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YOU ASKED FOR A SERMON ON ARE THERE MODERN PROPHETS AND SAINTS?

 

Jeremiah 1:4-10

 

[1] “Are there modern prophets and saints?” Is God alive? Does God speak? Does God continue to call and equip and commission and appoint? Of course there are modern prophets and saints.

Let’s think first about prophets, the prophets of the biblical era. The Hebrew prophet is summoned before God, addressed by God, and appointed by God to a specific task. When the prophet is singled out by God (Amos said he was singled out when he was a mature adult, a shepherd in Tekoa; Jeremiah said he was singled out in his mother’s womb before he was even born) the prophet is brought before the “heavenly council”, as it is called. (If we were British monarchists we’d say, “summoned to the throne room”; if we were American republicans we’d say, “summoned to the oval office”.) The prophet is admitted to God’s deliberations with God himself. Once admitted to the heavenly council, the prophet is allowed to overhear God talking to himself out loud; or the prophet is addressed by God directly. Now the prophet has been given (burdened with) a specific word reflecting the mind and heart, the will and way and purpose of God.

But haven’t all God’s people been made aware of the mind and heart of God? Yes. All God’s people know that God has disclosed his will and way and purpose for his people at Red Sea and Sinai, at Calvary and empty tomb. This being the case, who needs a prophet? To be sure, Red Sea and Sinai, Calvary and empty tomb form the people of God and inform them after God’s heart; yet in the pilgrimage of God’s people, in the course of their venturing from deliverance to promised land, they need specific directions for specific crises or opportunities in the midst of specific developments. Sometimes the prophet’s word is directed to the people as a whole, as was the case when the Israelites were exiled in Babylon and they floundered in the midst of foreigners who both taunted them and tempted them. At other times the prophet’s word is addressed to an individual, as was the case when the prophet Nathan told David, after David’s violation of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, that David, Israel’s greatest king, was also Israel’s greatest “creep.”

In all of this the prophet is different from the teacher. The teacher expounds and interprets the whole body of the truth of God; the teacher articulates the substance of the faith; the teacher mines the rich deposits in the goldmine of the gospel. A modern teacher will expound the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments or the message of the Psalms or the parables of Jesus.

The prophet, however, is different. The prophet is certainly aware of the whole body of the truth of God, and must never contradict it. (If he does, he’s known instantly as a false prophet.) Still, the prophet has been called and equipped to speak God’s special word to a special crisis or opportunity in the life of God’s people.

Since life is punctured only occasionally by crises, since life unfolds ordinarily most of the time, it’s obvious that teachers have to be many while prophets are few. Teaching is common while prophecy is unusual. Yet both are essential. The teacher acquaints God’s people with their identity and self-understanding as God’s people; the prophet, on the other hand, imparts specific direction in the midst of unique developments. Teachers and prophets are alike essential.

Are there modern prophets? Of course there are.

 

[2] Then what about saints? Are there modern saints? The English word “saint” translates the Greek word hagios, “holy”. In the New Testament church holy people aren’t unusual Christians, super-spiritual Christians, extraordinary Christians. In the New Testament church all Christians, without exception, are called “holy”, “saints”. Even weak Christians, immature Christians, sin-riddled Christians are still called “holy”, “saints”.

The root meaning of “holy” is simply “set apart”. Christians are those whom God has set apart through their faith in Jesus Christ. Set apart for what? Set apart to attest the presence of the kingdom in the person of king Jesus, to be sure; set apart to do the kingdom-work that obedient subjects of the king are eager to do; set apart to labour and struggle while it is still day, aware that the night is coming. Yes! But before any of this, Christians are set apart simply to be. Jesus says his people are to be salt, be light, just be. Before we are set apart to do anything we are set apart to be; to be a people whose existence honours God.

Yet whenever I reflect upon what it means to be set apart, a saint, I think of those graphic images that the apostle Paul uses to speak of Christians in his Corinthian correspondence.

 

(i) Paul says that Christians, saints, are an aroma, the fragrance of God. (2 Cor. 2:15) I am exceedingly fond of perfume. I’ll even stop on the sidewalk and keep sniffing after a woman fragrant with perfume has walked on down the street. To the extent that I love perfume I loathe stenches. How much more I should ever hate to be a stench. I won’t be, for Christians have been set apart to be an aroma, the fragrance of God. The fragrance of God renders God himself attractive.

 

(ii) Paul says too that Christians, saints, are God’s letter. (2 Cor. 3:2-3) We are the letter that God sends to others. The purpose of a letter is to convey information; the purpose of a love-letter is to convey information and disclose the letter-writer’s heart. We are God’s letter, says the apostle, written not with pen and ink but “with the Spirit of the living God … on the tablets of the human heart.”

 

(iii) Paul says too that Christians, saints, are God’s garden, God’s plantation. (1 Cor. 3:9) We have been set apart as God’s garden. The purpose of a garden is to feed people; the purpose of God’s garden is to feed people ultimately with the one who is the bread of life.

In the New Testament all Christians, without exception, are alike designated “saints”, holy ones whose holiness consists first in the fact that they have been set apart. As God’s fragrance we render him attractive; as God’s letter we inform others of his truth and his heart; as God’s garden we are the means whereby others are fed the bread of life.

Are there saints today? Of course there are. No doubt you have your own list of favourite saints, people who have been especially helpful to you in your pilgrimage. I have my own list, too. It’s very long. Still, I want to acquaint you with three men who have meant more to me than I can say. Two of them I have called saints, and the third a prophet. But of course prophets are always saints as well.

 

[3](i) The first is Anthony Bloom. Bloom was born of Russian parents in 1914. His parents, members of the Czarist Diplomatic Corps, took him to Iran where his father was Russian ambassador. After the communist revolution in 1917, his parents couldn’t return to Russia. They moved to France, together with three year-old Anthony.

Bloom speaks of his early years as years of out-and-out unbelief. He affirmed nothing of the gospel and wasn’t even interested in investigating it. In his mid-teens he joined a boy’s club in Paris. The club happened to meet in a church. Out of idle curiosity he picked up a pamphlet containing Mark’s gospel that he had found lying around, and began to read it in contemptuous amusement. Expecting nothing but silly entertainment, he began to sense a presence; the presence of him of whom the gospel speaks. But let Bloom tell you about this in his own words:

“I knew that Christ was standing on the other side of the desk, and the impression was so clear and so certain that I looked up the way one looks round in the street when one has the impression that someone is looking at your back. I saw nothing, perceived nothing with my senses, but the certainty was so great that I knew I had met Christ alive; and if I had met Christ alive, then all the gospel was true.”

Bloom finished his undergraduate education and enrolled in the faculty of medicine. Lacking money for his medical education, he tutored students every night in physics, chemistry, mathematics and Latin — tutored them, that is until 11:00 pm. Then he opened his medical textbooks and began his own homework, working almost until dawn. Bloom says that throughout his four years of medical school he averaged three hours of sleep per night. Upon graduation he qualified as a surgeon.

Then World War II broke out and France was invaded. One day, in the course of the German occupation, a German soldier with a shattered forefinger was brought to him. A senior surgeon looking over Bloom’s shoulder said that the finger would have to be amputated. Bloom asked the young soldier what he had done for a living in civilian life. “I”m a watchmaker”, the young man replied, “and if I lose my forefinger I’ll be jobless.” Bloom disregarded the senior surgeon and spent the next five weeks reconstructing the finger.

Bloom continued to practise medicine until 1948 when he was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in France, subsequently becoming bishop and archbishop, and finally Orthodox archbishop in England. Until his death a year or two ago he frequently went to a working-class pub for lunch, “for a pie and a pint”, as he put it. He has written much, including two very fine books on prayer. Twice he has been interviewed on Roy Bonisteel’s former CBC program, “Man Alive”, and his presence has elicited more correspondence than anyone Bonisteel has ever interviewed.

Bloom has always known that the gospel strikes the world as foolish. Therefore Christians strike the world as foolish. What the world counts folly, of course, is precisely what the church knows to be the wisdom of God. Bloom spent five weeks reconstructing the shattered forefinger of a man whose forefinger had been a trigger finger, used against Bloom’s fellow-citizens, until the moment of injury.

Bloom was always aware that life unfolds amidst difficulty. Bloom himself knew much difficulty throughout his life. Among other things he had medical problems that hounded him all his adult years. Still, he remained radiant and encouraged fellow-sufferers (all of us) to remain radiant too. In this context Bloom said,

“In present-day medicine people turn to a physician to alleviate the slightest pain because they assume they should never be in pain. The result is that they can face pain less and less; and when there is no pain, they can’t face the fear. In the end they live in pain although there is no real pain yet.”

As often as I read Bloom I recall Psalm 34: “I will bless the Lord at all times. Let the afflicted hear and be glad. Look to him and be radiant.” (If you are trying to demystify the matter of prayer and you need help, read his little book, School for Prayer.)

 

(ii) The next person I want to speak of is a modern prophet, Jacques Ellul. Ellul was born in France in 1912 to parents who cared nothing about the Christian faith. His father especially was a sceptic in the spirit of Voltaire, not only a sceptic but a mocker. Yet since there is no communication-gap the Holy Spirit can’t bridge or frozen heart he can’t thaw, Ellul came to faith when still a young man. He refused to discuss the details of this development since he always found religious exhibitionism distasteful. He did say, however, that since he was seized and subdued by the God he was ardently trying to flee, his conversion was necessarily violent.

Soon Ellul was studying law at university, then teaching it as he was appointed professor of law at the University of Bordeaux. When France was overrun and occupied during the war Ellul became a member of the Resistance. One of his law-students reported him to the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Resistance people immediately hid him in the French countryside where he was disguised as a farmer. For the rest of the war Ellul was an underground fighter in the French Resistance.

After the war Ellul became upset at the treatment accorded those accused of wartime collaboration. French citizens were now howling for the scalps of those French men and women who had collaborated with German forces in hope of saving their own skin. Ellul found the French government treating these people brutally, acceding to the popular howl, denying them the most rudimentary due process of the justice system. Whereupon Ellul stepped out of his law-school professorial robes and became the lawyer representing the collaborationists. In other words, he now defended the very people who would have tortured and killed him had they found him a year or two earlier. Overnight Ellul went from being a wartime hero (brave Resistance fighter) to peacetime bum (public defender of French scum.) He did what he did, he says, because he knew that in Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has come; as a citizen of that kingdom he knew he lived in a new order where assumptions and expectations were entirely different from those of the old order. He noted that virtually everyone clings to the old order even though God’s judgement has condemned it, while very few dwell in the new order even though God’s blessing has established it.

Soon Ellul became professor of the history of institutions as well as professor of law. Now he began the work that has made him famous around the world. He insisted that the threat to our humanness, in the latter half of the 20th century, is technology. By technology he doesn’t mean mechanization or automation. (He has never suggested that a horse is preferable to an automobile or a tractor.) By “technology”, rather, he means the uncritical exaltation of efficiency. If something can be done efficiently, then it will be done, regardless of the truth of God or the human good. Once the technology of the atom bomb had been developed (the atom bomb being the most efficient weapon the world had seen to date), then of course the bomb was going to be dropped. As soon as abortion-techniques were refined and made vastly more efficient, then of course abortions proliferated, without concern for the status of the creature being slain. As soon as electronic surveillance techniques were developed, then of course they were used by governments and others to violate the privacy of citizens who remain unaware of being violated.

Ellul has written 40 books and 400 articles on a variety of topics. One of his major books concerns propaganda. He argues convincingly that propaganda is deployed everywhere in life to seduce people into consenting unthinkingly to the exaltation of efficiency. At the same time propaganda is deployed to blind people to the dangers of whatever is put forward as more efficient. Concerning the generating of electricity, for instance, we’ve been told that coal-fired generators pollute the environment. And so they do, to some extent. We are told that nuclear generators don’t pollute. Ellul points out that propaganda keeps people ignorant of one crucial fact: every year there are approximately 500 major nuclear accidents throughout the world, with results that are simply horrific — even as very little of this is heard in the news.

Then do you want to learn how the news is managed and who manages it? Read him. Do you know the social techniques that are used to make people feel they are free and creative when in fact they are mindnumbingly controlled and conformed and enslaved? Read him.

Ellul insists that only the God of the gospel can free us. Only the God of the gospel highlights the world for what it is and thereby calls us to a new existence in Jesus Christ. Apart from the God of the gospel and what he does now there is no future, says Ellul, no genuine future. There is only a dreary repetition of the past. Not surprisingly Ellul too has written a startling book on prayer, contending that it is only as we pray that we are given something that isn’t the past recycled; only as we pray do we have a genuine future at God’s hand.

Ellul died in Lyon, France, in 1995.

 

(iii) The last person I shall speak of is Ronald Ward, British Anglican clergyman, classics scholar-turned-New Testament scholar. Ward was awarded his Ph.D degree for his thesis, “The Aristotelian Element in the Philosophical Vocabulary of the New Testament.” Emigrating to Canada he was professor of New Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, from 1952-1963. He has written a dozen books. Long before I knew him, long before I began my own studies in theology, I heard my father speak admiringly of him. In the late 1950s Ward had preached at a noon-hour Lenten service held in St. James Anglican Cathedral, Toronto, for downtown business people. My father came home astonished at both Ward’s scholarship and the authenticity with which Ward spoke of his most intimate life in his Lord. On my 24th birthday my mother (now a widow) gave me one of his books, Hidden Meaning in the New Testament. The book explored the theological significance of Greek grammar. Dull? Does grammar have to be dull? I read his discussion of verb-tenses, imperative and subjunctive moods, prepositions, compound verbs, his discussion illustrating the truth and power of the gospel on page after page. Greek grammar now glinted and gleamed with the radiance of God himself. Insights startling and electrifying illuminated different aspects of Christian discipleship and left me glowing inside every time I thought about them.

One such gem had to do with the two ways in which the Greek language expresses an imperative. (The two ways are the present tense and the aorist subjunctive.) If I utter the English imperative, “Don’t run!” I can mean “You are running now and you must stop” or I can mean “You aren’t running now and you mustn’t start.” When two different gospel-writers refer to the Ten Commandments, one gospel-writer uses one form of the Greek imperative to express “Thou shalt not”, while the other gospel-writer uses the other form. One says, “You are constantly violating the command of God and you must stop.” The other says, “You aren’t violating the command of God now, and don’t even think of starting.” Both truths are needed in the Christian life; both are highlighted by means of grammatical precision.

Ward left the University of Toronto and found his way to a small Anglican congregation in Saint John, N.B. By now (1970) I was in Tabusintac, a 400-mile roundtrip away. Several times I sat before him, Greek testament in hand, asking him about grammatical points that had me “stumped”. What did I gain from my visits? Vastly more than lessons in grammar; I gained an exposure to a godliness I had seen nowhere else, a godliness that was natural, unaffected, unselfconscious, real.

Any point in grammar Ward illustrated from the Christian life. One day I asked him about two verses in Mark’s gospel where Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” The verb is skandalizein, to cause to stumble. But in the space of a few verses Mark uses two different tenses: one tense suggests completed action in the past, one occurrence only; the other tense suggests an ongoing phenomenon. When I asked Ward about it he said, “Victor, in a moment of carelessness or spiritual inattentiveness or outright folly the Christian can be overtaken by sin. Horrified, he says, `Never again!’, and it’s done with. And then there’s the Christian’s besetting temptation with which he has to struggle every day.”

As often as I spoke with him I knew I was in the presence of a simple man, a humble man, an erudite scholar, and a spiritual giant. Yet his gigantic stature never dismayed me. On the contrary, I was only encouraged. He frequently prefaced what he had to say to me with, “As you know, Victor,…”, as if I were his spiritual equal. I wasn’t and I knew it. He continued to assume I was. “As you know, Victor, the worst consequence of prayerlessness is the inability to pray; as you know, Victor, if we fear God we shall never have to be afraid of him.”

While Ward spent most of his time either as professor or as pastor of a small congregation, he was always an evangelist at heart. Before he died (only a few years ago) he had conducted preaching missions to large crowds on every continent. Despite his exposure to large crowds he always knew of the need to sound the note of the gospel-summons to first-time faith within the local congregation.

I have come to appreciate the need for this myself. And so I wish conclude the sermon today by reading the concluding paragraph of his book, Royal Theology. In this paragraph Ward speaks of the conscientious minister who prepares throughout the week that utterance which is given him to declare on Sunday. Such a minister, says Ward,

“should find that his responsive congregation is not only literally sitting in front of him but is figuratively behind him. When he proclaims Christ there will be an answering note in the hearts of those who have tasted that the Lord is gracious. When he mentions the wrath of God they will be with him in remembering that they too were once under wrath and by the mercy of God have been delivered. When he speaks of the Holy Spirit they will rejoice in Him Who has brought Christ to their hearts with His fruit of joy. When he speaks of the church they will dwell on that vast company of the redeemed which has responded to God’s call and has received Christ, the multitude which no man can number of those who are His peculiar treasure. When he speaks of the word of the cross they will welcome the open secret of the means of their salvation. And when he gives an invitation to sinners to come to Christ, they will create the warm and loving atmosphere which is the fitting welcome for one who is coming home.”

 

                                                                          Victor Shepherd
February 1998