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The Prophets

Salisbury Cathedral from the water meadows at dawn
Posted By : Edward Probert Saturday 14th December 2013

Preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

 

Isaiah 35.1-10

Matthew 11.2-11

 

If I say the three words 'Zadok the priest', there is a pretty good chance that you will immediately think of the choral piece by Handel, and maybe also that you could tell me what the next four words are.                    '...and Nathan the prophet'. Written for the coronation of George II in 1727 and used at every coronation since, and with its repetitions of the phrases 'Long live the king.....may the king live for ever', it's hard to imagine a piece of music which could be more 'establishment'. It poses no kind of threat to the powers that be - quite the opposite: it proclaims the alignment of God himself with the anointed ruler, using texts drawn from the account in the Old Testament of the coup d'etat which brought Solomon to power.

 

So let me remind you of an earlier intervention by Nathan the prophet in the royal affairs of his nation, following one of the many sordid incidents in the life of King David - who was, by the way, the ruler who seems to have had the most enduringly effective spin doctors ever. David's roving eye had been caught by a beautiful woman, who happened to be married to one of the king's most loyal military commanders: he sent for her, and either seduced or raped her, and then, because she became pregnant, arranged for her husband to be killed. Nathan pops in to see his king and tells him a simple story about a wealthy person stealing a prized lamb from his poor neighbour; David is outraged, and says 'the man who has done this deserves to die!' And Nathan the prophet says to the king: 'You are the man!'

 

Speaking uncomfortable truth, and especially to powerful people, was one of the key roles of the prophets. Some of them may, like Nathan, have been at court, among and consorting with the rulers, but no genuine prophet would merely have been of the establishment, saying what these people wanted to hear. The prophets existed to be the wild cards of their religion, the unpredictable element which balanced the sacred routines of the regular worship of the temple, and of the court of the king whom they believed to have been appointed by God. So their behaviour was marked by bizarreness -  working themselves into frenzies, speaking poetically and using unfamiliar metaphors; by talking about the future and the intervention of God; and by the kind of stark criticism of authority which we heard from Nathan, but could also find in Micah, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and in many others down to John the Baptist many hundreds of years later. In each of these aspects - odd behaviour, talk of God changing things, criticism of the way things are - they did not fit in. They were an unsettling presence, and so they were often unwelcome, frequently paying the kind of high personal price for their vocation which was to be paid by John the Baptist.

 

Any worthwhile system needs people who perform some such role, the grit in the oyster which, though uncomfortable, can produce the pearl. The powerful, the prosperous, the successful, are always inclined and able to mould things to their own convenience, to construct a cocoon of comfort around themselves. That security, that established comfort, that preservation of things as they are, can seem the most important thing - in other words, it can become an idol, something with usurps the place of God. And God, who is all in all, is from this point of view a very wild card indeed, not impressed by cosy human self-security in the way things are, but driving us on into a future which will be very different. Not simply, with Nathan and Zadok, saying 'may the king live for ever', but also with Nathan asking the king 'Why have you despised the word of The Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?'

 

However close we are to power of any kind, we followers of Christ have to learn from the prophets.

When you flocked to see John the Baptist, Jesus asked the people around him, did you go out to see someone dressed in comfortable clothes, who blows with the wind? No, you went out to admire someone very odd - a prophet, here, in your own day, the greatest of the prophets. The person who makes you confront what you don't want to think about, but which in your heart of hearts you know to be true.

 

So, before we settle too deeply into the comfortable settee of Christmas religion, and enjoy the fat food of Yuletide cheer, we would do well to take some of the Advent medicine of the prophets. How do we use the power that we have? Our social relationships, our working structures, our use of wealth and influence, our politics and the systems of our society: do  these things honour God, or are they self-serving? Do we honour God with our lives, or only with our lips? Where does God wish to prick the bubble of our contentment?

 

In recent years I have spent many happy hours patronising a member of the cathedral's finance department who happens to be Australian, and with each successive cricket series I have benefited from a modest wager with her, to the tune of a bottle of wine. In recent weeks, however, I have spent almost as many hours avoiding Tracey - because although just a few months ago English dominance seemed secure, we now experience the spectacle of England being completely crushed. What looked solid proved to be very flimsy; they, and we, believed their own publicity.

 

Let's examine our own publicity; let's welcome the prophetic challenge to align our lives afresh with God, to come to the light where all the stuff we'd rather keep in the dark is exposed. And, in being purged of all that self-serving dross, let's open the way to see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.