The Candle for the Prophets: Advent 2
Again, apologies...This sermon was preached by our Lay Minister on the second Sunday of Advent.
Canticle 4 or 16
Every year we have an Advent wreath here in church – a reminder of the fact we are in a season of Advent, of the waiting time: waiting and expecting the coming of Christmas, but also anticipating the coming of Christ in glory. Each Sunday we light another candle, and each candle represents a different thing…and here lies the problem. I have explored the internet and found myriad different explanations of what each candle represents. Some sites say that the candles represent hope, peace, joy and love; others say they are The Prophets’ Candle, the Bethlehem Candle, the Shepherds’ Candle and the Angels’ Candle; yet others say the candles represent people in the Christmas story: Mary, the shepherds, Joseph… But I was brought up on the symbolism recognised by the Anglican church and that is reflected in the Lectionary readings, with each candle representing those looking forward to the coming of Christ: the hope of all God's people in week one, the Old Testament prophets then John the Baptist and finally, the last candle represents Mary the mother of Jesus
We can see this reflected in the Lectionary readings today, all of them speaking of the yearning of the prophets, looking forward to the coming of the long foretold Messiah. We have Malachi, prophesying the Coming of the Lord; we have as our Psalm the beautiful song of Zechariah, sung in the Temple courts as he realises that the promises of God have been fulfilled; and we have in the Gospel a hearkening back to Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. All prophets, in their own way, all speaking of a hope to be fulfilled.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “prophet” my first thought is someone rather grubby, dressed in a hairy garment of some description, wandering in the desert, and declaiming gloomy predictions of doom and despair. No offence meant, but I certainly wouldn’t think of someone like Susan, or Nick, or me. But I would be wrong. You see, “prophet” means “one who speaks God’s word”: that’s all. It doesn’t mean prediction of the future – although that is often part of a prophecy – it doesn’t mean someone who wears hairy clothes. It simply means someone who speaks God’s word. And that is anyone of us here today.
I think that if you asked most people about a prophet, the majority might well think of the prophets of the Old Testament, possibly assuming with me that they were all the grubby, hairy creatures of my imaginings. But of course, they were as many and varied as we are today. There was not a blue-print, a template labelled “Prophet” from which all of them were cut. They were different. There was Amos, who was originally a shepherd and a dresser of trees, before he was called to be a prophet, while Zephaniah was a person of considerable social standing, possibly related to the royal line. There was Elisha, who appeared to be a farmer of some type, as Elijah first came across him ploughing. Ezekiel was a Jew in exile, married and living in his own home in Babylon. And the list could go on for some time longer, for there were many prophets.
All very different people, with different backgrounds, and different ways of delivering their message. First, they all had a living relationship with God. This relationship was not bounded by conformity with the world around them, and did not follow the rules that bounded the religion of the time. It was real, it was dynamic and it fuelled their whole lives.
We see this in the passion that Elijah had for God, and the understanding of the great holiness of their Lord that shines through the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel. All the prophets stress the need to follow the laws of God, but not the legalistic nightmare of prohibitions and demands that the Jewish religion seemed to be becoming, but rather as a way of understanding God’s will, and thus finding the way to true holiness of life.
The second thing that was held in common was that the prophets all had a firm grasp of the situation and the needs of the people around them. They rebuked the religious people for their compromise and insistence on the minutiae of the Torah, while ignoring the needs of the poor and vulnerable. The prophets had a passion for justice, angered by the oppression that they saw going on around them and they spoke up, condemning the complacency that they saw everywhere they looked.
And of course, this meant that every Old Testament prophet, whoever he was, spoke a message that was unwelcome to those who heard, but carried on regardless of what this would mean. Almost all the prophets in the Old Testament were either ignored, or positively persecuted because of what they were saying: some met with indifference, others with persecution and the threat of death. A prophet’s lot was never a happy one and the reason for this was their message. They pulled no punches, they didn’t dress up what they had to say in pretty pictures. No, they went in, straight for the jugular ~ and that made people very uncomfortable!
Now those of you who are eagle eared (does such an expression exist? ) and on the ball, may have noticed that I didn’t mention the reading from Philippians when I spoke about how the readings appointed for today in the Lectionary all refer to the Prophets. Because it doesn’t. And yet, in a way it does. Because, as I said earlier, a prophet is someone who speaks God’s word: someone who, in deciding to follow Christ, has taken on the task of speaking up for the poor and oppressed in their society, who has taken on the task of reflecting the love that God has for this world. The writer of Philippians speaks of growing in love, of growing in wisdom, of fulfilling God’s purpose in ourselves. We are called to be prophets.
It is no longer only certain men of God who are called to be prophets, but all those who have repented and received the Holy Spirit are the prophets of God.
So what does this mean for us, today, here in Clermont Ferrand, called to be prophets in our time, as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Micah were called?
Well, if we go back to look at the very roots of the message that every prophet from the Old Testament gave, we find that it means the same for us as it did to them.
First, we can do nothing unless we have a living relationship with God, and that relationship begins with repenting of our past life and accepting that Christ carried our sins with him to the cross. With this true repentance comes the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who filled the prophets of old and gave them the words to say and the strength to say them. But now, through Jesus the gift of the Spirit is now available to all instead of to the few prophets of OT times. Jesus has opened the way to a new relationship with God, bringing a clearer understanding of what it means.We are anointed as children of God, and we have been anointed to bring good news to the poor.
Secondly, together with the prophets of old, we need to see the world around us as it is, to have a grasp the situation and the needs of the people. Our challenge is the same challenge that those prophets had – to speak out to individuals, to the church and to society on the issues of the day, and to show that the status quo, the way it is done, is not the way that God wants to see life led. As Hosea spoke out about the cheating that he saw going on around him and the Israelite’s unfaithfulness to the God who saved them, as Isaiah condemned Israel for its treatment of the most vulnerable members of society, so we are called to challenge what we see in society as contrary to the will of God.
Each prophet had his own particular message for his particular time; each had their own way of presenting this message. Each prophet knew how to get through to the audience he was speaking to, and he only knew this because he had lived among them. God uses each one of us in God’s own particular way, using our skills, our positions, our interests…The way God uses me will be very different to the way God uses Rich, for example, or Susan, or Pippa. We are all different, and we will all have different ways of speaking out God’s word. But speak it out we should. We should be telling people that the way life is lived in this world of ours is not God’s way, that the poor and vulnerable are oppressed, and that there is cheating and a lack of care for everything around us. As the prophets of old, we need to demonstrate that we will all be responsible before God for the results of our actions and attitudes.
As each of the Old Testament prophets had their call, when they accepted the mantle of prophethood, so we have had ours. As Christ declared himself to in the synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. When we became Christians we were anointed for that same task, and we should embrace it.
We have been anointed as today’s prophets, to go out into the world, secure in our relationship with him, and determined to speak out against oppression and the injustices of this world we live in. He has called us, in the words of another prophet, Micah, “ to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
So this second candle, lit for the prophets of the Old Testament, is also lit in a way for us; reminding us that we should be prophets ourselves, speaking out the word of God, bringing love and justice and light into this world.