1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Quasimodo, the famous bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, had retired after many years on the job. So the Bishop sent word throughout the streets of Paris that a new bellringer would need to be appointed, one with only the greatest talent and skill.
After interviewing several promising candidates up in the bell tower, the Bishop was about to call it a day, when a man with no arms approached him announcing that he was there to apply for the post. The Bishop, incredulous declared, “My Son, you have no arms!”
“No matter” replied the man. He then proceeded to strike the bells with his face, producing the most beautiful melody throughout the streets of Paris. The Bishop was astonished at the man’s skill and his talent despite his great disability, and promptly offered him the job.
But the next day, while ringing the bells, the armless man tripped, and plunged headlong out of the bell tower to his death in the street below. By the time the Bishop arrived on the scene, a crowd had gathered around the fallen figure, drawn by the beauty of the music they had heard just a moment before. As they parted in silence to allow the Bishop through, someone asked, “Bishop, who was this talented man?”
“I don’t know his name” replied the Bishop sadly, “But his face sure rings a bell.”
Talents and skills come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes; some we seem to just be born with, and others seem to be the result of years of practice and development.
But those of you who were here last Sunday for the first sermon in our series this fall on “Spiritual Gifts, Spiritual Ministries” will recall that Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament are a little bit different. They are not, strictly speaking, “special abilities given by God to individual Christians.”
They are, rather, what we (collectively and individually) offer to God when we give our time, our energy, and our resources to God’s work in the world, particularly through God’s family, the church. The spiritual gifts that Paul describes in his letter to the Romans are ones that anyone can give, at anytime, not based on our own abilities or preferences, but based on the needs and opportunities in the community.
Sometimes, our God-given talents or our vocational skills just happen to line up with the needs of God’s community, and when they do, that’s great! But even when they don’t, we believe that God equips and makes ready anyone who steps ups and answers God’s call to a needed ministry.
So what are these Spiritual Gifts, these Spiritual Ministries at work in the church? There are many, but we’re focusing on the seven found in Romans 12: Prophecy, Ministry, Teaching, Exhortation, Giving, Leading, and Compassion.
Today, we’re going to talk about Prophecy. It’s the first one on Paul’s list, and possibly the most important gift that all of us can give to God, and to God’s people on a daily basis. Wait a minute…Prophecy? All of us? On a daily basis? You’re kidding, right, Pastor? You want all of us standing on the street corner predicting the end of the world?
Prophecy also happens to be the most misunderstood gift on the list. In today’s culture, the word “prophecy” has come to be associated with predicting the future, but that’s a far cry from its meaning in 1st century Greek, or its even older meaning in Ancient Hebrew. (By now, I hope you’re all aware of your pastor’s fondness for etymological excursions, so it’s not like you didn’t see this one coming!)
In the Old Testament, certain men and women were acknowledged to speak on behalf of God. They were known as the נְבִיאִים (Nevi’im). It literally means “speakers” or “spokespersons.” Much later, when Greek became the language of the Mediterranean world, this word was translated as προφήτης (propheteis). This is made up of two roots: προ = before, and φημί = to speak or declare. So a prophet is simply someone who speaks before. But speaks before what?
This is probably where the confusion comes in: Pro/before as a preposition can have the sense of time, as in “To speak about something before it actually happens.” And occasionally, prophets in the Old Testament would indeed speak about things that would then come to pass. Kind of like when my children are playing rough with each other and I say, “Knock it off, or someone’s going to get hurt!” Am I predicting the future? No, I’m issuing a warning about possible consequences. In the Bible, the prophet Jonah tells the people of Niniveh that God is about to destroy their city. But then they repent, they change their ways, and the “prediction” doesn’t come to pass (much to Jonah’s disappointment!).
Pro/before as a preposition doesn’t always have to do with time. It can also have to do with location, as in “He’s standing before me in line,” or “She stood before the people, and said…” Sometimes, the Old Testament prophets stood before the people, and spoke on behalf of God. But more often, they stood before the Kings, the Priests, the rulers, and the powerful authorities, and they spoke out on behalf of the poor, the sick, the widow and the orphan. And in doing this, they were speaking out on behalf of God, who cares for all of his children, especially the weak and the powerless.
In this sense, perhaps the greatest prophet of all was God’s own son, Jesus, who stood up to the powerful authorities of his day―the Pharisees and the Romans―and spoke out on behalf of prostitutes, criminals, people regarded as unclean or unforgiveable.
But an interesting thing happened at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, after his death and resurrection, just before he ascended into heaven. Those gathered around him on that day were probably expecting that he would appoint a succesor to carry on his prophetic work, just as Moses appointed Joshua to take over when he was gone, or just like the prophet Elijah appointed Elisha to succeed him. In fact, two of the disciples―James and John―had already sought out Jesus to ask for that privilege. Who would be the next great prophet, chosen by God’s own son?
Matthew 28:18-20 – And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Who is the great prophet called to carry on the work of Jesus, called to stand before the people and speak on behalf of God? Who is the great prophet called to stand before the powerful authorities and speak on behalf of the outsider, the foreigner, the lost ones and the least ones? Who is the great prophet called to proclaim the good news that we are loved, we are forgiven, we are redeemed?
Well…you are. I am. We all are. Prophecy―or speaking out about God’s love―is the first and (I believe) the greatest of the spiritual gifts that all of us can offer to God through the ministry of the church. You offer this gift when you sing in the praise band/choir, proclaiming the good news in song. You do this when you welcome a stranger in our midst with a smile and a kind word. You do this when you bring a meal to someone who is sick or grieving, or when you volunteer at Project Vida, or when you spend time teaching and caring for the children in our community, or reaching out to those who desperately need the love that this community has to offer.
Another name for this gift is evangelism (which is also a very misunderstood and misused word). It simply means proclaiming the good news. We are all evangelists; we are all prophets. We all proclaim something, whether it is intentional or unintentional. What message are you proclaiming to the world on a daily basis? Who are you speaking on behalf of, with your words, with your actions, with the use of your time, your energy, and your resources?
I’ll end with this story:
A driver did the right thing, stopping at the school crosswalk even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman behind him went ballistic, pounding on her horn and screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to drive through the intersection with him. Still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.
The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a cell. The woman was shocked at this treatment, which seemed a bit over the top for just losing her temper a little.
After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects. He said, “I’m awfully sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping the guy off in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him.”
“I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do’ license plate holder, the ‘Follow me to Sunday School’ bumper sticker, the chrome plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk and the ‘God is Love’ decal on your back window…”
“Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.”
People of First Presbyterian Church, may you boldly proclaim the good news of God’s love to all the world…with your your actions as well as your words, with your time as well as your treasures; may you love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and may you love your neighbor as yourself. And may your gift of prophecy bless and change the world.