I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to preach at this Radical Vocation Conference; grateful to the organizers and to Bishop Burton for their hospitality; mindful as well of the extraordinary time of pandemic in which we live. It’s a great gift from God to be able to gather at all, and I thank not only our organizers for their creativity and flexibility, but also all of you for your faithful participation in this significant moment in the life of the church. It’s good for us to be together, and in the midst of challenge to look to the future.
Our reading from Second Kings captures a politically fractured moment in the 9th century before Christ: not just the fracturing of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, torn by General Jehu’s revolution and the assassination of King Joram, but also the burgeoning fault line between prophets and kings. As Jezebel and her son Joram are swept from the field of history in our reading tonight, the rebel Jehu tells his servants, “This is the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Elijah the Tishbite” (2 Kings 9:36). It’s a bloody episode, of battle, murder, and sudden death, the equal of anything dreamt up in HBO’s Game of Thrones!
That’s right, the whole sorry business, the foreign and domestic quagmire of ancient Israel, takes place according to prophecy. The kingdom is taken from one king and given to another (a common enough theme in ancient Israel); and the transfer rests upon the providential ordering of prophetic speech. Jehu’s reference to the word spoken by the prophet Elijah takes us back to First Kings, the nineteenth chapter, where Elijah is commissioned to anoint not only his own successor Elisha, but also Jehu as king of Israel. Implicit in that anointing, recapitulated by Elisha in yesterday’s reading, is that the usurper Jehu will displace the successors of King Omri, Ahab and his Sidonian spouse Jezebel, and their son Joram.
Our reading concludes the story of conflict between the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and the Omride rulers of the Northern Kingdom. The conflict was premised on royal unfaithfulness to YHWH’s covenant: the king’s preference for foreign gods. But there’s more going on here than the spectacular crash landing of the Omride dynasty. In conjuring up the collision of prophets and kings in this dramatic way, our reading speaks into the politically fractured moment in which we live.
There’s an obvious homiletic move here to be made, having to do with the nature of prophetic speech. The well- worn trope of “speaking truth to power” might seem to have covered all the bases. Isn’t it the vocation of the prophet to denounce sinfulness in high places? Isn’t that our vocation? Our times present to us evil tyrants of all sorts, manifest injustice, ills that cry out for remedy. Isn’t our role, in this moment, to take upon ourselves the mantle of Elijah, and press forward with God’s agenda, which is both public and political?
This perspective seems to me to be rhetorically unassailable. Who can argue with God’s agenda, after all? But the obvious move makes me uneasy. Indulge the preacher for a moment, who’s uncomfortable with this particular turn. For whatever the nature of prophetic speech in the ninth century before Christ, it’s unlikely to present itself now in the guise of the tortured political discourse of our present day.
Engaging in the meme-worthy, social media-savvy, public speech, of our own time, runs the risk of obscuring (or even polluting) any authentic word from the Lord that might be spoken in the present. It seems to me that whatever you might say about the ministry of the prophets, the word that they speak is never obvious. Another way of saying this is that the ministry of the prophets is not borne up by the groundswell of public opinion.
So, eschewing one homiletical strategy, let’s go back to ancient Israel and to our reading for another look. In those days, the triad of prophet, priest, and king emerged as transmitters together of the tradition of YHWH’s covenant with the People. No one office bore the whole weight of transmission. It is these offices that are recapitulated in Christ himself, crucified and risen.
Our reading gives us the king and the prophet, both called in different ways to reflect, and safeguard, the covenant. After all, both Elijah and Elisha anointed General Jehu, who ended the Omride tyranny, but who also in himself perpetuated the rule of kings. The tyrants were displaced, but the line was perpetuated.
The dual offices of prophet and king we see in our reading, represent an important qualifier of authority in Israel. Elijah and Elisha constitute, if you will, an anti-totalizing trend, refusing to bow to the absolutism of the Omride line. The prophets, in this context, represent as well a predilection in our theological tradition against an intellectual monism, which would offer only a single lens, one simple interpretive tool, through which to see the world and to act upon it. Israel had a royalist theology, but also an important prophetic qualifier.
It is this totalizing trend in our own day, profoundly illiberal in the classical sense, that ought to be a matter of concern, the object of the church’s prayer, and an inspiration to prophetic speech. Here, I must offer an important disclaimer (with apologies to the prophet Amos): “I am not a pluralist, nor am I the son of a pluralist. I have no brief for the division of powers within a constitutional order.” In other words, there is another homiletical chasm to be avoided by the Christian preacher, and that is the wholesale valorization of political and intellectual pluralism. Christians believe that Jesus is king, after all! It’s also important to remember that prophets are never self-nominated, self-identified, or selected by a search committee.
Yet, having said that, it does seem to me that the context within which all of us minister in the West, no matter where we are, will be marked by totalizing trends on both the right and the left. The camps are well established, and they are firmly situated at the gates of our society, and increasingly within the city itself. The encampments do not communicate much with each other, but they question in common the foundations of the plural political order of the West.
Think, in terms of the political: an integralist populist nationalism on the right; on the left, a morally censorious progressivism. Both, gaining strength, represent this totalizing trend. It’s not that they are in conflict with each other, king and prophet locked in mortal conflict. That is not the true fault line of our fractured political moment. Rather, both trends represent absolutism, of different kinds perhaps, but both aiming at the overturn of a political order that, at least in its origin, within the tradition of Israel, resists these totalizing trends.
Why, then, should we care? Bishops, clergy, ordinands, Christians of all sorts, who are called to be “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1)? We should care, first of all, because this will be our context. We will preach, teach, and minister in these times. We will discern, communicate, and receive the Word of God. There will be temptations to misdirection of all sorts, especially in attempting to speak the word of the Lord in a time of corrupt communication. Still, we must preach, teach, and minister; discern, communicate, and receive.
Second of all, we ought to be mindful of the city in which we live, our care for the political order that actually exists. The prophet Jeremiah admonished the people of his day “to seek the peace and prosperity of the city” where they were exiles. “Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). “We also enjoy the peace of Babylon” (City of God 19:26), St. Augustine wrote in the nineteenth book of the City of God, reminding us of the good of the present order in the earthly city. So, we too should pray for the city and seek its peace.
But, as Augustine reminds us, the true peace we seek to enjoy is the peace of the heavenly city, the supreme good as he calls it. This is not the peace of the times in which we live, but the peace that lies ahead. This supreme good sets all the other goods, including the good of the earthly city, in their proper place, and suggests a remedy in our fractured political moment.
As Augustine points out as he brings book nineteen to a close, even now we pray in the Lord’s prayer for our sins to be forgiven, as we forgive those who sin against us. This is the characteristic political stance of the church, recognizing our own sinfulness and calling others to repentance. And, Augustine adds, these times of our pilgrimage are when God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble (Jas. 4:6). We are still pilgrims. In our fractured political moment, there is a fault line between the proud and the humble; and that fault line, for now, lies within each one of us.