Derby Cathedral, Evensong, 7 December 2014, on these readings
The hymn following the sermon this evening begins Wake, o wake. This, then, is the bedtime story.
Once upon a time there were two kings, the king of Israel and the king of Aram. The king of Aram had got a bit of territory, Ramoth-gilead, and the king of Israel thought it should belong to him. So the king of Israel was going to fight to get it back. He made preparations. Diplomatic preparations: he went along to his friend the king of Judah and got him to come and help fight for it. Military preparations: the men were there, the horses were there. Spiritual preparations: the king of Judah suggested they might see what God thought of the project.
So they get the prophets together, four hundred of them. The prophets are all keen. Yes, yes, they say, go ahead, God will let you win this fight. The king of Judah – and you begin to feel that the king of Judah is not all that keen on the project himself- says ‘are those all the prophets you’ve got?’ Only four hundred? And it turns out there is one other prophet, Micaiah, ‘but he never prophesies anything favourable about me, but only disaster.’
However, they go and get Micaiah. In he comes. There are the kings on their thrones. There are the four hundred prophets, all prophesying away. Like Prime Minister’s Questions, I imagine. But Micaiah, the Dennis Skinner of his generation, is having none of it. These are false prophets, he says, and this is a wrong war, and you can take that or leave it.
Well, the kings leave it. They put Micaiah in prison on bread and water rations, and they go off to the war. Micaiah says, ‘If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.’ And the king of Israel is killed in the battle, and he does not return in peace.
Here ends the bedtime story.
Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope,
writes Paul to the Christians in Rome. He doesn’t specify the 1st Book of Kings, chapter 22, but, mind you, he doesn’t rule it out either. What is there in this story of the kings and the prophets that is for our instruction so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of this scriptures we may have hope?
Where are you in this story?
Where are you? Are you a king, demanding action, out to right a wrong? Are you a king, demanding action, out to look good in a chariot and come home with more plunder for the palace? Are you one of four hundred prophets, saying, yes, o king, go to it? Are you a prophet on bread and water rations, saying, no, o king, this will be disastrous and you are deceived?
Where are you in this story, or where is this story in you?
Not everyone is a prophet, which is just as well, as Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth. Not everyone is a prophet all the time.
Maybe you are not a prophet today. But, on the days when you might be, or you have to be, or someone has to be, where would you begin? Given that we can’t look in the palace dungeons of ancient Israel to see who’s on a bread and water diet, where should we look to learn how to be a reliable prophet?
Among people who have to tell the truth. Not among people who want to sell us something, or console us, or recruit us. Among people who have to tell the truth.
People who have to tell the truth are people with a compulsion and a discipline. They have the discipline of their materials, like an artist. They have to be faithful to what is in front of them. They have to see what they see, not what the king or the four hundred other prophets say they see. They have to work with their material in a way that is true to the material. The material may be wood or paint, or sound, or drama, a task or an errand or another person. Because it may be another person, they have to work with it without taking ownership of it. Some of the best artists we have are teachers and doctors and parents. ‘The ordinary artists,’ writes Ursula le Guin:
The ordinary artists
use patience, passion, skill, work
and returning to work, judgement,
proportion, intellect, purpose,
indifference, obstinacy, delight in tools,
That is a discipline of practice, of patience, of steadfastness. And the compulsion is the compulsion of hope: to tell the truth; to do their best for this material, this task, this person; to bring to life the vision. Steadfastness and hope.
Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
Maybe you are not a prophet every day. But consider yourself as an artist. Consider the church, the people of God, as artists. What are our materials? What is our discipline? What is the practice of our craft? Is it in truth-telling? in care? in teaching? in making? in organising? Are we doing it for the plunder and the chariots, or are we trying to discern what God thinks of the project?
It is the art and sometimes also the practice of the people of God, some of whom are prophets some of the time, to ask, where is God in this story? To ask with steadfastness. To ask with hope.
And to ask that, it is time for us now to wake up.