The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r138.htm
s138o03 Lockleys Sunday 26 28/9/03
"Would that all ... were prophets". Numbers 11.29
Prophecy is one of those things that defy precise definition.
We are familiar with the medium in the cartoon strip "The Wizard of Id" gazing into her crystal ball and seeing how life will be in the future. Another parody is that of the female inquirer - such a person might predict that she might soon meet a tall and dark handsome stranger, they would fall in love and marry and have 2.34 children :-) . The title "clairvoyant" comes from the words: "to see clearly".
Within the Old Testament there were bands of prophets. Today they might well be the equivalent of the University student protesters, radical and rather unkempt. There were the leaders, the figureheads who made a name for themselves by confronting the authorities publicly &endash; like Elijah and Elisha. They would have various degrees of "oddness" about them. I suspect that the various ecstatic states that these people induced or found themselves in were not so dissimilar from what happens at the modern rave parties. Sometimes an outpouring of emotion is accompanied by unintelligible utterances. The word ecstasy comes from the Greek to be "beside oneself".
Sometimes a desire for ecstatic states is to avoid reality and dress up such avoidance by denying personal responsibility and claiming divine inspiration. But the divine never overrules our own will. It is that which is opposed to God that does that. God always lifts us to our feet, to stand, not to cower, to determine our own course of actions, and to face reality and love.
Some of the Old Testament prophets could see that the society in which they lived was entirely self serving and with no real difference to societies around them. They had an ear for distant drums and realised there was little likelihood that they would escape. Many prophets also looked back on the disasters that befell the land, and pointed to the apostasy of the people as the cause of their woes. Both of these pointed to God and judgement.
Various people also have various gifts, often linked with disabilities. So a blind person may have a wonderful ear for music. Some women have a gift of intuition. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings often comes profound truth. People will see others going through things that they have also passed through. Their pilgrimage is clearer to the observer than for the pilgrim, because of this identification. It is a mute point whether such insight is given to be shared or for the observer simply to recognise his or her own journey being relived by another.
The precise phenomenon that happened to these seventy is unclear. It has been muddied by the gift of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, which has sometimes (inaccurately) been thought of as the gift of tongues &endash; speaking in unintelligible languages &endash; what St Paul might be referring to when he writes of the tongues of angels (1 Cor 13.1). However at Pentecost the apostles were enabled to speak other human languages &endash; able to be heard and understood as the native languages by the hearers.
To get some idea of what might have happened St Paul tells us: "those who prophesy speak to other people for their building up and encouragement and consolation." (1 Cor 14.3)
Now it is reasonably easy to speak unintelligible utterances &endash; after all - babies do it all the time. The utterances may be "of God" and they may not be. But when someone tries to console someone else, to lift them to their feet, and to encourage them on their journey, this is always a sign of the presence and power of God the Holy Spirit. It is what Jesus so often sought to do. In fact he did it so often and to so many "ordinary" people that the religious elite were put out. You may recall the trap they set Jesus, saying that: "You defer to no one". By this they actually betrayed the fact that they were put out that he didn't defer to them, but that he deferred to everybody!
So it is entirely a misuse of any "gift of tongues" to put others who do not possess this "gift" down. To say to someone that they are not a true Christian if they do not "speak in tongues" and to assert that this is by the authority of the Holy Spirit is to completely misunderstand what the gift of the Spirit is about.
Actually it is a misuse of any spiritual blessing we have been given to put anyone else down &endash; to suggest who is "kosher" and by extension who is not.
And so the point of the gift of prophecy resting on these seventy becomes clear. They were to encourage, build up and console the people. Moses couldn't do this all by himself.
What a different world this would be if politicians adopted this as their motto? How very different our newspapers and TV news would be if everyone sought to do this? I recall my first Rector saying that the greatest miracle was not the healings and the raising from the dead that Jesus did, but that the poor had good news preached to them :-). I can but agree.
On the other hand, in my teenage years I once kept company with a girl from another parish. Their priest had earned a reputation for berating the congregation every Vestry Meeting with graphs of how the congregation was continuing to dwindle each year. He never did twig that he might have been something to do with it! It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Again, my first Rector once commented that being the minister in the parish was not about seeking the lost sheep, but about continually returning the frogs to the pond out of which they continued to jump. It is a wonderful picture and has a good deal of truth to it :-)
I was interested to hear the Rev'd Dr Warren Huffa speak to our collaborating group on the 13th. He said that he wouldn't invite people to attend one of his centres. This centre were happy as they were. It was too disruptive to their own spirituality to make their services more attractive to newcomers. If they weren't happy with modern services and no one came anyway - why put themselves through the agony? And he said, and I agree - this is all right. If in 10 years there is none of them still alive, the property can be sold and something else tried.
And this is an excellent example of prophecy. He encouraged what was. He has no illusions that what was there could not be different, but nothing ever is ideal.
It is ultimately an exercise in futility to try to get every Anglican to agree, so there's not a lot of point in trying.
Again as I have gone through ministry, newcomers are welcomed in a parish most often to support what is already there. So we welcome people who might supplement the numbers in our choir, musicians, trading post, mother's union, sunday school or whatever. And this is fine as far as it goes. But if we only love people for what we can get out of them - is this really christian love?
Would that we too were all prophets, looking to encourage the ministries and contributions others bring to us, rather than just expecting others to admire and preserve the contribution made in the past - wonderful as it is.
How can we reconcile the fact that Jesus said both: "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9.40) with those other words of Jesus: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters."? (Matthew 12.30) When we are proclaiming a prodigal God, we can see the actions of the divine in an enormous range of people; but if someone is proclaiming an exclusive god, that person is against Jesus and scattering the flock.
As Catherine and I were sitting in the airport waiting to board our plane to Brisbane, there were seated behind us parents with young children. I knew they were there without having to look, for there was some sort of commotion. One of the children was upset about something, and the mother berated the child, saying that the child could stay behind if that sort of behaviour continued. And I wondered how that child would grow up when she was put down and threatened.
We can forget about the otherworldly aspects of prophecy - simply being encouraging parents to our children, as most of us would hope to be, is to be a prophet, an encourager.
There is little point in wishing beyond hope, for society or the church to be different from what it is. In the words of Martin Luther King: "I have a dream ..." and yet expect someone else to bring it to fruition, be that God, the government, the Archbishop, the subcommittee, the Rector or your spouse. We all have a part to play in our own little arena of life. We are all individually called to not be destructive of others. We are called to be salt, to bring out the individual flavour of others, to be prophets, to be encouraging.
We can be prophets without even mentioning the name of Jesus. It is as easy as accepting a cup of cold water from someone else.
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