Evensong 15th January 2017
Epiphany and prophecy
Sermon for Evensong 15 January 2017 – Ezekiel 2:1 – 3:4; Galatians 1: 11 – end
Epiphany and prophecy
I have a sense that we are rushing through January with alarming speed - but the very beautiful anthem we have just heard performed reminds us that we are still in the season of Epiphany. And we still have our crib at the front of church to remind us of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. Their journey and visit was itself a prophetic act – an act which foresaw the revelation of Christ as Saviour and Lord of the whole world.
Our readings today from the prophet Ezekiel and from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians represent both the prophecy of the Old Testament and the proclamation of the Gospel in the New. Both are ways in which God and His truth are shown forth amongst the nations. Ezekiel describes his calling by God to be a prophet. He has seen a vision of a scroll containing the words of God which he is invited to eat, so that he may then speak them out to the people of Israel. Paul too is at pains to point out that he received the Gospel message that he proclaims as a direct revelation following his dramatic encounter with Christ at his conversion rather than from any human source. God reveals Himself both through the written or spoken word and through the Word with a capital W, the person of Christ. More than two thousand years later we still receive God Sunday by Sunday in word, the reading and pondering of the Bible, the singing of the Psalms, and in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We too eat God’s word.
Ezekiel was both a priest and a prophet. He belonged to a learned elite. He was deported with the first exiles to Babylon; his prophecy is set during the exile. During this time, Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed. Given that all worship had centred on the Temple, and was corporate rather than private, it must have felt as if all the old certainties had been removed. There must have been a question as to whether faith in the God of Israel could survive at all in exile. “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?” as the Psalmist complains (Psalm 137).
Ezekiel has a message from God for his people. It’s cast in the most vivid of language with imagery that is sometimes designed deliberately to shock. But he has a tough audience. God tells him at the outset that they’re not going to listen to him.
A prophet usually speaks with God’s insight about their own time rather than foretelling the future. We’ve had our share of prophets in the last century or so. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, might be one of them. He has made it his life’s work to create inclusive communities that honour the divine in each person. He reminds us that people with intellectual disabilities should be treated with dignity and can teach others important lessons about love and vulnerability. Interestingly, this has involved actions as much as speaking out or writing – although Vanier has done that too. Another modern but secular prophet might be Rachel Carson, whose book ‘Silent Spring’ published in 1962 warned the world of the threat to the environment of the use of pesticides. Undoubtedly we need prophets for the 21st century too. Prophets who can catch the attention of the post-truth generation, who can speak truth not only to power, but to all of us.
It has never been an easy calling to be a prophet. Some, like Jonah, have run away instead! And in today’s fast-paced world of information overload and constant noise, how do we even hear the voice of the holy calling us to respond?
We are not, of course, all called to be prophets, or to be apostles in the sense that Ezekiel or St Paul were. But we are all called to live out our faith, and to be prepared to give an answer for it too. And we too eat the word Sunday by Sunday. We listen to it read, we hear it preached, we receive Christ in bread and wine. How then, might we expect to be changed by this?
The modern theologian Frances Young uses an analogy of music and its performance to talk about the relationship between our reading and living of Holy Scriptures. Music, by its nature, has to be performed; there are complex challenges involved in seeking authenticity in that performance. Similarly there are challenges in reading and understanding the Bible which was written over centuries and from within different cultures from our own. Musical performance does not consist only in accurately reproducing the notes as written by the composer, although it includes this. A great performer goes far beyond this, conveying the spirit and energy of the music without adding anything to the score. One of the features of both musical and dramatic performance is the sense of fresh spontaneity that can come from faithful attention to the score or the text. It won’t be apparent to the audience, but this only comes after considerable work to learn the text or the score, to internalize the music and make it one’s own.
I’d like to suggest that there’s an analogy for us here in the way that we all approach our faith – and the Bible in particular. We all have to live out our faith day by day in the world – at work or in whatever occupies us. If this is to be a robust and authentic performance some serious work may be demanded of us. As Lent approaches we might, perhaps consider joining one of the ecumenical Lent groups which will be running under the auspices of Churches Together in Hampstead. But there are plenty of other options for study – from one-off events to serious courses. Then perhaps we will know better how to sing the Lord’s songs in the strange and increasingly unstable world of the 21st century.