The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s113e06 Lockleys Baptism of Jesus 8/1/2006
"they .. prophesied" Acts 19.7
When we think of what prophecy might be, we usually will think that it is about predicting the future. The cameo of the person consulting the fortune teller in front of her crystal ball, saying: "soon after you leave here you will meet a tall and handsome stranger, you will fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after" -- comes to mind.
Much of Old Testament prophecy is more about seeing the gathering clouds of invading armies and saying to the people of God, that a result of their apostasy will be the destruction of the nation. It may even be something after the fact. Because of their apostasy this has happened to them.
I have been thinking more and more about our atonement with God being intimately linked to our atonement with others.
The history of the people of Israel was marked by the huge problem of the virtual annihilation of first the northern ten tribes and then the southern tribes including Jerusalem and their deportation into exile. It seemed that their special status before God counted for nothing.
And I thought of the book of Job and the enormity of his personal loss and I suppose that the tragedy of the nation is only Job's writ large. It seemed that any status Job might have thought he had before the Almighty counted for nought.
Archbishop Sentamu, Archbishop for York said of the Church of England a while back: "We've become consumers of religion and not disciples of Jesus Christ". (Market Place 7/12/2005 p2). I think that he points to a not dissimilar malaise among modern churchgoers.
If we look at our religion as something to provide us with personal or even corporate status over others and security -- I suspect that we have lost our way.
When the religion of Israel ceases to be a blessing for the nations, when the Church ceases to be apostolic and catholic -- sent out to embrace all people, then we might get what we want, but we won't be doing what God wants for all.
St Paul says of the difference between speaking in tongues and prophecy: "those who prophesy speak to other people for their up-building and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy". (1 Cor 14.3-5). In doing so he defines New Testament prophecy as something that builds up another.
But, in fact, this is not unique to the New Covenant. The prophet Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the field full of bones, and the result is that they are built up into a great army. (Ch 37).
And I wonder how frequently we hear people being encouraging one of another? I am not sure I heard it much as I was growing up in the Church; more often than not it was all about who was the true church. I think I am hearing a lot more these days. I think of the encouragement that my sons have had in the secular education they have had -- to be able to stand up in front of others, to state their opinions, to share their talents. No doubt you have found the same with your children and grandchildren, and it is wonderful to see. This is really true and effective prophecy, for it brings about what it promises.
It is salutary to think that this has come about probably more noticeably in the secular sphere. The Church does well to learn that the world has good things to teach the Church, things of God. We, in the Church, hold no monopoly on the truth or prophecy.
In contrast, the mutterers and the doom merchants only serve to diminish someone else, and of course it is so often done in the name of some god or other -- and more often than not, one with a similar name and pretending to be ours!
We are told in today's second reading that those who received the Holy Spirit both spake in tongues and prophesied -- so some spoke to magnify themselves and some spoke to build up others. Is this not always the way? God's gifts are freely bestowed, and some use them really for their own advantage and others use them for the corporate good?
And this applies to every talent and gift that is given. One person will use the gifts and talents to show off and imply how others are lacking, how others should defer to them, do their bidding, and believe in their terms. Someone else will use their gifts and talents for the benefit of others, usually in quiet acceptance of the other; grateful for the differences in perspective the other person brings to a situation.
When Archbishop Sentamu speaks of us being "consumers of religion" my mind immediately turns to the three-fold command to Peter -- to feed his sheep. So the question becomes: "Do we have something to offer to build others up, or is our first concern that others recognise and appreciate our own special status?"
So we are all called to be prophets, not in the sense of predicting the future, or of being someone special -- but to build others up.
Parents do this all the time, this is what teachers do every working hour. Doctors too. When we come to think about it, this happens so frequently, and often, as I say, it is more evident in society than it is in the Church, we can neglect how important it is.
It might be worthwhile pondering what life might be like if we were part of a marginalized group, a group that was reviled rather than encouraged. We don't have to look too far away either. So often the unemployed are considered entirely to blame for their situation. Unmarried mums -- it's all their own fault -- strange how infrequently we think of unmarried fathers in the same light? Think what life might be like being of aboriginal descent -- they certainly haven't had the encouragement we have had in our lives. The Church has consistently marginalized women and considered gay people as aliens. Some encouragement this is!
May we be grateful for the measure of encouragement we have received and seek to share this with others likewise. I have no doubt that if this is sincerely our aim then God will bless us. If we merely have our own interests at heart, then we don't need God's blessing anyway! God will be content to let us be a self-made man or woman, and will find and bless others working to help those around them.
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