Homily for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus – Joliet, Illinois
31 January 2021
Watch it here:
Let’s talk about the prophets!
When we hear the familiar words as Mass, “A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Habakkuk, Joshua, Amos, Hosea…” we tend to shift our brain to the place in there that helps us receive and interpret advice from the “wise man on the mountain”, someone who is far away from us, living a life radically different than us, who knows people we don’t, and who acts like a sort of rolodex or juke box: a rotating and eventually exhaustible set of platitudes and pious sayings meant to assuage the mind, provide temporary motivation, or, sometimes, call us out in our wrongdoing.
The prophets, as you may imagine, are so much more than this.
There’s a rabbi named Abraham Heschel who, in the 60’s, wrote a book called “The Prophets.” (You can guess what it’s about)
In this book, Rabbi Heschel refers to the prophets of the Old Testament as “some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: those whose inspiration brought the Bible into being – those whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.” (vii) Somewhere within their testimony, the prophets each share with us their “calling story”, when they were called from the world into God’s service as a prophet.
You might remember the story of Jeremiah, called as a young man to speak a word of warning and repentance to Jerusalem, lest it fall into ruin and be conquered…and he protests that he is too young and doesn’t know what to say. The LORD assures him that the words and warning will never be Jeremiah’s own, but will always be from God.
Probably the most famous call story of a prophet is that of the Prophet Isaiah, found in Isaiah 6:
In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they hovered. One cried out to the other, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with this glory!”
At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my lips with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
“Here I am,” I said; “send me!”
Did you follow the difference in Isaiah? The LORD reveals himself to the future prophet, and overwhelms him with the grandeur of his presence, and the splendor of his being. And in his protest, he reveals the beautiful truth about these Biblical prophets, and likewise about us who are called to be witnesses of Jesus in the world today: “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” In other words, “I am unworthy of you, God, living in a world surrounded by people who are unworthy of you, God! What have you to do with me?”
The prophet, in other words, is not a person who lives his existence on some far away cloud of perfection, but is a person called from the very midst of the unworthiness, the “uncleanness” (as Isaiah called it), that he is called to oppose. “The significance of the Israel’s prophets lies not only in what they said but also in what they were. We cannot fully understand what they meant to say to us unless we have some degree of awareness of what happened to them”…we must try to “relate what came to pass in his life – facing man, being faced by God”, caught between the two most profound realities of his whole life: the God of all power, the source of all life AND his own people, the people to whom he belongs. (viii)
He is convicted of the message God has given to him, and yet dismayed and limited in what he can do as he looks out at the “people of unclean lips”, a people, remember, of which he is a member.
“The prophet is a person” – with all that entails. Strengths, weaknesses, fears, joys, missteps, great feats, desires, doubts, dreams, and visions. “The prophet is a person, and not a microphone. [Prophecy is t]he word of God reverberated in the voice of man…He speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of his own situation.”
Therefore, we can say that the prophet is not some unrelateable, archaic, “outdated” person; the prophet “is also poet, preacher, patriot, statesman, social critic, moralist.” (viii) The world of ancient Judaism viewed itself as “woke” way before we ever did, and we saw that every time the world of ancient Judaism put its own manufactured “wokeness” ahead of its attachment the revelation God and the teaching of the prophets, it never – and I mean not even one time – ended well for them. The prophets were cancelled. Jeremiah the prophet was ignored and Jerusalem was overtaken by the Babylonians, exactly as he said.
Get this: Jeremiah warned the king at the time, King Zedekiah, that unless the people of Jerusalem turned from their ways, the city would be destroyed and handed over to the Babylonian army. But instead of heeding his exorbitant number of warnings, the officials in the king’s court (including the Pashur, the temple priest)m convinced Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be killed because he was disheartening the soldiers and the people.
There is no account of the death of Isaiah in the Old Testament, but tradition holds that we taken captive during the reign of Manasseh the king, and sawed in half by order of the king.
Rabbi Heschel says so well that “reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation.” (7) In other words, the prophets offer us a “snap” back to reality. Hey you! My people! The path is over here!
The words of the prophets are always connected to the particular history of the people to whom he preaches and to whom he likewise belongs. His utterances are never abstract, and are “rarely cryptic…it is urging, alarming, forcing onward, as if the words gushed forth from the heart of God, seeking entrance to the heart and mind, carrying a summons as well as an involvement. His images must not shine, they must burn.” (6-7)
What am I saying.
The prophets of the Old Testament are not far removed from the people to whom they are preaching. We’ve established that quite well. BUT – neither do they stand by and preach in judgement of the people, but rather out of true concern for the people. Because he is likewise a member of that people! His entire concern is “the very life of a whole people…He is one not only with what he says; he is involved with his people in what his words foreshadow.” Rabbi Heschel writes, “This is the secret of the prophet’s style: his life and soul are at stake in what he says.”
I say all of that so that when we hear the first reading today, we can have a better idea of what Moses is saying when he tells the people that God will raise up for them a prophet like himself, who will be 1) a prophet, calling the whole community to repentance and life which are only found in the one God of Israel and 2) who will be from among their own community.
It will be someone who knows them, who has walked with them, who has journeyed with them out of Egypt through the desert, and, quite possibly, someone who has even sinned with them! Someone who worshipped the golden calf with them at the base of Mt. Sinai!
But the Lord, through the mouth of Moses, establishes two conditions for prophecy. One for the people, and one for the prophet;
To the people, the Lord says “Look, I will give you a prophet. I will send someone who will be my mouthpiece in your midst. Whether you listen to him or not is totally up to you, but either way, you’ll be called on to give an answer for what you did with what the prophet told you. Did you repent? Why? Did you ignore the words? Why?”
To prophet, God says: “Hey, man, don’t get any funny ideas. I am the LORD your God and I am the one who fills you with knowledge and with truth. I didn’t choose you because you were doing so well with your little speaking business all on your own. I chose you to speak what I command you, that my people – the people to whom you likewise belong – will know me and return to me, for I am the Lord, their God. So speak what I command you, and speak only in my name.”
What do we learn from the prophets? That truth exists, and it comes from God. We learn that God reveals himself to us. We learn that to be about the work of God is not only important, but it is urgent. We learn that God, while he often reveals to us his very interesting sense of humor, is very rarely joking and that there are real consequences for ignoring him altogether, or (maybe worse) for receiving him and using him to justify the way we are now to the detriment of who God has created us to become.
Jesus, the Son, is the last and the greatest of the prophets, proclaiming definitively, once and for all, the ultimate truths of God: that he is real, that he is present, that is both merciful and just, that he says what he means and means what he says, and that God’s Truth as revealed to us in Christ is the only path to salvation in the next life and the fulness of being, the fulness of joy in this life on the earth.
The prophets challenge us to look at everything that we are about and ask, “is this of God?” And, if not, what must change?
The moral of the story? If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.