"That Prophetic Fire"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 3, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Isaiah 6: 9-13
Matthew 19: 16-26
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show us the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Now here we are the second week of Advent, it’s hard to believe because without us really knowing it, December has crept in, but it is only the 3rd, and we are already at week two, and last week I sought to paint a picture of the B.C. world, I tried to mix in the historical situation with some ancient religious views, some from a Pagan perspective, and even some basic interpretations of Old Testament Theology, with each was paired a verse of O Come O Come Emanuel, so there was a simultaneous juxtaposition of their seemingly hopeless great need for a savior, and the Rejoice, Rejoice, the savior has come to thee. The idea was to paint a picture of the great need, the great desert we would find ourselves in if there was no Christ and the promises of God were all found wanting, and in such a desert we would be crying out in dire thirst for a savior, and this thirst would lead us to seek out Christ in Bethlehem. . . because that is what Advent is about, the journey to Bethlehem, seeking the Christ child. . .
And so this year I decided I wanted to look at all the things that point us towards Bethlehem, to all the things that make us look there, symbolically and literally, of all places, and trying to also figure out what it is we seek when we head out on our journey towards Bethlehem. What do we seek and why? That is the question of this Advent season, figuring that if we can somehow answer that question, we may just make it afterall, and bow down with the angels, and shepherds, and wisemen, there before the cradle of the newborn king on Christmas Eve Sunday morning and evening. . .
Because it's far, and getting to Bethlehem in this world is no easy trek. I read to the girls every night, and one of my favorites to read is the Brer Rabbit stories, and the one of those that Coralee loved best for a long time was called "Brer Rabbit and the Witch Rabbit" and she, the witch, Ole A'nt Mammy Bammy Big Money, lives far, far in the middle of the swamp, and Brer Rabbit gotst to get to her to cure his mopes, and it says to get there
you have to jump some, hump some; hop some, flop some; ride some, slide some; creep some, leap some; foller some, holler some (and Coralee would always add, ride in the van some), but then it would end with “and if you're not careful you may not get there then, but Brer Rabbit he got there, and he knew cuz for all dat smoke"
and we can too. . . for us it's similar, for us we gots to head on to Bethlehem and we got to sing some and ring some, pray some and stay some; read some, and need some, give some, and live some; cook some, and look some, learn some and yearn some, seek some and speak some, bless some and rest some, and finally love a whole lot, and we might not even get there den, but then again we just might.
So This week I also want to direct us on our journey toward Bethlehem, but not through the lens of our need alone, but this time from the message of the Prophets, for they send people seeking out Bethlehem as well. . .
Ok, so Prophets, what is a prophet? Normally when we think of a prophet, we think of someone who tells the future. . . we might think of Teiresias, the blind prophet from literature, who speaks as one who knows, who foretells things about Odysseus, Oedipus, even tells Julius Ceasar to beware the ides of March. . . and we might carry over that same idea to the Old Testament, and we might look to the prophetic books of the Bible, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah, Habbakuk, Malachi, Micah, and the rest. . . .we might look to them for their prophesies of Jesus, that is what most people do, especially at this time a year, reading the great passages especially in Isaiah, foretelling Christ, the voice crying out in the wilderness telling us to make the paths straight, or all we like sheep have gone astray, or the people walking in darkness have seen a great light, or Do You Not know, have you not heard, or the lion lying down with the lamb, the swords into plowshares, or For us a child is born, and that he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty Father, Prince of Peace, you can hear them all ringing out in Handel’s Messiah, “For Unto us a Son is Given, and the government shall be on his shoulder, and he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the mighty God, everlasting father, prince of Peace.” Or maybe even the Suffering Servant, with his stripes are we healed. . . all of these are in Isaiah, but it is also in the Prophets where Bethlehem is named, and almost every other aspect of the Birth story of Jesus is found somewhere in them. . . and all of them written at least 300 years before that birth, and many of them much, much older than that. Yes that is what the prophets can be read as, and as I said usually are, but there is much missing when you do it that way.
Because the Prophets had another important role within their own context. They were given the mission to speak the Lord’s truth to power, and often as you can imagine people did not want to hear it. We get to see the narrative of it in 1 and 2 Kings where we see the prophet Elijah speaking truth against Ahab and Jezebel, and we can see how difficult his message must’ve been to hear, from their intense reaction to it. . . and much of the prophets’ message is still difficult to hear today. . . this is what I want to call that prophetic fire, because like fire, it burns hot, and can leave a path of destruction, at least to the way things are, behind them, and it is this aspect of the prophets I want to focus on today, their prophetic fire. But before I do I want to tell a little story. . . and then I promise I’ll get to our scripture passages for today.
Imagine you are a senior in high school, and it is the last day of class. It is the last day of class and you have a major term paper due, but you have failed to do it. You had one thing that you needed to do to graduate, but you failed to get it done. For whatever reason it just didn’t happen. You started it, you worked for a great while on it, but just couldn’t bring it to completion, and the worst thing is that it is to be turned into your favorite teacher, and your advisor, someone who has taught you the world, opened up new insights in life, let you see the world a completely different way, helped you through some really difficult times, when your mom was sick, he was there, when your girlfriend or boyfriend decided to start dating someone else he was there, when you fumbled the ball in the championship game and the game was lost because of you, he was there, talked you through it, cared you through it, there were great afternoon times when you would talk about life and the future, he made you believe that your future was among the brightest, he believed in you. He let you know over and over again, trying to instill in you the value that you were made to do amazing things, but you had one thing to do, and you couldn’t get it done. And he’s taught you about choices, and their consequences, and so you know how important it is to get work done, he’s never let you slide, it just wouldn’t be right, so now you have a choice to make. . . You have his class third period, you have the first two periods to decide what to do, two periods to decide what you value in life.
What do you choose to do? Do you try to finish it, though there just is no time? Do you turn in a fake paper hoping he doesn’t notice that only the first page is done, and the rest of them are blank? Or do you do something much more elaborate. . . do you hide, by skipping third period, avoid the situation entirely, but then you accidentally run into him at lunch, he asks where you were you tell him you were with the nurse. . . he looks you up and down, but trusts you, why wouldn’t he, but he asks you, you got the paper right, just make sure you put it in the box as soon as you can. . . sure thing you say, whew, safe. . . ok, then, see you this afternoon. . . this afternoon? You say to yourself, but it dawns on you. . . oh yeah last day of school, we are supposed to meet with our advisors, one last time to say good bye. . . sure thing, you say. . . . now what am I going to do. You worry over it the whole day, but decide when the day is over you’ll just get in your car and drive home. . . You decide to hide. . . and then when it comes up, you decide to try to shirk the blame, blame others, blame the technology, blame the situation, blame your friends, anything to get through, and then your parents talk to the principal, no one wants to fail a senior right before graduation, so you get a deal, you get to walk, but you get your diploma once the paper is done, so you walk, celebrate graduation, go to the beach with your friends, and you write a paper just to get it done, turn it in to the school secretary, no one reads it, the box is checked off, you get the diploma and you start college in the fall. . . alls well that ends well. . . right? Of course. . .
Everything worked out for the best right? What was lost? What is the worst part of this story? Can you see this happening? We’ll answer those questions hopefully soon.
But as promised, the scripture readings. The first is actually from a well know area of the prophet Isaiah, it is actually right from his call narrative, but I skipped over that part that every one is familiar with, the part where God says, whom shall I send, and the prophet says, here I am, send me. Hymns are written about that part, I’ve seen it on bumper stickers and tshirts, whom shall I send, here I am send me, but what is usually never read, nor remembered is what comes right after it, what God actually sends him to say: but check it out, here is Isaiah 6:9-13
9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
Do you hear this, do you remember this, do you ever remember reading this? How many of you remember, whom shall I send? Go ahead send me? Now how many of you remember this? Be ever hearing but never understanding, be ever seeing but not perceiving, I will send everyone away until the land is utterly forsaken, until a tenth, but then I will leave them so that the seeds, the holy seed is nothing but the stumps remaining in the land. . . does that ring a bell? What about Unto us a child is born, wonderful counselor, what about the voice crying out in the wilderness, what about, swords into plowshares? Yeah we remember those, but not this, houses left deserted and fields ruined and ravaged. . . why not? Because we skip them. I have to give the Monday Night Bible study group credit, they are driving themselves through it all, mired in the world of Ezekiel for the past few months. It is hard, and one of the most difficult things is when you get to passages where there is destruction, and God is saying, and then they will know my name is the Lord, you want to shave off the edge of it. . . and that is usually what happens with the prophets, they either are skipped, or have their edges shaved. . .but that brings me to the new Testament Lesson. . . a difficult and quite often shaved passage, this time out of the mouth of the greatest of all prophets, and he who fulfills the role of the prophet and surpasses the need for one into perpetuity, Jesus Christ. . . listen to Jesus here in Matthew, this 19:16-26
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Look at what we have here, a man is asking Jesus what he needs to do to attain eternal life? And Jesus asks him, why do you ask, there is only one who is good, etc., but then Jesus says if you want to enter life, keep the commandments, the man asks which ones, Jesus lists them straight from the 10 commandments, the man says, cool got that done, so Jesus says, great go and sell your possessions and give them to the poor. . . come follow me. . . but the man can’t do it, he walks away sad, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. . . now how many of us read this story literally? Because literally it sure does seem that the way to get eternal life is to sell off all your possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus? Has anybody hear done that? No, me neither. . .? What about collectively as a church? We sure have got a lot of nice things here in this church, what about selling it all off, the building, all of it and giving it to the poor. . . go off and follow Jesus? Have you ever been in a Sunday School class where this passage comes up. . . you start talking about this and that, how Jesus meant something else, or you focus on how the eye of a needle is not really, an actual needle, but that there is a place in Jerusalem, where the roads are really constricted and it was called the eye of a needle, and it was hard to get camels through there, but you know, not impossible. . . or you might focus on how other people are rich, and he can’t mean me, he means Bill Gates and all the other rest of the 1%. . ., and it is interesting how people have been fighting for years against anyone ever saying that any of the Old Testament stories could ever be figurative and not history, but we’ll turn one of Jesus’ hard teachings into a metaphor in a heartbeat. . . you know some of the great ones, like this one, or hating your mother father, sister brother, or the Prince of Peace bringing a sword. . . He doesn’t really mean that literally, there must be something we don’t get about it, must be. . . we do it it’s human nature. . . and when we get into the weeds of the books of the prophets often we do the same thing. You start talking about well what does God mean by sin, and how is it punished, and how it’s the Israelites and how Idols are little things made out of stone.
Now let’s think about my story about the student. . . what is lost in that story? Two things right? His character and the relationship he had with the teacher. . . both of those are gone, and for all intents and purposes there are no real world consequences. . . they were too real for him, his parents and the school system protected him from them because he was too big to fail. . . where have you heard that before. . . Yes there are many levels here. . . the edges were too much, so let’s roll them back a little bit for him. . . but who is supposed to give out the grades, who is supposed to be the judge of the situation, whose opinion is supposed to be the one that matters? Yes the teacher, but instead of standing up to that fire, he went somewhere else, where he could get the answer that he wanted, and technically it was a higher authority. . . the teacher’s boss, the power brokers in his world, his parents. . . and they didn’t have the same standards. . . the system didn’t have the same standards. . . but what would the teacher have done? We’ll never know. . .
What if we called the student, Adam, called the assignment the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and not doing the assignment, eating the Fruit. . . what does Adam do, right he hides, he blames, he avoids . . . but what does God do? God shows up! There in the cool of the day saying, Where are you? What would God have done if Adam didn’t hide? We’ll never know. . . What would God have done if Adam wouldn’t have tried to blame Eve and the serpent? We’ll never know. . . or will we?
After Jesus is crucified and raised in the Gospel of Mark, he tells the disciples and Peter, to meet him in Galilee. . . now Peter has denied Jesus three times, deserting him in the time of need, but yet he is still called. . . would Jesus have called Judas too by name had he not killed himself? We’ll never know. . . hmm, interesting question though. . .
What would the teacher have done had the student shown up? Hmmm. . .
What would God have done?
The Prophetic books tell about Sin and God and retribution and punishment, and things out of order getting put back in order for a people who would rather go to idols again and again than stand before their God. Why do they go to idols? The same reason the student went to his parents and the principal rather than going to the teacher. . . the idols, and more importantly their priests and Ahab and Jezebel, give the shaved down version of truth that the world likes to peddle. The one that says, I’m ok and you’re ok, and as long as we go this way, all will be well. . . but it isn’t ok, it isn’t well, it is a non sustainable path because it’s a path that has gone astray. . . the prophet’s voice, that prophetic fire is needed to tell us that we are not lining up our lives against the truth. . . the idols say, Peace, Peace, but the prophet, in this case Jeremiah, screams out, no there is no peace. . . you can’t sweep the truth under the rug because it is uncomfortable, you can’t shave off the edges of the truth, just to make it palatable for yourself. . . you can’t change the rules so that you can win, so that you are in. . . though we all try again and again. . .
Sell all of your possession and give the money to the poor and follow me. I could shave that down, and make it so I get in. . . make it so that I’m fit for heaven, fit myself for heaven to live with Jesus there, wait that isn’t how Away in the Manger goes is it?. . . Well even so, that is just a Christmas Carol anyway, a children’s song. . . Maybe though Jesus meant 1/10th , of all my possessions, I tithe so I’m set, what is it that Ray Stevens song said? If 10 percent is good enough for Jesus it should be good enough for Uncle Sam. . . something like that. . . I can pay my 10 percent and then I’m set. . . Ray Stevens says its good enough for Jesus, but Jesus said all. . .
How can we reconcile the two? I think the answer is there in Jesus’ words. . . first he says to the man, “why do you ask me about what is good?” Then he says, “Only one is good” Then Jesus says later, “If you want to be perfect” . . .the whole possessions bit, then he says “it is hard for someone who is rich, being easier with the eye and the needle and the camel, remember. . . yes” and the disciples are like, this is impossible. . . and Jesus answers, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Jesus asks, why are you talking about being good? Why are you trying to be good enough? You won’t be. . . it’s never enough. . . so don’t try to pull down the standards so that you will fit them. . . you can’t, and when you do you create a different reality, one where you are in control, where you are master, but that place doesn’t exist, just like those idols are made of stone. . . but then how can we stand?
What will God do?
Back to the story of the student? What is important to the student? Making the grade, getting into college, fitting into the system, right, getting through. . . if the teacher is a good teacher, is any of that important to the teacher? Not at all. . . sure I wanted my students to succeed, but never at the expense of two other things which I found to always be more important. . . Our relationship and their potential. These are the things that I offered my students. . . and many didn’t get it. . . they would hide, they would apologize when they didn’t have my work done, they would bring me excuses. . . but none of that mattered to me, why are you apologizing to me. . . own it and move on, do better tomorrow. . . my opinion of you hasn’t changed, only yours has of yourself. I tried in that way to create a classroom dynamic of grace. . . at least the way I saw it. . . and grades were the least important in that scenario. What I wouldn’t change was my standards for them. . . that they were given absolute God given potential. . .
Adam was made in the image of God. . . and in this image of God transgressed against God’s one decree. . . but God shows up, and Adam hides. . . Adam blames. . . Adam tries to create an alternate world where God’s truths are not real, and his standards need not be followed, but that world is not the one God created. . . is it? Read the prophets, read the Bible, read the teachings of Jesus, the sermon on the Mount. . . the world and our lives in it are not what God created. . . shaving off those edges does not change that fact, it just sinks us deeper into them. . . but why are we, like the Rich man in the story, talking about good? We don’t need to talk about Good. . . we are far from Good, and the prophets will tell us as such. . . and show us the results of such things to our world, our world. . . but we aren’t called to live in our world. . . instead we need to stand in God’s.
But we can’t how can we ever stand? We aren’t good enough? I must run from such reality, but God says, Repent! Turn around, if you are facing away from God, if you are fleeing from God’s presence, turning around would be facing God. . . standing in God’s presence, fallen hopelessly short. . . What will God do? I can’t stop sinning, I need to fix my behavior, and then I can stand in God’s presence. . . I need to fix myself before I stand there, right. . . turn around, stand and see. What will God do? Bring all that baggage to Bethlehem and find out. . . because again I promise you God will show up. . . haven’t we learned anything? Not one iota of the law has passed away, but stand there even so, and God will show up. . . come to Bethlehem and see. . .