Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Ultimate Prophet

Texts: I Kings 17:17-24; Luke 7:11-17

WHAT IS A PROPHET? What does he or she do?

When I was in seminary, sometimes I'd go to the nearest big city to shop or attend a meeting or a concert or whatever.

On one of the main streets you were sure to see a certain character. He carried a placard, like a gigantic chalkboard, with words written on it in various colors. It was always the same message, and it said something like, "The wrath of God is coming! Don't eat cow, pig, beans, bird! Repent!" There was a lot more to it, against sex, drugs, violence and all, but that's the part I remember, how he called poultry "bird" and ranked "eating beans" as an abomination against God.

Is that a prophet? Is that what a prophet does?

But maybe a prophet is more somebody who predicts the future. Like your aunt who said you'd end up marrying that person you didn't like at first--and you did. Or the theorist who looks at the signs and predicts what the climate will be like in a hundred years, or when the next big war will occur.

Preachers of doom. Predictors of the future: That's how the general public thinks of prophets these days. We Christians would also point to prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah who spoke the word of the Lord and really could foretell the future, because God Himself was telling them what was to come. And we might debate whether prophets like that are around any more.

But I think we'd be pretty well agreed that being a prophet is about speaking a certain message, and that message is generally about what'll happen in the future. That's why it's called prophecy, right?

Which is why it might seem odd to hear the reaction of the crowd at Nain when Jesus raises the widow's son from the dead. He didn't preach, He didn't predict. But the people were all filled with awe and said, "A great prophet has risen among us!"

We might be tempted to ask, "Hey, folks, don't you mean 'a great miracle worker'? Where's the message from God in what Jesus just did?"

But the people of Nain were right in their reaction, more right than they knew, themselves. And it all comes down to what a prophet; that is, a prophet of God, really is.

In the Book of Numbers, the Lord says, "When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams." A prophet is one with whom the Lord truly communicates.

In Deuteronomy, the Lord declares, "If a prophet . . . appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder . . . takes place, and he says, 'Let us follow other gods . . . and . . . worship them,' you must not listen to that prophet." A true prophet of God will always give glory to God. He or she is faithful, and will never contradict what the Lord has handed down in His Word.

Also in Deuteronomy, the Lord speaks of a prophet to come and says, "I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will bring him to account." A prophet of God makes God's will known to the people.

In Zechariah, the Lord says, "[D]id not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers? Then they repented and said, 'The Lord Almighty has done to us just what our ways and practices deserved, just as he determined to do.'" A prophet calls people to repentance and declares what the Lord will do if they do not obey Him.

And in 2 Kings, a young Israelite slave girl tells her mistress about the prophet Elisha, saying, "If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." God demonstrates His presence and power through His prophets by the working of miracles.

In all these things, the true prophet is there for God's sake, and not for his own. A true prophet is sent to give us what God knows we need, not what we think we want. The true prophet is there to show God to us, that He might be worshipped and glorified.

The people of Nain knew that. They knew that God demonstrated His presence and love through His prophets and the miracles they worked. When they saw what Jesus did for the widow and her son, they gave God praise and said, "A great prophet has risen among us. God has looked favorably on his people!" They recognised that Jesus was a true prophet.

They saw it in His godly compassion. Luke says that when the Lord saw the widow walking in front of the bier of her only son, His heart went out to her, and He acted on her behalf.

They recognised it in His calm authority when He told her, "Do not weep." Jesus can say that because He can do something about the cause of her grief. For you or me to come up to a mother who's lost her only child and say, "Don't cry!" would be an obscenity and an imposition. Of course she should cry in the face of death! But Jesus can face death down. He has a right to say, "Do not weep!"

Then Jesus reaches out His hand and touches the bier. I wonder, did any of His disciples or any one in the crowd think, "Oh, no, Teacher, you mustn't pollute yourself by touching a dead body!"? If they did, it didn't matter, because life and cleanness were about to overcome death and corruption.

Jesus commands the corpse, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" He does; and Jesus, who has just given him new life, gives him back to his mother.

The townspeople are rightly filled with the fear of God. They rightly understand, as the Greek says, that "God has visited his people." It's significant that Luke the physician uses "visit" in the sense of a doctor coming to heal a patient, not "visit" in the sense of a judge coming to pass sentence. They recognise in Jesus a great prophet, like Elijah, coming in the Spirit, love, and life-giving power of the Lord.

Elijah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He was the prophet against whom all other prophets were measured. Elijah spoke God's judgement before kings and performed mighty wonders. Elijah brought God near to His people Israel, whether they wanted Him near or not. It is certain that when Jesus raised the widow's son at Nain, the onlookers immediately thought of the widow and her son at Zarephath and what had been done for them by the great Elijah.

But there's something they likely missed in their awe and praise. When Elijah raised the son of the widow of Zarephath, he had to ask God for the boy's life back. It was all up to the Lord. Elijah had no power of himself to restore life; he was an ordinary mortal like any of us. The boy was raised only when the Lord heard and acted on Elijah's prayer.

But Jesus can simply say, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" and the dead man sits up alive and healthy and begins to speak! Jesus can do that because He does have power in Himself to give life!

Jesus can do that because He is not merely a prophet, He is the ultimate prophet. He is the Word of God spoken directly from the mouth of God, incarnate among us. He is the Law of God lived out in all its purity here on this earth. He is the power and compassion of God demonstrated in signs and wonders among the people. Yes, God had come to help and heal His people! He was doing it in person, and His name was Jesus of Nazareth. No prophet before or since could ever be the Prophet that He is.

But in our hearts we wonder: if Jesus is the ultimate Prophet, and if He demonstrated the power of God by miracles like raising the widow's son at Nain, why didn't He go on to raise all widows' sons, and their daughters, too? Why doesn't He look down from heaven and immediately banish pain, suffering, and grief from all our loved ones?

If you're going through a hardship like this, I can't answer that question for you in your particular case. But taking the bigger picture, I would suggest that if Jesus did that, He wouldn't be the Prophet we need Him to be. No matter how we feed it, heal it, or prolong it, this earthly life of ours will come to an end. These mortal bodies will die and decay. They are infected with sin and never can be the perfect lives we all wish we had. They can never be worthy to stand in the presence of the perfect, holy God. Jesus healed bodies to give us a sample, a taste, of what life will be like in that day when He heals body and soul together.

And truly, God our Father knows what it is like to have an only Son die young. Jesus was the only innocent human being who ever lived. He is the only one of whom we can say, "He didn't deserve to die like that." Jesus didn't deserve to die at all!

But He did die, and God raised Him from the dead. His resurrection is the ultimate sign of God present with us. Already, if you have Him living in you by the power of the Holy Spirit, He's given you new life in your inmost being. Think of it: Jesus our Lord has already raised your spirit from the dead, and in His perfect time He will give you an undying body and make you perfectly whole.

The prophets of old represented the life and power and righteousness to God's people Israel. And even now, our Lord Jesus displays the power of God to us. He is the presence of God with us. He is the ultimate Prophet, Emmanuel, Christ the Lord.

All praise, honor, and glory be to you, Lord Christ, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

[Preached Thursday, 7 June, and Sunday, 10 June 2007]

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