Sunday, February 04, 2007

Epiphany 4 - Prophets




What did you do for Australia Day?  Playing pool …

I must confess myself a bit uneasy about the popular celebration of Australia Day.  The attempt this year by one of the event organisers in Sydney to ban displays of the Australian flag made me think about it a bit more, with part of me feeling ‘what’s the fuss about?  What’s wrong with celebrating what’s good about the country we live in, what’s wrong with barbecues and flags and fireworks as a way of celebrating the open and tolerant society we enjoy?  Another part of me wasn’t quite so sure, because of what we might call the Cronulla factor, the all-too-easy slide from appropriate national pride to not-so-appropriate hostility directed towards minorities.

It does trouble me a bit that the loudest voices in our country today seem to be the voices of intolerance, the voices that tell us we have to stand up for ourselves, protect our way of life, deport troublemakers and insist that immigrants not only learn English but appreciate Aussie Rules as well – as though in the fearful world of the war on terror we’ve become defensive and withdrawn.  At the same time if we listen carefully we can hear other, quieter voices urging us to take a wider view.  Opening The Australian newspaper yesterday morning I was heartened to read how, on what Aboriginal Australians are calling Survival Day, the Queensland Government finally bowed to public pressure and charged a police office over the Palm Island death in custody case.  And on the same day how moderate Muslim leaders who reject the hard-edged rhetoric of jihad had made the foot-in-mouth Sheik Taj din al-Halali sit down and shut up.  To read of people like Tim Costello urging us to see the situation of the developing world as something that vitally concerns us, or Aboriginal leaders like Noel Pearson and Tania Major inviting Australians to see ourselves as one people connected by a shared history and mutual commitment; the new Australian of the year Professor Tim Flannery asking us to recognise our interdependence with the natural environment. 

It’s not easy being a prophet.  Because prophets challenge our tribalism, prophets invite us to see a bit further than we really want to … Jeremiah, for example, recognises that it’s a big ask to challenge the nationalistic assumptions of his day, and he sensibly tries to resist the prophetic call on the basis that he is only a boy – he doesn’t know how to speak the language of diplomacy – of all the prophets Jeremiah is the one whose trials and tribulations, whose personal attitudes and fears are most revealed to us, and we know that he is going to face hostility, rejection, imprisonment and death threats for speaking God’s challenging words to a people who most of the time don’t particularly want to hear.  And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?  Why should we listen to you?  Isn’t this just some Marxist greeny claptrap, what makes you so special that we should believe what you are telling us comes from God?

In fact that’s the first sign of an authentic prophet – that they’ve tried to get out of the job.  Nobody goes looking for the role where they have to speak God’s uncomfortable truths, and if we believe the biblical record all of God’s true prophets have tried to wriggle out of the gig on one ground or another.  I’m too young, I haven’t got enough education, I’m not good enough.

And maybe that’s because of the second sure sign of an authentic prophet, which is that God’s people reject them.  Get that! – we, card-carrying Anglicans, sincerely trying to apply the scriptures to our everyday life, checking in with God daily (I hope!) in prayer – well, along comes a fair dinkum prophet and the odds are we’ll say, ‘nuh!  Talking rubbish!  As if!’

And that’s because we’re human.  That’s because we’ve got something hard-wired into us that makes us want to protect our own interests, our own family, our own church, our own tribe, our own way of life.  I guess at some deep-down level it’s some sort of evolutionary adaptation that makes human beings like that.  We’re skewed towards people like us.

So along comes Joseph’s boy, and remember last week I told you when he gets back to his home-town of Nazareth, his reputation has got there ahead of him.  His credentials are good, he’s spent time in the desert and got himself baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan – a thinly-disguised symbolic re-enactment of God’s people wandering 40 years in the desert and splashing their way through the Jordan into the land of promise.  We all worked that out, and we’ve heard the whisper that Jesus has been doing some pretty fancy things with the lame and the blind.  So here he is back where he grew up, there’s more than enough lameness and blindness here in Nazareth – not to mention the Romans - and after all, mate, charity begins at home.  Start with your own family, doctor.

But what does Jesus tell them?  He lets them know, and not too subtly, that he can see though their praise and their pats on the back.  They want the good news he’s on about, they like what they hear about God’s kingdom, but they want first dibs on it.  They want to accept Jesus – but on their own terms, not on God’s terms.

And Jesus responds to this by claiming the status not of a healer or a miracle-worker but of a prophet.  The people of Nazareth know what that means, and it’s not what they wanted to hear – prophets don’t do party tricks, prophets aren’t popular, they speak words that nobody wants to hear, and they claim divine authority for telling us off.  And Jesus rubs it in with a couple of quick examples – remember the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, when they did their great works of power, when they showed God’s mercy it wasn’t to the home crowd, was it?  It was for foreigners - some starving widow, some enemy commander.  He couldn’t make the point any clearer.  God isn’t a possession, God’s people don’t have the priority on answered prayer.  And here’s the Catch 22, if you like – we do want the grace that Jesus is on about, there’s nothing more attractive in the world than the claim that it’s the least powerful, the most vulnerable who matter most to God.  We’re drawn to the radical upside-down priorities and the breath-taking compassion of God – but then just as soon as we’re drawn into the logic of God’s way of thinking we hear the catch.

‘Hang on, mate.  Blind Jewish kids, sure, specially the ones around here.  You’re not talking about blind Romans, are you?  You’re not trying to get us to care about the Samaritans, with their funny accents and their religion that’s all wrong?  Anyway, it’s them that oppresses us.

What Jesus does is to give us a nudge, to challenge us with the idea that if God is for the last and the least – then if we’re along for the ride we’re going to get pushed out of our comfort zones pretty quickly.  God’s priorities don’t respect national boundaries, or ethnic or religious ones either.  And that’s the challenge, because God’s grace that we know we want can sometimes prove too much for us, the grace that we want to be on the receiving end of can be too hard for us when we realise that it comes with a challenge for how we live.  If God is for the last and the least, then who are we for?

Real prophets, the ones that truly speak God’s words, annoy us because they challenge the smallness of our thinking.  Jesus, we know, is going to make a fatal habit of this, getting good Bible-believing Jewish folk offside by his vision of a God who refuses to stay pinned down.  The paradox is that for the good folk of Nazareth because they couldn’t accept the prospect of God’s grace being showered indiscriminately on foreigners they missed out themselves!  And of course we see the shadow of the cross in this narrow escape as Jesus somehow gives them the slip, melts into the crowd and, so far as Luke’s gospel is concerned, never goes back to his hometown ever again.  From then on, the good news is going to be for out-of-towners, for sinners and tax-collectors, for centurions and Samaritans. 

So what is the good news for us in this story?

Prophets, I think, challenge us not only to a wider view of the world we live in, but also to a wider vision of who we ourselves are.  For example, Tim Costello invites us as Australians to discover ourselves as a people of compassion and generosity.  Noel Pearson invites us to cherish our ethnic diversity and to love justice, Tim Flannery invites us as Australians to see ourselves in an intimate and life-giving relationship with the land we spring from.  Prophets annoy the heck out of us, because they challenge us to see not just what we are, but who we could be.  Jesus invites God’s people to take God’s point of view, to become co-creators of God’s future and along the way, to grow into God’s vision of who we are as well.

And that’s good news.