Sunday, September 30, 2012

The burden and blessing of being a prophet (J. Barry Vaughn, Sept. 30, 2012)

At our Wed night Bible study last week, Mary Vandagriff revealed something that all of us who know her well already knew about her. “I am a prophet,” Mary said. And Meg Stubbs had the perfect comeback. “So what number should I play in the lottery?”


That’s what a prophet does, right? A prophet tells us what number to play in the lottery so that we can win a million dollars. A prophet tells us what’s going to happen tomorrow, what the weather is going to be next week, who’s going to win the election, and when Jesus is coming back.


No, that’s not what a prophet does. That’s what a fortune teller does… and we don’t take fortune tellers seriously, or at least we shouldn’t take them seriously.


Prophets are not fortune tellers. Sometimes they do tell us what is going to happen in the future, but they only reveal the future to us in general terms. They tell us what God’s plans are, that God desires good for us and never evil.


Prophets don’t foretell what is going to happen tomorrow; they tell forth the word of God.


Today’s story from Numbers is a good example.


Moses was exhausted. The whole trip from Egypt to the Promised Land had been one disaster after another. First, they were pursued by the Egyptians and there had been that whole Red Sea thing. Then the children of Israel began to complain, “Can we stop and get something to eat? Are we there yet?”


Ever wonder why they called them the “children of Israel”? They certainly didn’t act very much like adults most of the time, did they?


So God sent manna. They started to complain that they were thirsty, so God told Moses to speak to a rock and that a stream would flow from the rock. But Moses was really mad, so he hauled his arm back and he took his staff and hit that rock with a great big thwack! God wasn’t real pleased about that and it went on Moses’ permanent record.


Of course, Moses knew that as soon as the people had filled up their canteens with water, the next thing they would complain about would be that he wasn’t giving them enough bathroom breaks.


And then we have today’s story.  "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at."


The people complained to Moses, but who was Moses going to complain to? Moses could only complain to his boss, and his boss was God.


What would it be like to have God as your boss? Just imagine the annual review!


You would go up to the secretary and say, “Uh… I have to see the boss. Is She having a good day? Is She the God of the Old Testament or the New Testament today?”


So Moses went up to the top of the mountain, timidly knocked on God’s door. “Come in, Moses,” God says. And Moses wonders, How does God do that? How does God always knows it’s me? So Moses goes in.


But Moses is prepared. He has a great big scroll with him on which he has written his letter of resignation, and he slams the scroll on God’s desk. So Moses said to God:


“Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once.”


“They are too heavy for me.” Do you ever have days like that? Do you ever want to tell God that the job God has given you is too heavy?


We all fell like that some of the time… maybe even a lot of the time.


So what does this have to do with prophecy?


What this story has to do with prophecy is the way that God responded to Moses. God told Moses to assemble 70 elders, 70 people whom he knew to be wise and responsible, and to bring them to the tent of meeting. And then God took some of the spirit that was on Moses and gave a portion of that spirit to each of the 70 elders.  And they prophesied.


“They prophesied.” Did they say that he would meet a tall, dark stranger? Did they tell Moses what number to play in the lottery? I don’t think so.


Moses had asked God for help in bearing the burden of leadership, and that’s what God gave him.


A prophet is one who speaks God’s word. But God’s word is not just a vehicle of information. It’s not just a way of conveying ideas.


We have an impoverished idea of words. The Hebrew word for “word” is dabar. Dabar can mean a principle, a thing. God’s word is an event. The word of God does things, changes things.


Remember how the Bible begins? “God said let there be light, and there was light.” God speaks creation into being. Using only words, God creates light and dark, the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the dry land.


But strangely, when God gives his word to the prophets, they all protest that they do not want it.


When God wanted to make Moses a prophet, Moses tried three excuses: Oh, you don’t want me to be a prophet. I’m just a nobody. And anyway, when I come to the people and tell them I’m a prophet, they will say, “Well, who made YOU a prophet?” And anyway, I have this lisp, this stutter, and I’m just a terrible public speaker.


When God wanted to make Isaiah a prophet, he said, “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”


When God wanted to make Jeremiah a prophet, he said, “I am only a youth… I’m too young…”


But God just ignored their excuses and made them prophets anyway.


When Moses complained that the burden God had given him was too heavy, God gave him 70 prophets. God gave him 70 people who could speak God’s word.


When your burden is too heavy, has someone come along to help you carry that burden? That person was God’s prophet.


A prophet is someone who has God’s Spirit and through whom God speaks and when God speaks, things happen. Burdens are lighter. We can see more of the path ahead. And we can see that we are not alone.


Any of us can be God’s prophet.


I love the end of this story. Moses does exactly what God tells him to do. He checks everybody’s credentials and figures out who is best qualified to be an elder. He assembles 70 of his best people in the tent of meeting and God does exactly what he has promised. Then Joshua comes to Moses and says, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Moses replies, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”


God doesn’t always work through officials channels. God can give the Spirit to anyone. God can make any of us a prophet.


The Israeli poet Yakov Azriel says,


“The word of God hovers beyond our perception

like a radio transmission broadcast from Somewhere,

amidst the static

desperately seeking a receiver

to pick up its message

undetected even by the soul’s ear

until the chosen one is focused

man or woman

farmer or Temple priest

child half asleep in his bed

totally unprepared

or aged prophet meditating in devout readiness

after years of anticipation

suddenly it strikes.”


God’s prophets help us to find the blessing in the burnout. Prophets come along and help us carry the burden. Prophets bring us casseroles. They sit with us in the hospital. They call us up and say, “How are you? No, really, how ARE you?”


God’s Spirit can make any of us a prophet. Being a prophet isn’t easy; it’s a special kind of burden – a burden that carries a blessing. But in the blessing is in the burden because Someone stands beside us to help us carry the load.


The cross is at the center of the Christian faith to remind us that God’s mighty Word took on flesh and blood so that there is no burden we bear that Christ has not borne, no place we go - no matter how dark – where Christ has not been.

(I used some ideas and phrases from "Deliverance and Deli Meat" by the Rev. Bonnie Scott.)