Unpopular Prophets

4752151469_683ef7e191_nAnd Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos 7:12-13

The dedicated Christian may be able to relate to Amos. We might paraphrase: “O religious nut, go preach to someone who wants to listen. Stay where you were, preach to your own kind and do not ram your teaching down our throats.” “Preaching” was not welcome there in Amos’ day, for according to Amaziah that is the king’s land, and not here today, for this is Canada where we talk about the weather, hockey, and politics, usually in that order. But not religion. That is a private matter so don’t talk about it. Maybe we have never encountered this sentiment, but maybe that is because we have been too quiet to ever be shushed?

Last week we looked at engaging the minds of those who have already made up their minds. This week we ask what are we to do when we face not just apathy for, but hostility to, our message. Not just “we will never agree with what you are saying, but, we don’t even want to hear it.” What are we to do as Christians when our message has become unpopular? Let us turn to a prophet with an unpopular message for help.

Amos was sent from his homeland in Judah with a message for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. His message tended to be simple: “stop exploiting the poor and bring back justice.” But it was also unpopular, especially with the priest in Bethel:

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'” 12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos 7:10-13

Amos was told to go back to Judah and keep his message there. The Christian today may be told to go back to church and keep their message there. So what do we learn from Amos?

Amos was not in Bethel for personal gain. In fact he is not even a “professional” prophet belonging to a guild or school of prophets:

14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Amos 7:14-15

We know Amos was not speaking up for self-gain, so why was he there? Chapter 7 begins with three visions, the first two ending with God relenting from judgement thanks to the intercession of Amos:

This is what the Lord GOD showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). 2 When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, “O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” 3 The LORD relented concerning this; “It shall not be,” said the LORD. 4 This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. 5 Then I said, “O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” 6 The LORD relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord GOD. Amos 7:1-6 (emphasis mine)

This is a man who is passionate about interceding on behalf of the people. He loves the people! From Amos we learn this important truth for when we face opposition: The motive for speaking up is not self-gain, but love. In the third vision God points out that His justice must finally overrule the compassion of Amos:

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Amos 7:7-9

But justice will not overrule compassion until opportunities are given to repent, thus Amos is sent to warn the people. God who loves the people! And a strong message is given precisely because of love. In fact any effort to silence a prophet of God is an effort to snuff out the loving activity of God. And to silence a Christian from sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ is to deny an opportunity to love.

Even the most dire prophecies of the prophet are spoken out of love. We might consider the last words of Amos to Amaziah:

“Now therefore hear the word of the LORD. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’ 17 Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'” Amos 7:16-17

We ought not to take this as a personal attack out of spite: “I don’t like how you have opposed me, so God is going to get you.” Rather this is a final plea, a pointing out of the natural consequences if Amaziah continues down the path he is on: “If you deny the nation the opportunity to repent God will not protect you when the enemy comes. Just think of the dire circumstance that will create for your family, for you, and for your nation!” Amos was not pointing to a “supernatural zapping” but a natural and sad outworking of events. Amos knew about exile and so could warn Amaziah about it. We know about hell. How often do we warn people that the natural consequence of a life lived with one’s back turned to God will be an eternity without God? Hell is not a “supernatural zapping” but a natural and sad outworking of events.

Amos has not been the only spokesperson from God that people have tried to silence. Nor has he been the only one to speak up. John the Baptist loved people too much to be silent about their need for repentance. Jesus loved people too much to be silent about the coming Kingdom. The apostles loved people too much to be silent about the good news that Jesus is risen, that He is Lord and Saviour, that in Jesus God has stepped into history to rescue humanity. This was an unpopular message back in the day: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). It still is unpopular.

How much do we really love Canada? How much do we really love the people all around us? Does fear silence us? Or does love loosen our lips?

All scriptures are quoted from the NRSV

photo credit: Union Church, East Westmoreland, New Hampshire via photopin (license)

Surrounded by Unbelief

5557639906_460d124f81_nThe ministry of Jesus hits a snag in Mark chapter six. Things have been going quite well up until this point with people responding to his teaching, wisdom, and miracles. But not here. This is Nazareth which is set apart from the other towns by only one thing. This is Jesus’ hometown.

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. Mark 6:1-3

Notice that these people are no less amazed by the teaching and miracles of Jesus than the people of the other towns. But there is something about them that makes their response different:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? Mark 6:3

The problem is that they are already familiar with Jesus, they have already made up their minds as to who he is and what he is all about. He is a carpenter and despite the wise words falling from his mouth, carpenters can’t teach. He is also the “son of Mary,” which is an unusual expression to use for in that time and place one would normally say “son of Joseph.” They knew there was something different about his birth, and remember it took an angel to convince Joseph that Mary’s story wasn’t crazy nonsense. I don’t doubt that the people of Nazareth had their doubts. They knew enough about Jesus to have already made up their minds about him and so as impressive as he was they were not impressed.

We live in a time and place where it feels like the ministry of the Church has hit a snag. There are healthy and growing churches, but we have a changed and changing society where most of the runners you pass on a Sunday morning are not running to get to church on time. But when the topic of Jesus comes up, people do not say “who is he?” They say

Is not Jesus from that old fairy tale we have moved beyond? Like the tooth fairy?
Is not Jesus that wise teacher that Christians turned into a god as I read in a book once?
Is not Jesus the founder of an organized religion? I don’t like organized religion.
Is not Jesus connected somehow with those tv preachers that are always asking for money?
Is not Jesus connected somehow with those priests who have abused their power and people?
Is not Jesus connected somehow with those kings who led crusades against innocent people?

For many Canadians the trouble with understanding Jesus is not that they have never heard of him. Like the people of Nazareth it is that they have already formed an opinion: “Is not this the carpenter?” They have already heard about Jesus from friends, from tv, from movies, from podcasts, from songs, from social networking, from documentaries and sometimes from school. Every Canadian has some opinion on Jesus and many have already hung a huge amount of baggage on his back. So how do we engage the minds of people who have already made up their minds? How do we proceed in the face of apathy?

We look to what Jesus did in the same situation.

1. Jesus appealed to his own honour: “Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4). In hearing Jesus’ words we might focus on the lack of honour on the part of the Nazarenes. But don’t miss the fact that Jesus is commending his own honour. Do we actively honour Jesus? Are we ready to defend the honour of Jesus?

2. Jesus took care of whomever would come to him: “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (Mark 6:5). It kind of figures that it was the sick who came. That is often still the case for “blessed are the poor in spirit.” When people do come to Jesus are we devoted to caring for them, helping them grow in Christ?

3. Jesus was amazed at unbelief: “And he was amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6a). We often get this backwards and too often expect that it is normal to not believe in the supernatural. Jesus was amazed at disbelief because the evidence was there for them to see: “many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” (Mark 6:2) But having made up their minds already, no evidence was enough evidence.

There is evidence for the truth of Christianity, let me share some examples. There is the evidence of changed lives and positively affected culture. There is the evidence of the nature and makeup of the scriptures (hint: it is hard to explain why the New Testament documents were written if Jesus did not rise from the dead). There is evidence for the reliability of the scriptures (you can look up textual criticism). There is evidence from philosophy (you can look up the moral argument) and cosmology (you can look up the fine tuning of the universe and the Kalam cosmological argument). There is historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (you can look up the minimal facts argument). There is archeological support for places and people mentioned in the Bible. There is enough evidence pointing in the same direction that we ought to be amazed at unbelief. I wish I had a penny for every time I heard the expression “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is an expression one uses when one’s mind is already made up.

In addition, perhaps we ought to be amazed at disbelief when we consider what is passed over. Grace for the past, hope for the future, a love based ethic for today. No worldview has a better way of dealing with the past, present, and future.

4. Jesus persisted in teaching: “Then he went about among the villages teaching.” (Mark 6:6b) Jesus did not throw in the towel when he encountered apathy. He continued teaching about the Kingdom of God. Some churches today attempt to change the teaching in an effort attract people to Christianity. Some try to turn Christianity into a highly personal spirituality that you can shape to suit your own needs. But we cannot shape Jesus. He shapes us. Just as Jesus persisted in teaching so too must we persist with the classic doctrines of the Christian faith, even when that proves unpopular.

5. Jesus sent out the disciples to do even more: “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (Mark 6:7) Notice that Jesus gives the disciples authority over “unclean spirits.” In other words, they were given the authority to carry out the ministry of Jesus as His representatives. We still are.

6. Jesus told the disciples to walk away when appropriate: “He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:10-11 Do we have enough humility to leave people in the hands of God, to trust Him to do what is good and best?

What is the Church to do in the midst of an unbelieving society that is apathetic to the message of the Gospel? We do what Jesus did; continue on with passionate persistence. If we read forward in Mark’s Gospel we see great things happening again, for example the miraculous feeding of five thousand, and Jesus walking on water. Keep reading and you will get to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus did not get derailed by a snag. He never wavered in pursuing God’s will with passionate persistence. We will be amazed with what God has in store for the future.

All scripture references are taken from the NRSV.
photo credit: Home Sweet Home via photopin (license)