Our monthly Be-Loving The Bible Series brings us to The Prophets this week. In this Epiphany Season of the Light, the powerful light imagery of the Prophet Isaiah is still with us from Christmas.
Although Christianity chose to interpret these passages as predictions of Jesus, that was not their prophetic purpose. The Prophets were mystics who personally experienced God calling them to “speak truth to power.” They challenged the domination systems of their times, even questioning and confronting kings. But sometimes they were also called to motivate and inspire the ordinary Hebrew people, when they had lost energy and hope for following God’s way. The prophets did not threaten or judge the ordinary people, but used dramatic words and theatrical actions to energize them.
The familiar, light filled passages from Isaiah you are about to hear are one of the most energizing prophetic speeches for me. Second Isaiah – for there were two or three figures in different historical moments gathered in the book under this name – this one was speaking to the Israelites of his community, in Babylon around 500 B.C. They had lived there in exile since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Now, with Persia about to overthrow Babylon, the Israelites were being allowed to go home. But many didn’t want to return. Their lives as second generation immigrants in Babylon were not bad. So it took an inspiring prophetic voice to encourage the Hebrew to go back to their homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
These verses illustrate and illuminate the “energizing” role of Israel’s prophets. Hear how eloquently the Prophet Isaiah shone the light of hope that moved his people to their journey of return.
Reading of Isaiah 61:1-4, 62:1, 60:1-5a, 19-20 by Paul
I love Isaiah’s light imagery because my very first meditation vision, one that energizes me still, was an experience of a being surrounded by a bright, suffusing pink light, accompanied by the words: “See the light. Make the light. Be the light.” It was an unforgettable ‘God moment’ that still lights me up from inside, and it helps me imagine how these ancient prophets could have known that God was truly giving them messages. Not that I have any illusions about being a prophet – but having had a few ‘God infused’ moments, I can imagine these prophets living their God-infused lives. Having felt the Spirit energy and intensity that arrives with a calling, I can see how they dared to do what they said God was calling them to do.
The stories of these mystical prophetic figures, writ so large and dramatic in the Bible, do echo in smaller experiences in our own lives. As we discussed Monday night in our group, many of us have moments when we feel the Spirit calling or pushing us to stand up against some injustice. Sometimes we are even given just the right words.
We usually think of the prophets as the voice of God’s judgement – that challenging voice insisting that we change our ways – or else! The prophets, including John in the New Testament, are the stars of modern fire and brimstone theology. But in their historical contexts, the Biblical prophets addressed their threats not to the ordinary people, but to their kings, when the rulers were abusing their power. The prophets were respected and often feared by Kings for their audacious, God-inspired pronouncements. I think of the prophets as ‘the official opposition’ in their day. They were also perhaps the first political theatre artists, galvanizing public attention with their eccentric symbolic actions – like First Isaiah walking naked in the marketplace to expose Isael’s shame. Like Jeremiah wearing an oxen-yoke to his audience with King Zedekiah, telling the king to wear the yoke of submission to Babylon, or risk the destruction of Jerusalem.
The prophets, with their God-given political messages, are at the root of our United Church social gospel. John the Baptist stands in their line, as does Jesus, who stands for us still, the brightest of the God-infused Hebrew prophets.
Today, in spite of the fire and brimstone Christians, we need not fear the pronouncements of the prophets when we are in right relations. But the prophetic voice has been an important voice for us Christians to hear, in times when our religion has been aligned with the powers that be – from the Roman Empire until so recently. Whenever we are amongst ‘the power’, misusing our power and privilege, we are due to hear from the prophets. When our privileged lives align with governments and institutions (the Kings of our day) and those powers contribute to the oppression of others or the abuse of Creation, God will call some to be prophets – with judgements for us too.
But we are also due to hear from God’s prophets when we are deeply discouraged in our work for a just world. When we stand with Jesus and the Prophets, on the side of the oppressed, we stand for non-violence and peace, and we find the words of the Prophets energizing. The powerful social change movements of the 60s were prophet-inspired. From Martin Luther King to Bob Dylan, we heard quotes from the prophets. Political demonstrations borrowed from the tradition of prophetic street drama. Folk songs like the one we sang Monday night, “Let justice roll, light a mighty river…” quote the prophets to raise our righteous passions.
Wherever we feel called by Spirit to be the activists and the pacifists who stand up for justice and peace in our time, we can return to the biblical words of the prophets. Echoing powerfully through history, they can still energize us with hope and move us to action – as Isaiah’s light moved the Israelites.
Arise, shine; for your light is come! You shall see and be radiant.
The Spirits call to obey!