This summer, the lectionary gives preachers a wonderful opportunity to explore the Hebrew Prophets in the alternative semi-continuous first reading.
In a year when we listen deeply to Luke’s confession of faith, we hear frequent concerns about wealth and poverty. In Luke, Jesus looks very much like a prophet advocating for the poor and critiquing abuses of power. Jesus learned that role by listening deeply to the prophets. We can do the same.
A quick glance through the summer schedule introduces us to the ministry of six prophets—Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah. More than doom and gloom, these prophets burned with a passion for God and God’s love for the people. They employed crazy, extreme methods to get their message across. Would you name your child the same as your sermon title? “No pity!” “Not mine!” Yet, Hosea gives some of the most tender and intimate images of God.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of
Egypt I called my son. The more I called them,
the more they went from me… Yet it was I who
taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my
arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of love. I was to them like
those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent
down to them and fed them… How can I give you
up, Ephraim? How can I hand your over, O Israel?
…my heart recoils within me; my compassion grows
warm and tender.” Hosea 11:1-4
What a powerful evocative text! These were the scriptures Jesus learned. Do you hear Hosea’s passion echoing in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son? When people tell me that they do not like the Old Testament, that there is no good news there, then I think I have not done my job as a preacher. If we are to claim that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching…” (2 Timothy 3:16), then maybe the year of Luke is a good time to invite these prophets into our pulpits and into the imaginations of our congregations.
But why a whole summer on the prophets? My experience has been that a well-advertised series can create focus and sustain interest throughout the season. The last two summers we have preached the alternative first reading in my congregation. These stories have been the focus of the entire worship service including children’s sermons, music, and bulletin inserts to take home with questions to continue the conversation. We have added adult forum opportunities to engage the text deeper in Bible study. This summer we will add brief first-person dramas for each of the six prophets. We will also offer an Old Testament Challenge: Life Changing Words from the Prophets, an eight-week small group resource on the prophets, written by John Ortberg.
Interpreting the prophets will involve some extra work for preachers more accustomed to preaching the Gospel reading every week. Fortunately, there are some excellent resources to help the preacher in the task of interpretation. Walter Brueggeman’s The Prophetic Imagination is a great place to start in understanding the role of the prophet in ancient Israel. Elizabeth Achtemeier’s Preaching from the Old Testament has a helpful chapter on preaching from the prophets. I also commend the book Preaching From the Prophets by James Ward and Christine Ward. WorkingPreacher will continue to offer excellent commentary on these texts. I also want to issue an invitation to join the group Summer Prophet Sharing on WorkingPreacher and exchange thoughts and ideas each week.
For those still reluctant to take on the Prophets this summer let me close with a note from Brueggemann.
“Prophetic ministry does not consist of
spectacular acts of social crusading or
of abrasive measures of indignation.
Rather, prophetic ministry consists of
offering an alternative perception of
reality and in letting people see their
own history in the light of God’s freedom
and his will for justice. The issues of
God’s freedom and his will for justice are
not always and need not be expressed
primarily in the big issues of the day.
They can be discerned wherever people try
to live together and show concern for
their shared future and identity.” (p. 116)
In his prophetic ministry, Jesus, too offered an alternative perception of reality, a reality that grew out of his study of the prophets and that finally centered in his cross and resurrection.