By Fr. Michael Cover
Sermon Series: The Prophetic Church
Sermon 1: The prophetic church will be misunderstood (Ezek 2; Mark 6)
“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” – Mark 6:4
Well, friends, we have made it to July—to the fourth, even. Flags are flying, the trees are flush, the weather is…hot, and the long green season is well underway. Last month, we nourished our spiritual growth by listening to four of the “the Questions Scripture asks us.” These were: “Where are you?” “To what can we compare the kingdom of God?” “Why are you acting like cowards?” and last week, “Who touched my clothing.” This Sunday, we change our tack and embark on a third sermon series, which will carry us through the month of July. I have given it the title: “The Prophetic Church.”
We hear a lot these days about the church’s need to be the Beloved Community—a communion of diverse peoples, building up one another and trying to live out Jesus’ great mandatum: to love one another as He has loved us. That, truly, is a noble goal. But the communion of Christ’s body cannot only be the Beloved Community, focused inwardly on itself. It must also be the Prophetic Church. To follow Christ means not merely to be about the business of learning to live with and for one another; we must have a Word for the world. The Prophetic Church, in other words, will be the evangelical Church, in the most etymological sense of bearing the good news to the world—a world, which, if Jesus has spoken truly, hungers and thirsts for the Life that lives among us.
Of course, I do not mean that each one of us is called individually to be a prophet. The church is a Body, made up of many members, and if all were prophets, who would be the encouragers, the servants, and the teachers? On the other hand, a church with no prophets and no prophetic character simply would not be the Church of Jesus Christ. For whatever else he was during the days of his sojourning among us in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth was among us as a prophet—a prophet in the line of Moses and Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah—and of course, John the Baptist. Jesus calls us, through our baptisms, to participate in his own prophetic mission: not only to practice what we preach, but to preach what we practice.
To help us grow into this prophetic vocation, over the next four weeks we will be asking two questions: first what does it mean to be a prophet; and second, what does it look like for the church to be the Prophetic Church. Each Sunday we will look at the mark of one particular Old Testament prophet: Ezekiel, Amos, Jeremiah, and Elisha; and then consider how that prophet’s charism is echoed in the ministry of Jesus. Today’s Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, gives us our first mark: “To be the Prophetic Church means to be misunderstood.” But before we turn to the text, first a few words about prophecy in general.
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If you ask your average person on the street, “what is a prophet,” you will likely get an answer like: “prophets are people who see the future.” Prophets belong, in many people’s minds, to the same imaginary worlds as wizards, heroes, fairies, and dragons. On account of their fictitious nature, they are also deemed irrelevant. I, for my part, find it very reasonable to presume that God can, and in fact does, from time to time reveal parts of his future plans to human servants. Nevertheless, this future- oriented stereotype of prophets misses the fuller picture of Biblical prophecy. The prophets of the Old Testament are far more occupied with the past and the present, than they are with the future. Jesus also focuses the very first words of his prophetic manifesto in the Gospel of Mark unmistakably on the present moment: “the time has been fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15a).
There is, moreover, one word, in both Hebrew and English, which summarizes the message of the Hebrew prophets: return. Shuv. Shubi (Jer 31:21). Shuvu banim shovavim (Jer 3:22). “Return, you endlessly turning and wayward children of Israel.” That is the message that every prophet is given, not least of all Jesus who adds to his proclamation in Mark (1:15b): “repent, and believe in the good news.”
Finally, the prophet does not speak on his or her own, but as the Greek word pro-phetes suggests, speaks pro or “on behalf” of someone else. So we heard in the calling of Ezekiel read this morning
Son of man, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day… . I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” (Ezek 2:3–4)
So much then for a general picture of prophets. We turn now to our first prophetic marker: that being a prophet—and likewise, being the Prophetic Church—means being misunderstood. We see this in the callings of Ezekiel and Isaiah, but also in the preaching of Jesus. First, in the calling of Ezekiel, read this morning, God raises the young captive up, inbreathes him with his Spirit, and then sends him forth with nothing but his “thus saith the Lord GOD” unto a rebellious people with the imperative: say what I tell you, whether they listen to you or no. Implied here, in God’s caveat, is the near certainty that Ezekiel’s fellow captive Israelites will not listen. Ezekiel’s job is to relay the message anyway, because it is the truth that God has spoken.
Even more bleak is the calling of Isaiah, to whom, after his celebrated cry of acceptance, “Here I am Lord, send me,” God responds:
Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand’.” (Isa 6:9).
The point, in both of these stories, is that the prophet is called to speak the truth, regardless of its outcome. The prophetic “Thus says the Lord GOD” retains its integrity, regardless of its reception. Especially in those cases where the Word is not accepted, it is all the more imperative for the prophet is to remain faithful, so that “they shall know that there has been a prophet among them” (Ezek 2:5).
Jesus, in his prophetic mission, meets with a similar disregard. Showing up at his home-town synagogue on a Saturday morning, Jesus teaches and heals. But His words are cause for offense:
They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:2–3)
Like Ezekiel and Isaiah, Jesus experiences the misunderstanding of a prophet. His saving words and deeds are met with jealousy, rejection, and disbelief. And so, Jesus gathers the Twelve and sends them out in his own spirit. And thus is born the Prophetic Church.
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What might it mean for us as the Prophetic Church to receive the mark of a prophet’s misunderstanding? First this: that we should not expect our lives, our message, and our actions to please everybody. Neither should we attempt to make the Word of God conform to the endlessly whirling fashions of the world. To be the Prophetic Church is to receive the message of Jesus and speak it, regardless of the outcome.
And what might be so offensive in this message that it would meet with such rejection? In truth, a great many things. But perhaps, at first, only this: that we come bearing a “Thus says the Lord GOD” (Ezek 2:4). That we believe in a God who speaks; who has preferences and even commands; who universally interferes in the private and public lives even of Wisconsinites. That alone, I suspect, will get us uninvited from certain circles.
To be the Prophetic Church, then, will not always be fun or easy. It will involve suffering, pain, and misunderstanding. But that misunderstanding will always be shot through with the misunderstanding of Jesus in his passion, and thereby borne up in the resurrecting love of God. And so Jesus says: You will be misunderstood; but bear my message anyway. Be the salt of the earth. Be a city on a hill. Be a lamp on a stand.
And maybe even: be a firework. Prophetic Church, your job is to explode, in a shimmering cascade of greens and purples, whites and golds. To proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near in such a way that everyone can see you; that no one can mistake you; that the joy that you experience as the Beloved Community will be evident to all. Perhaps that is your only job: to explode just this once, in this unique and unrepeatable moment, so that all the world will be captivated and say to their own condemnation: man, that was a good one. Even if they then do nothing differently.
All fireworks fade to ash and cinder. One sees in their spiderlike forms the smokey, inverse shadows of their former glory, floating hauntingly across the sky. So too, the Prophetic Church bears in its own disappearance and misunderstanding the renewal of its message in the call to repentance each Ash Wednesday. The whole image bears repeating. An explosion of light, and the proclamation of the Kingdom; disappearance in smoke, and misunderstanding; cinders on the earth, and the call to repentance. To be the Prophetic Church is to be misunderstood. Kind of like a firework. Think about it.