Sunday, December 1, 2013

All Signs Point to Bethlehem: The Prophets

All Signs Point to Bethlehem: The Prophets
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 1, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 18: 15-22
John 1: 6-15 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”)[1]


So we've made it to Advent, and today begins the new Church year. We get start over, and start fresh, we get to think again about Christmas, and what Christ's coming into our world, means to our world, we get to think about what Christ's coming means in our lives, we get to think about shepherds and angels and wisemen, and whether or not there is room in our hearts, like there wasn't room in the inn, we get to think about, how humble you've got to be to be born in the middle of the night, in the middle of a bunch of animals, in the stable of that over crowded inn. We get to start singing great music, O Come O come Emmanuel, and Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, today; we get to light the candles, we'll get to enjoy the decorated church soon, we'll get to take part in so many wonderful traditions. There are so many ways that people get ready for Christmas. In the past I've preached on the different Advent Candle themes, I preached based on Characters and Hymns last year, but 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 the next four weeks, figuring that if we can somehow answer that, we may just make it afterall, and bow down with the angels, and shepherds, and wisemen, there before the cradle of the newborn king.
Because it's far, and getting to Bethlehem in this world is not easy trek. I read Brer Rabbit stories with Coralee almost every night, and the one that she loved best for a while was "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 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 always adds, ride in the van some 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, we 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 morning we take a look at the beginning, the prophets, all the voices who have been crying out in the wilderness that we should make the paths straight and stuff like that. The Isaiahs, and Jeremiahs, Elijah's and Ezekiels, Daniels and Jonahs, even Malachi, Micah, Obadiah, and Zechariah, and Old JTB himself, John. Those are those familiar and some unfamiliar names of the prophets, but what is a prophet? What is a prophet within the Old Testament Jewish Tradition? What does it mean? What is the role in the world that a prophet fills? And what does it all have to do with Jesus? The easy answer is that a prophet tells the future, and that these prophets foretold the birth of Christ, that's the ancient pagan understanding of prophets for sure. The Greeks had old Teiresias, and the egyptians had their priests and soothsayers, fortune tellers, given to looking at the flight of birds, and omens, and trinkets, the stars and such. . . The Old Testament prophets did that too, but if that is all you get from reading the prophets you are missing quite alot, and often those are the pieces, the only pieces of the prophets that we ever really read, the ones pointing to Jesus. The prophetic books of the Bible, are long some of them, weird all of them, and aren't chronologically placed in the Bible, rather they are stuck in the order of their length. . . They are also repetitive, repetitive in their difficulty, and repetitive in their message, and there are so many of them it's hard to find a place to start. Most start with Isaiah, and it is so long, that they get stuck somewhere in the middle and never go forward, or another common way to tackle the prophets is to do a little research, and skip through to the parts that preview Jesus, and forget the rest, again thinking that is the most valuable, or the only valuable part of the books.
So who are these prophets. The Old Testament reading from today previews the role, connecting it to Moses:

The Lord your God will raise up for you prophets  like me from among your own people; you shall heed such prophets. . .  

Deuteronomy is Moses' great goodbye sermon, and he is saying that God will send these prophets to be there, to fill the role of Moses once Moses is gone. So if we use Moses as a model for what a prophet is, we see someone who leads, someone who talks with God, someone who goes on a mission at God's behest. . . someone through whom God works to set his people free, creating new covenants, new standards for relationship with God and with each other. Yes a prophet is all that stuff, but sometimes more. Another great prophet from the narrative parts of the Biblical story is Samuel. Samuel works with the people to place the king, he then advises the king, he speaks to the king about what God's will is, and works as an instructor, and a voice of reason, the one voice that seems to be the limiting force of the king's power, reminding always the king, exactly from where his authority comes. Important distinction, but also not all, so then we get to Elijah. . . and we see a prophet being a fighter, fighting against the king, Ahab and his queen Jezebel and all her priests,  who no longer listen to him, instead they fight him, he fights against the changing times, often against popular opinion, often against the power structures, but again the prophet is the voice of reason, the voice of God. What we see connecting the roles of prophet from Moses to Samuel to Elijah, is that a prophet represents without fear the voice of God's truth on earth, whether that truth goes against powerful foreign occupiers like the Egyptian Pharoahs. . . whether that truth is building up a nation. . . and especially if that truth goes against that nation, having gone astray. The prophetic voice is both the hero and the bane of a nation's existence, because it like God, for God, sets free, but not in human ways which often only set the few free to oppress others, it sets all free, with the limits of law, and responsibility and truth that freedom requires. . . else falls into tyranny, and other forms of the realities of idolatry.  The most common poetic symbol for the prophet is fire because fire burns, it cleans, it restores, but its white hot flames are very real, and dangerous to those standing in the way. Fire burns through everything on the way to cleansing it. . . it is that prophetic fire. . . quite an image.
And the image fits. When you read Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the others, that is exactly what you see. You will find the harsh truth being preached to the people even if they do not want to hear it. Isaiah covers many years, so you get to see different parts of the story. You get to see the good times, then the warnings within those good times, and then everything turning bad, because there just is not repentance. The big historical scenario surrounding many of the prophetic books of the Bible is the Exile. It's the seminal event, the fall of the two kingdoms, the people being forced away from the burning Jerusalem, the end of all that had been. It is the event that the prophets from before it happens warn about, and it's the event that prophets from while it is going on, try to teach the people how to get through, and it is the event that the prophets preaching after it remind the people of, all the time looking ahead, looking ahead to the time where something more will happen, when God himself will act, not through a prophet, but more personally, more effectively, more completely, and which will last forever, Jeremiah talks of a covenant not written in stone, or in parchment, but upon our hearts. . . these are the physical parts of the message, the warnings, but what is the message of the prophets?
If you could narrow it down, and  I think you can. . . through all the repetition and hard to follow strangeness, the message of the prophets, both the large ones like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the small ones like Habakkuk,   is actually pretty simple, and it is the same throughout, as times change, only the way it is seen changes, but the message pretty much stays the same. God is in control. God is in control, not the pharoah, God is in control, not your king, God is in control, not any of the idols that you make, just in case, trying to make yourself feel better, make you feel like you have a little control, but no God is in control. And he is in control when you are standing on the shore with the pharoah's army behind you and the Red Sea in your way, when you build a Golden calf, while Moses is away lost on the holy mountain. . . He's in control when you wrest the promised lands from the Philistines, when you stand up against the Mighty Walls of Jericho, or when you are up against a giant like Goliath. . . when you ask for a king to rule you so that you can be like the other nations, God is in control, though now there is a surrogate, God is in control, when that surrogate turns aside, and the people go with him, unfaithful to God, God is in control, and most importantly, when the Assyrians and Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and carry you once again away from the land into exile and bondage, yes even then God is in control. And since God is in control, Justice will reign. . . what is sewn is what is to be reaped. It matters how you treat people, it matters what is important in your life. It matters what you worship, because the idol replacements are worthless trinkets, but people kill for them, thinking they can earn for themselves just a little bit of the security that God justly and freely provides. Since God is in control there is such thing as truth, and that truth is real, no matter what we choose to believe. . . no matter how much it hurts our conceptions of reality, and what we find to be comfortable, With God is, and God in control, truth is, and humans don't get to pick and choose what is true and what isn't. Yes this is the prophetic message, the prophetic fire, which challenges the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  And it's a big one, it's an important one. It is one that is echoed by Jesus, and it is one that is hopefully preached throughout the world on Sundays, and in and through our very lives.
So yes the prophets point to Jesus, and yes they point to Bethlehem, but they don't just do that. It's all a part of a larger picture. The ongoing consistent truth of God's presence and God's reign in this world he created. Jesus is simply the manifestation of that message. God so loving the world, that he would become a part of it just to save it, to show above all that he truly is in control, and not the things of this world, the Romans, or anyone else can stand against him, that the only tools that they have against it all is violence and death, but even that, even death is not an obstacle for God. It just isn't a factor in God's awesome reality.
Jesus shows us this. . . and Bethlehem is a part of that. So let us listen to that prophetic fire, that prophetic message, because it speaks very much to us like it did to that Old Testament audience. Though our world seems out of Control, though it seems like justice does not reign, nor matter, when it seems like the wicked thrive and the good barely survive, when it seems like science has given us the answers, and from those answers we have made technology, and from that technology we have finally taken control of this world, for better or for worse, it is ours we own it, when faith is dwindling, when kids don't care, when soccer games are scheduled on Sunday morning, when people don't say Merry Christmas, when people maul each other on Black Friday, just to get the latest idol for a few dollars less, while supplies last, when expenses rise and income stays stagnant, when rogue nations are developing atomic weapons, when typhoons and earthquakes, and low temperatures and snowstorms are on the forecast, when all this happens right before our face. . . God is in control. . . and he is heading once again towards Bethlehem to be born, so he can write on our hearts a new covenant based in that old old truth, That God is, That God is in control, and that God loves us, that though there is darkness, the prophets have foretold of a light, and it is a light that shines through even the darkest places, especially the darkness that we seem to keep choosing to drape ourselves in instead, of basking in the light.  
I'm going to give you some homework this week. At our Advent study tomorrow night we will take a look at some of the prophets, and look at how Jesus fits in. My homework for you before next Sunday is to do your best and read one of the prophetic books, one that you haven't looked ever looked at, or haven't at least in a while. It can be one of the short ones, most of those aren't read much, but read one of them. . . check it out, see for yourself how "God is in control" screams from the pages and from the prophets' mouths. Read it and talk about it with others, come back and we'll see where we go from here. It's a long way to Bethlehem, the prophets provide some preliminary direction, it's only the beginning . . . let's see what they have to say. Glory to God in the highest! And peace and good will to all men. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:6-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.