Message of a Prophet
The message we need or the message we want?
A sermon by the Rev. H. Paul Canady III
Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, NC, on January 31, 2021
If there is ever a universal feeling among people, it’s the one that arises in us when we hear someone say, “Well, I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?” We have to make a decision about where to start. Your car is totally repairable, but it will be far from cheap. The bird that got in the house is now out, but, I’d rather you not look at what’s left of the china that was on the dining room table… I think we all know what it is like to be on the delivery end of those good news/bad news scenarios, too.
The season of Epiphany is all about how Jesus is revealed and received by the people around him, and in today’s lessons, we see Jesus in light of the prophets that came before him. By their very calling, prophets were messengers of God who told the people of God what they needed to hear, and what they needed to hear was often far from what people wanted to hear. The messages of prophets were seen as only doom and gloom, but so often there is a message of hope and healing and reconciliation between God and God’s people. And it is a message of reconciliation that God is most interested in. God tries to get the people’s attention with the doom and gloom, the promise of invading armies and years of famine, but also the promise to avoid all that by being faithful to the one who was always faithful to them. That’s why John the Baptizer called certain religious leaders a “brood of vipers” but also pointed to the promise of Jesus to bring healing and wholeness. We saw last week in the story of Jonah that when the people actually listened to God’s call to repentance, God actually spared them the doom and gloom. Go figure… It is not the utter destruction of towns and villages that God wants; it’s to be reconciled with the people God lovingly created.
Our first lesson today is Moses laying the groundwork for when he is no longer among the people whom he worked to free from enslavement in Egypt. He knows he won’t live forever. He was not a young man when they crossed through the Red Sea and now he’s a couple of decades past that epic moment. There’s not really an indication that the people are worried about his death, his not being their leader anymore, but he feels compelled to offer them this message anyway. I do not believe that this was a prediction of Jesus or of the Word of God in human form. I don’t think the people of Moses’ time could have processed that any more than Henry VIII could have envisioned an airplane. There were many, many prophets that God would raise up between Moses and Jesus, and all would offer a reflection of the ills of the behavior of God’s people and consequences of not returning to the Lord their God. And they would offer the message of hope and healing for those who turned their hearts and lives back towards God.
A prophet has a twofold role: They are the moral and ethical agents who summons the people to repentance, and the prophet anticipates what God will do in the covenant relationship between God and God’s people. Through the prophets, God accommodates us in our weaknesses. What we may hear from a prophet may be painful but it is for our well-being. Sometimes taking the thorn out of our foot really hurts, but we will eventually walk a whole lot better when it is gone. Prophets are members of the community, both locally and globally. It’s important for the prophet to be a presence among the community before their calling to announce the Word of God that creates justice, brings hope, and brings a promise to fruition.
It’s important for us to remember that God acts through the prophets to tell us and show us what we need to hear and do, not merely to bring a word of comfort. Comfort breeds lazy and lazy leaves people of God behind. That was so much of the message of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Micah in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophets also remind us that God isn’t going to pick the big and powerful to be representatives of God. Remember when Samuel went to select a King from among the sons of Jesse, it was the smallest son, the youngest, the one working in the fields whom God told Samuel to anoint as king. It was not the more strapping, more handsome ones.
So here we are in the fourth week of this season in which our scriptures call us to look at how Jesus is revealed to those around him and how Jesus is revealed to us. We have a healing story, yes. Mark loves some healing stories! Of the 18 miracles in Mark’s Gospel, 13 of them are healing stories, and four of those 13 are exorcisms like we have today. But what else do we have in this scene from the synagogue in Capernaum? We have Jesus teaching. And not just teaching, not just healing, teaching and healing with authority. He wasn’t a scribe who could recite the ancient texts, and he wasn’t acting like the other Pharisees in upholding his own interpretation of the Laws of Moses. He was teaching and casting out demons like one with authority. Authority just like the prophets had when they spoke truth to power. Authority just like Jonah had in last week’s lesson to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent. Authority just like Moses had when he led the people out of Egypt and around the wilderness for 40 years. Authority just like the prophet Elisha in the book of Second Kings, where Elisha was called a Holy Man of God by the Shunammite woman before she learned more about him.
While we know Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God, the Word of God made flesh, he is seen by this crowd as a prophet and a teacher and only later will be understood as those other parts. But in this moment, he not only teaches as one with authority but also heals with authority. So it’s not just a new teaching, not just a new preaching, it’s a transformation. I think part of the reason Mark shares so many healing stories in such a short Gospel book is because he sees that in Jesus’ words the eyes of the blind can be opened and people find a way to get up off their mat when they couldn’t before. Not just literally, but emotionally and spiritually, too. The authority of Jesus and his teachings cause things to happen.
And we must never believe that God is done speaking, that God’s authority to speak through prophets ended with Jesus or even the early New Testament writers. If prophets are called by God to share both the good news and the bad news, then it doesn’t take much to see prophets in our midst today. People who continue the teachings of Jesus to bring hope to all of us and whose words cause things to happen both for the better both in our hearts and in the world. Whether it is Rachael Held Evans or Michael Curry or Rob Bell or Amanda Gorman, we continue to hear messages not of building up power but of building up relationships, calls to care more for the ecosystem than a financial system, and invitations for honest conversation not sweeping things under the rug.
I hope this week, this season of Epiphany, you will see and hear the voice of a prophet of God, someone who shares in the teachings of Jesus and whose words cause things to happen that show us the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And I hope and pray that if it is you who get to share those words and teachings, they will fall on willing and eager ears.