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The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year C

The Word of the Lord Came to Me

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

In a study group I was leading some years ago the discussion turned to how we as individuals or as community could serve as prophets to one another. One person in the group was quick to reply, "Oh that's easy. We're Anglicans. It's a non-prophet organization." Although she was not serious, I think that it is easy for us to really believe that. We are not certain exactly what prophecy is. Surely to be a prophet is to be at best strange and at worst fanatical. It brings to mind people such as the group in Waco, Texas. Ordinary people just don't prophecy.

But I have news for you. We are all called to prophetic ministry. And I know, you'll protest. "I'm in business. I'm no prophet." or "I'm just a housewife." or "What do we pay clergy for anyway?"

I have some reassuring news for you. You are not the first, nor will you be the last person to feel that way. There are stories of many reluctant prophets in Scripture. Take Jeremiah, for example. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah at a time when religious practice in Israel was completely corrupt. The temple, once holy ground, had no meaningful place in the people's hearts. The whole nation was sorely in need of repentance. God chose Jeremiah to bear the prophetic word to the people of Israel. “The word of the Lord came to me,” says Jeremiah. Yet even though he knew and understood that God was calling him, he was still reluctant to respond. Bearing the prophetic word is not an easy call. His response was a pretty normal one. “I don’t know how to speak,” he said to God. “After all I am only a boy.”

“Don’t say, ‘I am only a boy,” God responds. God does not take no for an answer. “I’ll give you the words to speak.” Jeremiah was called to speak the truth. He was called to be critical of institutional authority and to speak out against popular opinion, not an easy task, but one that with God’s help he was able to accomplish.

What kept him going? He was encouraged by the promise that God would be with him. He continued to hear this same message over and over again throughout his life. Although he faced persecution and ridicule, he stayed true to the message. He held on to those beautiful reassuring words, “I knew you before I formed you in the womb.” How could he fail when he is known so well and held so closely by our loving God?

But that was then and this is now. What is a prophet anyway? Is this a contemporary message? Are there still prophets? Who is God calling to be the prophets of the 21st century? What is it that God is calling us to do as individuals? What is God calling us to do as a church?

The word prophecy comes from the Greek, prophetes, "one who speaks before others." It translates a Hebrew word which meant "one called to speak aloud". Often it has been taken to be some kind of ecstatic speech, but in Scripture the prophet is a person who is totally grounded. It is one who is speaking what has been discerned through a close walk with God, through listening to God. And is that not what each of us is called to do?

Perhaps a look at the prophets of our age can give us some insight. In my parish in Brooklin there was a prophet. He was in a much maligned occupation, a meteorologist who worked at predicting our weather. He once told me the following story.

It seems that when the Pope was planning his trip to Los Angeles he wanted to know what the weather would be like. A weather consultant was hired by the Vatican to make some recommendations. He looked at the previous thirty years of weather in Los Angeles at the same time of year as the Pope's visit was to take place. He came back and said to the Pope, "At the time of your visit it is likely to be very hot and dry." The Pope made his plans accordingly and the trip went off as expected.

Farmers' Almanacs work on the same premise. They look at the past and make a prediction based on reasonable expectations. Of course, in a time of environmental changes sometimes expectations go out the window.

Scripture too looks at past history. So often the story begins with God recounting to the prophet all that God has accomplished for God's people in the past. "Wasn't I with you at the Red Sea? Did I not provide you with manna in the desert? Now go and tell my people..." and the prophet is able to speak with authority. "Thus says the Lord:" The prophet is able to challenge the people on a moral level, speaking what needs to be heard in the light of past experience. Often it is a message that is unpopular, that leads to recriminations.

That was certainly Jesus' experience. It is there in the Gospel this morning. The word of the Lord came to Jesus in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There he had announced that the long awaited Day of the Lord had come at last. It was good news. Prisoners would be set free. The blind would see. There would be freedom for the oppressed.

At least at first it seemed to be good news. People were moved by his words. They were in awe of what he said. After all this young man had grown up in their midst. The kid from down the block! Joe's boy! Then Jesus reminded them of two stories from Scripture, stories that they all knew well. “There were many widows in Israel,” Jesus reminded them, “but God sent Elijah to help the widow of Zarapheth. And there were many lepers in Israel, but God sent Elisha to Namaan.” They got the message loud and clear. Both were outsiders, foreigners, not Israelites, yet both were set apart by God to receive special grace.

"Often," Jesus is telling them, "it is those outside the religious community who are able to hear and respond faithfully to God's call." The so-called "insiders" are more often than not the ones who miss the point.

The Pharisees taught that the Day of the Lord was to be the day when the elect would be separated, once and for all, from the non-elect. A day of judgement! And here was this young man they had watched growing up, saying that it was not for them, the deserving, but for everyone. As the message began to hit home, they lost their enthusiasm. The year of grace is a great idea. But if it is not to be for them alone, then what is the point? They became so hostile that Jesus was in danger.

Yet Jesus spoke the truth. He spoke courageously and joyfully, even though he knew it would provoke a hostile reaction from the self-righteous. For the truth must be spoken if justice is to be attained.

Just as Jeremiah was called and commissioned, so to the Church in Corinth was called. Paul defined the call for them. “Your call is to love,” he told them. He knew that despite their great differences God could be known in the love that they shared with one another. They face challenges, but with God's help they can overcome them. He reminds them that God calls them first and foremost to love. He encouraged them not to forget that they could be certain that God would give them what they needed to persevere in love.

As Christians we are constantly learning more about listening to God, about responding to God’s call, about coming to a clearer understand, about bearing the prophetic word. We seek for those ‘aha’ moments when the dim becomes clear, at least for a time. We have doubts. We have fears. And yet we can return to God to pray and to ponder all that is taking place in our lives. We can continue to struggle with what God is calling us to do. We can pray to discern God's call.

I was doing some pastoral visiting at Credit Valley this week. I went into the Chaplaincy office to sign out. It was late in the evening after the office had closed. One of the pastoral visitors came in. Not expecting to see anyone there, she was startled. After she recovered her composure we had a conversation. She asked about my sense of call as one who is ordained. I explained to her that I had a sense of call to ordained ministry from the time I was a child, but that the church did not catch up to me until much later in my life. Then she shared her experience with me. “It is wonderful, isn't it? I worked my whole life knowing that what I was doing was just a job.” she told me. “Now that I am retired I am truly able to answer God's call and minister to people. It is such an amazing experience to have someone open up and share their story with me. I thought I wouldn't have the right words. But I never worry about what to say, because somehow I always find that God gives me the right words when I need them.”

Do we find excuses? I am too young, or too old, or too weak, or too poor. I am not articulate. I don't know enough about the Bible. I don’t have the training I need. Do we let our own fear continue to hold us captive? For the truth needs to be spoken. We need prophets in our time. We need to be critical of institutional authority. We need to speak out against popular opinion. We need to live out the freedom that love brings so that people never lose their value, and are never written off.

Knowing that God knows you, what do you think God is calling you to do and say that will build up or tear down so that God's love will be known by all? What good news do you have to share? For that is your call as a Christian. Let us respond to that call.
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