Prophets; not predictors.

Today, I am privileged to celebrate with this congregation, and my good friends, a Sacrament of hope.  Baptism is that singular Sacrament to which we bring our hope for the future of these two precious people.  This is the Sacrament of looking forward, in which we promise to guide Amelia and Madeline, and be guided ourselves, by the timeless promise of God’s presence.  We make this promise in faith, based on our own encounter of God’s goodness, and anchored by a prophetic tradition that is witnessed in both Testaments,  and whether or not you realize it, we stand firmly in that prophetic tradition.  Prophets don’t get much play in today’s culture, because we have become accustomed to thinking only of certain negative aspects of prophecy; “Repent or perish – the end is near” and all that.

The problem is that we are too ready to confuse prophecy with prediction; the truth is, the two are worlds apart. Prophecy opens doors and widens our perspective.  Predictions are a short-term narrowing of the field that we sometimes use to help us choose between the impossible and the improbable.

We cannot, for example, predict the likelihood of either of these young ladies becoming missionaries by virtue of our activity today.  Provided we are fully committed to the vows that we made before God, we can presume that they will grow up in an atmosphere of lively faith, and with  confidence in the goodness and grace of God.  Ours is a prophetic task in that respect.

The difference is important, and it bears some thinking about in light of the readings that are part of this morning’s lessons.

Isaiah offers hope – it’s that simple[1].  Our passage is full of forward-looking language, and images of confidence and comfort.  It is with divine authority that the prophet makes such bold statements in troubled times.  The people are urged to forget the former things – and challenged to imagine a world built around the unimaginable.  A city where tears are unknown; a culture without calamity; the natural order re-ordered, according to principles of grace, mercy and peace.  These are things that everyone hopes for, and no one expects; statements made real by the faith of both speaker and audience.

Jesus friends are asking for a prediction[2].  “When will this be?”, they demand.  “How will we know?” is the cry.  But what Jesus offers is prophetic.  Some would point to this as prophecy of a negative kind – the kind of doomsday utterance that careless Christians assume is exclusive to the Old Testament tradition.  But when Jesus plays the part of prophet, he is always a prophet of hope.  This passage is no exception.

These things will happen, he says – not one stone left upon another, he says.  And we know people who take these statements and try to turn them into predictions – great earthquakes and portents; famine and plague; all these things are happening now, they argue, so surely this is the time Jesus was so reluctant to name.  Our penchant for prediction has left us unable to discern the subtlety of the prophet.  Jesus is adamant in his avoidance of prediction, and in his disdain for our general appetite for prediction:

‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them… these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately…’

What follows is a most telling statement;  ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you…’

There are folks who use passages like these to argue that Jesus knew, down to the finest detail, all that would come his way.  I am not one of those people.  But I am convinced that Jesus knew God intimately – and that knowledge gives him the confidence of a prophet.

It would not take a faithful person to predict that trouble would come to those who followed Jesus.  He has been raising questions and challenging authority at every opportunity, and those who continued in this vein would certainly come to grief.  A prediction of trouble of that kind would result in plans made according to the nature of the prediction.  Options would be considered, defenses prepared in advance, escape plans formulated, all based on this prediction of persecution.

It takes a prophet to suggest that those who found themselves in distress would be rescued by “…words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  Jesus reminds his disciples that the promise that God made through Isaiah is still in effect.  There is a power at work that defies the odds; a power that will re-order the chaos that we have brought to creation.  So says our prophet, priest and king.  In his life, death and resurrection; through his words and actions recorded in the gospels – Jesus invites us to consider that God has imagined a different reality than the reality we construct for ourselves, and as Jesus disciples – as members of Christ’s church – we are called to experience this divine reality.  It is wisdom indeed that our opponents cannot withstand.

In acting out that prophetic call, we have opened that divine future to these two young ladies.  They don’t know it yet, but they will.  That a future in God’s service is open to them does not predict their behaviour, but it does offer them opportunities that are wider than we can imagine – opportunities that are bound by the limitless grace of God.  And that is good news indeed.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

 

[1] Isaiah 65: 17-25

 

[2] Luke 21: 5-19

 

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