When I was a little girl, I thought that a prophet was someone who could see the future. So every time we talked about spiritual gifts and prophecy showed up, I thought, who in the world could have that gift? Does God even give people that gift anymore? I wasn’t sure I believed anyone could see the future, or that anyone would be brave enough to claim they could. As I grew up and learned more, I began to understand that in biblical stories, a prophet is less someone who foretells the future and more someone who is sent by God to bring a message, often a message of warning to bring about change and to urge people back to the path God hoped for them. A prophet often had to speak difficult truths to leaders and their people, to give them a wake-up call to the consequences of their actions or the reality of their situation. Because of this, prophets were not often well-liked. Prophets called people out, told them difficult truths, and brought God’s message: a message which often criticized their behavior and instructed them to behave better. These are not the types of messages that get you invited to all the parties. Instead, people were often angry at prophets or even violent toward them.
Knowing this, we might have a better understanding of Ezekiel’s experience from today’s reading. Prophets are notoriously reluctant to be prophets! Ezekiel’s experience is no different; what we didn’t read aloud was Ezekiel chapter one, where Ezekiel describes a terrifying vision he experienced. Here’s the tail end of it: “Above this surface was something that looked ike a throne made of blue sapphire. And on this throne high above was a figure whose appearance resembled a man. From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber or burnished metal, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining int he clouds on a rainy day. This is what the glory of the lord looked like to me. When I saw it, I fell face down on the ground, and I heard someone’s voice speaking to me.”
This image of God’s glory, as Ezekiel described it, is only part of the vivid vision he has! And our short passage begins just after this. The voice Ezekiel hears speaking to him says, “O mortal, stand up on your feet and I will speak with you.” But Ezekiel couldn’t do it. Whether feeling weak or frightened or frozen, he couldn’t stand. So he writes that when the voice spoke, a “spirit”– the Hebrew word ruach, which means wind, spirit, or breath– entered Ezekiel and set him on his feet. The voice continues, saying, “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendents are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”
Ezekiel goes on to write that the voice of God encouraged him not to be afraid, to give them the message whether they listen or not. And the spirit, the ruach, continues to help and direct Ezekiel, to give him the strength to stand and to move and to speak, even when he is afraid, even if the people do not listen to him. Ezekiel needed this help; being a prophet is no easy task.
Similarly, in today’s Gospel, we see Jesus receiving a chilly reception in his hometown. Previously in Mark, people reacted in awe when Jesus taught in the synagogues; back home, though, the people who watched Jesus grew up still see him as “Mary’s son”, a boy they watched grow up next to their own children. “Mary’s son” was also a way of implying Jesus had no father; the Gospel of Mark leaves out a birth narrative and there is no mention of Joseph. The crowd may have been alluding to the scandal of Jesus’s illegitimate birth. They did not take him seriously and instead assigned him shame. To me Jesus sounds a little sad and resigned when he says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” The people who watched Jesus or any other prophet grow up from birth through childhood and adolescence might have trouble taking him seriously when he begins his teaching. They might have trouble believing his incredible teachings or miraculous acts. After all, they watched him grow up. They knew the scandalous secret of his birth, had seen him when he was vulnerable. Once, he’d been one of them–a Nazarene, a poor worker. Now Jesus seemed to be something different; now his teachings contained a prophetic voice, one that urged people to change, to behave better, a voice that brought warnings and told difficult truths, difficult truths that were hard to hear and accept.
I believe that God is still sending prophets into the world today. We have been blessed to hear these voices more loudly in the past year, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Prophetic voices telling us difficult truths about the state of things, prophetic voices urging people to change. To behave better. To listen more closely to God.
When I was a little girl, I thought the United States of America was some kind of ideal that all nations should aspire to emulate. As a child, I learned the white-washed version of history in my public school and lapped up all the stories that allowed me to feel good about my country. Despite having made no choice to live here or be born here, I could feel proud, despite having achieved nothing. But as I grew older, furthered my education and learned more, and began to actually listen to the experiences of my friends who were a different race or religion than me, I began to form a more true, a more deep understanding about America.
At first these prophetic voices were difficult for me to hear; they said, “America is not what you thought.” They said, “We have been suffering, but you did not notice. We are dying, and you did not care. But our lives matter!” They said, “Things are not right. This is not justice. America, you must do better. White people, you must do better. Privileged people, wake up.” These prophetic voices said, “Wake up! Here are the consequences of your actions. This is the reality of America!” But as just as we saw with Ezekiel and with Christ, we the people and our leaders did not always want to hear the message of these modern prophets.
But the truth is, those of us in the dominant culture have been ignoring or running from these prophetic voices for too long. And in fact, those of us in the dominant culture have been relying on people of color, on women, on immigrants, on poor people, on all marginalized people to take on the work of being prophetic voices alone for far too long. It is beyond time for those of us in the dominant culture to take up some of the burden of telling these difficult truths, speaking to harsh realities, and warning of the consequences of our actions. And we must start by holding each other accountable. As frightening as it may be, like for Ezekiel, and no matter the risk of being judged by our friends and family, like Christ, we must be brave enough to be prophetic voices and speak truth to power.
God called Ezekiel to be a prophet, even when Ezekiel felt he had no strength left at all. I believe God continues to call prophets, and that there are many in this room. You do not need to be able to see the future to have a prophetic voice; you need only speak difficult truths to those in power.
For some of us, that means speaking difficult truths to ourselves because we hold the power and the privilege. It means speaking difficult truths to people with the same power and privilege we have even when they do not want to listen. And it definitely means being willing to listen to others when they are speaking difficult truths to us. So whether you are wearied from the heavy burden of speaking the hard truths to power all your life or whether you are afraid because you are just beginning the hard work of antiracism and pursuit of justice, I pray that God sends you the comfort and strength of the Spirit just as he did for Ezekiel. May God bless you, may God bless all of us with the ruach, the wind and the breath and the power, to be brave. To be loud. To be prophets. Look to Christ’s example; he will show us how. Amen.