Monday, January 9, 2017

The Prophets

Here is my sermon from Sunday, and introduction to our sermon series on the 12 Minor Prophets.

Today we begin a new sermon series on the 12 Minor Prophets which will take us through the next 13 weeks, ending the week before Palm Sunday. This will be by far the longest sermon series we have done and by the end of this you and me both might be really ready for it to end, although I hope that’s not the case because I think these books have something important to say to us, and the reason this series is being called “Major Messages in the Minor Prophets.” I’ve wanted to do this series for a long time, but never got there because it is a bit overwhelming in covering an area that I did not know a lot about, and so you get to hear it all now, and if nothing else by the end of it you will have been exposed to all 12 of the minor prophets, and something about what they had to say, and perhaps you might even be able to remember 8 or 9 of their names.

But before we dig into each of the books individually, I thought it was important to give you some background on who the prophets were and what was happening at the time they were writing to give you a better context and understanding of who they are. And we begin with some semantics. First, the term minor prophets has nothing at all to do with their importance or significance of either their messages or their meaning in the tradition or cannon of scripture. They are called the minor prophets because of the length of their writings, which range from a single chapter to 14 chapters, are significantly shorter when compared against what are known as the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These works are also sometimes called the Book of the Twelve as they were all contained on one scroll in ancient manuscripts, and idea to which we will return. The second semantic issue is that technically there are not any prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are not any prophets because the word prophet comes not out of Hebrew, but out of Greek, so it came into our lexicon first when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint, which also happens to be what most of the people who wrote the New Testament used in creating the New Testament which is written in Greek. One meaning of the word prophet in Greek is “to foresee” which is where we get the idea that prophets are people who give predictions, or prophecies, about the future, which, while true sometimes, is not the primary role of prophets as we understand them. Their job was not to provide horoscopes of Israel. Another meaning of the word is “one who speaks for another.” This is closer to the meaning of what prophets did in the ancient world, which is that they were spokesmen and women for God. Thus, prophetic statements often, but not always begin, “thus says the Lord…” or “Hear the word of the Lord…” or something along those lines.

Now even though I have just said that, for simplicity sake, I am going to refer to them as prophets today and throughout this series, and beyond, but the word for them in Hebrew, or at least for our purposes today is Navi. The meaning of this word is not clear, and there is no scholarly consensus on a meaning, but it could mean something like “someone who is called” or “someone who calls upon the gods.” Both of those are important because prophets did not come to the office because of lineage, or who they knew, but instead because they were called by God. And secondly, there were those who acted as spokespeople on behalf of God to the people, but also on occasion acted as a spokesperson on behalf of the people to God. It could be a two-way role.

I think that we often underestimate the importance and role that prophets played in Israelite history and the formation of the faith by how little we talk about the prophets, except when they serve some purpose for us.  But, we can see their importance in the tradition simply by the role they play in the Hebrew scriptures. There are 39 books in the Hebrews Scriptures, or the Old Testament. Of those 39 books, in Christian Bibles 17 are represented as prophetic works, which includes both the book of Daniel and also Lamentations, which tradition has being written by Jeremiah, and both of which are included with the prophets. As Christians, we break up the books as the Pentateuch, or first five books, then the histories, then wisdom literature and then the prophets. That is not how the books are broken up in the Jewish Bible, which is known as the Tanakh. They have the Torah, the first five books, then the Nevi’im, which are the prophets, then the Ketuvim, the writings, and the abbreviations of those form the word Tanakh. In this ordering, there are 21 books in the prophets because they include many of what we think of as the histories, because they also include stories of prophets, such as Elijah and Nathan, even though they don’t have specific books named after them. And then they have Lamentations and Daniel not in the list, so when we say the prophets we think we just mean those with their names in books, but that appellation is much bigger than that. Now Western Christians and Jews have the Minor Prophets in the same order, but the Orthodox church, or the eastern church, has a different order for these works. That ordering might make some difference because there are some scholars, both Jewish and Christian, who believe that we should see the 12 minor prophets not as 12 separate books but instead to see them as one book, as they were originally found on one scroll, and it does appear that they may have been edited into the order we have them so that there are items that link them together as a cohesive whole.

But that does not mean that they tell the same story or have a consistent ideology, theology or ethic, because they don’t. If we pay attention to all the prophets, what we will quickly find is that they are not a monolithic group. They perform different roles and they have different messages. Even when they might be writing about the same events, they come at it from different ways. So, for example, when writing about the destruction of the northern kingdom, Amos rails against the economic and social practices, whereas Hosea talks about the religious and political practices. There are prophets who report visions they have seen, some give oracles or speeches of God, some look forward, some look past and some are only concerned with the present, some appoint and anoint kings, some perform miracles, or do works of God, and some perform sign acts, acting out a prophetic message, just to name a few, and some do a combination of those things. Although there is a conception that prophets existed outside the political structure, and thus were in a place to challenge it, the truth is that most prophets were connected intimately into the power structures either politically or religiously, which gave them the knowledge of what they were critiquing, but most importantly gave them the ability to be heard by those in power to do something about it. That does not mean they were listened too, because often they weren’t, but, while there is also the perception that prophets routinely suffered a violent fate, that was usually not the case. There are some examples of prophets being killed, and definitely those who were persecuted, including Amos who was accused of treason and Jeremiah whose life was threatened, and it was not an easy job, but as one scholar pointed out “one may review the reports about the prophets in ancient Israel and be surprised that they were not treated more brutally more often.”

Just as it is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about a typical or singular ethical or theological prophetic perspective, it is also difficult to talk about a typical form of prophetic literature, although there are two generally different types, prose and poetry, but when you read these works you will find that they differ in structure and presentation. There is again not a monolithic whole, but what is remarkable is that we have any record of these prophecies at all. We know that there were prophets operating throughout the ancient near-east in many different cultures, but the records of them are very scarce and the ones we do have are not a type of literature, but instead simply lists of oracles or reports, sort of like we see in proverbs.  But there is simply no record that we have of prophetic witness in any of these other cultures that comes close to comparing in length, breadth of vision or literary complexity as we find in the Hebrew scriptures.  While some of the writings come out of an oral tradition, we also have evidence of these prophecies being written down as they happened, but none of them were written down by one person all at the same time. We know that there were others who assisted in this process, as we even have the name of Jeremiah’s scribe mentioned in that book, and others who contributed later writings in the name of the prophet, such as second and third Isaiah who are responsible for chapters 40-66 in Isaiah.

While there are some prophets, of those referred to as prophets, before the beginning of the Davidic kingdom, with Moses being the major example, most of the prophets we know and talk about come within a roughly 600-year period between King David’s ascent roughly around the year 1000 BCE and the end of the Davidic line at the end of the 6th century. But most of the writings we will cover in the next twelve weeks cover a roughly two-hundred-year period starting with the attacks and destruction of the northern Kingdom, known as Israel, in the year 722 by the Assyrian empire, which leads to their total loss. When we heard about the ten lost tribes of Israel, this is what is being referred to as they largely disappear from history, and then the attacks on the southern kingdom of Judah, and the siege of Jerusalem in 597 and then again in 587/586 when Jerusalem is laid to waste, the Temple is destroyed and the key political and religious leaders are taken into exile in Babylon. Within 75 years of this, named prophets seem to disappear, although there is indication that compiling, editing and perhaps some writing continues for a while longer. Some have argued that monarchy was needed for the prophetic office to be in place, that these two entities are so connected, but others argue that while that is important, it was the crisis and events of the time that made prophetic witness possible and necessary. We might think of when people we would consider modern day prophets rise up, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it too is at times of crisis when we need someone to make God’s voice heard, to call us to something better, to call us to repentance and to call out the institutions and people and point a different way.

But how are we supposed to know who we trust, who is a good prophet and who is bad prophet. That was certainly a question that was asked a lot, because there were competing voices saying different things, different people claiming to make prophetic statements on behalf of God which were sometimes in direct opposition to each other. The standard claim that people have today is that if a prophet says something that doesn’t happen that they are a false prophet. That comes from Deuteronomy 18:22. There are actually 3 different laws given about prophets, but I want to focus on this one because it is the one we hear the most often, but it turns out not really to be true. The first is because sometimes prophecies were given that would be hard to prove true at the time, such as Jeremiah saying that the people would be in exile for 77 years. By the time that could be verified as true or not, nearly everyone who had heard it originally would be dead. But others simply turn out not to be true, so, for example, Huldah, one of the five female prophets we hear from says that Josiah will go to his grave peacefully, but he dies in battle; Isaiah says that Jerusalem’s streets will be paved with gold; Ezekiel says that Nebuchadnezzar will conquer Tyre, which doesn’t happen; Jonah’s prophecy about Nineveh doesn’t happen, and then there are the utopian visions that we also are given that are still unfulfilled. And yet all of them are still seen as true and legitimate prophets, so that standard that people want to hold up really doesn’t exist and in some ways, is category foreign to their settings. But as we look at each of these 12 prophets we should contemplate their prophecies and whether they have been fulfilled or if they are still waiting.

Now I could continue going on and one with more information that I think is important to know about prophets, but want to conclude with one last point. And that is that while, as I have said, there is not a unifying message or theme found in these messages overall, there are some items on which they would all agree. The first would be that Zion, or the promised land, is important to God and the people and the second is that the Davidic line ruling is important. These are important, but here are the two key ideas that resonate throughout. The first is that God is King, and that God is ruler over all the nations, not just of Israel and Judah, but over the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Egyptians, and so the prophets also talk about these entities and give prophecies to them. The second is that God has made a covenant with the people and that God seeks to keep and retain that covenant. It had taken different forms over time, but God wants to hold the people accountable to that covenant. We too have a covenant, a covenant made with water and the Spirit, the covenant of baptism where we pledge our allegiance to God and God pledges allegiance in return and as a sign of the covenant we receive the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, on this Sunday, which is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we are going to renew our covenantal vows, pledging ourselves to God and renewing our relationship one more time.

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