Joel 2:28-32 & Luke 4:14-21

Inspiring Hope. Warning of Danger.

I wonder if you can guess when these were said?
• “Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments.”
• “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.”
• “Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”
Answers at the end 🙂

This morning we are continuing to celebrate Advent, looking forward to our celebrations of Jesus’ first arrival on earth and also looking forward to, and preparing for, Jesus’ second arrival on earth. Today we are focussing particularly on the prophets and prophecy. We’re looking back to the prophets who foretold Jesus first arrival and thinking about what role prophecy has today as we await Jesus’ return. Now we’ve heard some spectacular failures of “prophecy” but Biblical prophecy is not so much foretelling the future as forth-telling what God is saying, which sometimes happens to include things which are going to happen in the future. Usually the things that are included as future events in Biblical prophecy depend on what people do in reaction to the prophecy. If they take heed of the prophecy there is one outcome, if they ignore the prophecy there is another outcome.

This dual nature of the future aspects of most prophecies seems to me to provide a clue as to the two main purposes of prophecy, and of the role of the prophet. The first purpose is to warn of danger and the second purpose is to inspire hope. The two main purposes of prophecy are to warn of danger and to inspire hope.

To help us to understand this, lets look at three examples of prophecy that we had in today’s readings.

Now, we don’t know very much about Joel. This means that it is not really possible to identify the particular threats or injustices that Joel prophecies against or the future events he describes (except one – which we will come back to) Yet this very uncertainty is part of the agelessness of the book. It is not about foretelling, it is about forthtelling. About half the book is warnings of danger – the invasion of the enemies of God’s people, of their wrongdoing and violence. The other half is about inspiring hope – that God will rescue, will intervene on behalf of God’s people, will restore peace and justice.

The short passage from the book that we read a few moments ago also shows this dual purpose. There is the inspiration of hope of the pouring out of God’s spirit, the promise that old and young alike will hear from God, the promise of rescue for those who call on the name of the Lord. Intertwined with this are the warnings, – the signs and portents that those who do not call on God will fear on the great and terrible day of the Lord.

The second prophet I’d like us to think about is Isaiah. We didn’t hear from him directly, but we heard his words repeated by Jesus. Isaiah is one of the key prophets of the Old Testament, and throughout his ministry we also see these twin themes of warning and of inspiration. In the passage that Jesus quotes we hear both. It’s easy to hear the inspirational hope – there is good news, freedom, sight for those who are downtrodden, captive, and in darkness. But in the background is the warning as well, there is the reality of the fact that people are downtrodden, poor, in chains, in a way that is not right. Jesus actually stops reading at an interesting place. The next sentence in the book of Isaiah makes the warning explicit, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God,” Whilst Jesus might not have said it out loud, everyone in that Synagogue would have known the next line, it would have been in their heads even if the sound hadn’t reached their ears. The warning of the prophet is there.

Isaiah warns the people of God against injustice, against despising God, against putting other things in the place of God, against having a religious front with a hard heart, and his warnings are uncompromising. Leavening these warnings are beautiful passages promising redemption and hope for a bright future for an obedient and loyal people, if that is what they choose to be. Of an anointed one who will come and rescue the people from the mess that they have got themselves into. Of Jesus.

And Jesus is the third prophet I want to look at this morning. Of course Jesus was much more than just a prophet, but it is true to say that as well as healing, and teaching, and calming storms, he also had a prophetic ministry. He warned of danger and he inspired hope. In this passage, as he claims that he is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, he inspires hope. This is that which was promised, the Kingdom is breaking through, it is being fulfilled. And actually, now I come to think of it, even his teaching and healings had this prophetic quality. He inspired hope that life can be lived differently.

Think for a moment about Jesus’ teaching recorded in Matthew’s account of his life, that is known as the sermon on the mount. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. Inspiring hope. Blessed are you when people persecute you … with a warning of danger. Think of many of his healings which inspired hope in the crowds but came with a warning to those who thought they had religion all buttoned up, the religious leaders and bookworms.

So, in the words and actions of these three prophets, in their very lives we see these twin threads of prophecy, of forth telling God’s words, of inspiring hope and warning of danger.

So, what about us today? Where does prophecy fit into our understanding? What is the place of forth telling God’s word, of warning and of inspiring.
I said that we would come back to the prophecy of Joel’s that we know was fulfilled in history very specifically. The Spirit has been poured out on all people, as Joel said it would be, at Pentecost. We know this because Peter quotes this part of Joel’s message as he explains what is happening to the crowd on that very day. “This is that” is what he says.

From then the good news of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem, on into the known world, as those filled with the hope inspired by Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, carried it out and shared it with people. As the churches start to grow there are some teething problems and so Paul writes to them to guide and instruct them. In his writing about spiritual gifts he talks about prophecy a fair amount, he even writes to the Christians in Corinth, “eagerly desire the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.”

I wonder if we do that. I wonder if we eagerly desire the gift of prophecy? I wonder if part of expressing that desire is to make space in our times together, in small groups and in our larger gatherings for us to listen to the Holy Spirit and for us to share what we think God might be saying for consideration and discernment. Now, it may be that as I’m speaking the Holy Spirit will be prompting something in you. After I’ve finished there will be a short time of quiet, and again during communion there will be space for us all to listen to God, to invite the Holy Spirit to speak to us. If you do feel that there is something that is to be shared with the whole gathering, then please approach one of the members of the prayer ministry team, wearing the green lanyards, who will pass it on to Margaret, and if she feels that it is appropriate to share it with everyone this morning then she will.

But it’s not just about Sunday mornings and what happens in our meetings. It seems to me that the witness of the New Testament is that all Christians are called to live prophetically, in the sense that we all forth tell God’s goodness.

We are all called to inspire hope. This is not to pretend to a happiness we don’t feel, or to offer the false and easy comfort, of “there, there, it’ll be all right”. Sometimes it isn’t all right. That’s the great thing about godly prophecy, it doesn’t pretend that everything’s all right. It’s often shockingly real about the many ways in which everything is not all right, and whilst seeing and recognising this reality, yet points to a hopeful future in which God will work all things for the good of those who love God. We can all do this. It seems to me that David and Lorraine’s marriage on Thursday was a prophetic act. It inspires hope. We know what the reality is, it’s painful and there’s a hard road ahead, but there is also hope – not vague good wishes, but the reality of the hope of love in the most painful time and of life to come beyond death. This inspires hope in me.

Then there is the task of warning of danger. I hate this aspect of prophetic ministry. This is partly because I don’t enjoy conflict, partly because I’ve seen too much of Christians on radio or television shrilly objecting to things that aren’t that important, and partly because I hate the thought of someone pointing out to me where I might be going wrong. But, then I look at history and I do see the value of this. Wilberforce had a prophetic ministry to this country in warning of the injustices of slavery, it made him unpopular with many people who did not want to hear what he was saying, but it was necessary. On the flip side I’ve seen marriages wrecked and people sliding away from faith, or into entrenched positions which they can’t get out of because no-one had the courage to warn them that they were approaching danger.

I do have people who I trust to say to me, Tim you’re in danger of getting this wrong. Liz is very good at it. I’ve asked the Churchwardens here to warn me if I’m going off track in how I’m leading All Saints. We all need people we trust to warn us. At times I may have to warn this church if I see things that I think are a danger within it. Will you trust me to do that? Will you have a think in advance about how you are going to react when I do?

I do also believe that some people do have a particular spiritual gift of prophecy. This often includes the ability to have specific insights into a situation, that are not accessible from human perspectives. These might include words of knowledge, wisdom, and insight. Sometimes this includes an insight into the future, but this is usually as a by product of a choice that someone, or some people, need to make in the present. It also tends to include a credibility and an authority that others recognise and respond to.

On Thursday I went to the Christians Against Poverty centre in Bradford to hear and see the work that they do there, work that we are part of as we support the CAP Debt centre. I heard inspiring stories of those who had been freed from debt, of those who had come to faith, real people who had found hope. I heard the warnings of the dangers of poverty, unemployment, addiction, and lack of education. I was reminded of the words of warning of Isaiah and of Jesus telling of God’s preference for the poor and judgement against those who do not care for them. It was a prophetic message. It seems to me that the work of CAP and other ministries to the marginalised that we are involved with is part of our fulfilment of our prophetic call to inspire hope and warn of danger in our communities.

So, this week, I encourage you to take inspiration and hope from the words of the prophets who have spoken into your life, to heed the challenges that God has given you through them, to inspire hope in others through your words and actions and as Paul wrote, to “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.”

1) Roman engineer Julius Sextus Frontinus in AD 100.
2) John Eric Ericksen, surgeon to Queen Victoria in 1873.
3) Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General, in 1959.

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