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Word from Winkler — ‘Forth-telling’ prophecy

I realize that different parts and themes of scripture and biblical themes resonate more strongly with certain people rather than others. Some people like St. Paul’s letters the most, others love the Psalms, yet others are fascinated by the parables.

As for me, I’ve been attracted most to the words of the prophets for they serve to remind us when we as a society go off course. They call us to repentance and to work for peace and justice.

I’ve been attracted most to the words of the prophets for they serve to remind us when we as a society go off course.

In the year of King Uzziah’s death, 742 BCE, the shadow of Assyria loomed over the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom as it tottered toward its grave. Isaiah in the north and Micah in the south preached about the spiritual emergency that Israel faced.

Isaiah was awakened to two realities: the awesome holiness of Yahweh and the depth of his nation’s sin. Like Amos, he assailed with furious anger the powerful and unscrupulous officials who governed the nation as well as the venal judges who had conspired to rob the helpless of their rights. Just read the first 10 chapters of the Book of Isaiah and you will find him condemning the upper classes who were rich and pampered, concerned only for material possessions and pleasures, without moral standards or faith in God.

Sound familiar?

Does any of this sound familiar — in a world where the rich are getting richer, where immigrants are now being condemned, deported, denied health care and education, where many millions of children go to bed hungry every night?

It is significant that the very causes that compelled Isaiah to answer God’s call are still driving us today.

It is significant that the very causes that compelled Isaiah to answer God’s call are still driving us today, almost 3,000 years later.

The first thing we have to understand is the role of the prophet in the Bible. The Hebrew word “nabi” meant not only a person who was a visionary but one who spoke for God. A prophet was not one whose job was to “foretell.” Rather, a prophet was one whose job was to “forth-tell,” to tell the truth, to speak out, to act as a legitimate spokesperson for the divine.

Remember also that there were no prerequisites for a person to become a prophet in Israel. Divine inspiration was what made a person a prophet, and what caused the prophet to speak out, and what made others listen to the prophet. The prophet is the one who can speak in the name of God.

And since there was no Board of Ordained Prophecy in those ancient days, no seminary where prophets were educated and vetted and approved, prophets came from all walks of life. They came from backgrounds as varied as sheepherder, priest, farmer, scribe. They spoke where and when they thought they would be effective. Like all good preachers, they spoke frequently.

Remember John Wesley preaching as often as 15 times a day? Or St. Paul interrupted synagogue services or preaching in the marketplace or in Orators’ Square in Athens?

No conservative prophets

In The Politics of Jesus, Obery Hendricks Jr. writes, “Prophetic speech is characterized by two elements: an overwhelming sense of an encounter with God and a message of moral and political judgment that the prophet feels divinely compelled to proclaim, particularly to those in political authority.”

The primary purpose of biblical prophecy is to effect social and political change. “Prophets never uncritically support the status quo,” Dr. Hendricks declares. “Rather, their role is to challenge it. In our time, when many seem to think that Christianity goes hand in hand with right-wing visions of the world, it is important to remember that there has never been a conservative prophet.”

Did you hear that? There has never been a conservative prophet!

Prophets are never called to conserve social orders based on inequities of power and privilege and wealth. Prophets have always been called to change them so that all of God’s children can have access to God’s bounty.

If you want to relate this truth back to the time of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Micah or Amos, you will find in your Bible that it was, in fact, the conservative forces, those who wanted to keep things as they were, “that in every instance were the most bitter opponents of the prophets and of their mission for justice,” Dr. Hendricks points out,

Transform the world

The words of the prophets always are calls to transform the world, to change the social order as it exists. In Chapter 1:16-17, Isaiah begins his prophecy by speaking to the rulers of Israel in the eighth century BCE:

  • “Cease to do evil,
  • “Learn to do good;
  • “Seek justice,
  • “Rescue the oppressed.”

The language of the prophets is probably what most strikes us today. They spoke most often in poetry. Some of the poetry that the prophets created is virtually unmatched in world literature.

The prophets understand themselves to be inspired by God and to speak the word of God. The most common evidence of this conviction is the ever-recurring theme: “Thus says the Lord.”

Isaiah is telling us that God is challenging us to muster sufficient theological imagination to see how divine purpose is unfolding in ordinary events of the world. What is the new thing that God is about to do?

It’s informative as well as interesting that Second Isaiah does not try to “foretell” what God will be doing. Rather, he prods the attention of his audience backward into images of “the way in the wilderness” and “rivers in the desert.”

Isaiah speaks to a people like us: a people in Babylon who live in the midst of a secular, pagan culture that promises its gods can give prosperity, success and happiness. But the God of Israel is known through memory as well as hope. And the God of Israel scorns the worldly nostalgia that is so different from biblical memory.

Editor's note: This column is excerpted from Jim Winkler’s sermon at the opening worship on Feb. 28 of the spring meeting of the Board of Directors of the General Board of Church & Society. His text was Isaiah 55:1-9. The worship was held in the Simpson Memorial Chapel in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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