Thursday, January 11, 2018

January 14, Second after Epiphany, Prophecy #2: "Follow Me, Here I Am"

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

From our First Reading, I am going to explain how the prophecy of little Samuel develops.

The prophecy begins as recitation. Samuel recites verbatim what the Lord God had told him.

But this objective recitation gets framed within little Samuel’s subjective experience, his childlike mind and innocent thoughts and natural fear of what he’s been told. His experience of the prophecy becomes part of the prophecy. 

And so does the hearing of the recitation by old priest Eli. The prophecy has become three-dimensional: the prophecy includes the objective recitation, plus the subjective experience of reciting it, plus the other subjective experience of hearing and receiving it.

And then it gets four-dimensional, when it extends through time, when the story is passed down and then written down in a book, so that it can be read out loud. The book itself is a prophecy. You know the First Book of Samuel is listed as an historical book in Christian Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible it is counted among the Prophets. The story of the prophecy becomes the prophecy.

So when we read the story out in church, the prophecy gets prophesied all over again, and again in three-dimensions: the lector reading it out, which recapitulates the original objective recitation, then the experience of the lector and the preacher, which recapitulates Samuel, and then the listening of the congregation recapitulates old Eli and his “let it be.”

And the prophecy keeps moving forward into the fourth dimension of time, to open up space in the world, space in our lives, and in that space to welcome our questions and answers and our hopes and fears, inviting our faith, and in that space to call us into a community of mutual speaking and listening, generating our testimony and witness for us to share in shaping the world, so that we might share in creating the new creation.

I said last week that Biblical prophecy is typically conversational; not exclusively, but typically. Some prophets were loners, but Jesus gathered a fellowship, a community. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Follow me into my words, follow me into my life and conversation. And the Gospel reports this marvelous three-way conversation zipping around between Jesus, Philip, and Nathanael.

It’s electric and it moves fast, from the “follow me” to a “eureka-we have found him,” to a sarcastic put-down, to a second invitation, to a double-entendre compliment, to a defensive question, to a surprising answer, to an ecstatic profusion of titles, to a penetrating rhetorical question, to the climactic prophetic prediction. In the beginning was the talk, and the talk was made flesh and dwelt among us. We can detect an image of the Holy Trinity in this three-personned prophecy. The conversational prophecy began with Philip confessing his name, and it ended with Our Lord’s climactic prediction.

I said last week that Biblical prophecy is more typically speaking than seeing. But not exclusively. And when it is seeing, it is rarely seeing the future and usually seeing the hidden reality of now, seeing beyond the veil of human limitation, seeing the present world as heaven sees it. Here Jesus calls it “seeing greater things.” 

And the vision that he predicts is strange. He adapts the Old Testament vision of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob’s staircase, stretching from earth to heaven with angels moving up and down, and he makes himself the escalator! Shall we picture a giant, stretched-out Jesus, toes in the earth and finger-tips in heaven? Or the other way around, toes in heaven and fingers in the earth, so that we can see his face? Where is Jesus when he says, like little Samuel, “Here I am”? Is he in heaven as the Son of Man, representing us and pleading for us and judging us, or is he here with us, the Son of God in whom the whole of God is pleased to dwell? Or both? How to interpret this strange vision? Does the prophet always understand what she can see?

Prophecy tells more than we can understand in order to challenge our understanding and to nourish it. Prophets often don’t comprehend the greater implications of their prophecies. When Nathanael confessed Jesus as “the Son of God and the King of Israel” he meant those titles as equivalents, and at one level they were, so he was right, yet he did not comprehend the greater implications of those titles.

I know that I often have to speak to you of things I do not fully understand. And yet I always appeal to your understanding. So let me invite you to speak of things you do not fully understand. Not from willful ignorance, but because you want to be as open to what’s beyond you as was Samuel, you want to be as quickened by it as Philip and Nathanael were, and you want to enjoy it.

But prophecy can be trouble. It can tingle your ears. Little Samuel could sense the trouble in it. With touching economy the narrative reports him sleepless after the message, and then he goes about his chores as if nothing had happened to avoid Eli.

In coming weeks we will read other troubling prophecies. Biblical prophecy can sound hurtful or vengeful, but even then its purpose is to clear away and open up. It makes space in the world, space within the clutter of humankind’s initiatives, space within the rubble of human self-aggrandizement, and space within the garbage of human pride. Space in your own life, space within your fears and commitments and assumptions.

And into this space that prophecy makes, Jesus says, “Follow me.” He invites you to follow him into the great conversation that both judges the world and renews the world. He calls you both backward and forward. You follow him into these old books and stories, these poems and histories, these ancient narratives, and then as you talk about them with other listeners God speaks to you.

Somebody asked me how come God doesn’t speak to us anymore like in the ancient days. God is still speaking, but in a different way, by means of the four-dimensional Biblical conversation that you can be part of. It will be the Lord, though you can never neatly distinguish God’s voice from your own subjective experience or from the back-and-forth of dialogue, but by the Holy Spirit it will be the Lord. That’s the way that the Lord Jesus has set it up with his companions.

And you also follow him into the present and the future, as his conversation moves forward in time, and as you put it into practice, on your own and in community. Not just ethical practice, but prophetic practice, bearing witness to the truth amidst the prevalent confusion, and by your lifestyle you testify against the news which is not fake but has no hope.

One of you told me this week that it’s precisely in times that we are living that prophecy is relevant and necessary. Right within the sad and crazy world the dynamic conversation is gradually, and with humility, creating a new heaven and new earth. “Let this be, let that be, it is the Lord.”

Jesus says, “Follow me,” and what do these lessons tell you to say? Like little Samuel, you can say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Because you have to do a lot of listening to share in prophecy. Listening like Eli too. More listening than talking. I love the picture of little Samuel being open to God by being present to himself. Being patient in the silence for the still, small voice of God.

And you can also say something more basic, what little Samuel said to begin with, “Here I am.” Three times he said it, “Here I am,” which in Hebrew is Hineini. I have spoken to you of this before. It’s what Abraham said to God at the sacrifice of Isaac. “Here am I, here I am.” It’s what the Virgin Mary said to the archangel. It’s what Adam failed to say when he hid himself from God.

You have to choose to say it, “Here I am,” because there is so much to push you off, and even the Word of God pushes you off at least a little bit. Why does the Bible say that? What does this passage mean? And do I have to join another conversation, do I have to enter another community? Can’t I just hear God’s voice on my own?

I am not saying you can’t ever. But the deep purpose of the conversational prophecy is that it requires love and it’s a practice of love. You don’t just listen for God, you listen for each other. You don’t begin with, “Let me tell you,” you begin with, “Here I am.” The love that little Samuel had for old Eli is important to the story. “Here I am, I present myself, I am present to you, I offer myself to you.”

Our great example is the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally present to each other in their original and loving conversation. Even prophecy comes down to love. In love Jesus calls you, “Follow me,” and you practice love when you answer, “Here I am.”

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

January 7: The Baptism of Our Lord; Prophecy #1: Four Minor Prophets

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Let’s start with Heidelberg Catechism Questions 31 and 32. It’s from 1563, so it’s real old-timey:

31 Q. Why is the Son of God called “Christ,” meaning “anointed”?

A. Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be: our chief prophet and teacher, who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance; our only high priest, who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.

32 Q. Why are you called a “Christian”?

A. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed: to confess his name; to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanksgiving; to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.

You see how the second question follows on the first question: as the word “Christian,” which is used of you, derives from the title of “Christ,” which is used of him, so your purpose and identity as a Christian derive from his purpose and identity as Christ. And if Christ is a prophet, a priest, and a king, then you as a Christian are also in some sense a prophet, and a priest, and a king or queen or ruler or whatever.

Today, in particular, prophecy. According to the Catechism, you share in Christ’s anointing as a prophet. And according to the Catechism, your prophecy is simply to confess his name. Yes, but there’s more, there’s more to your being a prophet. So my sermon series for the next six weeks is on prophecy, and what prophecy means, and how prophecy is for all of you.

Prophecy is not unique to Christianity. It takes different forms in different cultures and religions. It is often equated with predicting the future, but that’s just one part of it. Prophets are often called Seers, but Biblical prophets are more like Speakers. In Biblical prophecy the future is not fated, as with the Greeks. The Biblical future is dependent on our choices now, so the burden of prophecy is to tell the truth about the present, to name the truth about the present reality instead of avoiding or denying it, so that we can make right choices in the exercise our human freedom.

In some religions, a prophet is a human oracle, a mouthpiece of destiny or of the gods. In Islam, the prophet recites the message of Allah word for word, taking dictation from the angel. But in the Bible, the prophecies are often conversational, God and the prophet having conversations, so that the prophets’ personalities come into their prophecies.

A Biblical prophet is more than a mouthpiece, and is even a partner with God’s Holy Spirit in the Word of God. That’s true whether their prophecies are simply spoken, like Elijah’s, or written as literature, like the Major Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and the Minor Prophets Amos and Obadiah. The prophets of the Bible have some say in the Word of God, because their say-so serves whatever God is saying.

What prophecy shares in all religions is that its information is privileged. Its information comes from beyond the normal capacities of intelligence, its truth goes past the normal limitations of reason, and its visions go beyond the normal boundaries of human experience, and yet it always means to address our intelligence and speak to our reason and make claims on our experience.

Prophecy assumes a privilege and standing and even authority that cannot be proven from within our boundaries and limitations. So human reason and experience may well doubt the claims of prophecy and deny its privilege. When I first moved to Hoboken, in 1991, an old evangelist named Mr. Ulfilas Shah solemnly told me that God had told him that I was to be the missionary to the Hindus of New Jersey. I told him, Sorry, but God had not told me that. He did beg my pardon.

Because prophecy is from beyond the boundary, there is always some mystery in it, even if just a little. How open are you to mystery? How much mystery do you want in your life? I don’t mean mysteries as puzzles waiting for solutions given sufficient clues and right deductions. I mean the magnificent mysteries of the universe, the mystery of light, the mystery of life, the mysteries that human reason embraces but cannot contain, mysteries inspiring us to joyful wonder and humility.

How much mystery, how much transcendence do you want in your life? And do you want that transcendence to be empty, and the mystery formless and vague? If you are open to that transcendent mystery having form and shape and color and meaning, then you can be open to prophecy, and you can even aspire to being the minor prophet that you were anointed to be.

Some of the mysteries of prophecy are prosaic, like, what was going on in that story from our Epistle reading, Acts 19? What were those twelve Christians doing when they spoke in tongues and prophesied? We will never know for certain, the author does not explain it. We can guess with some confidence by consulting other passages, but interpretations differ.

One faulty but popular interpretation teaches a second baptism after water baptism, a baptism of the spirit that results in speaking in tongues. But Jesus did not speak in tongues when the Holy Spirit baptized him. When the Ethiopian eunuch got  baptized, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in him was his joy as he rode home in his chariot. When the Philippian jailer got baptized he washed St. Paul and served him dinner. A variety of manifestations all point to one invisible reality, which is God coming into the world as the Holy Spirit entering into ordinary people to dwell in you and inspire you. Transcendence inside you.

In a few minutes four of you will be standing before us to be recognized as new members of this church. You each have your reasons for doing this, but these reasons you have in common: you are publicly identifying as a Christian, you are stepping up to share some responsibility for this congregation, and you are publicly declaring some measure of allegiance to Jesus Christ. We will anoint you with oil, to remind you of the anointing of your baptism, which marked you as a member of Christ, and we anoint you to suggest the invisible transcendence of what you are standing up for.

Just by your standing before us you confess the name of Jesus Christ, which, according to the Catechism, is the beginning of your prophecy. So today I am calling you minor prophets. Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Jack, Margaret, Ann, Philip. And beyond that minimum what shall your particular prophecies be? What will you say? What kind of things will you say? If you have been given the Holy Spirit of God, then you have a say in what God says, so how will what you say serve what God says?

Human beings are the creatures who speak. Among all the creatures of creation, human beings are the ones who talk voluminously and of necessity. Christian doctrine teaches that this is because, among the creatures, we are the images of God. We speak because God spoke. So your speech, your use of words, your writing, is inherently sacred, no matter what you’re speaking of, from pots and pans to prophecies.

And this too, we are also the creative ones among the creatures, because we are the images of the Creator. And the way that God created was by God’s speech. God shaped and formed the world not with the hands of angels or giants but simply by speaking it into shape.

Your prophecy is your having a say in the shaping of the new creation. It’s not that you see the future but that you have a say in the future of the world. You have a say in the forming of God’s sovereignty, by the truths you tell about the world, by the interpretations you espouse, by the reports you make, you help to create the future by your speech and how you talk.

You are a Christian for the world, not only for the church. Your access to transcendence is your gift to open up the world that is closed in on itself. The truths that you tell you help people make their choices. By the stories you tell and your conversation you keep the world open to joy and hope and faith and love.

And you are prophetic about your self, you tell the mysterious truth about yourself. You believe it and confess it, that you are known by name by God. That God has chosen to inhabit you. Reason cannot prove it, it takes prophetic speech to say such a thing about yourself, that God has said to you, Phil, Margaret, Ann, Jack, you are my Child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased. The very beginning of your prophecy is to affirm that you yourself are loved by God.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.