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Eco-Justice Notes
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Dueling Prophets
distributed 12/9/05 - ©2005

It is impossible to deal with this season of Advent without heeding the prophets.

On the most simplistic level, there's that Isaiah text (7:14) about a pregnant virgin which our tradition has tied to the birth of Jesus. That one verse is probably a key culprit in building the popularized picture of a fortune-telling prophet who spells out details of events 600 years into the future.

On a more significant level, the dramatic eschatological hope of the prophets -- their imaginative proclamation of a transformed world to come -- is at the heart of the longing and expectation that is so much a part of our preparation leading up to Christmas. It is this notion of prophecy that can do the most to inform our faith today.

As I ponder the prophetic heritage -- and especially as I do so from my comfortable position in the United States of the 21st Century -- I worry about the temptation to domesticate and sanitize those who dared to speak for God. If we make the historical prophets safe, then it will be all to easy to miss the prophets in our midst today.

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From our distance in time and culture, we can turn to the established pages of scripture and find book after book of stuff from the recognized prophets -- Isaiah and Jeremiah, Hosea and Amos, and yea, even Nahum and Zephaniah. Our ability to do that sets up the notion that there were a few middle eastern men a few millennia ago who were The Prophets. You can make a list, check it twice, and you'll know who is authorized to decide about who's naughty and nice.

There is a comfort in having a small membership for the Prophet Society. If that's the way it works, then we don't have to worry about sorting out who the prophets are.

The problem is, the few folk who have their own books of the Bible are a tiny subset of the vast prophetic population. And there are many who have claimed to be prophets who have not been affirmed by our faith tradition. Picking out the prophets is a challenge.

One of my favorite Bible stories is the face-off between Jeremiah and Hananiah (see Jer. 28). Both of them claim to speak for God, even as they spell out utterly contradictory themes. Hananiah comes across as Mr. Cheerful, with nothing but good news of peace and prosperity. Jeremiah backs up his doom-and-gloom with historical precedent: "The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet."

We, of course, know that Jeremiah was the authentic Man of God, because there's no book of Hananiah in our Bibles. But the folk who watched those dueling prophets didn't have our advantage. Jeremiah's advice still has wisdom: see if the prophetic word rings true as part of the prophetic heritage, and wait to see the judgement of history.

The "wait and see" part doesn't get anybody off the hook for making a choice, though. The prophets always call on us to make a choice, to take sides, and the choice is almost guaranteed to be a tough one. But at the same time, not making a choice is absolutely guaranteed to be the wrong way to go.

The demand to pick between competing prophetic options isn't an occasional difficulty. The theme of "false prophets" crops up with surprising frequency in the Bible. Jesus has warnings to "beware of false prophets" -- which we can do because "you will know them by their fruits" -- and he reminds us that proclaiming "Lord, Lord" in support of one's own agenda isn't enough to enter the coming realm. But the really blistering rebukes from Jesus are not for the false prophets themselves, but for those who reject the true prophets. He laments over "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" We are called to make a choice, and we'd better do it right.

We can look back and celebrate the wisdom and faithfulness of the big-name prophets. But the experience on the streets of Jerusalem shows that many people claimed to speak for God, and that some who named God's judgement on the powerful died for their cause.

If that is the prophetic heritage, then it becomes easier to acknowledge that there may be prophets in our midst. Once we get rid of the idea that there were a few indisputable prophets, and that they all lived a long time ago, then we can start to sort through the confusion of our own day to see who looks like a candidate. There are many options.

On today's street corners we see people screaming at each other, with both (or all) sides claiming to speak for God. In today's pulpits and TV screens, we see clergy of deep faith proclaiming contradictory truths about faith and ethics. In Congress and the White House, and among all of the lobbyists and advocates who gather around those seats of power, there is no shortage of people who offer up dueling assertions about God's will.

We're in the same boat as the people of biblical times, because (as the United Church of Christ's ad campaigns remind us) God is still speaking. And we're in the same boat, because (as some have said in response to the UCC ads) it is never entirely clear what God is saying. The choice is challenging, but not impossible.

Jesus, Jeremiah and others have let us know that there are standards and guidelines to use in sifting out the genuine word of God from the false prophecy. In making the choice between competing voices today -- about war and peace, taxes and government services, ecological responsibility, personal morality, and more -- here are some of the clues that I look for:

  • The prophetic word is always challenging, and always calls us to look beyond ourselves. It makes us look for the well-being of the whole community, the whole Earth.
  • The prophetic word lifts up a vision of hope and promise. It imagines a different way of living in peace and community. It is always a proclamation of God's shalom.
  • The prophetic word never affirms the status quo. It always brings judgement -- sometimes on us, and sometimes on others -- and it always demands justice. It is especially likely to challenge excessive power, violence, and poverty.
  • The prophetic word will never say that the ends justify the means. The way we get there must be congruent with where we're trying to go.
I've seen a reading that a church used last Sunday for the lighting of the Advent candle for "hope." It included these words:
The prophets of the Old Testament seem a bit strange to us. Some people think they predicted the future. Some think they just went around spreading gloom and condemning everybody. But what we celebrate about the prophets is this: they told the truth about what was really going on in the world, and they stood up for people who were poor; they believed in God's promises even when things seemed hopeless; they said what they thought even when they were afraid. There are people like that in the world today as well, and we celebrate them, too.
May we take on the challenge of discerning who are the prophets of our day, and may we join with them in word and deed.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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