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Prophets in Plainclothes

Luke 1:26-45

I recently got a new phone. Finally, my phone of some five years bit the dust. So I got a new one…actually a year or so old, but new enough. And you will not be surprised that the best of this new phone for me is the camera. My new phone has a second lens with a wide-angle focus, and it is great. I can see so much more with this setting, when it pulls back and uses the wide-angle.

It is time for us to pause for a moment and take a wide-angle view of Scripture. Over these last months, we have been looking at the stories of the prophets in the Old Testament. But today, we pivot to the New Testament and look at the story of the Annunciation to Mary and her response. But perhaps taking this wide-angle view, we see that it is not much of a pivot at all. It could be argued that Mary finds herself in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, alongside of Hannah and Huldah, and Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Elijah and Daniel and Joel. Look again at the ways that the prophets speak, and watch how Mary fits into the same mold. Like the prophets of Old, Mary had eyes to see, ears to hear, hands to hold, and a mouth to speak.

First, our wide-angle view shows us that the prophets had eyes to see the pain that surrounded them. Hannah saw the injustice of the priests of Yahweh…Elijah saw the injustice of the kings of Israel…Jonah saw the injustice of the Assyrians…Huldah and Jeremiah saw the injustice of the Babylonians…Joel and Isaiah saw the injustice of the rubble left after the Exile. And 400 years later, Mary saw the injustice of the Romans and the political faith leaders who aligned themselves with them. When Mary sings her song of prophecy, she sings of those on their thrones being toppled and those poor and lowly lifted up. Mary—and all of the prophets of God—had eyes to see the injustice that surrounded them.

Second, the prophets had ears to hear. Do you notice how many of God’s prophets began their prophetic ministry with a life of listening, of solitude, of prayer and fasting, of seeking Torah and God’s commandments, and learning what God was saying to them for that moment. They have ears to hear:

the prophet Elijah sat alone at the banks of the Wadi…the prophet Hannah prayed fervently in the house of the Lord…the prophet Jeremiah sat in prayer and worship where he was told that God knew him before he was formed in the womb…the prophet Isaiah sat in the Temple and saw it filled with God’s presence. And again and again the story tells us that Mary went to prayer, to quieting her heart and opening her ears. She pondered these things…treasured them in her heart. She listened to and spoke to and eventually consented to the call of the angel. In the quietness, she learned to hear God’s voice speaking to her. Mary had ears to hear.

Third, the prophets all had hands to hold. So often, the work of prophecy was a lonely work. But rarely did a prophet spend their whole ministry without seeking shared community with others: Elijah joined with the widow of Zerephath and her son and watched God’s power at work……Joel found himself surrounded by those who would speak a similar word: old women and men dreaming dreams, young women and men seeing visions…Huldah created a community of teaching and learning about Torah amongst the women of Jerusalem. And Mary headed into the hill country of Judea to find her cousin and celebrate that she, too, had a baby of promise on the way. There, in a moment of contagious joy, she sang her prophetic song. As Elizabeth spoke a word of Gospel good news, Mary joined and sang in harmony.

Which brings us to what is probably the most well-known attribute of the prophets of old: they have mouths to speak. Hannah sang. Huldah gave her oracle. Jeremiah preached his object lessons. Jonah preached all the way across the massive city of Ninevah. Daniel spoke to kings. Isaiah and Joel spoke to the destitute. And Mary sang the Magnificat! What a prophetic word of joy and hope for those who were suffering! What a powerful word of turning, of upending, of transformation and change. I think that the Old Testament prophets get a bad rap. So many people are ready to throw them out, indeed the whole Old Testament because they read of their prophetic words of change and transformation and justice, and think that they are Debbie Downers. But they all spoke a word of hope to those who needed to hear hope. To those who were on the outside looking in. Mary—here in the New Testament you’ll notice—also has plenty of bad news for the rich and powerful on their thrones. But it comes in conjunction with the word of gospel good news to those at the end of their ropes, with their backs against the wall. Mary sings a prophetic word of hope, in the tradition of the prophets who come before her…and in anticipation of the son who will sing that song throughout the rest of history.

46 My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I have one more word to share about my phone camera. Not only is there this awesome wide-angle lens that can step back and see everything at once, but there is yet another lens that zooms in. Again, I love it because it gives me the chance to really close in tight and explore things on a macro level. And perhaps that is just as meaningful a way to look at Scripture. The folks at the Two-Way also seem to do this well: they zoom in and capture just the essence of a text. Every week they give me profound wisdom to what a Scripture passage is really talking about. They drill down and ask, “what does this have to do with me? With us?” And this week was no exception. For as they read the story of Mary, they asked profoundly, “what is God birthing in me?” “How many of us allow the holy spirit to impregnate us?” They get that we, too, have the potential to find ourselves in the same prophetic tradition as Mary and the Old Testament prophets. I just finished a book by a spiritual giant, Henri Nouwen, titled Reaching Out, in which he speaks of the spiritual life in ways that remind me of these four tasks of the prophet: eyes to see…ears to hear…hands to hold…and mouths to speak.

Nouwen first invites us to have eyes to see the world around us: “A real spiritual life…makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of our contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.”  He writes of the importance of opening our eyes the world around us, like the prophets did, and seeing rightly what is happening. Only by opening our eyes to this injustice can we begin to respond how God would have us respond.

Next, much of what Nouwen teaches is a life of tuning our ears to hear. To listen to God in solitude. For Nouwen, to learn how to be patient in solitude, like the prophets of Old and like Christ himself, is the key to a life of faithful prayer. I could read the whole book to demonstrate his description of how to pray like the prophets of old, but here is one short passage that highlights this crucial attitude: “Prayer, therefore, is God’s breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God’s inner life, and by which we are born anew. So, the paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort which it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organize or manipulate God; but without a careful discipline, we cannot receive him either.” What a profound way to look at the life of prayer! He says that we must meditate on Scripture, spend time in solitude, work on these spiritual practices, but it is not our work but God’s work in us that creates true prayer. Humbly, we listen, with ears to hear.

Then, according to Nouwen, we are able to move outside of ourselves into community. Just like the prophets, we reach out for hands to hold. The wisdom of history teaches us, the guidance of spiritual directors, and the community of faith: “Just because prayer asks for a patient waiting in expectation, it should never become the most individualistic expression of the most individualistic emotion, but should always remain embedded in the life of the community of which we are part. Prayer as a hopeful and joyful waiting for God is a really unhuman or superhuman task unless we realize that we do not have to wait alone

Finally, Nouwen reminds us that part of our response to this life of faith is to become people of confrontation. I like a part of the reason that we get nervous around those Old Testament prophets, and even Mary in the Magnificat is that we don’t like the confrontation that it invites. But Nouwen suggests that that is part of what it means to have mouths to speak: “When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers, but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly.”  Nouwen reminds us that real relationship…and not just sappy sentimentality…includes hard conversations, hard honesty, and truth-telling. But even in those hard words, there is hope. There is good news. There is the power of a prophetic word, even from those who don’t feel like prophets.

In fact, sitting in front of us today is an opportunity for each of us to ask “what is God birthing in me today?” The Spiritual Leadership Team has initiated a process of partnership with Central Seminary titled Reshaping Church.” Together, we plan to do these four steps of prophetic ministry, as we together ask “what is God birthing in us?” First, we will look to the world around us with eyes to see. How are people hurting? What needs are most pressing? What injustice to we see around us? Second, we ask together in prayer and devotion with ears to hear, “what is God saying?” We will pray together, read Scripture together, and many of us have been reading the Reshaping Advent devotions in preparation. God is speaking, and we have ears to listen. Third, we will reach out our hands in community. Small groups will gather. We are already partnering with other churches. We will discern and pray and learn together, sharing with one another that contagious joy. With hands to hold. Finally, we will speak. We will share the words of hope and Gospel with the world, for we have voices and mouths to speak.

Now, perhaps it feels inadequate and perhaps a little inappropriate to compare ourselves to the mother of our Savior! Her prophetic word came with a once-in-history promise. But Mary wouldn’t have imagined that she was a prophet…

Before she was Mary, Mary was just Mary.

Before she was Hannah, Hannah was just Hannah.

Before she was Huldah…before he was Nathan…before he was Isaiah. Jeremiah. Joel. Jonah. Deborah. Nathan. David. Elijah. They all had reason to say, “who me?” The prophets of God were just Average Joes and Average Marys before they were…well Joseph and Mary. None of them were paid to stand up and speak a word from the Lord. None of them had degrees or titles or ordinations or positions. Know what they had?

Eyes to see. Ears to hear. Hands to hold. Mouths to speak.

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