Jesus the Prophet

Sunday 28th February 2010
Year C, The Second Sunday of Lent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Genesis 15:1-12; 15:17-18
Luke 13:31-35

You wouldn't like a Prophet if you met one: hairy, smelly, disgracefully dressed, loud-mouthed and cutting. If one appeared at a church door, he certainly wouldn't get past a Churchwarden.

This is my starting point because we tend to think of the Prophets in one category and Jesus in quite another. We tend to put the harsh Prophets of old, of the Old Testament, in quite a different class from New testament figures; but then there is John the Baptist who is described in precisely the same terms as Elisha; and, later on, it would be difficult to deny that Saint Paul was a prophet and, if we knew more about the Apostles after the death of Jesus we would probably want to class some of them as prophets.

So what is a prophet? It is commonly and incorrectly thought that a Prophet is some sort of theological soothsayer, foretelling the future; but this is because some Christians tend to see Old Testament prophets as literally foretelling the future instead of the Evangelists seeing the present in Jesus in terms of the past.

Much more important than any textual interest, is the fundamental characteristic of the prophet as God's mouthpiece. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David and Solomon could all be considered as prophets alongside Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest who occupy the back part of the Old Testament in our Bibles.

On the basis of that definition, or characteristic, however, we must acknowledge that the greatest of the prophets was Jesus. He is often referred to as Prophet, Priest and King; so today, on the basis of our two Readings, we will think about Jesus as a prophet.

Throughout the New Testament Jesus claims to speak on behalf of God whom we characterise as "God the Father". This is almost casually, folksily presented in the Synoptics but it is a worked through piece of theology in John. The theology is further worked through in Paul and the other writer of Epistles so we need not work through that here; we, as Christians accept that Jesus spoke for God and that we address God through him.

But, setting aside, the methodology, the speaking on behalf of God, what was it that Jesus said as a prophet? Well, like all his predecessors he preached a two-part message; that people must repent, turn back to God, and if they did that, they would obtain blessing: the ancient prophets called this comfort; Jesus was more specific and promised salvation.

It is easy to forget how difficult is the message of Jesus: how revolutionary it was then and how revolutionary it still is now. Let us just bring to mind a simple list:

And of course, on top of that, Jesus claimed not only to be in the line of the prophets but to be even more special in a way that it is not easy to grasp in the Synoptics up until the Passion and Resurrection but which is viral in John.

Jesus the prophet, like his predecessors, had hard things to say, above all, about greed and complacency. Yes, of course he was against sexual sin and violence but if we analyse what he said we will see that he has an over-riding preoccupation with fairness and justice; and this must lead us to question our own concern for fairness and justice. How far are we really committed to the kind of justice called for by Jesus? How do we fare when it comes to steady, committed commitment to the down-trodden? What is our personal record in speech and action on the subject of immigrants and asylum seekers? How aware are we really of what it is like to live in a run-down area of our country; and is what we say about these places confined to condemnation and contempt, regardless of the fact that most of us never go anywhere near the places we condemn? How can it have arisen in one of the richest countries of the world that we still have so many people in a state of poverty? And how can we claim that this is a Christian country when there are so many of those we believe are our brothers and sisters in Christ in a state of degradation and despair? At the moment we are protesting because the country's institutions are becoming more secular but why should the secular authorities take our social commitments seriously when we do not take them seriously enough ourselves? How did we manage to arrive at the situation where the Church of England is opposing the current Equality Bill going through Parliament in the face of overwhelming support from secular legislators?

There are some Christians of an Evangelical stamp who in some ways claim to be standing in the line of the prophets in condemning the ills of society but they have chosen the wrong targets. The prophets were not interested in the personal sins of the peasant and the artisan; they were vehement in their condemnation of the powerful, of exploitation, arrogance, injustice and unfaithfulness.

We, in spite of the recent economic crisis, are the most prosperous generation the world has ever known. Today, when the Church uses the phrase "prophetic" it usually means the utterance of something mildly uncomfortable. The prosperity of our age and the terrible deprivation of many of the world's inhabitants, not least in our own country, demands a great deal more moral discomfort than we are used to; and the only sure antidote is to take what Jesus says literally and seriously so that we can put ourselves in a position better to understand his sacrifice as our Priest and his reign as our King.