There is a tendency today to believe that a prophet is a person who can see the future and tell us what is going to happen. Or maybe to see a prophet as the kind of person who starts some weird new sect or cult.
That is not what a prophet was in the Jewish tradition. Many Jews today argue over whether Jesus was a legitimate or a false prophet. Just as they did during his time on earth. If we don’t see Jesus as a prophet in the Jewish tradition we are not seeing him accurately.
The Jewish prophets existed in a dynamic tension with another important religious group – the priests.
The priests were responsible for the regular, ongoing, day-to-day, year-to-year religious life of Judaism. And of course alongside regular was his cousin regulation. The priests made sure all of the traditions and practices of regular religious life went on as they were supposed to according to the regulations.
They arranged the holidays, and supervised the sacrifices, and organised the feasts and the fasts. The priests were closely allied with the Scribes, who were the religious scholars who studied and debated exactly what the rules and regulations should be. They were basically the religious establishment.
The priests could trace their line back to Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first priest. Moses and Aaron together led the Hebrews slaves out of captivity in around 1400 bc. Together they led the Hebrews and built up a national identity and culture.
Moses was the revolutionary political leader, the Nelson Mandela. And Moses was also a prophet. Which means he was someone who heard from God and passed on to the people what he heard, including a notable list of commandments.
It wasn’t always an easy relationship between the brothers – Aaron the priest and Moses the prophet. The tensions between the two roles have continued through all the centuries.
Priest focus on regularity and tradition. But what happens once they have all the machinery of religion set up and running smoothly, when people go through the motions like clockwork but their hearts have drifted away. When they have become blind to the social injustice, numbed in their hearts, lukewarm in their faith.
What happens is that God sends a prophet to upset things a little. To throw a spanner into the well oiled machine. To tell the priests and the people that God is disgusted with them. That God hates regular religious observance that rolls on without a heart. That God detests insincerity. He sends a message like the one we read this morning from the prophet Isaiah. A message that upsets the priests.
Priests are people with credentials, degrees and papers; they create and uphold order; they are appointed and anointed in careful ceremonies during which they wear special clothes and scented oils.
Prophets randomly pop up out of nowhere without any formal credentials. All they have is a zeal, a passion and an unavoidable moral substance. Their purpose is to bring disruption. They are unruly, disturbing, and maybe shocking.
The prophet Hosea caused a scandal when he married a prostitute. The prophet Ezekiel staged a long public protest in the nude. On another occasion he used dung in a public performance of cooking. Prophets initiated public spectacles that were the equivalent of our political demonstrations like occupy Wall Street, or ban the bomb.
They dramatically embodied in action the message they were proclaiming.
Jesus was not a traditional priest. He had no credentials and no claim to the Aaronic priesthood, but he was a prophet. He came from nowhere with hot, fiery metaphorical language that shocked and disturbed. He engaged in prophetic actions such as turning over the tables in the temple and denouncing the religious establishment.
There are four ways in which he was a prophet.
First: Like many other prophets, Jesus spoke on behalf of the poor, the forgotten, the rejected, the outcast. He announced that in God’s kingdom the first are last. That your status depends on how you treat one of the least of these. He said that notorious sinners were welcome, not rejected; and those heartless people who rejected these sinners would not be welcome in the kingdom.
Second: Jesus echoed Isaiah in emphasising the inward sincerity of heart over outward conformity. Faithfulness to tradition can mask unfaithfulness to God, he said. Religious people can become ‘whitewashed tombs’.
Third: Like the prophets before him, Jesus spoke of coming judgement on hypocrisy and injustice. When the prophets spoke of judgement they didn’t mean that people would be thrown into hell. Judgement meant that their evil would be exposed. It would be named and they would suffer the consequences, and have the chance to repent, in this life.
Fourth: And this is the most important one. Jesus echoed and intensified the prophetic message that a new world order is possible, and is coming. The prophets used many images to convey this picture. They spoke of new heavens and a new earth and a new heart. They spoke of the day when lions would lie down with lambs, meaning violent and lion-like people would no longer take advantage of weaker lamb-like people – the elderly, the orphans, the poor and widows.
The described the day when swords and spears would be melted down and made into tools for growing crops and tending fields. They envisioned a time when nations would not train for war any more. (Isa 2:4)
A new day is coming. A new way of living. A new world order. The prophets promised a new kingdom. In this kingdom the poor and rejected will be embraced and brought back into the community. In this new kingdom the heart will count, not mere words or pretence. Evil will be exposed and dealt with, justice will flow, peace will reign.
Jesus spoke of this same new kingdom. But what really shocked people was that Jesus said the kingdom was at hand.
No one actually believed it could happen now. It was only something for later, after the Romans had been booted out by military force (the Zealots), after the messiah had lead a great military victory that couldn’t begin until all the prostitutes and drunks had been reformed (the Pharisees). It was so hard to imagine this things happening that people thought it was impossible.
The kingdom of God, oh yeah, sure, some day maybe, in the distant future. But here and now! No way. It is actually safer and more convenient to think this way. But it’s wrong.
Perhaps we all agree that poverty and war should end, some day, after our enemies are defeated. But how many of us would rally behind a carpenter from Sri Lanka or Panama or Somalia who called for it to happen now.
Not tomorrow but today all CEOs should slash their pay and give it to the lowest paid. Stop buying and selling weapons, and feed the hungry.
It was such a scandal to the people of his day that Jesus said the kingdom was at hand.
Jesus declaration seems grossly premature and impractical. That’s why we need faith.
But worse than that, it threatens the status quo. Everything is running along nicely, the priests don’t want it to change. That’s why a follower of Jesus can expect rejection and persecution. And hatred.
But what really rocks the boat is that if the kingdom is at hand, then the leaders have lost their way, forgotten their identity, and been unfaithful to God. No wonder they don’t want to hear Jesus message that the kingdom is at hand.
And how about us, are we ready to believe his message, and to live like we believe it. The kingdom of God is at hand, and not something nice for some remote day in the distant future. It is here today. Embrace it. Accept it. Live it.