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Title: An Inconvenient Prophecy
Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner
Date: 10 December 2023, Second Sunday of Advent
Readings: 1 Kings 22:12–28, Romans 15:4–13
Power has the tendency to shape the things that are said around it. When someone has power to make our lives easier, or harder, it becomes tempting simply to say what the person wishes to hear. A rather cynical friend once told a newly consecrated bishop that two things in his life were about to change. ‘What things?’ the bishop enquired. ‘You’ll never have to pay for lunch again, and no one will ever tell you the truth’.
Well, I suspect that those days have gone (to some extent), but the story illustrates the idea that power can alter relationships in ways that aren’t always constructive or helpful. Our first reading this evening seems a rather odd story. It begins with all the prophets urging the King to go up against Ramoth-gilead, because they believe God will give it into the King’s hand. We hear that all ‘the prophets with one accord are favourable to the king’.
But then there’s Micaiah. Micaiah was a prophet with a reputation for being independent.
He didn’t simply go with the crowd or say what people wanted to hear. That’s a risky way to live and I’m sure that it caused Micaiah a lot of trouble.Indeed, in tonight’s reading from first Kings we find that Micaiah wasn’t with the rest of the prophets. He needed to be summoned to be present and give his prophecy to the King. Perhaps, like Jonah, Micaiah decides that keeping out of the way might be better than telling the King what he had in his heart to say. Who knows? Micaiah is urged to conform but replies that he’ll have to speak whatever the Lord has given him to say.
Yet, surprisingly, that doesn’t happen. Micaiah does conform and makes his prophecy fit with that of the other prophets. Fascinatingly, the King won’t accept this. Perhaps the King senses that Micaiah is simply playing along with the others and his characteristic passion is missing. In any event, he demands that Micaiah tells him the truth. And the truth isn’t what the King wants to hear. A leader of the group of prophets, Zedekiah, then intervenes and gives Micaiah a slap. But Micaiah won’t abandon the conviction he has in the prophecy God has given to him. So, our reading ends with Micaiah put in prison on half rations.
As I said, telling a truth that doesn’t bend to the liking of power isn’t a comfortable place to be. If you’ve read the Hilary Mantel novels about Thomas Cromwell, or seen the adaptations for TV or the stage, you’ll know just how terrible absolute power can be. In Bring Up The Bodies Mantel writes the following about Henry VIII:
“You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.”
In Advent there’s another courageous prophet who won’t bend to the will of a King. It’s John the Baptist and the King is Herod. Out in the wilderness John is like an earthquake disturbing the settled landscape of religious belief and custom. The tremors even reach as far as Jerusalem. John is there, preparing the way of the Lord – doing his best to alert the people to what’s coming. It’s not a message that Herod likes. John is preaching change, and the future he is describing is a danger to the people in power. As with Micaiah, John’s determination to speak truth to power will land him in prison – and then lead to his execution.
As we hear in the letter to the Romans, God’s desire is for harmony. The church should be an example of peace, in which we welcome one another just as Christ welcomes us. Yet, even here, when prophecy leads to change it generally ends in some sort of conflict.
The extension of evangelism into the Gentile world didn’t please everyone. When prophetic vision says God is calling us to change, it isn’t good news for everyone. In Romans St Paul celebrates the message of joy that comes to the Gentiles, and he wants the unity and peace of the church, but that is seldom what happens.
Prophets who do their job well and faithfully don’t often get a reward in this life. The poet TS Eliot wrote the following words for a tempter in his play Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The easy man lives to eat the best dinners’.
On half rations Micaiah in prison knew the cost of not saying the thing which a King wanted to hear. John the Baptist – also in prison – would lose his life to the whim of Herod when Herod was enjoying a very good dinner.
In Advent perhaps what we don’t want to hear, matters most – and making the effort to listen to those who make us feel least comfortable is the hard task of this season. Just as Advent begins with the call for us to be ‘stirred up’, this Sunday reminds us that we need to pay attention to the stirrers.
The people God calls to challenge our complacency and to make us alert, ‘now in the time of this mortal life’. It is a calling that can be very costly, but the Kingdom of God breaks into our world, in part, due to the faithful determination of the prophets sent to us in each and every generation.
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