Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Reclaiming “Prophecy” and “Repentance”

Message preached December 2, 2012
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 21:25-36 and Jeremiah 33:14-16

Order of Worship

listen to this in mp3 format

If you have not been paying attention to doomsayers or John Cusack movies, December 21st is the day that many say the Maya predicted the world would end. Of course, that projected date confuses two ancient Central American cultures. One, the Aztec, had a mythology “full of wrath, death and enough cataclysmic destruction for a Hollywood movie.” The other, the Maya, were more into cycles of nature and dwelt very little on apocalypse. It’s supposedly the calendar of the Maya that predicts the end of the world this month. Only it really doesn’t, according to the archaeologists who know. This however, doesn’t make for sensational headlines in supermarket tabloids or attention-grabbing links in the Internet. And it’s about such prophecies as this that ‘inquiring minds want to know.’ 

When I went to seminary, one of the questions I took with me pertained to all this “prophecy stuff.” I knew in my gut that all these sensational predictions were not really what prophecy, from a biblical perspective, is all about. “What is true prophecy, then?” I wondered aloud. As often happened, my professor didn’t outright tell me. Instead, he directed me to find out for myself. Along the way, I discovered a Jewish teacher by the name of Abraham Heschel, who opened my eyes to the prophets of the Old Testament.

These prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Heschel wrote, had a burning passion for God. They cared deeply about the great “I am who I am,” and spoke with passion God’s word to the children of Israel. That, however, was only part of the picture. On the other hand, these prophets also had a burning passion for God’s people. Because they cared so deeply about them, they spoke with passion for the people to God.

Now, when we think about prophecy as the tabloids define it, we rarely imagine such a two-way street. From their perspective, a prophetic utterance is not a dialogue, but a headline. There is nothing, then, that you can do about this prediction but just wait to see if it will come true. And, given that much of what is found in those publications isn’t worth much more than the paper it’s printed on, most folks are highly skeptical as to whether any of the predictions will come to pass. Any “waiting” that people do, then, only involves the expectation of a new edition, and the next sensational headline.

In the Bible, however, prophecy is a dialogue. Furthermore, the one who speaks the words is not apathetic. No, the prophet is filled with passion, or what Heschel called “pathos,” which is the opposite of apathy. The prophet speaks passionately for God to the people, and to God for the people. Prophecy, then (the words of the prophet), are passionate words.

Why is the prophet so passionate, so filled with “pathos?” Because God is passionate and filled with “pathos.” God is not apathetic toward this world. Sometimes we describe the Almighty in this way, as someone who is distant, who objectively watches what he created and, without any passion whatsoever, judges everything. Now, I’ve got to say that there is something very appealing about such a dispassionate arbitrator in world affairs. Often, our passions run amok and we can’t see the forest for the trees. Witness the recent mess in Israel, or the inflamed emotions behind the debt ceiling showdown. A little less passion, we wish, and a little more distance. But, then, we have grown somewhat apathetic about it all, haven’t we? Do we really care about what happens in Washington D.C.? Do we really care if there is peace in the holy land?

God cares. Not because God is a Republican or a Democrat, an Israeli or a Palestinian. God is passionate about this creation. It is out of such “pathos” that God speaks through the hearts and lips of prophets, yesterday and today. And that “word of God,” spoken through a prophet is not just a prediction of events to come in some distant future. That’s a mistaken notion of prophecy. Sometimes it is (indeed) future oriented, this passionate word of God. But that’s only “sometimes.”

We need to reclaim words such as “prophecy.” I say “reclaim,” but not in the sense of some army doing battle to rescue lost territory, to plant a flag and claim it as a possession. No, I mean “reclaim” as in “welcoming home” a loved one who has been away. There are many words like “prophecy” that have become like strangers to us, when they used to be family. Like the word “wrath.” When we use it, if we use it at all in this modern era, “wrath” is a negative term which refers to a vengeful God. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” we hear the Bible speak  (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30), and the anger behind the words can be highly negative in our imaginations. We miss the positive - that we can place our destructive anger into the hands of the only one who cares enough to handle it. In the Bible, “wrath” is God’s “passion.” Sometimes it burns white hot, but it never ceases to love. In fact, “love” and “wrath” are not opposites. They walk hand-in-hand.

In prophecy, God walks beside us. It’s a good word. Sometimes it hurts, but so does good medicine. As it says in the book of  Proverbs, “without a vision (KJV), without prophecy (NRSV), without revelation (NIV), without guidance from God (CEV), the people perish” (29:18). Prophecy reveals what is often hidden by the dark, it gives guidance especially when we can’t see much of the road ahead, it provides a vision for walking that path upon which God leads us. Can we welcome this word back into our homes, reclaiming it as “family?”

Today we begin a whole new year in the Christian calendar. This is the first Sunday of the season of Advent. It’s a time of preparation. Yes, we’re getting ready for Christmas, the celebration of the first Advent, the start of God’s greatest adventure - sending his Son, who entered this world in the same vulnerable way as every other human being. Advent, as a season of preparation isn’t just about looking backward, however, it’s also about looking ahead to another Advent, when Christ will complete what was begun first time around, an adventure beyond our wildest imagination.

Notice how I’m trying to reclaim, to welcome back another word into our home? For many of us, “Advent” has become lost amid all the beautiful decorations of this holiday time. “Advent” is not just an ornament to put on our tree, it’s what the season is all about - it’s the great “advent”-ure of our faith. In the present moment, we join in this adventure. The journey now involves listening and waiting. God cares passionately about this world, and about us - so much so that, as the old hymn sings out, “To us a child of hope is born, to us Son is given” (#189). That’s not just past tense. A child is born, a Son is given. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, “prophecy” in human form, God’s passion revealed (“God so loved the world that he gave....”). That’s present tense, not just a blast from the past.

Are we prepared, now, to receive this passionate gift, this Word of God, and to follow him today as he guides us toward tomorrow?  It’s not just about a little baby in a manger, whom we can cuddle, to whom we can bring gifts. It’s about facing into the very passion of God. In order to face into this One who cares so deeply about this world, we need to welcome home,  we need to reclaim another word that has questionable press for us today. The word is “repentance.”

In remembrance of our brother Leon Kagarise (has it really been almost five years since he left us?), let me share a joke worthy of his pun-loving heart.  A fellow was hired by a church to paint the outside of the meetinghouse. In order to maximize his profits, he purchased as little paint as he possibly could. Partway into the task, he realized there was not enough to go around, so he started adding paint thinner to his can. This worked, but there still wasn’t enough, so he added even more. By the time he finished the job, he was brushing on more thinner than paint - and it showed. The chair of the stewards commission came to look over what was done, and he then spoke the prophetic word: (Are you ready?)  “Repaint and thin no more!”

Well, fellow “thinners,” I mean sinners, we don’t come to church to whitewash over what isn’t right in our lives. We come to face into the One who cares passionately about this world, and about us, and to follow him today, toward tomorrow. “Repentance,” by the way, is not merely contrition, feeling bad about the past. The truth is, we’re all sinners - all have fallen short, and we can’t whitewash over that, nor should we. Even if we tried, God’s prophetic word would reveal our “thinning.” We need to be washed, not whitewashed.

“Repentance” simply means “turning toward God.” In so doing, we step into the cleansing, healing river of the Lord. Advent is a special time of turning. After all, how can you follow what you’re not faced toward? I dare say we need to repent every day of our lives, perhaps every moment. It’s not a matter of feeling miserable about who you are. It’s a matter of turning, yet again, toward God. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” the old hymn sings (“Come, thou fount” #521). Daily, in repentance, we turn toward God, saying, “Here’s my heart, O take and seal it ... for thy courts above.”

To move us in God’s direction, nudging us toward the coming Kingdom - that’s what “prophecy” is about. As I said earlier, sometimes the word of the prophet is a word about the future. In this morning’s scripture reading, Jesus was speaking as a prophet, sharing a word about what was to come. Now, the junction point between where he was speaking only to the early believers who lived through some very rough times, like the destruction of Jerusalem (which did happen in 70A.D.), and where he was looking ahead to a distant apocalypse far down the road, is not all that clear. What is clear, however, is that this prophecy, this word from the Lord, helps believers of any time turn now and face God.

I love that line where our Lord speaks of God’s help amid persecution (no, I don’t like the idea of being persecuted, don’t get me wrong). Amid the rough times, though, Jesus said that there will be an opportunity to testify. (By the way, one of the words we’ll seek to reclaim next week is “testimony.”) About this, at that time, he said, “I will give you words and wisdom,” (Luke 21:15). Therefore we don’t need to be afraid of speaking up - worried ahead of time about what on earth we’ll say. No, as long as we’re faced toward God, the words will be the easy part.

Jesus also spoke of the fig tree as a sign of the times. I don’t know all that much about fig trees, but I do know something of “fireweed.” I first encountered these plants twenty seven years in Alaska, where they grow in abundance, able to flourish in a harsh climate. It is said that one of the first plants to sprout - after a major fire devastates an area - is the fireweed, the reason behind its name. Something else about the fireweed - it flowers all growing season long. It is said that you can tell how far along the summer is by how high up on the stalk the flowers are blooming. The higher up the blooms, the later into the summer it is.

This, I believe, is an appropriate image for us during the present season, a time for welcoming God’s passionate Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, a time for daily turning toward the One who still speaks what we need to hear. May we blossom all season long, as God’s fireweed. 

©2012, (revised from 2000) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page