The first reading today, from Isaiah 49:3-6, speaks of some of the qualities of a prophet. By our baptism we are called to be prophets, so we do well to try to imitate these qualities. As it is also the national observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will also cite some of his words that help to illustrate the qualities taught by Isaiah. As pastor of a parish with a strong African-American heritage, I often seek to include aspects of King’s life and message on this holiday weekend. Every American should be grateful for his leadership and for the sacrifices he made (ultimately paying with his life) in summoning our nation to repentance.
What then are some of the qualities of a prophet?
A Prophet Is a Servant – The text says, The LORD said to me: You are my servant.
A servant is one who implements or does the will of the one he serves and under whose authority he operates. Sometimes a servant directly cares for or serves the one in authority; at other times he may serve others about whom the one in authority is concerned. The key point is that the servant does the will of the one who has authority, serving him and his interests.
We who would be prophets are servants of the Lord, under whose authority we speak and act. To do this we must first be good students of the Lord by studying his words and teachings, seeking to live them, and then speaking of them to others. As prophets and servants, we speak the truth so that others can hear the voice of the Lord. We do not have authority over the Word of God—God does.
Prophets love God’s people. They do not serve only God; they also serve the people whom God loves. God has no voice now in this world except yours and mine. If we would be His servants, we must be His prophets, his voice in the world. Too many of us have remained silent in the face of error and injustice. Perhaps it is because we fear; perhaps it is because we are just lazy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had studied more for the life of a pastor and theologian than for that of a public prophet and national leader. However, he was deeply struck by the increasing and appalling toll of racism and injustice on God’s people. Like the prophets of old, he heard a call that, as God’s servant, he could not refuse. While confined in a Birmingham jail, he reflected on why he was there and what it means to be the servant and prophet of God:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century (B.C.) prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid(Letter from a Birmingham Jail, August 1963).
Yes, just as during the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia (modern day Greece) standing and pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (see Acts 16:9), so Dr. King heard a similar cry for help and God saying, “Go.” As God’s servant he went.
A Prophet Shows God’s Glory –The text says, [You are] Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Jacob, you may remember, had wrestled with God through a long, dark night. At the end, God gave him the new name “Israel,” which means, “he who wrestled with God.” It can also mean “He who triumphs with God.”
Thus, we who would be prophets must let God contend with us and lead us through some dark passages so as to purify us, strengthen us, and humble us. This is a necessary testing because we must engage a great battle.
Prophets go forth and battle for souls armed with the sword of God’s Word. They must have courage and fortitude. The prophets of old suffered. Some were reviled while others were exiled; some were jailed and others killed. We too can expect great resistance when we announce the light of truth to a world that prefers the darkness. We, too, will often be reviled. Jesus says,
- If the world hates you, understand that it hated me first. If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you as well (John 15:18-20).
- I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world! (John 16:33)
In any tribulation we experience, we must never forget that, if we are God’s prophets, we are showing forth His glory whenever we speak His Word.
Dr. King has an admonition for any of us who would draw back from our office of prophet out of fear, laziness, or indifference:
And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause–and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.”(Sermon at Ebenezer Nov 5 1967)
Yes, there is nothing worse than a mute prophet. We are called to manifest the glory of the Lord’s truth; we must not hide the light of truth under a basket and cower in the death of fear.
In a more positive sense, Dr. King also speaks of those who dogo forth and engage the battle. Not only do they spread God’s glory, they will share in it:
If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian Love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization” (Dec 31, 1955, Montgomery Alabama).
What will your descendants say of you?
A Prophet Seeks Out the Lost– The text says, [I send you] to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations.
Prophets love God’s people. Seeing what sin and injustice have done to God’s people (perpetrator and victim alike) prophets seek to restore and raise them up so we can once again be a light to the nations.
Today, many are locked in error and moral darkness. We have lost our sense of the dignity of the child in the womb and have killed sixty million through abortion. We no longer value Holy Matrimony or the meaning and beauty of human sexuality. Too many in our generally affluent culture remain locked in poverty. Too many live in broken families. Addiction is rampant. Mutual respect is being drowned in a sea of anger and bitterness.
Scripture says of Jesus,
He went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness. When He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest” (Matt 9:35-38).
We, of course, are the workers, the prophets whom the Lord asks to be sent. We are the ones who, seeing the awful state of God’s people, must be moved with compassion and then teach and bring healing. We cannot go everywhere, but each of us knows people who are wandering, lost, or suffering and who need to be restored and raised up.
Dr. King often spoke of how his sorrow and anger motivated him to do his prophetic work and duty as God’s servant:
I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when … you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; …then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over(Letter from a Birmingham Jail, August 1963).
Moved with concern over the awful state of God’s people, Dr. King set about seeking the lost.
A Prophet Is Strong in the Lord – The text says, and my God is now my strength!
As in any great battle or work, there are times of discouragement and difficulty. A prophet must stay close to God and draw on His strength. Prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, and the support of godly friends must nourish and heal the soul. An old spiritual says, “Be still, God’ll fight your battles. God’ll fight your battles if you just be still.” Being still doesn’t mean doing nothing, but it does mean being focused on the Lord. A prophet must be strong in the Lord by staying close to Him.
Dr. King spoke of a moment of discouragement. He had been awakened at midnight by a phone call, in which the caller threatened to bomb his home. He thought of his wife and children and feared for their safety. He went down to the kitchen and prayed:
Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. [And the Lord replied in the depths of my heart] “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” And so, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone” (A Knock at Midnight, 1956).
A Prophet is a Sign of Salvation – The text says, … that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
The Lord has this goal, that the work of a prophet will extend the offer of salvation to all people, to the ends of the earth. Prophets do not simply denounce sin; they must also point to the glory that lies ahead if we follow the Lord. Prophets must encourage God’s people and remind them of the joys unspeakable and glories untold that await the faithful. The cross, if carried in faith, leads to a crown. Yes, there may be difficult days ahead, but just beyond Calvary’s hill lies Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem in all its glory. Prophets must announce this coming glory and be a sign of it.
In his very last sermon, one day before he was murdered, Dr. King gave a word of encouragement as he spoke of the Promised Land:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord (Final Sermon, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated the next day, April 4, 1968. Like every good prophet, he was God’s servant, showing forth God’s glory in his preaching and actions. He sought the fallen and the lost, was strong in the Lord, and was a sign of salvation and encouragement.
Consider well, fellow prophets what God expects of us. Not all of us will rise to national leadership, but all of us have a mission territory that God has assigned to us: family, parish, workplace, friends, even the Internet. Do what God expects. Be His prophet.
This song says, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.”