A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
The Sorrowful Prophet
'Anger', 'Fear' and 'Joy'. I have already examined these three core emotions as they are expressed in the lives and written testimonies of the Old Testament Prophets. The last core emotion that I deal with is 'Sorrow'.
This may seem a strange choice, when I could have ended the series on a high note with 'Joy'. The reason is this. Running right through the Old Testament Prophetic writings there is a driving sense of sorrow which is left unresolved. The prophets are nearly all called to speak out and act according to the godlessness of their day. Their words address the injustice, immorality and pluralistic worship they observe and point forward to a future in which the problems they see are resolved. Often, in sorrow, they cannot see how the resolution can come about, and project their ideas forward by talking about God's final resolution of all things. Frankly, in their humanity they are no different from ourselves; in despair of the present age they long for God's future. The difference between them and us is that God has granted their words to become part of the scriptures whereby we may learn from them how he works to resolve personal and social human sin. Just as the term 'original sin' was coined by Augustine to describe the general condition of humanity before God, 'sorrow' lies at the heart of the message of prophets who knew all about this sin. They spoke in advance of the coming of the One who would provide God's complete answer, Jesus Christ. In so doing they reveal key insights into the purposes of God for all humanity.
In much modern scholarship about the prophets, we are encouraged to think of them as forth-telling (speaking out of their particular circumstances) rather than fore-telling (predicting the future). As with all polarisation of complex issues, this is a caricature designed for a (church) 'political' purpose - in this case, to stop people reading into the text their own machinations about the second coming of Christ, a matter which was addressed quite adequately by Jesus himself (Matt 24:36). Unfortunately, in the cynical world of much modern theology, the same argument has been used to try to stop people observing the way the Old Testament points to a fulfilment not in itself, but in the New Covenant of Christ. Unfashionably, I am of the opinion that prophets of the Old Testament often did, with clear limitations of their own cultural setting, pitch their ideas beyond their own time. They knew that the covenant with God they enjoyed was limited and looked forward to an enigmatic New Covenant (even darkly - to use Pauline language!).
With great sorrow, Jeremiah, for example, gives up on the Judean people of his day (Jer 7:16, 11:14, 14:11), tells them they must accept judgement at God's hand (Jer 29), and places his hope for redemption in the exiled Judeans in Babylon (Jer 31:31ff), a future that he does not live to see (Jer 43,44). It would be easy to argue that Jeremiah's words of hope - the New Covenant message of Jer 31 - are to be thought of simply as a response to the fact that the Old Covenant (manifest in the Ark of the Covenant and containing the Ten Commandments) had been destroyed by the Babylonians when they destroyed the Temple. A cursory glance at the life and times of Jeremiah will yield little confidence that he, personally, had any idea of the nature of the coming Judean return from exile, rebuilding the Temple under Nehemiah and Ezra, and the establishment of a partially independent Judean state under Greek and then Roman governance. When talking of a New Covenant he spiritualises human relation-ship with God with a vision of human sin overcome by the acts of God: 'I will write it on their hearts'. The tragedies of Judean history from his time until Christ do not in any way fulfil this prophecy, despite their bravery and the lack of the Ark. Jeremiah's sorrow is only turned into joy and his prophecies are only fulfilled, in the life of a Messiah he could only hint at through his powerful words about the 'New Covenant'.
Equally, I have yet to see a commentary on Isaiah that manages (except by blatant omission) to deconstruct the spiritual significance of passages such as Isaiah 9 and 11 (speaking of a coming King who will reign justly in contrast to the wayward Ahaz) and Isaiah 53 (the 'suffering servant'). These passages arise from Isaiah's deep sorrow at failed leadership, and their power is evident in the complex and enigmatic Hebrew of the passages that will continue to be fertile ground for research students! Their meaning and origin is 'literally' unclear (try reading them in different translations and spot the differences!), but their spiritual, Holy Spirit power throughout generations and to this day is incalculable. It is out of order to trivialise such texts historically.
The prophets spoke out of the sorrow for the human condition they observed, pointing to elements of God's solution. You may detect a hint of sorrow in my own writing that I have little confidence in much current biblical scholarship to connect with current (post-modern) Christian spirituality - what I still persist in calling 'faith'.
I have endless conversation with Christ-ians today who are disillusioned with the Church, uncertain about faith, clueless about the complexities of the wonderful systems our Methodist Conference is generating for its due processes (such as how Foundation Training works!) or fed up with its attachment to styles of worship and management that bear no relationship on the ground either to the world we live in or to Kingdom values. This makes me very sad. I am sad as well that many such people have no knowledge of the Old Testament or the Prophets apart from snippets thrown out from the pulpit in support of this or that generalisation. The divorce of faith and spirituality from biblical study (often regarded as essential to its survival in secular academia) yields little meat from scholarly activity that can be digested by the general preacher - who consequently tends to base biblical interpretation on personal judgement and devotional guides.
The Old Testament Prophets - if you care to read them thoroughly rather than just read articles about them (!) - speak out of the sadness and failure of their day with a vigorous sense of God's ability to resolve all human weakness and sin. They do speak of a Messiah who will deal with specific problems and they project that belief beyond their own time - convinced that he who made all things well must conclude all things well. Our 'Faith' is that Jesus has been revealed to us as that Messiah. Sometimes we need to travel a little with the Old Testament Prophets to really see how the sadness of our present reality can indeed be transformed. They trusted God for it, and so must we.