+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that kills the prophets.” Jesus’ lament in this morning’s Gospel is a powerful foreshadowing of the death which awaited him after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after, as he had foretold, the children of Israel had proclaimed “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Jesus’ lament raises a question, one which I believe to be important if we are to get to the center of Jesus’ mission and identity. The question is “what is a prophet?” It is a term we use rather loosely, but in the biblical worldview it held a rather specific meaning.
Let’s begin with two definitions of the word “prophet” which don’t quite get at the biblical meaning. First, there is what I call the “History Channel Definition of Prophecy”. Those of you who watch the History Channel will have recognized that much of the network’s programming years ago gave up history in favor of speculation and what is to my mind an unhealthy curiosity with the occult. Anyway, if you were to turn on the television and flip to the history channel, you might see a “documentary” on how Nostradamus supposedly predicted the rise of Hitler or of the Taliban, or about how ancient Mayan oracles predicted the end of the world in 2012. The commentators on the program will refer to these predictions as prophecies and those who promulgated them as prophets.
But this is not the biblical definition of prophecy. Certainly, some of the Old Testament prophets predicted future events. The prophet Amos, for example, predicted an earthquake two years before it happened. Even so, prognostication about future disasters was not at the center of the prophetic vocation.
A second definition of prophet and prophecy arises from some contemporary Christians. They claim that a prophet is simply one who “speaks truth to power.” Specifically, they would limit prophecy to the promulgation of progressive politics. Certainly, the message of Old Testament prophets was not entirely without political ramifications, seeing as how religion and politics were intimately bound together in ancient Israel. Even so, there is much more to biblical prophecy than what we would call political ideology, and, in my opinion, we would be sorely mistaken to see Jesus’ prophetic identity cast entirely in terms of modern political battles.
So, prophecy includes claims about the future and may have political implications, but these aspects neither exhaust nor define the message of a prophet. What does, then? What makes a prophet a prophet?
Well, in the Old Testament, all of the prophets were concerned with faithfulness, faithfulness to the Covenant which God made with His people. A covenant is an agreement between two parties in which each party has responsibilities. In this morning’s Old Testament lesson, God made a promise to Abraham, namely to give him offspring and land. Abraham’s end of the bargain was simply to believe, to trust in God’s promise: “And he believed the LORD;” the lesson reads, “and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This covenant was sealed in the ceremony in which Abraham sacrificed animals to the Lord, but the principal responsibility given to Abraham was simply to trust God. It was even okay that he fell asleep before the sacrifice was completed.
Likewise, the Old Covenant given to the children of Israel through Moses was an agreement whereby the Israelites would obey certain moral and ritual laws in exchange for the land of Israel. All of those Old Testament Prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, were concerned with one thing: namely, calling the children of Israel back into faithful obedience to their end of the bargain.
But, you see, the covenant was not just a legal contract as we might think of one today. It established a relationship between God and Israel which went beyond that. A legal contract operates on both trust and distrust, in a way. We don’t enter into an agreement unless on some level we trust the other party to be faithful to it, but of course we have legal recourse if they aren’t faithful. It’s like that aphorism coined by Ronald Reagan with regard to our country’s relationship with the Soviet Union: trust but verify.
The Old Covenant was a bit different. There was no higher court to which the children of Israel could appeal if they felt God wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain. The children of Israel needed to fully trust that God would be faithful if they were to be faithful themselves. This is a lot harder than keeping a legal agreement, which is generally not predicated on implicit trust to quite the same degree, and this is why the Israelites needed so many prophets to call them back to faithfulness.
So, the prophet’s task is to call someone back into holding up their end of the bargain with God, to bring them back into a relationship of trust and faithfulness. This is why the prophetic task is so dangerous. You can stand on the corner all day long and say that the world is coming to an end or that some unpopular policy is the will of God, and you might offend a few people. In some country’s you might even be thrown into prison. If, however, you were to stand on the same corner and denounce the unfaithfulness of this generation, to say that those who passed by were a faithless, disobedient lot who had turned away from God, then you might find yourself in a more precarious position.
This is why Jerusalem killed the prophets. Listen again to Jesus’ words:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
You were not willing. We are not willing to listen to the prophet who tells us that we need saving. We are not willing to admit that we’ve been unfaithful or to permit Jesus to gather us like a brood under his wings, to gather us back to the Father. For, you see, the message of the prophet suggests that we don’t have it all figured out. The prophet convicts us of our unfaithfulness, that we might return, but it is an offensive message to us.
The message was offensive enough to those in Jesus’ day, to those who could not see past their pride to see their unfaithfulness, that our Lord was killed for it.
But there were those who heeded the call to repentance, who recognized that without a relationship with Jesus they could not remain faithful to God, who rejoiced that in the blood of the lamb they died to themselves and were saved and that in his resurrection they were given the promise of new and unending life.
There was a choice, and there still is a choice. We can choose to kill the prophet, to ignore the action of the Holy Ghost in our own hearts, to fight Jesus when he tries to conform us more to his image. We can, however, choose to accept the prophecy which is preached within us by that same Spirit, to amend our lives, to recommit ourselves to God, and to throw ourselves entirely upon his mercy. May this holy season be a time in which we choose not to rebuff the prophet, not to grow offended by his message, but to recognize our own need: a need as profound as the children of Israel under the prophets of old, a need as real as those in Jerusalem at the time of our Lord’s passion- the need to renew our trust in God and our faithfulness to his commandments. Do not kill the prophet because of pride, but receive his message of Grace and forgiveness.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.