Sermon: Says Who?
So far in this series on angels, we have seen them bring news from God, both good and bad. They bring news of life and hope where there was only death and despair. They bring the two-edged sword of judgment: good for the righteous; bad for the wicked. Sometimes, they bring us news we would rather not hear, but also offer some comfort in those desperate circumstances.
This week, we speak of angels among us. Remember, angel just means “messenger,” particularly a messenger from God. Angels speak for God. Now, if someone shows up with big fluffy wings, we might take that person seriously as a messenger of God. It would be notable, an eyecatcher. But there are plenty of people today that claim that same authority and I’ve never seen wings.
In the old days – I mean the old, old days of the Hebrew Bible – the people who spoke for God were called prophets or priests. Priests spoke for God in their capacity as temple officials. Prophets spoke for God in their capacity as advisors to kings. Most of the time. The interesting thing about the prophets that have been included in our canon is that they were often speaking from the outside as critics of the rulers and priests.
Kings were supposed to act on behalf of God. According to Deuteronomy 17, they were not to raise armies or collect money, but instead were to read the law constantly to learn humility. Guess what they did? To manage all those armies they raised and money they collected, and to avoid thinking about God themselves, they had lots of prophets around them who were supposed to advise them on the word of God. But what they really wanted was to hear how great they were and how awesomely successful their plans were going to be. Most prophets knew where their bread was buttered. But there was always one. Take Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses (palaces), while this house (the temple) lies in ruins?”
Since they had returned from their exile in Babylon, the wealthy elite had rebuilt their fancy houses, but not the temple. Haggai saw a relationship between that and the fact that things weren’t going so well. We do this today. Whether in foreign lands or inner city streets, what we need is a church! These people need to hear the Gospel! And learn to act right! That will fix everything.
Of course, the priests love this idea. Those rich rulers are messing everything up. They don’t do what God wants. If there is a temple, we will tell them what God wants. That means we’re in charge. Everyone will tithe and bring offerings to us. Perfect! Not so fast, says another prophet, Third Isaiah – yes, there are three Isaiahs, at least: “What is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says YHWH.” Third Isaiah goes on to level some harsh criticism at the priests: “Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being; whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck.” God’s final analysis of the priesthood: “When I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen; but they did what was evil in my sight, and chose what did not please me.”
So here we have two prophets after the return from the Babylonian Exile, faced with a struggling society, and they have different ideas of how to resolve it. Haggai says to build a temple. People will then know the way of God and will follow it. Isaiah says it’s a waste, that the priesthood is ultimately corrupt. Both of them claim to speak for God. Both claim to be messengers.
Whether or not to build a church and how one should go about it is a great conversation to have, but I’d rather set that aside for another time. Instead, I’d like to ask how we know who to listen to? How do we know who speaks as a prophet? Who speaks for God?
How is God used to control conversations?
Isaiah 44:26 tells us that God fulfills the advise of God’s messengers. That is, we know a prophet when a person’s words become reality. Unfortunately, we can only know this in hindsight. About seventy-five years after Haggai and Third Isaiah differed over the value of the temple, Malachi, which means “my messenger,” had the benefit of that hindsight. Chapter 2 begins, somewhat ominously: “And now, O priests, this command is for you.” Uh-oh. What did they do wrong? Precisely what Third Isaiah said they would: “you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant.” Third Isaiah’s words became reality. The covenant of life and well-being was corrupt. The priesthood was corrupt, more concerned with sustaining itself than creating a just society. Sound familiar?
But that’s hindsight. How do we know, when someone speaks, that they are really speaking for God? If only we had some kind of core principles by which we could evaluate what people say. If only someone had stated clearly what God’s interests are. This time, bumper sticker theology gets it right: Jesus is the answer.
For Christians, Jesus is the lens through which we see everything. Jesus is the decisive re-presentation of God. God is always present, but Jesus re-presents God. And it is decisive in that, when confronted with this re-presentation, we must decide what to do. Jesus puts us to a choice. So, how does Jesus present God? According to Jesus, what does God want?
Weighing in on the question of temples versus kindness, he is pretty clear in Matthew 12: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” More generally, he announces his mission in Luke 4 saying, “The Spirit of God is upon me, because I am appointed to bring good news to the poor. I am sent to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s blessing.” Over and over, Jesus makes these kinds of proclamations, these appeals for the well-being of those who are pressed to the margins by abusive systems of power.
Interestingly, when he does, he is usually quoting a prophet. His mission statement in Luke is from Isaiah. When he tells the Pharisees that God demands compassion rather than sacrifice, he is quoting Hosea. We see this same set of concerns echoed over and over in the Bible, in the stories of the ancestors in Genesis; in the law of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus; in Amos and Isaiah and Hosea. Even Haggai, who is blind to the potential corruption of the temple, is focused on abuse by the wealthy that causes people to starve and freeze in the streets. Malachi sees it, too: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says YHWH the Powerful.” This isn’t new; all systems become corrupt because they forget the law. They forget the one who made them. They lose sight of why they exist at all. So they need critique and reform and renewal. But pay attention to what is being called for. Does God call for adherence to dogma? Does God call for locking down systems of power? Does God call for one person to exercise authority over another based on gender? Be wary of anyone who claims to speak for God and claims that God’s interests neatly dovetail with his own. And in this case, I definitely mean “his.”
There’s one other place I’d like to highlight where we see this set of concerns: the parable of the sheep and the goats. When judgment comes and people wonder why they are put to the left or the right, Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those who are commended are confused, not knowing when they had done these things, so Jesus explains: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Sometimes, God’s message is a call. The voice of God in the world is a call to the image of God in us. It confronts us. It addresses us. It demands a response. And, while that call is a question, it is also Good News. It is good news for the poor. It is good news for the sick. It is good news for the hungry. It is good news for the oppressed. It’s also good news for us. In hearing the voice of God, the image of God within is enlivened, quickened, empowered. It takes over. The more we listen and the more we respond, the less room there is for those demonic voices that try to run us down, diminish us, and make us captive. In listening to God’s call, we become the most who we are. In being who God created us to be, becoming the image of God that we already are, we can stand against power and for the powerless. We are anointed, chosen by God to hear the Good News, to speak the Good News, and to be the Good News for the world.