There is an old story about a man who accidentally fell into a deep pit when wandering in a field behind his home. Unable to climb out on his own, he was stranded there for more than two days and nights before someone finally happened by and saved him. Though the event had been somewhat traumatic, the solitude he experienced had been quite fruitful. For it was in that dark pit that he pondered and prayed and came to know the living God. On the day of his rescue, he came out of that hole a new man. His mind was renewed; his soul refreshed; and his perspective was Spirit-filled. Immediately, he became convinced that such divine understanding was meant to be shared. And so he began a new mission.
He decided that each week, so that others might deepen their own relationship with God, he would take someone to that field behind his home – and push them into the pit.
When I was growing up at my parents’ house in Tonawanda, we had some neighbors across the street, who were very close friends. Each Friday night, we either went to their house for supper or they would come to our house. Sometimes, when we went to their house, Mr. Cook, would set up a slide show of vacations and places he or their family had visited. Upon the first showing he was so very enthusiastic about his trip, and we, also caught this enthusiasm as he described the San Diego Zoo or the Grand Canyon. I guess we got caught up in his enthusiasm because my family had never gone anywhere, and it was sort of a thrill to see pictures and hear stories from someone who actually went to some exotic place. A few months later, he would show the set of slides again. This time with somewhat less enthusiasm because his memory had somewhat faded. It was still enjoyable, but it was not like the first time. A year or so later, on the fourth and fifth showing, the show had become somewhat dull and boring. It was like watching Star Wars for the eighth and ninth time. You know all the action and the lines by heart.
Our friend, Mr. Cook, had worn out his story because the newness of his vision was gone. Storytellers, reporters, writers and artists all face the same challenge. In order to keep their listener’s interest, they need to come up with new slants on the same basic story. This entails going to new places, or writing about new adventures or painting with new landscapes or new subjects. This case holds true also with prophets and prophetic vision, which is what the readings are about today.
Although the readings today are set in the days of Jesus and prophet Jeremiah, the age of prophetic vision has never left us. Even today, prophetic voices abound in the teachings of John Stott, Henry Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, Herbert O’Driscoll and many others who have inspired us with their stories and visions. Pastors, priests, and clergyman are quite ordinary people who have, in some point in their lives, made an extraordinary journey. They have been given some greater insight into the way things really are. And, as a result, they return full of zeal and enthusiasm to tell their story to anyone who will listen.
The main reason that I went into the ministry so long ago was to tell the story I was given when I was about eighteen. That story, along with other experiences, has been the guiding theme for all the sermons I have ever written and it continues even to today.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, told of a man who had traveled to a place he called the third heaven. Here the man had received some inner vision of enlightenment and traveled back elated with this vision. In reality, Paul was talking about himself. He was the man he had known fourteen years earlier. But now, the vision seems to be somewhat obscured and the memory somewhat faded. But what he does remember is that he went. At the time, I am sure it was as if a light had turned on. It was this inner vision that helped him to write all those letters to the Romans, the Ephesians and the Colossians. But now it is fourteen years later and perhaps the memory of his journey somewhat more faded. He complains of a ‘thorn’ set in his side as a message from Satan. This thorn has always been a mystery. Some think that Paul may have had some bad habit or short temper or chronic illness. I think that whatever it was, it was put there by God to keep him humble and dependent on God to see him through.
God gives to all of us the ability to communicate with him. But, to some He beckons to a greater journey. And for those who make the journey He gives even a greater responsibility . . . to go back and tell what we have seen. In the reading from Jeremiah this morning, God tells the prophet . . . “you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” . . . in essence to go out into the world and preach God’s word.
This was one of the hurdle’s to be being a prophet that I found very hard to overcome. First, was my message genuine? And if it was, how did I know it was? Second, was my fear of speaking in public. If you had known me in high school, you never in your wildest dreams think I would ever stand up in front of a lot of people and speak. It is only through God’s grace (and a lifetime of practice) that I am able to stand here and not be completely terrified to tell you of my inner most thoughts that are floating around in this brain of mine.
You may not realize this but originally I was turned down by the Standing Commission in the Episcopal Church when I first approached them about ordination back in the late 1970s. They did not think I had a strong enough personality to fill the description of what they thought a preacher ought to be. At the time, I was much younger and was unable to explain to them, thoroughly enough, my call to ordination, or my prophetic vision. During the eight years I waited for them to catch up, I decided to continue in the course of my walk by doing refugee resettlement work. It was during this time that Barbara and I sponsored two Vietnamese families to come to America. Today, and I am not ashamed to take at least a small amount of the credit, those families have produced a number of highly educated professionals in medicine and law. I know that literally thousands of lives will be saved or lengthened through this one good deed and all because of God working through one or two persons giving them the courage to say ‘Yes Lord, I believe’.
In the gospel lesson today Jesus goes to his own hometown to begin his ministry, but instead of finding people who might support him in this, he finds quite the opposite. When he could perform no miracles in Nazareth, as he had done in Capernaum, the people got quite angry. His prophetic vision was rejected as blasphemy and the people attacked him and tried to throw him off a cliff. It was only by the grace of God that Jesus escaped from the clutches of the evil that had encompassed him.
So why wasn’t Jesus able to perform a miracle in his own home town? It is said that the Kingdom of God exists only where salvation is accepted and where homage is given. The people neither accepted salvation nor were they about to give homage, for their hearts were (as in the biblical description) hardened against him. They had no love for God or for his prophet, nor perhaps for each other. Miracles take great faith and great faith is founded on the precepts of hope, love, mercy and a humble heart to hold them all together.
Throughout the New Testament, the only places where Jesus was able to heal a person to wholeness was where the person had the greatest of faith and was receptive to God’s word.
You and I can be the hands of God and the ears of God and the eyes of God working in the world, but only if we let Him. When we hear the dismissal at the end of the service “Let us go forth in the name of Christ”, it is right after that that the work of God begins afresh each week. It is your hands that he depends upon to heal a broken world. It is your voice he depends on to bring the Good News to all people. It is your ears he depends on to listen for cries of help in the world. And it is your heart he depends on to break . . . when you see injustice, cruelty and hatred.
When we were baptized, God gave us a commission. You may not remember the words, but the Spirit was given to you and it dwells within you for one purpose. You and I are part of the eternal priesthood. We are the prophetic witness (and also the physical evidence) that God is alive and working in the world. It is up to each of us to bear this message into a sick and broken world, all for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen