Zechariah’s Song

For a guy who wakes up at 5 am most days, I’m really not a morning guy.  I hate getting out of bed.  It takes me at least 90 minutes and two cups of coffee to feel safe operating a motor vehicle.  I rarely wake up excited to start a new day.  So it is that I’m not one who can pull out their Book of Common Prayer and a Bible and read morning prayer.  Navigating the Psalms, appointed lessons, and the Collect of the Day is enough to make me want to crawl back in bed.  I rely instead on the good people at Forward Movement who provide up-to-the minute accuracy on the Daily Office website.  It might be cheating to not have to do the page flipping, but that it keeps me from cursing seems to be a fair trade off, and besides, I own a pellet smoker, so I’m kind of OK with taking the easy way out.

Still, I’m not a morning person, and so I’m often either teetering on the edge of falling back asleep or pushing my luck in the amount of time I have before the kids get up.  Should I be planning my own Morning Prayer office, I’d probably choose the shortest canticles every morning, but because I rely on the coding skills of the FM staff, I’m at their mercy.  If they choose all three section of Canticle 12: A Song of Creation, I’m stuck reading it.  I can remember early on in this phase of my Daily Office habit getting frustrated with what seems to be a strong affinity on behalf of the coders for Canticle 16: the Song of Zechariah.  It’s pretty long, and it spends half of its time rehearsing Old Testament prophecy.  Couldn’t it just jump from the first verse to “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High…”?

inp151

In the years that have passed since restarting a Morning Prayer routine, I’ve learned to love Zechariah’s Song, which is appointed in place of a Psalm for Advent 2C.  I love it contextually, as it comes from the mouth of the temporarily mute priest Zechariah who doubted God’s ability to produce a child for this long barren couple. I love that it is sung in direct response to his fear-filled neighbors who wonder, “What will this child become?”  And yes, now I even love that it takes the time to cover the promise of God to the people of Israel through the prophets, all the way back to Abraham.  What I love the most, however, is the blessing Zechariah bestows upon his son.  Like it is for Mary, I’m sure that Zechariah knows that this particular blessing will bring with it pain for John and his family, but in faithfulness, the blessing is proclaimed nonetheless.

“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prayer his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guid our feet into the way of peace.”

Advertisements

Some Dark Comedy?

670d9aced19e3d8f5889c1aee2cf8b32

Almost forgot to give this to you!

There are some lessons, especially in the Old Testament, that if they are read well, can really be hilarious.  The back and forth between God and Moses about the golden calf is probably my favorite, but the 2 Kings story of Elijah’s departure into heaven is a very close second.  The context isn’t particularly conducive to humor, the great prophet Elijah is being taken away from earth, after all.  Yet, the way the author uses the characters and their conversations always makes me chuckle.

On three different occasions, Elijah tries to convince Elisha to stay behind.  Each time, Elisha persists with these words, “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  Elisha knows that his master and friend is not long for this world, which makes his choice of words so darkly ironic.  Basically, Elisha says, “as long as you’re alive, I’m sticking with you.”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, the prophets there try to tell Elisha what’s up.  “You know the Lord is taking your master today, don’t you?”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, Elisha snaps back, “Yes, I know, now shut up.”  That part always makes me laugh.

Even in the story’s most poignant moment, as Elijah is finally being carried away to heaven in a chariot of fire, Elisha’s response makes me smile.  It is similar to Peter’s nonsensical response to the Transfiguration, as Elisha just blurts out what he sees, “Master!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.”  Funnier yet are the really terrible pieces of art that have been created in response to this story.  The one at the top of this post is pretty good.  So is this one.

187992-elijah-taken-up-to-heaven-in-a-chariot_md

You should do your own Google search on it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

By now, you must be wondering what on earth this blog post is about.  I’ve been wondering that myself along the way.  What I think has hit me this morning is how often we take the personality out of the Bible.  We hear these stories or we read them silently, as if they are just words on a page – matter-of-fact accounts of things about God – as if God doesn’t have a sense of humor, or a personality, or engage with humanity on our own terms.  We tend to think the only emotion God can show is that of anger, but what if that isn’t true?  What if God can offer a wry smile?  What if God has a sarcastic streak?  What if God wants to use things like humor and joy to help tell the story of God’s love for all creation?  Is there some dark comedy in the story of Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind?  I kind of think so.  If you don’t, that’s ok.  Maybe you find humor somewhere else in the great story of God’s steadfast love.

Preparing the Way

road20work20ahead

The work to which John the Baptist was called had long since been established.  As far back as the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel had been waiting for a JBap.  They didn’t know when he would come, what he would look like, how he might sound, or if and what kind of bugs he might eat, but they knew that someday, one like John the Baptist would find his way into the wilderness in order to prepare the way of the Lord.

As much as they knew about this person who was to come, it seems to me that their might not have been much consensus about what it meant to “prepare the way of the Lord.”  Certainly, they didn’t expect someone to literally come with shovel in hand, or, later, riding on a bulldozer, to level the valleys and flatten the mountain tops.  What is it they were expecting?

Given the response to John’s preaching, echoed in all four Gospels, the crowds knew something was up with this John the Baptist character.  His location helps.  Isaiah is clear that the one who is to come will be found in the wilderness.  If you can say anything about John’s geography, it was certainly out there.  Beyond that, it seems that maybe the promised prophet for whom they waited would have a surprisingly popular unpopular message.

Mark puts John’s task this way.  “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Repentance is pretty unpopular in 21st century American Mainline Christianity, but I have to think it has never really been a hit.  Nobody really likes to hear that the way they are living their lives is out of touch with God’s dream.  Nobody is keen to be told how to live.  Never has this been the most popular topic on the Best Seller list.  Except, of course, when it comes to John the Baptist.  For some reason his message of repentance, of turning from the old ways and toward a new vision of the Kingdom, brought crowds.  Huge crowds.

Even if “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” is hyperbole, it wouldn’t be put this way if fifteen people had come to see John.  This message of repentance was bringing them out in the thousands.  As his popularity grew, it became increasingly clear, this was the one who was to come, the one who would be sent to prepare the way.  Well, it became clear for John, at least.  We do hear, however, that he felt the need to clarify his role.  He was not the Messiah, but rather, there was one who would be coming after him.

Hearing the story of JBap as often as we do, it can be easy to forgot how incredible it is.  How long it had been since prophecy was heard.  How eager the people were for a Messiah.  How popular his unpopular message was.  And how humble he was to continue to point toward someone else.  His job was to prepare the way, and he did it with grace and humility.

Words of Comfort

We have done a lot of damage to the words of the Church.  Evangelism now conjures up images of firey preachers with megaphones, yelling about the damnation of all who disagree with them.  Grace is this cloyingly sweet concept that God’s love for creation means we can do whatever we want, with impunity.  Come to think of it, we’ve done similar damage to the first amendment to the United States Constitution, but I digress.  Perhaps the most violence beset upon a churchy word in 21st century America has been inflicted upon the word prophet.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, have used this word to assert their authority over the other.  On the left, there are plenty of self-proclaimed prophets willing to decry everything the Republican Party says and does.  On the right, similarly self-proclaimed prophets are quick to get up in arms about whatever bleeding heart liberals might be fighting for.  Neither, it would seem, quite have it.

A prophet is never, and can never, be self-proclaimed.  God always appoints the prophets because what makes a prophet isn’t opinions or motives or prognostactive ability.  What makes a prophet a prophet is that they serve as the mouth piece of God.  Sometimes, those words can be harsh.  In today’s Daily Office lesson from Amos, we hear God’s word of judgment and subsequent punishment.  Other times, the word a prophet is called to bring is a word of comfort and hope.  This is the case in the Old Testament Lesson for Advent 2B.  After a period of punishment and exile, the time has come for the fortunes of Israel to be restored.  God, speaking to the angelic council, allows the prophet to overhear this word of salvation and restoration.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.

Maybe it is the forty-three weeks of apocalyptic parables we’ve heard of late, but I feel ready for a word of hope; a message of comfort.  Perhaps I’m projecting, but I feel like we might all be in need of a prophetic word of consolation.

Every three years, when Isaiah 40 comes around on Advent 2, I’m grateful for its words of comfort and for my friend John Talbert, who took these words, paraphrased in Hymn 67 of our Hymnal, and performed them beautifully.  As the week begins, with two funerals headed our way, you’ll find me listening to John’s version of “Comfort, comfort ye my people” on repeat, giving thanks for a prophetic oracle of consolation and hope.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.

 

A Different Sort of Prophecy

Ask your average American what they think of when you say the word “prophecy” and you’ll likely hear something about Nostradamus.  The word brings with it images of cash register tabloids suggesting the New England Patriots latest Super Bowl win is a sign of the end times.  It carries the baggage of end time preachers who claim to know the very hour when Jesus will return; even if Jesus himself said he wasn’t even privy to that information.  If you average American happens to be a liberal mainline protestant (such persons being far from the average in 2017), then the word may conjure images of social justice.  They note that their church is acting prophetically in opposing Trump or promoting marriage equality or whatever specific political ax they have to grind.

While it is true that the prophets of Scripture did predict the future, the prediction wasn’t the purpose of their words. While it is true that the prophets of Scripture did call the people to act with justice, what justice looked like wasn’t based on their FEELZ about whatever biased article came across their newsfeed on that particular day.  No, the prophets job wasn’t to predict or to renounce, the prophets job is exclusively to serve as the mouthpiece for God.

giphy

Sunday’s Old Testament lesson makes this point abundantly clear by using the word “prophesy” to simply mean “talk.”  “Prophesy to these bones,” the Lord commands the prophet.  Command them to come back to life.  Offer them the very breath of God that they might once again have life.  The prophet, in this case Ezekiel, does his job.  He speaks the word of God to the valley of dry bones, and God does the rest.  Sinews and flesh was restored.  He speaks the word of God to the breath, and God does the rest.  Breath and life are restored.  And in this experience of prophecy, the prophet learns what it means to be a prophet.

God gives Ezekiel one more task.  Prophesy to the house of Israel and tell them that just as these bones live, so will I give them life in their sadness.  It is a promise for the future.  It carries with it the expectation of a just society.  And yet, neither of these are the point of God’s word to Israel through Ezekiel.  The point of the prophecy is simply this: God cares; God is here; and God has a plan for you.  I love the story of the dry bones because it reminds me of the work of the prophet and the task of the preacher: to speak the word of God to the people of God.

The Prophetic Word of Hope

I don’t have the time or the energy to work through the entire Old Testament to prove it, but somewhere in the synapses of my mind there is a tidbit of information that says that every time a prophet declares God’s judgment, there follows a word of hope.  There is always the promise of restoration.  There is always the assurance of a faithful remnant.  There is always hope, which in this day and age of fear-mongering, might be the most prophetic word of all.

Hope is Paul’s prophetic word to the Christians in Rome in this Sunday’s New Testament lesson. Despite what appears to be some minor persecution and perhaps more significant infighting between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul uses this second to last chapter of his letter to encourage the fledgling Church.  To the Jewish converts, he notes that the Old Testament Law, though brought to its perfection in the Law of Christ and no longer necessary, was written “for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”

To the Gentiles, he offers the assurance of inclusion in God’s Kingdom, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

And to the whole church, in 1st century Rome, 21st century America, and everywhere in between, he offers the blessing of hope, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Christians are a people of hope.  We take seriously the idea that God’s plan is good and perfect.  We believe that the moral arc of the universe is bent toward justice.  And we work tirelessly, oftentimes without much success, alongside God to bring about the future that has been promised.  We do so because we have hope.  In a world that oftentimes feels hopeless, or as our Presiding Bishop is fond of saying, “the nightmare this world often is,” we stand for hope, we believe in God’s dream, and we work to show God’s love.  Hope is the work and the word of the prophets.

Why I don’t like the word prophetic

It started in seminary, this dislike of the word “prophetic,” but it has lasted a lot longer than I expected.  I went through the discernment process in the shadow of two world altering events: 9/11 and the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  Both events had their impact on my call as strong external forces.  For what now feels like a fleeting moment, in the days following 9/11 America stood united.  We were in some ways united in two directions.  We were united inwardly as we sought to heal a tear in the very fabric of our culture, the assumption that we were safe from foreign foes was lost forever.  We were also united outwardly as we came to realize that adherents to an extremist form of Islam were to blame for the tragedy.  Over time, however, we began to keep back toward division as our nation’s leaders tried to figure out how to respond.  Some argued that in the interest of national security, we had to find the leadership network of Al Qaeda and crush it.  Others argued that we had to follow the example of Jesus and turn the other cheek.  It was the classic just war vs. pacifist debate played out in real life.  Both sides had compelling reasons, and both were claiming that God was on their side.  I first heard the call to ordained ministry on late February 2002, five months after 9/11.  Certainly the way the world had changed in those five months were a part of my realizing this call.

On June 7, 2003, V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire, was elected Bishop Coadjutor.  His election was ratified at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis, MN.  Convention ended on August 10th that year, and I recall my meeting with the Vestry of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church being scheduled for that night.  What was once a meeting to discuss the validity of my call to ordained ministry was now the special meeting of the vestry in response to the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  The divisions were easily seen.  One side argued a prophetic calling toward justice.  The other, a prophetic calling toward restraint.  Both sides were certain that God was with them.

I grew to hate the word prophetic during this time because two prophets saying the opposite thing is no fun.  We tend to run to that word, prophetic, when we want to win an argument, but the thing is, we don’t get to say who speaks for God, only God gets to do that.  To paraphrase what Moses told the people of Israel in Sunday’s Deuteronomy lesson, “you best be careful with that word.”

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak– that prophet shall die”

I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to justice and peace.  I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to holiness of life.  I do think we need to be careful about claiming a prophetic voice every time we do it.  Prophet is not a title that I desire.  Being a prophet is really difficult and is only possible with God’s constant support.  Speaking a prophetic word is a sacred and powerful thing, which I’m afraid we take too lightly these days.  So let’s listen for the voice of God, let’s speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, but let’s let God call the prophets.