Michael Jinkins: Bad news first

The message of the ancient Hebrew prophets is characterized by this one searing phrase: “Thus saith the Lord.”

My Lenten exercise was to read through the Minor Prophets. I made it through “The Book of the Twelve” several times during Lent.

If you want a Lenten exercise for next year that endures long after Lent is over, I highly recommend it. The message of the prophets simply will not let me go.

Just for a moment, think about phrases like these from Micah: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? The Lord has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8).

Or consider the lines from Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

I have heard precious few sermons on texts from the Minor Prophets in recent years. I sincerely doubt if this is because injustice, bondservitude, greed and oppression have been vanquished from our world. I doubt that it is because widows and orphans, strangers, aliens and refugees have found so much generosity and hospitality among us. I suspect that we hesitate to preach these texts because in them the Lord is less interested in serving our interests than in calling us to serve in the reign of God.

The great gift of the Hebrew prophets -- first to the people of Israel and Judah, and ultimately to all people -- is their relentless focus on what God requires of us rather than what we require of God. This is the driving force of what a previous generation of scholarship called their ethical or radical monotheism. They changed the entire notion of what it means to be godly or faithful from getting the right incantation and offering the right sacrifice to acting righteously on behalf of others, from crafting a pantheon of literally hand-made gods, to being re-crafted ourselves as a people of God.

As Christianity descends into an increasingly corrosive self-absorption and self-indulgence, mourning its loss of institutional power and influence, the message of the ancient Hebrew prophets remains characterized by this one searing phrase, “Thus saith the Lord.” Through this phrase our vision is raised from the horizon of all that preoccupies us to the crystalline vision of God’s will for the world. It is inevitable that the message of the prophets should be heard as judgment in our time, given the nature of our preoccupations. But the prophets of ancient Israel and Judah remind us at every turn that God’s ultimate purpose is redemption.

The prophets have never had a more eloquent interpreter than Abraham Heschel. He writes: “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and [humanity]. God is raging in the prophet’s words.” But God’s rage has redemptive purpose, Heschel says, reminding us that “it is within the power of [humanity] to return to God whose loving kindness is ever extended to the returning sinner.” Sometimes the good news of the Gospel only becomes Good News to us when we take seriously the bad news it contains.

Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.