05-31-20 THE GIFT OF PROPHESY


Isaiah 11: 1-5; Acts 2: 1-21

The term “prophesy” often gets misunderstood. Prophesy is not the ability to see the future in the way that God can. But prophets listen to God and share God’s guidance with others. And sometimes God shares the likely changes in human lives that poor choices can bring. Perhaps you remember when Jesus was being tormented before the Sanhedrin. The guards bound his eyes with a cloth and (from Mark 14:65) “Some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” Since he claimed to be the Christ, they believed he, like God, could describe future events. Of course he was in anguish instead. Some through the ages have turned to apocalyptic literature as if it were prophesy: words from Daniel, or Ezekiel, or Revelation. But prophesy genuinely comes from the prophets. Here’s what they did: they listened intently to God, and they listen intently to the world, and they wrote about the intersection and likely outcome of staying on wrong courses. Old Testament prophets are great examples, people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and Malachi. And others through the ages have taken that role in the past and into the 20th century. It is hard to name prophets in our own day, but 21st century prophets will be identified when people pause years from now and look back. One of the greatest prophets is Isaiah. He is the one who is quoted as prophesying about “Immanuel, God with us,” about “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;” ; and he also declared God’s words to “Comfort” his people after they had endured so much. But Isaiah chapter 11 is perhaps his masterpiece, his words that most clearly show God’s hope for what the world could be like; words that Jesus certainly knew when he wrote, and we pray: “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Last week I described how heaven is nothing like earth. But God’s hope—God’s dream—God’s prophetic push is for people on the earth to not accept the status quo, but to push for actions and differences that revolve around peace, justice, feeding hungry people, and the like. Listen to what the great prophet Isaiah said about that.
First a Pentecost tie-in. Pentecost is always depicted with flames, with red colors, and with candles. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, described the fruit of the Spirit: qualities any Christian would want to possess in his or her character. They are, in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. During my life I have continually worked on gaining and keeping those qualities; I think doing that can bring any one of us closer to what Thomas a’ Kempis called The Imitation of Christ. We are trying to not just bring Jesus to others with our Bibles or our memorized words, but by our actions too, so others “know we are Christians” by what we do. Some may want to put that in their life resume—that they are Christian, but as James wrote in his New Testament letter, “faith without works is dead.” That is our reminder that being a Christian is not just because of what we say, but mostly by what we do.

Now to the idea of the Gifts of the Spirit. The church since the 9th century and earlier sang about and wrote about the “Seven-fold gifts of the Spirit.” The opening music today was from the 9th century: “Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost Thy seven-fold gifts impart.” Where do we find those sevenfold gifts? In the great insights of Isaiah, we find them; but they are hidden to modern eyes. Let me help your eyes see them. Isaiah is describing what the world will be like when Messiah comes, what qualities Messiah will have. It is a striking contrast to what we see now, and what Isaiah saw then. Isaiah prophesied: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” I’ve had certain trees removed from my yards over the years, with the proper permits. A tree cutter takes down a tree, and in some cases the stump remains. To this day I can take you to three of those stumps and show you shoots growing out of them; the tree is still alive and it “bursts forth” from the tops and sides of the stump. There may have been regimes in Isaiah’s past that tried to stop God’s purpose from being carried out in Israel, but God continued to find a way, just as shoots of new growth grow from a stump. The same happens today. If you were to return to the areas where the great Florida fires from 1998 burned trees into cinder sticks, you would see now that new shoots of growth have now become saplings and even modest sized trees. Nature is always about renewal amidst change. In Isaiah’s case, the stump describes Jesse, one of the great, great, great grandfathers of Jesus! You’ll remember that Boaz the Jew, took Ruth a Moabite, as his wife. They had a son named Obed. And according to Ruth 4:17, “Obed was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David.” And according to Matthew chapter 1, he was descended of Joseph who was married to Mary, mother of Jesus. About Jesse, Isaiah wrote: “A branch shall grow out of his roots.” That’s a prophesy. It could have fit another person, but Jews believe it describes “messiah,” and Christians believe messiah is Jesus. That’s how the progression goes. Then Isaiah wrote that “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” We might wonder what it is like to have the Spirit of the Lord resting on a person. Isaiah says such a person will have these qualities:

  1. The spirit of wisdom
  2. The spirit of understanding
  3. The spirit of counsel
  4. The spirit of might
  5. The spirit of knowledge
  6. The spirit of the fear of the Lord.
    Six gifts. But we know that Jews believed that seven was a Godly number, and Christians picked up on it too! There were seven days of the week, and the beast had the number 666 (incompleteness). So why six gifts of the spirit? There was an implied seventh gift; one the Jews understood and Christian even earlier than the 9th century saw in their early Greek Scripture called the Septuagint. The seventh gift was piety. That meant a person who diligently read God’s word, who prayed to God, and who exhibited a life that tried to conform to what they had read. Those are the sevenfold gifts of the spirit. Let me briefly unpack them:
    Wisdom includes an ability to think above the fray of the crowd; to consider all sides of an issue; to encourage collaboration and an ability to come to a conclusion that time will test and bless.

Understanding is an ability to empathize, something not everyone can do. An empathetic person can image what it’s like to walk in other person’s shoes, or feel the way another person reacts to hard news, or conflicts, or change.

Counsel includes the ability to listen to and respond to another in ways that, like a fiduciary in the financial world, has the other person’s best interests at heart.

Might can include physical strength, but mostly it is intestinal fortitude and an ability to stand firm when a decision is made that may be unpopular with a crowd.

Knowledge includes what we might learn academically, but also what we may learn from life. Jesus was certainly trained in rabbinic schools, but he likely learned about life working alongside of his tradesman father. When I was deciding about what major I should choose in college, a wise professor said ministers need knowledge in all areas of life, from business, mathematics, the arts, literature, history, and society. He said, “Don’t major in religion; you’ll get all of that you need in seminary. Get a liberal arts degree.” So I majored in English Literature with a minor in Business Administration. Knowledge takes many forms.

Fear of the Lord. Notice it is not just fear, it is fear of the Lord, which means a healthy respect for the Lord. To honor the authority of another. This too is a gift of the spirit—people who treat God as the power and wonder that God is.

That brings us back to piety. Karl Barth, a great 20th century theologian, used to say a good preacher needs to have “the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” That makes for good prophets too. How can God’s Word inform the way we respond to the world as it is? That is the well to which we all need to continually return. Otherwise the world will suck us into the great morass of society, leaning on the lowest common denominator instead of the highest ideal.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 31, 2020