We have now analyzed enough terms (or concepts) to form a foundation and establish some important shared understanding. We talked about homelessness and expanded that concept. Then we talked about prophecy and particularly explored it in terms of it being God’s word, an imaginative message, and the role of suffering within it. The shared understanding we now have should be enough of a foundation for us to build on. Now we must ask: What does the prophet do?
Prophets have a mission. There are prophetic tasks that God wants us to perform. While I cannot offer an exhaustive analysis of God’s mission here, I can lead you through some discussion that should equip you for beginning those tasks – and open your imagination to a wealth of godly possibilities.
At this point I want to reiterate a key point: We will make mistakes. This is natural. My advice is to have humility and make room in your heart for repentance. God loves you. God is gracious. And take heart, for as you grow, you become ever more perfect and more like him (Lev. 19:2/Deut. 18:13/Matt. 5:48). I make that point by way of caution. It is very easy to misuse prophecy. You do not want to be a false prophet or serve the wrong god. But there is grace and correction for mistakes. We need to be ready to avail that when necessary, but that is not the purpose of prophecy. So let’s get on with it, but hold to the cautionary advice as we go.
At this point I will share with you my mission statement that keeps me focused and humble. Here it is: Our job is to go to the place of shame, pain, and despair in our community and bear the image of God there.
After the foundation of shared understanding we have laid this far, it should be a rather rich and meaningful, mission statement for us now. I find it abides with Scripture and prayerful discernment, and no community of believers has ever challenged it. I am perfectly happy to share it with you, and, in fact, I believe it should be the mission statement of the entire Body of Christ in all its many expressions world-wide.
Yet there are still other dimensions to the mission that we need to discuss. I feel sure that as we move forward, you can keep this mission statement in mind and find application readily.
Oracles and Symbolic Acts
Let me make this observation: The Bible depicts two categories of godly prophecy. We call one category “oracles” and the other “prophetic/symbolic acts.” “Oracle” is a word we don’t use too much these days, but it basically suggests the idea that the prophet has some words to utter – a sermon. This idea goes hand-in-glove with preaching.
Prophetic preaching is vital to the life of the church and to the world that the church seeks to preserve. If you find that God puts this gift within you, then you should honor that. It is something you probably need to develop, and there are schools dedicated to helping you do that.
We do well, at this point, to briefly consider biblical prophecy. There is no doubt that many of the great prophets were known for their powerful oracles. The Book of Isaiah, for instance, is full of them, but so many of the really memorable prophecies are more like strange little stage productions. I do not wish to short-change oracular prophecy in this book for one moment, but we are better served letting the schools help you develop that gift, if you want that. On the other hand, I want to explore the prophetic/symbolic acts in much more detail. Think of Ezekiel laying siege to a brick (Ezek. 4), or Jeremiah’s underwear (Jer. 13), or (my favorite) Hosea marries a whore! (Hos.1). There are many more we could cite. I like to call this kind of prophecy “PROPH-O-DRAMA.”
I call these prophecies PROPH-O-DRAMAs because they are strange little stage productions. That concept will prove useful from here on. But I want to keep in mind that Bible scholars call them prophetic/symbolic acts. That designation is important because prophets frequently go messing with symbols that idolatrous cultures hold dear. Picking on idolatrous symbols goes to the heart of biblical prophecy. Certainly Jesus engaged in it. (See lesson #8.)
For now stay with the stage production idea. Staging a prophecy has everything to do with imagination. This opens the door for clever wit and charm and for gutsy and powerful confrontation. At the same time, the prophet runs the very real risk of looking stupid as-all-get-out!
The fact of the matter is that Ezekiel is warning the people of God that judgment will fall on them. That is a powerful and important message. However, he looks like a strange – even creepy – little man beating a defenseless brick! A weird old man hopping around, hollering, and swinging a stick at a brick in the marketplace does not help a guy pick up chicks later at the bar!
Worse yet, look at poor Hosea. You can hardly be more pathetic than to fall in love with a hooker! Your friends will talk. Your heart will ache. Your friends will say, “What were you thinking?” and “How stupid!” Yet, that drama (that symbolic act) images the suffering of God who loves his sinful people.
(By the way, I would like you to notice that this prophecy has nothing to do with foretelling the future. God may give such a message on some occasions, but that is not the meaning of prophecy, nor is it always the point of it. Quite frequently prophecy has more to do with simply opening up your imagination to the heart of God.)
“Bridging the Gap”
In preaching school, one of the concepts they teach to young preachers is to “hold your Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other”. The idea is that there is a cultural (imagination) gap between the world of the Bible and the world of today. The preacher should “bridge the gap”. Those teachers want their preacher-students to learn to make the message relevant to hearers today.
The idea is that we live between poles of a spectrum – Then and Now. Making sense of Then for Now is a “bridging” proposition. I want to question that notion. Not to destroy it, but to enhance it. I want to suggest that there never really is a question of relevance, not at that level. No. The word of God is always and forever relevant to his creation. We do not need to somehow “make it relevant”.
Still, this does not mean that there is no gap in understanding or interest. But I think it is fair to view the traffic on the bridge as a two-way street. Sometimes we bring the meaning of the text to the audience; sometimes we take the audience to the world of the text.
I offer this: If you go to the Scriptures and stage the dramas there in your life, you will (by virtue of that decision) largely be faithful to the Scriptures and bring prophecy to bear on creation at the same time. You will both bring the meaning of the Bible to your audience and take your audience to the world of the Bible at the same time.
For instance, if I go to an apartment complex across town that is known for drugs and prostitution, I might prophetically bridge the gap by staging a siege of Jericho. Turn to Joshua 6. (I do not mean to say we should only read chapter 6, but for our purposes presently, and to keep this project manageable – let’s keep it simple.) There you find the story of God conquering the mighty walls of Jericho in a mysterious way. He marches his people around the city day after day – one time each day. Then on the seventh day, they march around it seven times and then blow trumpets.
In the story of Joshua 6, the walls fall down, and the armies of God rush into the city killing the entire enemy. It is obvious to us believers this side of Jesus (historically speaking) that we want to save the people in the apartment complex rather than kill them – but we want to kill the evil that has taken hold there. But the questions is: What would God do if this band of homeless prophets marched prayerfully against this apartment complex? I mean, would walls come down? What if metaphorical walls came down? What if real, physical walls came down? What if no walls came down? What if….?
What about the experience of the prophets? Did they enter the world of the text? Were they faithful to Scripture? Would God expand their imagination?
I don’t know what would happen, but I feel reasonably sure that God would surprise us – as I am sure he surprised the Hebrews of old who stormed Jericho. In staging this PROPH-O-DRAMA, the prophets themselves will endure humiliation and run all the risks associated with it. But they will also come very close to God, and that is always a blessing. I can only imagine the fresh sense of meaning that Scripture will forever after hold for that band of prophets!
This is to say nothing of the experience of the people who live in those apartments. Can you imagine living there in whatever shame, pain, and despair that dictates and witnessing a band of prophets putting themselves to shame in such a display of God’s love? Even if they hold those prophets in disdain on day one, where do you really think they will be with them on day seven? Will the prophecy expand their imagination(s)?
God only knows, but creation needs to find out. And you have a calling from God to go there and play your prophetic role in the drama of it.