Sunday, November 6, 2016

Jesus the Prophet

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 4:14-24:

Today we begin a new sermon series that will take us through the next three weeks seeking to answer the question who is Jesus? We are doing this because I received several questions about Jesus when I asked for recommendations for sermon topics, but my caveat is that I am not going to be able to entirely encapsulate who Jesus is in only three weeks. In fact, it might be said that every single worship service we are seeking to understand a different element of Jesus and who he is for us, what he means for us, and how we are to live differently because of that. But I decided to try and tackle answering the question of who is Jesus by looking at the three different offices, or roles, that Jesus is said to hold, and those are prophet, priest and king. These are historic roles that have been assigned to Christ going all the way back to the earliest days of the church as they sought to understand Jesus and to give some context to his ministry and message. This is not about Jesus’ nature, but about his functions, and these are not hard and fast offices as there is overlap between the three, but we are going to take each office in kind and today we are going to look at Jesus as prophet.

Now of the three offices, prophet is probably the one that is least covered and perhaps even the least understood. Rev. Richard Rohr, is a Franciscan priest who although known around the world lives here in Albuquerque, says that he has seen lots of statues and stained glass to Christ the King and even Christ the Priest, as well as accompanying celebrations, and we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which is the last Sunday of the Christian year before Advent begins, in three weeks. But, he said, he has never seen a celebration or a statue or a stained-glass window to Christ the Prophet, and that, he says, means something’s out of balance. This was even true of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who, although he said that his preachers should preach Jesus in all his offices, prophet, priest and King, but actually said very little about Jesus as a Prophet. But when we don’t see Jesus as a prophet, it means not only are we not hearing Jesus’ words, or understanding his message with the weight of prophecy, but it also means that we are missing an extremely crucial piece of information about how the early church understood Jesus and his ministry, which was as that of a prophet, but not just any prophet, but of the prophet, and I’ll explain what that means in just a moment.

To understand prophets and prophecy we, of course, have to look into the Hebrew scriptures, which were the only scriptures the followers of Jesus and the eaerliest church had. A prophet served many roles in scripture, but the primary one is to convey the word of God. They do not speak for themselves, but act as spokesman, or spokeswoman, as there are some female prophets who are named, for God, and so the best example of a prophetic statement is someone saying “Thus says the Lord.”  That means, again, that they are simply acting as a pass through for God’s words. But something need not begin that way in order to be prophetic, as most of those that we think of as prophets, such as Isaiah or Jeremiah, rarely begin their prophetic utterances in such a manner. Instead we will hear of them that the Spirit has come upon them, or we hear about Jesus, or that the word of God came to them, as we hear about John the Baptist.

Prophets are called by God to the position or the occupation of prophet. From this position, they seek to challenge the people, but more importantly to challenge the powers and principalities, the leaders of the people, to turn back to God. To repent from where they have gone astray and to seek God’s forgiveness. This is a large proportion of what the prophets do, and you can certainly begin to see portions of Jesus’ ministry falling under this category. And yet prophets also offer words of consolation from God, words of forgiveness, and words of hope. Thus, they also build up the people, especially after calamity, or to tell people that believe they are cast off by God that God is there for them, again you can hear portions of Jesus ministry in this too. And prophets do more than just say the words God gives them, they also do deeds of prophetic ministry. Sometimes this involves performing miracles, like Elijah raising a boy from the dead, but more often it is sign acts which match their witness. So, for example, Jeremiah wears an ox yoke as a symbol that the people will also be in bondage to the Babylonians, although they are also told that God will eventually break the yoke, or when Hosea marries a prostitute to symbolize God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness. So we might begin to see some of Jesus’ actions as prophetic witness, such as him washing the disciples feet. Prophecy through action, rather than words, or actions that reinforce the words.

Now who is considered the greatest Old Testament prophet? It’s Moses. Moses is the one who gives the law, and in so doing he speaks on behalf of God. Second on the list of prophets is that of Elijah, and both are important as we think about the person of Jesus and who he is.  First is that Moses says “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” That means that the people have an expectation of a great prophet who will return who will be like Moses, which is coupled with the fact that it is believed that the prophet Elijah will come back and be the precursor for the coming of the Messiah. So, you had two different expectations. The first is that there would be a prophet who would announce the coming of the Messiah, and the second was that there would be the prophet who would come to complete the creation, and this prophet could also be the Messiah.

Now this all comes into play with Jesus in two ways, the first is in questions that surround who Jesus is, and the second is the questions that surround who John the Baptist is. It is clear that most people believe that John the Baptist is in fact a prophet, but is he a prophet or the prophet. In the gospel of John, he is even asked this question. They say “are you the prophet?” and he says no. John also denies being Elijah and the Messiah, instead he is just one who is preparing the way. But in Matthew, Jesus says that not only was John a prophet but that he was Elijah, which would then make Jesus, by default, the Messiah. It’s that piece of the story that comes into play when Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is and they say “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Being a prophet is assured, it’s just a matter of which one, but then Jesus says “but who do you say that I am?” and Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” That is Jesus is a prophet, but not just any prophet, he is the prophet, there are no more to come after him, he is not a prophet to announce someone else’s coming, but to announce his own, to call for repentance, to call for fulfillment of the law and of creation, to call for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Thus, the gospel writers go to great lengths to show us how John the Baptists does not fill this role, and to show us that Jesus is not just a prophet, but the prophet and the Messiah combined. When Jesus is on the mountaintop and he is transfigured, who are the two Old Testament figures who appear with him? It’s Moses and Elijah. So, if Moses and Elijah are there, can Jesus be either one of them? No, which means he is the one who comes after them, and is at least equal to them, although the gospel writers, and the early church, wanted to make the case that Jesus was greater than them, and the best example is found in the gospel of Matthew where the comparisons to Moses are obvious, at least if you are looking for them. Moses is saved from a death order for Hebrew children in Egypt, then leads the people out of slavery through the reed sea, then out into the wilderness and he goes up on the mountaintop in order to receive the law and the commandments. And who is it that first leads the Israelites to Egypt? Joseph. And what is Jesus’ earthly father’s name? Joseph. And Joseph leads Jesus to Egypt to save him from a death order for Israelite boys, then Jesus goes down to the Jordan River, in which not the waters, but the skies are parted, he immediately goes into the wilderness, for how long? 40 days, comparing that to the 40 years of the Israelites, where Jesus is tempted but he does not give in, unlike Moses and the Israelites, and then Jesus returns, calls for repentance and goes up on a mountaintop to give his most famous sermon known as the Sermon on the Mount. Are you getting the picture here? But it’s the sermon on the mount that really caps it, because as we heard over the last few weeks, Jesus says things like, “You have heard it said you shall not commit adultery,” a recapitulation of the law given by Moses, the greatest prophet, but then Jesus says “But I say to you” and reinterprets the law. That is not something that any prophet does, that is something reserved for the person who will fulfill the prophecies, and so Jesus is not just like Moses, he is better than Moses. He is now the greatest prophet because he is the prophet, the one who brings in the coming age, the one who announces the reign of God.

That is the role of prophet that we should see for Jesus, and that the church has proclaimed for him. He begins his ministry with the proclamation “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.” That call to repentance is followed by a message of forgiveness and love. This table is a call to that repentance, a sign act of Jesus’ witness. It is a message that certainly challenged the powers that be, that challenged the status quo. He challenged political leaders and he most certainly challenged religions leaders, and in that sense, he stands in line with, in continuity with, the history of prophetic witness, of saying “you think you’re doing God’s will, you think you understand what God wants, you think that God is on your side and opposed to everyone else, but you’re wrong.” When we begin to hear Jesus’ messages, his sermons, his parables, his teachings in the light of prophecy then, I believe, they begin to take on an entirely different meaning and understanding of what he is saying and what he is calling for us to do and to be. It is because of these prophetic utterances that Jesus suffers and dies. He is seeking to bring in the reign of God, a reign that is represented not just in his role as prophet, but in his role as messiah. But it is his prophetic role that he can say, as he does in the passage we heard, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

But here is what occurred to me this week, that I’m not sure I had ever put together in my mind before. We believe that Jesus is the son of God, and as the second part of the trinity of father-son-holy ghost, is God, but when we are talking about what Jesus says do we think of those words in the same way as God saying it? That is the claim we make for prophets, that they are not saying things for themselves, but instead it is the word of God, but when we hear Jesus saying things do we say to ourselves “That is God speaking”? Maybe all of you already do that and if so congratulations, because it took me thinking about Jesus as a prophet and looking at all his statements as prophetic utterances to make me see not only the tone that they carry when you hear them differently, but also the weight that they carry as the words of God. But not just any words of God, for Jesus is not just any prophet. He is the prophet, the promised one, the Messiah, the Son of God, and God, and thus it is not just Jesus who says “You should love your enemies as yourself,” or “You will be known as my disciples by the love that you show,” it is God who is making those statements, and we should therefore treat them with the seriousness and gravity that they deserve, not as mere suggestions, but as commands from God for us to carry out not when we like, but every day. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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