neglected God, or begun worshiping idols….in any event they aren’t acting as the people of God ought to act.
In Jeremiah, whose prophetic call we read of in our first lesson today, we read that the people of Judah had lapsed into injustice, idolatry, and unfaithfulness. In such times when the people of God stopped putting their relationship with God first… a prophet was called to speak the word of God and call the people back to the right path.
The prophet is called and commissioned, speaks God’s words and calls the people to repent. But that prophet often requires some …shall we say…persuasion.
Today we read that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah; "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Sounds pretty conclusive, so you can guess the prophets response. Jeremiah responded. … Good God! No! not me! There must be a mistake, you’ve got the wrong guy…I never went to prophet school! I’m just a kid!
The first thing Jeremiah thinks about his calling is how incredibly unsuitable he is, how unqualified. Jeremiah seems to miss everything that God had said about knowing him and consecrating him…all he heard was the part about God appointing him….and panicked.
After all, true prophets are not all that popular, even Jesus himself, as we hear in the gospel today, got his home town so angry that they tried to toss him off a cliff. And for those who read Jeremiah you’ll see he didn’t fare much better.
Prophets speak God’s word to a people who don’t want to hear what God has to say. Prophets are not popular people, especially with those to whom they preach God’s word. But prophets are people who have been commissioned by God to speak God’s word in truth…and sometimes the truth hurts.
However, what happens in time, is that when the people listen to the prophets…they repent and return to the Lord. The Kingdom draws nearer and righteousness is restored, all is well. So, with such an impressive job description, …who could possibly be suited? Who could possibly be worth choosing?
I’ll tell you how prophets AREN’T chosen…they aren’t chosen because of skill, or purity, or training, or any other such trait. They are chosen because they can hear God speaking to them…and in Jeremiah’s case that was before he was even born.
Jeremiah was born with the word of God already upon him. But that isn’t the only way it happens...Some prophets hear God’s word, some see a vision of what God is calling his people to, others meet God in a dream, but all of them are given the tools they need. The words they will speak. The strength and courage to preach.
All that is required by God,… is provided by God. They don’t begin with the skills, at times they don’t even begin willing! But prophets are given what they need…including the will and the drive to speak God’s words.
But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth.
So, if the only criteria for becoming a prophet is to be able to hear God when God calls…if God provides all that is necessary …why could there not be prophets in our midst? Could not God be calling on of us, one of you to speak God’s word to his people? Chances are …yes! There are prophets among us and the question becomes have they heard God’s call?
The quick and easy answer is that yes they very well may have, and they answer that they hear God is calling….calling someone else! Very Moses like. Or like Jeremiah, it can’t be me …I’m too…young, old, tired, jaded, busy, not holy enough, don’t read my bible enough, haven’t the right education etc etc etc
Yet, we know that God provides what God requires… so I suppose one could say that God could have called anyone, and if you look at the typical times when God calls for a prophet…that time could certainly be now.
A time when the world is moving away from God, when the people do not put God first in their lives, when the church puts its own needs above those of God and God’s people. Times when our priorities are askew or the world is in turmoil…these are times when a prophet is called.
I think that an argument could be made that we live in such times. So where are the prophets in our midst? Where are the people who speak God’s words to us. (and it might also be interesting to note that biblically, it usually wasn’t the priest!)
I would say that God’s prophets are among us, but that God’s words are hard to speak and hard to hear. People like hearing a happy message, a friendly and affirming message. Words that challenge, and change and bring to light those things we wish could stay hidden…these are not pleasant, and they are hard to speak and hard to say.
After all Jeremiah was called to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, as well as to build and to plant. Now, these last two don’t sound too bad, but the first four are not so nice.
We don’t mind the building and planting, but generally when it concerns us, or something we feel passionately about we don’t like to discuss plucking, destroying and overthrowing. Regardless of how nice we are told it will be in the end.
Jeremiah preached the over throwing of the kingdom of Judah and it was certainly unpopular, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, and he was right and people hated him.
Yet God, through Jeremiah also promised to rebuild the city, to restore his people, God promised that the people would rejoice, vineyards would be planted and the people would dance and be merry once more.
To build something new, we first must tear down what is there and that is not easy. The house my family lives in had a lovely large grass lawn when we moved it. It had big spruce trees with branches that swept the earth and juniper bushes housing families of rabbits.
However, a couple of summers ago we ripped up the majority of the lawn, ripped out the hedges and generally destroyed our lovely lawn. Only when all the destruction was complete we could begin to build and to plant. We nourished what soil was there and added depth, we created new boundaries and planted shrubs, and plants, flowers and vegetables.
It took pain and effort, it looked terrible and it took tearing down and building up, but now the yard that used to take resources and energy and give little back now nourishes and feeds us.
To build something you need a strong foundation and to get that you need to level the ground…no matter what is in the way. Hard truths. It is no wonder that the prophets among us are hesitant. God knows the challenges that put before the prophets, God knows the difficulties that they face.
“Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord”
God knows we fear, and doesn’t require us to be without fear to be his prophets…God just requires us to listen and God will give us the words we need. The Moses icon I purchased at St Catherine’s spoke to me because of it’s challenging truths…Moses was young, he was scared, he was an outcast … and he was called. He was given what God required by God and not by his own talents…and he did great things. Jeremiah was the same.
And if these young, stuttering, spoiled princes or back country no ones could be called to be prophets…perhaps we should be aware that one day…we might be called also. amen