Saturday, January 26, 2013

Prophetic Living

Then He began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4.21)

In Touch with God

The words “prophecy” and “prophetic” get kicked around a lot—so often that we assume we know what they mean without pausing to contemplate their true definitions. In secular terms, they’re synonymous with foresight. A prophecy is a prediction, plain and simple. In scriptural and spiritual terms, however, it’s something far more complex and urgent. When the Bible introduces prophecy—that is, words delivered by prophets—it wants us to understand God is speaking. Often it’s very specific about this. Dozens of passages are prefaced with phrases like, “The word of the Lord came to the prophet,” and what follows is framed in quotation marks. But more often the prophets speak directly, using their own words to express insight they received while communing with their Maker. And we should be very clear here. They’re not speaking for God, putting words in God’s mouth to serve their agendas. Indeed, it’s the opposite: God puts words in their mouths to serve God’s purpose. Sometimes prophecy comes in promissory form, as God makes covenants or tells the people what’s in store for them. But just as many, if not more, prophecies focus on the here and now: This is what’s happening. This is what led up to it. This is the right response. This is what you should avoid to prevent its recurrence.

So there’s a lot more to prophecy than forecasting the future. Prophecy in its truest, purest sense is God’s revealed word. We can even go so far as saying that prophecy is God’s active presence revealed to us, and in us, through Scripture. As with prophets of old, our communion with God—made possible by prayer, meditation, fellowship, and Bible study—puts us in touch with God. In return, God uses these same tools to stay in touch with the world through us. The closer we get to God, the better we see what God wants us to see, the better we hear what God wants us to hear, and the better we activate God’s presence in our lives. We are all equipped to live prophetically—to think, behave, and speak in keeping with the vision and principles first conveyed in Scripture. Thus, when we speak of “prophecy,” we’re not talking about crystal balls and psychic intuition. Prophetic living happens in the now. And constant awareness of our prophetic ability is vital to the work God calls us to do.

The Way It Always Goes

In Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 4.14-21), we watch Jesus model prophetic living. The scene is decidedly electric. After being away from Nazareth for some time to start His ministry, Jesus returns. Reports of His success precede Him. So the home crowd’s expectations are high. The synagogue is packed. Everybody’s eager to see what Jesus will do. But they’ve not been around Jesus lately and don’t understand that He doesn’t play into the star thing. It’s not about Him. It’s about the God Who sent Him and the work He’s been given. In fact, Luke is very clear that Jesus attends Sabbath services because it’s “His custom” to participate in weekly worship. (v16) There’s no mention of the disciples or an entourage of fans. Jesus enters His local synagogue as He’s always done: alone, unceremoniously, like any other worshiper. Apparently the congregation has invited Him to read a passage of Scripture and He's respectfully consented.

The big moment arrives. Jesus opens Isaiah and reads the first two verses of Chapter 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then He sits down. He’s done. Show’s over—until Jesus notices everyone staring at Him. This is great theater. The tension is sliceable. He responds with a straightforward comment: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” (v21) Unfortunately, Sunday’s reading truncates the story and dilutes its point. If we read on, we get a clearer sense of what Jesus means by how He behaves. The initial reaction is what one expects from people feeling proud of a local kid who’s done well. “How nice!” they say. Then the gravity of His words sinks in. Did He just declare Himself a prophet—and not any prophet, but one on par with Isaiah? The murmuring begins and the most readily outraged in the crowd ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? He’s no prophet!” In what will become a signature strategy, Jesus uses their skepticism to His advantage. He answers, “It’s not enough that I tell you this? Do I really have to work wonders here, like elsewhere, to convince you? That’s the way it always goes: no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” He cites two examples of prophets who were obliged to minister to strangers because their own people rejected them. Chaos breaks out. No one realizes that their reaction ratifies His prophetic bona fides. Instead, they decide to throw Him off a cliff and be done with Him. In the ensuing uproar, Jesus simply walks away, leaving them to their hostility and doubt. Now the show’s really over. As far as we know, Jesus never returns to Nazareth again.

Alive in Us

In John 14.12, Jesus tells the disciples, “The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Jesus’s ability to live prophetically—to know God’s vision, to accept God’s calling, and to make God’s presence known in the here and now—is also available to us. The Spirit of the Lord is upon our lives, too. The same words from Isaiah that define Jesus’s role and responsibilities also define what we must do. We too are spiritually equipped to declare God’s favor to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. We too are qualified vessels through which God’s love, truth, and justice flow into a world of hatred, deception, and inequality. This great gift of prophetic living isn’t given to launch us to stardom. It’s not designed to exalt us above those who’ve not yet figured out that it’s possible. Prophetic living is simply allowing God’s Word to come alive in us so that all we think, say, and do activates God’s presence wherever we may be.

One final observation: When we honor our prophetic calling, those who know us best will be the least likely to accept us. They’re too focused on who we are—on our weaknesses and vanities—to believe we can become what God invites us to be. They may even question the legitimacy of our faith with such virulence they’d rather we were dead than doing the work God calls us to do. That’s the way it always goes. But the Word of God tells us differently. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. God has anointed us to proclaim the good news of God’s love, acceptance, and freedom. Knowing that is enough to drown out the naysayers. Do God’s work. Speak God’s Word. Activate God’s presence. Leave the skeptics to their outrage. Live prophetically.

To live prophetically is to become vessels through which God’s love, truth, and justice flow into a world of hatred, deception, and inequality.