Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
There’s sometimes confusion about what a prophet does – a prophet in the Bible, that is. A prophet in the biblical sense does not predict the future.
If the prophet Amos were with us today sitting in the front row making me feel nervous, he would no doubt have a few stern words to impart but he wouldn’t be able to say who’s going to win the 3.15 at Newmarket tomorrow – or even who is going to prevail in the World Cup final this afternoon.
There may be only two teams in it but he’d be scratching his head like the rest of us. His guess would be as good as yours or mine.
Now, there were many prophets in ancient Israel and the majority of them were yes-men – most of them were men. And, basically, they just said what people wanted to hear. They went with the flow, they echoed the spirit of the times. Like Amaziah in our reading.
In all likelihood it wasn’t that they were deliberately misleading people. They probably believed what they were saying. It’s just that they were closer to the contemporary Zeitgeist than they were to God.
I only found this out a few days ago but the word ‘prophet’ is a Greek word that meant originally someone who speaks on behalf of someone else. A prophet speaks on behalf of God. And of course it’s easy to imagine you’re speaking on behalf of God when you’re not.
Genuine prophets are concerned primarily about two things: justice and worshipping the one living God, not some lifeless idol that people have constructed for themselves.
And they know one simple fact: when injustice is rife and when idols rule our lives (the two usually go together), things are not going to go well.
So the future does come into it because they see more deeply into the nature of what’s going on now. The prophets are those who warn about current corruption and the trajectory of suffering it will unleash, unless it is corrected..
The corruption they see is often focussed on the king, the king being a kind of embodiment of society as a whole as well as a shaper of that society. True prophets are never afraid to speak truth to power. Well, they may be afraid but they go ahead anyway.
So Amos has a go at King Jeroboam of Israel and Amaziah, the yes-man false prophet, has a go at Amos.
We know who’s right – the Bible tells us – but I wonder if that would have been obvious at the time.
It’s extremely difficult to disentangle ourselves from the web of deceit that society all too easily weaves around us and within us but, sometimes, we have to make a choice between Amos and Amaziah, between the true prophet and the false prophet. We can only pray that we make the right choice.
Although he appears in the New Testament John the Baptist is very much a prophet in the mould of the Old Testament – principled and uncompromising, fierce even, and with a determination to speak truth to power and specifically, in his case, to King Herod.
By the way, this isn’t Herod the Great as in the infancy narratives about Jesus. This is one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who was puppet-king under the Romans in Galilee during the time of Jesus’ ministry.
In many ways you could say that Herod, although he’s a king, mirrors everyman – and everywoman for that matter. Like us he’s a bit of a mixture.
So for instance, he can be pretty foolish. And being a king, when he does something foolish, it has big consequences. What could be more foolish than to offer half his kingdom to a young woman who happens to have danced enticingly for a few minutes at a drunken banquet? We can assume, I think, that Herod himself was a little drunk.
He seems to have been unscrupulous and self-indulgent. He wants his brother’s wife, Herodias, so he divorces his own wife and takes her.
His vanity is greater than his virtue. He is willing to execute John the Baptist so as not to lose face – and also, I guess, to avoid an almighty row with his second wife.
But Herod does have something approaching a conscience. He is deeply grieved at feeling obliged to behead this prophet. He feels guilt. Why else would he imagine that Jesus is John somehow raised from the dead?
Despite being in effect his executioner, Herod does recognise something holy about John and is attracted by it. As Mark tells us: When `Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him’. He even protected him – until, that is, the day of that fateful dance.
Herod is a morally ambivalent figure – as we all are to a greater or lesser extent. If we looked closely enough, I guess we’d all find aspects of our own psyches that aren’t a million miles from those of this first century king.
Whatever flaws we may have, there is always something in us all that yearns for goodness and holiness to be reflected in our own lives and in the society around us. There is something in us that yearns for God. We can learn to foster that yearning or we can learn to suppress it. The choice is ours.
In the context of today’s readings perhaps our human responsibility can be put in these terms: to move from being someone like Herod, who is morally compromised and confused, to being someone more like a prophet, insightful and focussed.
We can go either way – towards the negative side of our psyche or towards the positive side. Herod veered to the negative side but we don’t have to. There’s nothing inevitable about it.
Perfection isn’t on offer. We are never ever going to be perfect. Striving for perfection by our own unaided efforts may even be counter-productive.
It’s the trajectory that matters. Are we moving in the right direction, however falteringly? Is our trust in God growing? If it is, God can work with us.