Recently in a sermon, I quoted Walter Brueggemann who said that the prophet’s job is to evoke a perception that is an alternative to the perception and consciousness of the dominant culture. This assumes that the prophet truly speaks for God and the dominant culture is not consciously, intentionally seeking God.
Both assumptions are true in Chapel Hill, NC, 2012-2013. Christ-followers in this context are not prophets per se. The prophet is one visited by God in a unique way that is not repeatable. But the prophets’ words are repeatable. They have been written down and in conjunction with the Gospel they help the believer today to do the work we are called to: the work of evangelism.
Christ-followers are called by Jesus to tell of the salvation He offers. In doing this, we invite people to become his disciples. The idea of an alternate story is a great approach in evangelism. Rather than convey the message that we think all people are fallen and lost in sin, we come as caring, compassionate listeners who enter lovingly into the pain and messes in people’s lives. This approach doesn’t minimize the reality that all people are fallen, lost sinners. They certainly are. We all are. But, while sin is reality, it doesn’t have to be our entry point with people.
Most people already know they’ve messed up in big ways. They don’t need a Christian or preacher coming as an evangelist rubbing their noses in their sin. They already know sin stinks. They already know they need something. Most of the time, they aren’t sure what. When we come in love and sit with them in their pain and offer a listening ear, they know we are safe. This takes time, but it is worth it.
After small talk, after time is invested, after relationship moves from surface level stuff like weather and sports to deeper emotional topics, then we are ready to talk at a spiritual level. And even then, we do well to show the patience of listening until it is clear that our friend will want to hear from us. When we have “permission” to share, that’s when we offer an alternate narrative.
We explain that Jesus is full of compassion and offers forgiveness and unconditional love. We lay out a life story for the other that involves the specifics of their life, but lived in the light and love of Jesus. It is a different story than the one their sins tell. And they can choose it. They have the power to continue suffering from the pain they are in or they can choose the alternate story Jesus is writing.
This clearly is a milder tone than the one of the Old Testament prophets. But again, we are not called to be Old Testament prophets. We have a similar task – to help others find an alternate story to the one they are living. We are to guide people from the selfishness of consumerism and the impatience of an immediate gratification world to the lasting joy and redeeming forgiveness of God’s story. Prophets shout this message. Prophet use odd symbolism and sometimes looming darkness to write God’s alternative story. We know the resurrection-ending to the grand narrative. Our task is to evoke, but to do it creatively and gently. We help people discover the story.
In this, we are not prophets, but we are aligned with the Biblical prophets. More importantly, we are aligned with God’s purposes. We are doing His work in Jesus’ name.