The prophets were an interesting group of people. Sometimes misunderstood (sometimes understood perfectly). Sometimes an outsider to the community (more often members of the community). Usually called to speak a difficult word to a people that might not receive it. The prophets sometimes spoke and sometimes demonstrated their message (think Hosea’s marriage to Gomer). The message would typically involve a word of judgment that would end with a future hope, a new beginning that God would bring about. But, even with the promise of a new beginning, hearing judgment passages was difficult (who likes judgment?).
This seems to be the general pattern of prophetic ministries – speaking difficult words of judgment that would eventually emerge as God’s new work. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jonah, Hosea, John the Baptist all lived out these kinds of ministries. Sometimes those words were rejected and at other times they brought about confession and redemption. But, it rarely left people on the fence, but called for response.
While this pattern is important and indicative of how we might preach in our contexts, it neglects an important aspect of the prophetic: weeping and lamenting. The prophetic ministry is sometimes viewed as dispassionate truth-telling. No doubt truth-telling is in view in prophetic proclamation, but the prophets were hardly disinterested robots that did not feel the sting of the prophetic word they had initially received. In fact, most of the prophets suffered, wept, and lamented what they saw coming and what they were called to communicate. The passion that drove much of the prophetic proclamation to the community of faith was rooted in the fact that these prophets wanted the best for the people of God. They desperately wanted to see God’s new future take root. And, they knew that they were as much a part of the problem as everyone else. They did not stand outside of the scope of the message of judgment they had received and were called to communicate.
Isaiah hears a word of serious judgment against Israel. His first reaction to being confronted by God’s presence is to recognize that he is a “man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.” In other words, it is lament and confession that drives Isaiah’s further oracles of judgment and redemption. But, I think it is informative that Isaiah’s prophetic power is rooted in his lament over the community and the part he plays in their brokenness.
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” Perhaps he had a mood disorder, but it is just as likely that his mourning is deeply rooted in the destruction he sees that lies ahead. He identifies with the pain and knows it only too well as a personal reality. Jeremiah mourns what is lost, mourns for his people, and mourns for the disconnection between God’s people and God. Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet. It’s a wonder his words could be heard through the tears.
Others could be mentioned. But, I think Jesus embodies the prophetic lament. While standing outside of Jerusalem, Jesus sees a fig tree bearing no fruit. He curses the fig tree to shrivel up because it lacks fruit. The curse on the fig tree is a symbol of the coming judgment upon Jerusalem. A few scenes later, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you.” Jesus’ prophetic words are mixed with the sorrow born of weeping for that which he loves. Jesus compares himself to a mother hen that desires to draw Jerusalem close but is instead rejected. The prophetic words, even difficult words, arise out of the deep love for God’s people.
Prophetic words are spoken from the deepest ache of a heart that longs for God’s new life to break out. These are words spoken out of grief and lament, mourning and woe. To be prophetic, in the best sense of the word, is to weep as one standing under judgment but who must proclaim the judgment so that redemption, salvation may follow. And, the prophetic ministry is one that laments the gap between where we are at as a community and where God desires us to be.
Prophetic words are intended to draw us toward God’s new, preferred future. But, it’s not always the case that the community wants to move in that direction. We’re comfortable where we are situated. We’re familiar with the way things are and don’t see any real need for movement from this spot. Or, we may desire for things to be different but expect God to do the new thing in the same way that God acted in the past. Although God acts in continuity with God’s previous action, God will sometimes do an entirely new thing.
I think the prophets have given us an example of what it means to be able to move toward God’s new future. It involves weeping and lament as well. It’s okay (most of the time) to weep what has been lost, the sense of displacement that we experience when things change. It’s okay to weep over what once was but will not be again. Mourning can be an appropriate response, but we cannot remain there. “Weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Weeping, lamenting, mourning our sense of loss can be helpful for us to move toward what God has in store. Holding on to our past by refusing to weep may end up meaning that we miss out on the joy which God has in store for us.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everything about our past, our traditions are wrong or will suddenly be changed. There do remain things that are consistent with our history. We aren’t going to get rid of prayer, reading scripture, communion, baptism, and many other aspects of our common life together. These elements have played a significant role in the life of the Church from its beginning and have been testified to in the experience of the community of faith over time. There’s longevity in their practice because of those things.
But, there are many things that the early Church did that we no longer do. Most of us don’t speak Greek or Aramaic. We don’t sing the songs the early Church sang. We don’t organize our life together in the same ways. We don’t necessarily use the same methods of leadership, accountability, or finances. We’ve incorporated things from our culture that have sometimes helped us do things the early Church couldn’t do – like using technology to reach more areas of the world with the Gospel. Change is sometimes necessary as the culture shifts for us to communicate the Gospel anew again and again. Although not all change is beneficial or faithful, change is a part of life and it has always been a part of the Church. If it the early Church had not been willing to change as the Spirit led, then, as Gentiles, we wouldn’t be part of the Church. Faithfulness sometimes requires that we change our methods and means for communicating the Gospel.
The difficult part is in deciding and discerning when that must happen. When must we change and what must we preserve? Is this like putting new wine in new wineskins? Is this like sewing an old piece of material on an old shirt? When is one appropriate over the other? That can be a hard tightrope to walk. But, as the prophets demonstrate, walking into that new future means that some things are pruned in order for new life to emerge. Lament the distance between where we are and where God desires us to be. As we do so, in all love, crying out to God readies us for what God is doing now.