Weekly Sermon Illustration: Prophet

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

On June 8, 2014 we will celebrate the Day of Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the book of Numbers:

Numbers 11:24-29

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"

The following excerpt was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.

Prophet means "spokesman," not "fortune-teller." The one whom in their unfathomable audacity the prophets claimed to speak for was the Lord and Creator of the universe. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.

One day some city boys followed along behind the prophet Elisha calling him "Bald-head!" Elisha summoned two she-bears, who tore forty-two of the city boys limb from limb. He then continued on his way to keep an appointment at Mt. Carmel (2 Kings 2:23-25).

The prophet Jeremiah showed a clay pot to a crowd of Judeans and told them it represented Judah. Then he smashed it to smithereens and told them that this was a mild version of what God had in mind to do to them (Jeremiah 19). He was right.

In a dream, the prophet Ezekiel ate a copy of the Bible, thumb index and all, to show how sweet as honey was the word of God (Ezekiel 3:1-3).

In the time of the prophet Amos, the Israelites looked forward eagerly to the day when the Lord would finally come and deliver them from all their afflictions. Amos told them they had better start looking forward to something else, because when the day came, the Lord was going to settle a lot of people's hash all right, but the hash that would be settled first was Israel's. Quoting God, Amos went on to say, "Your great cathedrals bore me just as stiff as your TV evangelists, and your prayer breakfasts at the White House cause me no less abdominal discomfort than your dashboard Virgins. Justice is what I want, not photo opportunities, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:21-24). Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, and the rumor is that Isaiah was sawed in half. It is not recorded how Amos got his.

When the unknown prophet who wrote the last chapters of Isaiah pondered the question of what the chosen people were chosen for, his answer was that they were chosen not to overwhelm the world in triumph, but to suffer and die for the world in love. One thinks of the gas ovens of Auschwitz and of Anne Frank. One thinks of the anti-Semitic joke and the restricted neighborhood. One also thinks of Jesus of Nazareth, who, when he went back to his hometown, chose this prophet to read from in the local synagogue (Luke 4:16-19). It is the words of this prophet that perhaps describe Jesus best-"a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). Acquainted with grief. The way Jesus described his mission in the world was "to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

The prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tipsiness, no one was ever comfortable. With a total lack of tact, they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them. They were the terror of kings and priests. The prophet Nathan tells King David to his face that he is a crook and an adulterer (2 Samuel 12:1-15). The prophet Jeremiah goes straight to the Temple itself and says, "Do not trust in these deceptive words, 'This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord'" (Jeremiah 7:4). It was like a prophet to say it three times, just to make sure.

No prophet is on record as having asked for the job. When God put the finger on Isaiah, Isaiah said, "How long, O Lord?" (Isaiah 6:11), and couldn't have been exactly reassured by the answer he was given. Jeremiah pled that he was much too young for that type of work (Jeremiah 1:6). Moses sounded like a prophet when he pointed out to God that he'd never been much good at public speaking and the chances were that Pharaoh wasn't going to give him so much as the time of day (Exodus 4:1-13). Like Abraham Lincoln's story about the man being ridden out of town on a rail, if it hadn't been for the honor of the thing, the prophets would all have rather walked.

Most of the prophets went a little mad before they were through, if they weren't a little mad to begin with. Ezekiel kept seeing wheels with eyes around the rims. John the Baptist ate bugs. You can hardly blame them.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jonathan Swift, and Malcolm X were all prophets in their own way. So was Ayn Rand. So are Gloria Steinem and Rosa Parks.

Like Robert Frost's, a prophet's quarrel with the world is deep down a lover's quarrel. If they didn't love the world, they probably wouldn't bother to tell it that it's going to hell. They'd just let it go. Their quarrel is God's quarrel.