Here are my thoughts for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost. For those that are interested, I will be at Steven Memorial UMC (South Salem, NY) next week (August 19th), Dover Plains UMC (Dover, NY) on August 26th, and First UMC (Newburgh, NY) on September 2nd.
It seems to me that there has been a marked increased in the prophets of old lately. It isn’t just the prophets of the Bible but such secular prophets as Edgar Cayce and Nostradamus as well. And the interest in what the prophets have said seems to focus on the impending end of the world. Some prophets think that the end of the world will come with Armageddon in the Middle East. Others think that the end of the world will come on December 21, 2012 because that is the end of the Mayan calendar.
But there are problems when you listen to these endless claims of gloom and doom. Remember all those who proclaimed that the transition from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000 would bring about numerous instances of ruin? Remember those who proclaimed that this transition would mark the new millennium and the coming of the Lord? The prophets did not get it right then (they also missed it when we transitioned from 1000 to 1001 and the beginning of the second millennium). Prophets speak words and we hear what we want those words to mean.
No matter if the prophet is secular or sectarian; I cannot help but wonder if their words are truly harbingers of things to come. Are not the things that they say merely a description of what is happening at the time the words were recorded? Can anyone, let alone a prophet, actually foretell the future and describe technology that has not been invented? How is it that nuclear weapons and nuclear war in the Middle East can be predicted, as at least one preacher constantly reminds us with presentations that put PowerPoint to shame, when they didn’t even know what an atom was or what truly caused the Sun to shine? They may proclaim disaster but only in terms that they understood and knew.
If the words spoken some two thousand years ago are the way the future will be and there is nothing that we can do about changing the future, then all that we have done and all that we do is meaningless. But we are constantly reminded that we have the ability and the wherewithal to make the future be better than what the present is. We have the ability and the power but the ability and power are meaningless if we listen to others tell us what the future will be.
The words of the prophets spoke to the human condition then. If they apply to the human condition today, it is not because they are prophets foretelling the future but rather because the human condition is no different today than it was two thousand years ago. In the Old Testament reading for today (1), Isaiah is speaking against the worship practices of the people. Worship had become more “self-centered” and less “God-centered.” If anything, the same thing is happening today.
We claim that we are all God’s children, yet much of the discussion in our churches today seems to center on which of God’s children can come into the church. Instead of focusing on God, the new music and the new worship styles of today take away the very reason why we even have worship. Should not Isaiah’s prophetic words of two thousand years ago be heard again today?
Isaiah speaks out against the focus of the church. Instead of a focus on God and God’s tasks, the people of Israel were focusing on things that would best benefit them. Isaiah’s call to the people to refocus their thoughts in worship back to the cares and needs of the people ring very much true today. Instead of trying to decide which of God’s children are worthy of entry into our churches, our churches should be going out and taking care of the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the needy and the oppressed.
Instead of building walls to put God inside where we can display Him at our leisure, we should be tearing down the walls so that others can see Him and know who He is.
We have already been told what the outcome of our failure to note the words of the prophets will be. Isaiah and other prophets told us that obedience to God results in reward; failure to obey results in destruction. Destruction will come to all, not just those who do not listen. Destruction will come to those who know that it is coming and do nothing because they think they will receive great rewards, either on earth or in heaven.
Any prophet, be they secular or sectarian, who tells you they know the exact time for the end of the world is not in communication with those who have the power and the ability to make it so. Jesus tells us that we cannot know the day or time of His Second Coming (2). All He says is that we can and should be prepared because He can come at any time.
Our concerns should not be on the end of the world. Rather, they should be on doing what it is we are supposed to be doing. As Isaiah said, we need to think about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and helping those in need. When the time does come, we are going to be questioned about how we related to those around us. And many of those who so eagerly wait for this day and time will find that because they were more concerned about the end of time and not those around them that they will be the ones left behind.
It would be nice if we knew where this path that we walk goes or where it will take us. But that is not what this life is about. We should, without fear, know where this path ends and that is more important. And while it would be nice if the prophets who speak so knowingly of the future would tell us what will happen tomorrow, we know that they cannot do so. Without any clear guidance as to what the future will bring, we are in a quandary as to what to do.
But if we do as those who walked this path before us did, then we can walk the path without fear. Notice in the Epistle reading for today (3) how the writer of Hebrews emphasized the faith of the people. It was the faith that determined what happened, not what they did or who they were. That is the point in Isaiah’s warnings and what we have to think about. If we put the focus of our worship and our lives on ourselves, then we will not gain anything. If we put the focus on God through Christ, then we focus on our faith and through our faith we will find our rewards. The key thing, at least to me, is something that was pointed out to me a long time ago – our faith is the key to our salvation; our works do not buy us a ticket into heaven.
If we hear Isaiah’s warning and think that by doing good, we have heeded the warnings, we missed the point. If we think in those terms, we are still thinking about ourselves and the focus is not where it should be. On the other hand, if in our faith, we do what is expected of us, then our rewards are there.
Too many people hear the prophets of today and think that things are coming to an end. Their focus is on the prophet and not on God; their focus is on themselves and not on Christ. You are not listening to God but man.
If you do not fear the end times and are prepared for them, then your focus is where it should be. If you do what is expected of you in faith, then you are listening to God.
There comes a time in everyone’s life where they hear the call from God. It is a quiet and soft call, easily lost in the noise of the prophets. Are you listening carefully?