Priest, Prophet, and King (pt 2 of 3)
We’re going to start with a pop quiz. Answer in your head. What’s a prophet? Seriously now, some of you aren’t thinking about it, you’re just waiting it out. Think about it. Do you know what it means to be a prophet?
Grade time. If you answered that a prophet is someone who predicts the future… I’m sorry, D+ is the best I can do. But don’t feel bad, that’s probably what most people would say if we took this question to the streets. Predicting the future is indeed one of the things that prophets sometimes do, but there’s so much more to it than that, so… D+.
Read the Biblical Prophets and you’ll immediately see that prediction is actually a small part of their work. Prophets speak about the past, the future, and most of all the present. They explain past history from a divine perspective, saying why things happened, and what God’s plan and reasons were. “It was because of our religious apostasy that God allowed the Assyrians to conquer us.” “It was because of the blood he had shed that David was not allowed to build a Temple.” Everyone knew the headlines, but the prophet was the one who explained the spiritual realities behind the headlines.“Thus says the Lord: King Cyrus came to power because he was my instrument for rebuilding the Temple.”
When prophets do speak about the future, it’s because God has some reason for warning or preparing people, and sends the prophet. “Thus says the Lord: if you do not surrender to this army, the city will be completely destroyed,” or “Thus says the Lord: I will deliver this army into your hands, go out and fight them.” The ultimate kind of future prophecy concerns the biggest warning of all: that all of this will someday end, and that God will judge the living and the dead.
But if you read the prophets, you’ll find that most of their words are about the present. They are, more than anything, calls to conversion. They may criticize the ruling powers, or the state of the people’s religious observances. They may offer comfort and hope in hard times. But they always are calling to conversion, speaking God’s truth for that particular time and place. “Thus says the Lord: I want you to pay a lot less attention to sacrificing animals and a lot more attention to caring for the poor.” “Thus says the Lord: I am with you, even in exile, you are not forgotten, and my promises will be kept.”
So now if I pose the question again, ‘what is a prophet?’, maybe we’ll have a better grading curve. The prophet is one who speaks for God. There’s a reason I keep repeating that phrase, “thus says the Lord,” because that’s a phrase that fills the prophets. It’s either written explicitly or it’s implied. And that’s the heart of what being a prophet is: it’s bringing the Word of God to the world.
If you were around last weekend, you know why we’re talking about this. Beginning with last Sunday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we’re doing a three-part series on our baptismal calling to be priests, prophets, and kings. We began with a look at our baptismal priestly role, of caring for the Temple and offering sacrifice and being a mediator bringing people to God and God to people. We talked about the ultimate expression of that priesthood being the offering of our entire selves to God the Father just as Jesus did. We talked about Jesus being the true High Priest, in whose work we are called to participate.
Jesus also fulfills and perfects the role of the Prophet. If the prophet is a man or woman who speaks for God, how much more perfect as a prophet is the man who is God! Jesus never began his words with “Thus says the Lord,” because He is the Lord. Over and over again, the prophets say “thus says the Lord,” but when Jesus bears God’s word to us, He says over and over, “Amen, amen, I say to you.”
This is expressed in Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, when the voice of the Father is heard: “This is my Beloved Son… listen to Him.” And we, too, by our baptism, are anointed to be prophets, bearing God’s truth to the world. How do we do that? What does that look like in practice?
When I was an undergrad at Illinois State, in the quad you’d often pass a preacher. He’d pace back and forth, brandishing his Bible like a loaded weapon in one hand, pumping and pointing with the other. He had to speak loudly to be heard, but he was an angry kind of loud. He accused us of various sins and told us that we’d better repent and believe before it was too late. Often there would be a small circle of students around. Some looked angry, some looked interested; most of them looked like they were watching some kind of exotic zoo animal. It was a little sideshow between classes.
The thing is, a lot of what he said was true. The sins he accused of us were sins that very many of us college students were guilty of on a daily or weekly basis. We would have been much better off if we had repented of them. But I would be surprised if this guy ever really had a positive impact on anybody, except by accident or by miracle. Because he was wrong? No. Because he was a jerk.
And, that, I think, is one of the biggest obstacles we face in living our prophetic calling. We’re afraid of being jerks. Sometimes we aren’t sure what’s prophetic Christian witness and what’s just being a jerk, and so we err on the side of not being jerks and we say little or nothing at all. If we feel guilty about not ever speaking up for our Faith, we console ourselves with the old saying, “preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” It reminds us that actions can speak louder than words, which is true. I’m afraid sometimes we use it to convince ourselves that we don’t ever need words, which is not true at all. The saying is attributed, probably wrongly, to St. Francis of Assisi, which is ironic because he was a guy who preached the Gospel with a lot of words.
Well, anyway, it’s a good saying, as long as we don’t use it as an excuse to be silent when we ought to speak. I’ll wager not a single person here is totally comfortable sharing our faith with unbelievers. Why? Sometimes it’s just cowardice, and that’s no good. But I think some of it is that we’re concerned not to be like those jerks on the college quad, turning people off to the Gospel, convincing them only that Christians are mean and weird and strange, and basically immunizing them against the very message we’re trying to spread.
And that’s a good concern. But in dealing with it, we have to find a better answer than silence. And we can’t always think that we’re doing well just by avoiding offending people, or just by having people like what we say. Read your Bible; that’s not what happens to prophets. Prophets cause offense. Prophets are disliked by a lot of people. Prophets are persecuted.
So what’s the answer - how do we know whether we’re being prophetic or just being jerks? Here’s a question to start with, a critical distinction. Is someone offended by the Gospel, or are they offended by the way you have presented it? The Gospel does offend many people. It calls for repentance to begin with, and already there you’ve lost a lot of friends. Pay that price. Bid them farewell with love and keep them in prayer and keep the door open should they ever be willing to befriend you again, but let them go. If people are offended by the Gospel, let them be offended. If people are offended by Christ, then the only way to avoid offending them is not to be a true Christian. No deal.
But don’t let people be offended because you strut around the quad pointing fingers at people you don’t know, make God out to be some kind of tyrant, or talk only about commandments and judgment without talking about the love and goodness behind them. Don’t let people be offended because you have no sense of tact and timing. Don’t let people be offended because you seem superior and holier-than-thou.
The best answer is just to stay focused on Jesus. Focus on the example of Jesus. Jesus called right right and wrong wrong. He spoke a message that was compelling for some, and offensive to others. He asked people to repent and sin no more. But He led with mercy. First He refused to throw the stone and He set her free, then, He told her to sin no more. First he had dinner at Zaccheus’ house, then He told him to sin no more. First He made that woman at the well feel truly cared for, and then He asked her to change her life. My quad-preachers ignored the first part. They thought they were bearing Christian witness just by calling people to conversion. I think most of us, much more often, ignore the second. We think we’re bearing Christian witness just by making people feel loved. But to really love people, and to really be witnesses to Christ, they’re both necessary.
And to be good witnesses, we need lots of humility. Being humble doesn’t water down our witness, it strengthens it. You can just come right out and say, if you want to, “look, I’m not always a very good example of a Christian, but I know that Jesus is real, and I know I’d be a heck of a lot worse without Him, and because I care about you I want more than anything for you to know Him too, and if you’re ever interested in talking about that, it would totally make my day.” You can just come right out and say, “friend, I’m the last guy people should look to for moral perfection, but I care about you, and this path you’ve set is not a good one. And I promise to stick by you as your friend, but you need to understand I’ll be your friend trying everything I can to change your mind, not the friend pretending it’s all cool.” Humility also comforts us when our witness doesn’t seem successful or even very good. We can make our humble offering and trust God’s grace to make up for our weakness.
My friends Evan and Gabby live in a tiny house. When I say tiny, I mean they built it on a car-hauler trailer. If you have a shed, it’s probably bigger than their house. It has a kitchen and cabinet area, and a sleep loft above that, and space for a few seats. It has a small porch. All together, it’s 120 square feet. Even more remarkable than the small living space is that they can only own as much stuff as fits in it, and that’s not much. But unlike lesser witnesses, this isn’t an affectation. It isn’t some grand gesture they’ve done to make a statement. It really does just flow naturally from who they are. Evan and Gabby would probably be really uncomfortable with this, I think their lifestyle is prophetic in the most wonderful way I can imagine. Somehow, people who live in big cluttered houses never feel judged or looked down on by them, but seeing an alternative opens our imaginations and challenges our assumptions in a really good way. There's no vibe like "hey everybody, you should all try a lot harder to be more like me." But their surprising way of life, and the way it flows naturally from who they are, is an incredibly powerful witness to something true and good and beautiful.
I wonder why we aren’t more like that with our Christian witness. Why don’t we stand out a little more? Let me leave you with this question: do you think we should? Do you think people could easily see us as being just like everybody else except with Sunday church thrown in the mix? And if we look that way to those who don’t know Christ, what’s going to draw them in? And if we need to make our witness a little more radical, a little more intense, what are some of the ways we can do that? I don’t have a answer to that question that I’m very sure about. I’m leaving it with you, baptized and anointed prophets of Jesus Christ. I think finding an answer to this question is probably the best thing that could possibly happen to St. Kateri Parish.
Because there is something that the Church has when the Church is spreading, and it’s something that I don’t think we have, and haven’t had for some time, in our country, or in Europe, or in some other places that are historically Christian but are turning ever farther away. What the Church has when the Church is spreading is that people who don’t know Christ look at Christians and see something different. They see the Kingdom of God breaking into the world. Some love it and come running. Some hate it and even persecute it. But people see something different there, and people react.
Everyone here who has been baptized has been anointed a Prophet, to bear witness to Jesus and to his Kingdom. It’s our job, not just the bishops, not just priests and nuns, it’s all of our jobs to make that witness happen. Samuel, as a boy in the first reading, finally heard God calling him. God made him a prophet. God’s calling you, too, beginning with your Baptism, and if you haven’t responded before, today is the day to say “Here I am, Lord.”