Sermon for April 24th, 2022
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Spiritual Gifts (and how to give them) Prophecy
Quasimodo, the famous bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, had retired after many years on the job. So the Bishop sent word throughout the streets of Paris that a new bellringer would need to be appointed, one with only the greatest talent and skill. After interviewing several promising candidates up in the bell tower, the Bishop was about to call it a day, when a man with no arms approached him announcing that he was there to apply for the post. The Bishop, incredulous declared, "My Son, you have no arms!" "No matter" replied the man. He then proceeded to strike the bells with his face, producing the most beautiful melody throughout the streets of Paris. The Bishop was astonished at the man's skill and his talent despite his great disability, and promptly offered him the job. For several days, the bell rang out over the city of Paris. But the Bishop forgot to tell this new ringer that once a month the bell was removed for cleaning. It was dark that morning, and the armless man ran full force at the missing bell, and plunged headlong out of the bell tower to his death in the street below. By the time the Bishop arrived on the scene, a crowd had gathered around the fallen figure, remembering the beautiful music from the past few days. As they parted in silence to allow the Bishop through, someone asked, "Bishop, who was this talented man?"
"I don't know his name" replied the Bishop sadly, "But his face sure rings a bell."
Talents and skills come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes; some we seem to just be born with, and others seem to be the result of years of practice and development. For the next several weeks we are talking about "spiritual gifts," and last week we learned that whenever the Bible speaks of spiritual gifts, it's not talking about innate talents or "special superpowers" that God gives to certain individuals for a lifetime.
Spiritual gifts are... gifts, presents--what we offer to God when we give our time, our energy, and our resources to God's work in the world, particularly through God's family, the church. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes seven of these gifts: Prophecy, Ministry, Teaching, Exhortation, Giving, Leading, and Compassion. These are gifts that ANYONE can give at ANY time to meet the needs of the community.
Sometimes, our God-given talents or our vocational skills, or just the things we "love to do" happen to line up with the needs of God's community, and when they do, that's great! But even when they don't, we believe that God equips and makes ready anyone who is willing, anyone who steps up and answers God's call to serve.
So today (week 1) we're going to talk about Prophecy. It's the first Spiritual Gift on Paul's list, and possibly the most important gift that we (as in all of us) can give to God, and to God's people on a daily basis. Wait a minute...Prophecy? All of us? On a daily basis? You're kidding, right, Pastor? You want all of us standing on the street corner predicting the end of the world?
Prophecy also happens to be the most misunderstood gift on the list. In today's culture, the word "prophecy" has come to be associated with predicting the future, but that's not exactly what it meant in the 1st century, when Paul was writing about it.
Paul, like any faithful Jewish person in the 1st century, would have been very familiar with the Prophets of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew scriptures, these revered men and women (yes, there were both!)were known as the נְבִיאִים (Nevi'im). It literally means "speakers" or "spokespersons" because that was their job. They spoke to God on behalf of the people, and they to the people on behalf of God. That's it. That's all a prophet was.
Much later, however, when Greek became the language of the Mediterranean world, that word נְבִיאִים (Nevi'im) was translated into Greek, in the Greek version of the scriptures, as προφήτης (propheteis). This is made up of two roots: προ = before, and φημί = to speak or declare. This makes sense. Like I said, a prophet is someone who speaks before--before the people, and before God.
But that's probably also where the confusion comes in: Pro/before can have the sense of location (as in, I'm standing before you today) but it can also have the sense of time, as in "To speak about something before it actually happens." And occasionally, prophets in the Old Testament would speak about things that would then come to pass.
That doesn't mean they were predicting the future. When my children are playing roughly and I say, "Knock it off; someone's going to get hurt!" am I predicting the future? Not necessarily. I'm issuing a warning about possible consequences. In the Bible, the prophet Jonah tells the people of Niniveh that God is about to destroy their city because of their sinfulness. But then they repent, they change their ways, and the "prediction" doesn't come to pass (much to Jonah's disappointment!).
Also in the Bible (in books like Daniel, and Revelation) "Prophets" would sometimes speak in coded language about things that were actually happening in their time, and what they strongly wanted God to do about it--but they would speak these things in "coded" language, using poetic imagery and metaphor, so that the king wouldn't find out and have them all executed for treason. Centuries after the king and the prophet were gone, however, the coded words would remain, and each generation would read their own situation into those words, seeing in them a "prediction" about what was to supposed to happen in the future. The vast majority of those interpretations don't have a good track record of coming to pass, because they were never meant to be predictions in the first place, just warnings.
So once again, the most basic, fundamental job of the prophet was simply to bridge the gap between God and the people--speaking to one on behalf of the other. In this sense, perhaps the greatest prophet of all was God's own son, Jesus, who took on human flesh so that he might physically walk among us, teaching us about God through his words and his actions, and simultaneously interceding on our behalf to God, saying "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!"
But an interesting thing happened at the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, shortly after his Easter resurrection, and right before he ascended into heaven. Those followers who were gathered around him on that day were probably expecting that he would appoint a successor to carry on his prophetic work, just like Moses appointed Joshua to take over when he was gone, or just like the prophet Elijah appointed Elisha to succeed him. In fact, two of Jesus' disciples--James and John--had already approached Jesus to ask for that privilege. Who would be the next great prophet, chosen by God's own son? Everyone waited with baited breath to hear what Jesus would say.
Matthew 28:18-20 - And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Who is the great prophet called to carry on the work of Jesus, called to represent God to the people and to intercede for the people before God? Who is the great prophet called to proclaim the good news that we are loved, we are forgiven, we are redeemed? That great prophet is right here in this room today! If you think you know who it is, point to that person!
Some of you are pointing at me. You're not entirely wrong, but my mother always told me that when you point a finger at someone else, you're pointing three fingers back at yourself. That great prophet, chosen by Jesus before he ascended into heaven...is you. And me. And all who follow him.
Prophecy--or speaking out about God's love--is the first and (I believe) the greatest of the spiritual gifts that all of us can offer to God through the ministry of the church. You offer this gift when you sing in the praise band/choir, proclaiming the good news in song. You ofter this gift when you welcome a stranger in our midst with a smile and a kind word. You offer this gift when you bring a meal to someone who is sick or grieving, or when you volunteer to help with our children's ministries (or our adult ministries), or when you simply reach out in love to those who are desperately seeking God's grace and forgiveness. In all of these situations, you are speaking on behalf of God to the people. You are also giving the gift of prophecy when you pray for each other, when you speak to God on behalf of someone who is hurting, or when you give thanks to God on behalf of someone who is rejoicing.
And here's the thing about prophecy, or speaking on behalf of God. You're always doing it, whether you realize it or not. If you are a Christian, after all, you are a prophet. But WHAT exactly are you proclaiming to the people about God, through your actions, your words, or even through the words that you neglect to speak?
One day a woman was driving in heavy traffic, and she was getting really worked up, honking her horn at everyone, swearing in the most foul language, and making all kinds of rude gestures to the vehicles around her. At the next stoplight, she heard a tap on her window, and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.
The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He handcuffed her and took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a cell. Needless to say, the woman was shocked at this treatment, which seemed a bit over the top for just losing her temper.
After a couple of hours, she was released, and the arresting officer came up to her and said, "I'm awfully sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping the guy off in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at everyone else.
I noticed the 'What Would Jesus Do' license plate holder, the 'Follow me to Sunday School' bumper sticker, and the 'God is Love' decal on your back window...
Naturally, I assumed the vehicle was stolen.
Oh great prophets of First Presbyterian Church, what message about God are you proclaiming to the people around you every day? And what kind of prophetic gift are you offering to God every night, in your prayers for the world, for the church, and for the people who look to you for comfort and support? May God give you the strength and compassion to make your prophecy a good one.
One more joke: Do you know who was the very first financial planner mentioned in the Bible? It was Pharaoh's daughter, the adoptive step-mother of Moses. Do you know why? Because she went down to the banks of the Nile and drew out a little prophet!