I have chosen a list of six people, remarkable people, to refresh and to enlarge our understanding of God's prophets. Over the next six weeks we are going to look at what it means to be a prophet. We will see what it means for the spirit of the living God to fall upon unlikely characters. We will see how God draws out of them the gift of prophecy. We will see what is common among God's prophets as well as what makes each one unique.
On hearing the list for the first time, some questions will arise, and I will try to anticipate them. The prophets are Amos, Hosea, Marx, Freud, Buber and Heschel. Six Jewish men. Two from the Biblical world, 4 from the 20th century; two non-religious, Marx and Freud, and two deeply religious, two rabbis, Buber and Heschel.
Why choose people not from the Bible? Because when we see what truly makes a prophet, we will know that God has continued to speak by his prophets from ancient times right to this very day. Every age has God's prophets. Not just Bible times.
Why choose two irreligious prophets? The answer will spring back at you like a lion falling upon his prey, if you read your Bible. God used both Jews and gentiles, religious and pagans to proclaim the prophetic message for the times.
And why choose two rabbis? Surely rabbis are of importance to Jews only. We are Christians. But Buber and Hechel did more for Christianity in the second half of the 20th century than most of the theologians put together. Again, we will find the answers in the Bible.
But didn't prophecy end when the Biblical canon was agreed? The Biblical prophets were indeed decided on - but God continued to call people to prophecy. The world continued to need them.
Now it is not going to be easy remembering all these ideas over a six week period. So each week in the bulletin will be a short paragraph or two, summarizing the main conclusions of the previous week.
Now, to begin, we need to find out what a prophet is, what a prophet does. And immediately I'm going to say what a prophet isn't.
In an Auckland Methodist Church - this is a matter of public record - a number of years ago, one woman got the bug to be a prophetess. She received communications from the Lord. She thought they were important. She wrote them down. There were a lot of them. Over a period of months stretching into a year or more, she got various church leaders to believe she was under the direct guidance of God when the prophetic frenzy was upon her. She eventually had the ministers sufficiently on side to give her free reign in certain worship occasions and other settings. You don't need to be a prophet to see what was happening was going to turn into a disaster.
Actually what she wrote down was nonsense. What she spoke was the same but by now her position was virtually unassailable, her manna among the impressionable was too powerful to break. Worship on the occasions of her prophecy degenerated to hysteria and emotional manipulation.
Eventually her prophecies fizzled out into such utter meaninglessness the saner people saw the light and rebellion broke out. The Parish Council was split right down the middle. I'm not sure whether they did finally forbid her to speak. But other events in that church caused irrevocable splits in the congregation, from which the church has never recovered. What that church had been put through was nothing but a complete sham. It bore no relation to prophecy, ancient or modern.
The word prophecy, and the idea of a prophet, have been thoroughly debased by similar situations repeated in most denominations. It is not what I mean by prophecy, nor is it what the Biblical prophets were all about. Yet so many churches have been swept away by people getting a buzz thinking they are prophets.
We can do no better than look at Amos to find out what a prophet is and how a prophet works. Have you ever read Amos? It is a short book, but not particularly cheerful.
We find Amos lived about two hours south of Bethlehem in a village called Tekoa. Tough place, Tekoa. Wilderness region. Mountain-top desert conditions. Tough conditions can produce some strong characters, stubborn characters. They understand life's realities. Although he lived well out of Jerusalem he was no country bumpkin.
He knew what was going on in society. He had studied Israelite history. More than that, he knew what was going on far beyond Israel's territory. He made it his business to know. If he lived today, Amos would not only have kept up with the news, national and international, also he would have thought deeply about it. For Amos delved deeply into the social and economic conditions in Israel and beyond.
In fact that is where his prophecy springs from. He used his intelligence. He analyzed what was happening. He was to use today's terms, an internationalist. He assessed the strengths and the weaknesses of Israel's system as against other systems. He kept thinking about it. Turned matters over in his mind. And then, and only then, the herdsman began to prophesy.
He found great fault in foreign nations, as he did in Israel itself. As nations they all prosecuted unjust wars, ripped up pregnant women, trampled the poor into the dust of the earth, indulged in all kinds of sexual immorality, offered up meaningless sacrifices, and ignored the ethical demands of the Lord God.
His prophecies are like little sermons of stinging rebukes not just on people who have lapsed morally, but more importantly, they go the root cause of societal problems. They rebuked leaders.
Naturally, his prophecies come to the attention of the King, Jeroboam II, who clearly unimpressed by this upstart tells Amos to stop prophesying. Amos cannot. He says to Jeroboam I don't belong to any prophetic tradition, I haven't been to a school for prophets, but now this I tell you, Destruction is coming to you as king and to our nation.
Amos had a series of visions. First he saw Israel eaten alive by locusts. Second he saw Israel destroyed by a fire so great it consumed both the land and the sea. And the final vision which is greatly appealing to me. Amos the prophet saw God standing beside a brick wall, holding a plumb-line. God would apply the plumb-line to the house of Israel. It would not stand square and true. It was doomed to collapse..
Think of Amos' visions - are they the ordinary stuff of dreams? A nation itself eaten by locusts? A fire that burns away both land and sea? God measuring the morality of a nation with a plumb-line.
What makes these visions even more compelling and even more strange is that in the middle of the 8th century, while Amos prophesied, Israel was in the grip of unheralded prosperity. Jeroboam was at the height of his powers as a leader. In fact, King Jeroboam reigned for a further twenty years before he died. Highly successful years. Had he been less secure he might have had Amos summarily executed. He did not. Amos was order to shut up. Because his message was so far out of sync with conditions he was shunned by people. If you've ever heard about prophets being lonely, that's the case with Amos. So what does it all mean?
On Anzac Day we may remember Churchill as a lonely prophet who saw a compelling need for rearming Britain years before WW2 seemed likely, a plea which fell on deaf ears. Or perhaps today Colin Powell who must have prophesied to George W Bush, war is not the option for Iraq.
So was Amos wrong? Yes and no. He was a failed prophet in the sense that his analysis was out time, out of context. But no one ever prophesied more truly than the herdsman of Tekoa.
His prophecy marked one of the most significant turning points in Israel's history. We read at chapter 1: vs 3,6,9,11, 13, and chapter 2:1, 4, and 6 Amos prophesying to nations other than Israel. He speaks directly to Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites, and Moab. It is a point that could be so easily overlooked, yet it is a key issue, the key issue.
Amos is the first prophet to really spell it out that God is for all nations, not just for Israel. When any nation dishes out rough justice or no justice for its citizens, then God will call that nation to account. That is the extraordinary vision of Amos. The God of Israel is a light for all the nations.
It is a superb insight. This above all else will shape the line of prophets to come after. No longer will prophecy revolve around the particular: it must have universal validity. The prophet's message has to have a very wide application.
So to conclude, we can summarize Amos this way. His prophecies were a dismal failure at the time he spoke, although within a generation everything would collapse as he predicted, but his record as prophet was diminished. He would not get a job reference, that was for sure.
Yet so much would depend on Amos. Despite failing he stuck to his analysis. He had the courage of his convictions. He brought the ethical dimension of his God, the Lord Yahweh to now encompass every nation.
And one generation on, that is some 40 years after Amos died, the collapse of the northern kingdom of Israel was swift and for the very reasons he said. A lonely prophet indeed, but accurate, deadly accurate in his analysis. He called for people to return to God, and his plea was eloquent.
I end today with one line of poetry from Amos prophecy. It is his best:
He who made the Pleiades and Orion
and who turns deep darkness into morning
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth
the Lord is his name.
Amos in his heart and voice puts the prophet's question: that all the nations of the world will live by such a God as this. It is a worthy vision indeed.