Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b, NIV
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
He called down famine on the land
and destroyed all their supplies of food;
and he sent a man before them—
Joseph, sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet with shackles,
his neck was put in irons,
till what he foretold came to pass,
till the word of the Lord proved him true.
The king sent and released him,
the ruler of peoples set him free.
He made him master of his household,
ruler over all he possessed,
to instruct his princes as he pleased
and teach his elders wisdom.
Praise the Lord.
*See also, Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Although we don’t usually apply this particular name to him, today we’re going to talk about Joseph the prophet and the price his prophecy cost him.
Often when we think of prophets, something along the lines of a fortune-teller comes to mind. Or maybe we think of seers and oracles who utter doomsday prophesies in the ancient classics like the man who knew that Oedipus would one day kill his father and marry his mother no matter how hard he tried to avoid it or the three Fates who were said to determine the length of mortals’ lives and how much suffering they would experience. Or more recently, we may think of characters like the Maleficent in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty who warned that the princess, Aurora, would prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday and fall into a deep sleep like death until she was woken up by true love’s kiss, and her parents and friends could do nothing to stop this from coming true. We may also be reminded of Professor Trelawney in the popular Harry Potter series who spoke of the young hero, Harry, and his mortal enemy, Voldemort, by saying that “neither could live while the other survived.” Even though Harry was just a baby at the time she spoke these words, they were binding and influenced the direction of his entire life. In all these cases, there is a supernatural proclamation that allows someone to see the future and foretell even the most unlikely and distant events before they happen, usually in the form of some kind of riddle or cryptic poem. Then, regardless of how hard the other characters in these stories may try to change the ending of their story, they cannot escape the words of prophecy that have been spoken over their lives. The prophets in the Bible aren’t quite like that.
Instead of focusing their energies on telling people what will happen in the future regardless of what they do, prophets in Scripture are more focused on making people aware of what is happening in their own lives and the world around them in the present. They give a true account of what’s going on, and they follow things through to their logical conclusion. They often do predict future events, like Joseph does through his dreams, but these predictions are an invitation to change the story rather than a foregone conclusion.
This kind of prophecy carries more hope than the kind of prophecy we’ve been talking about so far, but it’s also daunting. Instead of allowing the listeners to resign themselves to their destiny, the prophets of the Bible, like Joseph, make them aware of the status quo and where it is leading, forcing people to make a decision about who they want to be and how they want to live. Are they willing to submit to famine and die out? Or will they trust in his vision and invest in their future by storing up food for themselves and their neighbors? This kind of prophecy gives us a sense of power in our own lives, but it takes away our excuses. We can no longer say we didn’t realize what we were doing. We can’t pretend that we don’t see the impact of our words and actions anymore. Prophets give us a reality check and give us the opportunity to respond in a way that changes things for the better, but they also take away our ability to close our eyes and avoid taking responsibility for our action or inaction, as the case may be.
As you can imagine, then, being a prophet is not a particularly pleasant position to be in, at least not until hindsight clarifies a few things. Challenging our assumptions and pricking at our consciences doesn’t usually win anyone a lot of brownie points, especially when the status quo has kept us pretty comfortable thus far. A friend once shared a professor’s remark on this subject that has stuck with me: “Never trust a prophet who likes his job.” Joseph stands by the truth of his dreams regardless of how much he suffers for them at the hands of his brothers. He endures the pain of the heavy shackles on his hands and neck as a slave in Egypt until the Word of God proves true, not because it is fun or popular but because he is faithful to God and God’s message. This is the case with so many prophets both in the Bible and in our own historical memory.
Jeremiah is often known as the weeping prophet because of how much it grieved him to see the people refusing to listen to God’s Word and suffering the consequences. Hosea’s wife abandons him and returns to the life of prostitution she was living before their marriage, mirroring the prophecy Hosea shares about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God as the people worship idols instead of God, their true spouse. Ezekiel rails against the false prophets who simply tell people what they want to hear, making it harder for them to listen to the hard truths that God wants them to hear. Jonah is so overwhelmed by the message he is sent to bring to his enemies, the Ninevites, that he runs away and ends up spending three days in the belly of a giant fish. Now we can look to these people and their struggles and see God lovingly and persistently working through all of it to bring messages the people need to hear, but at the time, I imagine that was hard for them to fathom.
No wonder the psalmist encourages listeners to seek the Lord in the Lord’s strength, rather than their own, because there’s really only so much confrontation a person can take on their own before giving in to the pressures around them.
No wonder the psalmist reminds listeners to seek God’s face always and to hold the memories of what God has done for them and for those who have come before them close to their hearts while they wait for the clarity and acceptance that so often only comes with hindsight.
Today Martin Luther King, Jr. is almost universally celebrated as a hero and a visionary in our country. Every January we have a national holiday in his honor that is traditionally marked by a day off from work or school to be spent in service to our communities. How many other leaders in living memory can say that? While many saw Dr. King and his message for what they were during his lifetime, others fought to discredit and to silence one of our most well known modern day prophets. As we all remember, he eventually lost his life fighting for civil rights for African Americans, but today the Word of the Lord has proven him true. While we still have a long way to go to achieve Dr. King’s famous dream, many today are still following in his footsteps to bring about the vision he described. Other prophetic voices in our society have not been as lucky.
When I ask who is responsible for the electricity and wireless technology we enjoy here, in our homes, and most other places we visit in the United States, how many of you would answer Nikola Tesla? His isn’t a name I hear nearly as often as Thomas Edison with his light bulb, or even Benjamin Franklin with his kite and key, but that is by design. Tesla, like Joseph, spoke truth to his elders but his mentor, Thomas Edison, like Joseph’s brothers, resented him and made him suffer for it. If any of you happen to be electrical engineers, I apologize for this very simplistic explanation of what happened. However, the short version of the story is this: Thomas Edison owned the patents associated with direct current electricity, but Tesla discovered that a different way of transmitting the electricity, called alternating current, was actually more efficient and didn’t require as many power plants as direct current. Seeing the how much money he could lose if this new idea caught on, Edison launched a campaign to discredit Tesla that even included displays where Edison would use alternating current to publicly electrocute animals in order to convince people that Tesla and his new kind of current weren’t safe. Tesla suffered greatly for this betrayal and is said to have eventually lost his sanity and much of his fortune. Although recently his name has begun to be associated with more of his designs and innovative ideas, he also largely lost his legacy as a father of Western technology, but even so, every building we walk into today is wired with alternating current thanks to the prophetic ideas of Nikola Tesla.
As we have seen, living and speaking prophetically often makes for controversy, but we have to be careful not to get confused into thinking that living and speaking controversially makes one prophetic. The two are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes controversy is a result of speaking hard truths that people aren’t quite ready to hear, but sometimes it’s the result of simple rudeness or lack of compassion. Sometimes controversy comes because someone is downright offensive and the words that they speak in the name of the Lord simply don’t hold water with anything Scripture and tradition tell us God actually says. Sometimes people just get fed up with feeling that they and their God are being misrepresented, and the controversy that this stirs up around the speaker is not proof that this person is ahead of their time. This may seem self-explanatory, but there are those who do not see the differences. There are those who would point to any kind of criticism as validation for their message. The logic goes that those who speak a prophetic word and take a stand often struggle to be heard and accepted and even liked by the people they address, so if I am struggling with those things, then I must be speaking a prophetic word. It just doesn’t work that way. If public dislike were enough to prove the truth of one’s message, then we would have to call groups like the Ku Klux Klan prophetic. They claim to be Christians who suffer because the rest of the world does not accept their message, but I don’t know any Christians who would agree that the KKK’s message and actions have anything to do with the Gospel. I certainly don’t want them standing up and speaking for my God or for me.
With all this in mind, we must use careful discernment in recognizing what is true prophecy and what is not. So what can Joseph’s example teach us about recognizing and responding to the true prophets and speaking up against the hate sowed by false ones?
Joseph holds fast and unswervingly to his convictions, trusting in the Lord, but he doesn’t belittle the culture in which he finds himself. He doesn’t curse the Egyptians or treat them disrespectfully. In fact, he makes a lasting impression on everyone he meets with his compassion and conviction, from fellow prisoners to his prison guards to government officials to the Pharaoh himself. Like God, Joseph doesn’t show favoritism. Like God, Joseph doesn’t simply look out for his own people (either by caring only for the Israelites or protecting the interests only of his adopted people, the Egyptians) but instead Joseph offers the abundance of his gifts to all who ask. And in the end, although it takes him a while to come around, Joseph, like God, ultimately forgives his brothers for their treatment of him and welcomes them with open arms when they repent for their actions.
So who are the truly prophetic voices in your life? Who challenges you and makes you think? Who helps you recognize areas where you take things for granted and helps guide you to transform these into intentional moments of ministry, whether that means choosing to buy products that fund and support causes you believe in or offering your time and energy volunteering in person or through letter-writing or other means to serve the people around you, which is also to serve the God who created them? These may be leaders that we would all recognize, or they may be friends, family members, or people sitting next to you right now. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and our communities, we have the power to encourage one another with prophetic words of hope in our everyday lives, even in difficult times. Let us each seek to honor God by listening for that voice of hope in one another with discernment and by gently correcting one another if we should realize that something has gone amiss.
We are not people resigned to a fate that’s already been written for us, like Oedipus or Sleeping Beauty or Harry Potter; we are partners with God in serving one another in the world. We are not simply guests at a dinner party who must politely eat whatever our host serves; we are children of God, welcome and even pestered into coming into the kitchen to help prepare the meal together before we all sit down at the table as a family to share in the bread and the cup. Under the guidance of our Loving Parent, then, may we choose our recipes and ingredients well to offer hospitality and real nourishment to a hungry and thirsty world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.