The lessons this week (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost) sharply demarcate genuine and sincere prophetic ministry from all forms of mere salesmanship. Everyone trying to sell you something—either commercial goods or political or religious ideology—tries to butter you up. Tries to get you on their side. Years ago a man trying to convince me to sell encyclopedias door-to-door explained it this way: The more times you can get people to feel good about themselves and then say “yes” to you out of their own sense of self-affirmation, the harder time they will have resisting and saying “no” when you close the deal. But the work of prophecy is the work of provoking people—of upsetting them with the hard truth of their own unworthiness. First they must know who they are without God. Only then can they open themselves to who they are becoming with God.
Ezekiel’s story in the first five verses of the second chapter of his book show that the prophet’s message is not composed of empty words. God’s Word affects change. It does something to Ezekiel. It snaps him to attention. It changes him. His charge then is to convey that world changing word to his own people, who are a rebellious lot. Ezekiel is not to grow discouraged when his hearers do not repent. No matter what, if Ezekiel is true to his mission, they will feel the heat. They will know something has hit them. They will know a prophet has been in their midst.
In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul testifies to his credentials as a prophetic missionary. He will boast of one thing only: God’s ability to turn his own weakness into strength—God’s grace, which is alone sufficient for authentic life. God’s power is perfected in our weakness.
And Jesus’ own life is testimony to the fact that the purer our witness the more we will annoy people—the more we will go even further and cause them spiritual offense—shake up their religious sensibilities. (Mark 6.1-13)
Why? Because we will be reminding people of the inadequacy of their religion. We will be reminding them of our shared utter dependence on God’s mercy. This is the key to wisdom and to power. Repentance alone clears the path for God’s power to work in our world. And so when people see this wisdom and power for what it is, we will be shocked at its implications: We deserve death. We are given life. But what an insult to suggest we cannot and will not deserve it, even a tiny bit.
Ministry that does not shock and disturb and cause offense, is something less than prophetic ministry. Would it upset churchy people to learn that the more market-friendly our churches, the less they will offend and the more they will fail the test of true, prophetic ministry?