Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus: Hometown Prophet

The role of a prophet is a pretty lousy one. Last week, we talked about how Jesus was more than a teacher, but he was a teacher, through and through. This week the same is true: Jesus is more than a prophet, but he is a prophet, and we do well to remember that.

Have you ever noticed that no one likes prophets very much? Oh, we extol them long after the fact, but in the moment, in their lifetime, they are at best controversial, mainly because the role of a prophet is to say things we generally don’t want to hear.

Before we go any further, however, it’s important to clear a few things up.

Have you ever heard of Harold Camping? [1] Back in the 1970s, Camping drew all sorts of attention for declaring the world was going to end on May 21, 1988. As you all know…it didn’t. He published a book not long after claiming the world would end sometime in September of 1994…but again, it didn’t. In late 2008, he apologized for the error of his calculations, and announced the true end of the world would come on May 21, 2011. For more than two years, he promoted that date and its fateful consequences. To pay for the billboards and books and pamphlets, he raised tens of millions of dollars from those who listened to his radio show.

 It is impossible to know how many people rushed into marriages, ran up credit card debt, quit their jobs, or gave away everything they owned. After all, the world was ending. Except, again, it didn’t. May 21 came and went.

Camping said he was “flabbergasted.” But, after a few days in seclusion to figure out where he had gone wrong, he announced that God had indeed passed judgement on May 21, but that the world itself would not end until October 21, 2011. That day too, came and went.

Harold Camping died December 15, 2013, at 92 years old, with the world still very much intact.

Harold Camping considered himself a prophet, but he was not.

He reminds us, though, that the people who call themselves prophets are usually the least likely to actually be prophets. He also reminds us that the role of a prophet is not to see into the future. We often think of them that way—predicting what is to come. That’s not quite right. Prophets don’t have some sort of magical, mystical ability to see into the future. They do, however, have an unusual and uncanny ability to see the present for what it really is.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Prophets look out at the world differently than most of us do, and because they can tell us the truth about the present, they can also discern something of what the future will look like. And, because we do not yet live in God’s promised day…most of what they point out to us is not exactly flattering.

            It’s a bit like going to the doctor. You go to the doctor and the doctor says, “All right, here’s the deal. Your cholesterol keeps creeping up. So, cut back on the fried food and drop a few pounds. Otherwise, your heart is going to be in some trouble.” The doctor isn’t seeing into the future. The doctor is seeing the present objectively and clearly. The doctor understands the present-day reality in such a way that he can speak about the future with confidence. Even if what he has to say is not particularly well-received.

One theologian puts it this way: “It is to carry a message that is good news that is bad news that is, in the end, good news.” Sometimes, it takes a while to find the good news, though.

            And this news—we heard last week—is that Jesus has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He says all this, and the hometown crowd murmurs its approval. That Jesus, they say. Joseph’s boy, isn’t he? We always knew he’d do great things.

And his teacher from synagogue school says, “He studied harder than anyone else.”

And his childhood neighbor says, “He was always quick to help.”

And the village bully admits, “He never let me pick on anyone.”

In short—it starts as an amazing homecoming.

But, Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” He could have written it about this moment in Jesus’ life. Because, it is to his own community—the ones who helped raise him, the ones who were there when he learned to walk, and who heard him say his first words, who taught him to read and pray and throw a ball, who taught him a thing or two about sheep and fox and birds—it is to this beloved crowd that he says, “You may not like what I am about to say. Because the reign of God—the reign of God that you taught me about—when it comes, it’s not just for you. It will come to the marginalized and the beaten down. It will come to the least likely.”

It is then that those who have loved him his whole life drive him out of the town, so furious they attempt to throw him off a cliff.

            Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and author of the book Just Mercy tells the story of Avery Jenkins. Avery was a death row client with severe mental illness. Every time he visited, Avery asked for a chocolate milkshake. It was a sort of obsession—sometimes the only thing he would talk about. But the prison would not allow Bryan to bring his client what he craved.

Avery’s father had been murdered before he was born, and his mother died of a drug overdose when he was a year old. He’d been in 19 different foster homes before he turned eight. When he was 10, he lived with abusive foster parents who often locked him in a closet, denied him food, and subjected him to physical torture. Eventually, his foster mother took him into the woods, tied him to a tree, and left him there. Hunters found him three days later.

By 15 he was having seizures and psychotic episodes. At 17 he was deemed incapable of placement and was left homeless. He was in and out of jail until he turned 10, when in the middle of a psychotic episode he wandered into a strange house and fatally stabbed a man he believed to be a demon. His lawyers investigated nothing of his past, and this mentally ill man was quickly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Bryan also tells the story of the hostile prison guard who aggressively strip-searched him the first time he met with Avery. This guard did everything in his power to intimidate the lawyer, making the visit one of the worst prison experiences he’d ever had. Unfortunately, this same guard would be responsible for transporting Avery to court for another hearing.

After the hearing, Bryan returned to the prison, bracing himself for another difficult encounter with the guard. Instead, the guard was earnest and sincere. There were no hostile intimidation tactics. Instead, the guard said this: “You know, I took Avery to court for his hearing and I was down there with y’all for those three days. I, uh, I was you to know I was listening. I appreciate what you’re doing. It was kind of difficult for me to be in that courtroom and hear what y’all was talking about. I came up in foster care, too.”

After a long pause, the guard’s face softened as he admitted, “Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me. They moved me around like I was wanted nowhere. I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize there were other people who had it as bas as I did. I guess even worse. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s good what you’re doing. There were plenty of times when I really wanted to hurt somebody when I was growing up, just because I was angry. I made it to 18, joined the military, and you know, I’ve been ok. But, sitting in that courtroom brought back memories, and I think I realized how I’m still angry about it all.”

The startling confession continued for a bit and then the two men shook hands. As Bryan began walking away, the guard sheepishly said one last thing:

“Listen, I did something I probably wasn’t supposed to do. On the trip back down here after court on that last day—well, I know how Avery is, you know. Well, anyway, I just want you to know—I took an exit off the interstate on the way back. I took him to Wendy’s. And I brought him a chocolate milkshake.”[2]

Avery Jenkins was ultimately transferred to a mental health facility better equipped to care for him. But, I would argue that he wasn’t the only one who was set free. He wasn’t the only one who experienced release.

That is the kind of good news Jesus brings to his people. His family. His neighbors and teachers and Hebrew tutors and little league coaches.

Being a prophet is a lousy job, because it can be hard to tell people the truth they don’t want to hear. But such is the depth of Jesus’ love—he will tell it like it is, even if it makes them want to kill him. He loves his people enough to tell them that good news for other people’s lives really does mean good news for their lives. He will love them enough to tell it like it is, even if it makes them want to kill him. That, as much as anything else, will be the recurring theme of Jesus’ life and ministry. And eventually, he will love everyone enough—he will love us enough—to let them kill him.

Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.” Maybe he’s right. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe that is exactly as it ought to be. Because, in the end, Jesus also loves us enough to say, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I am going to prepare a place for you. And I will come again, and I will take you there myself, so that where I am there you may be also. So, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. For, I have come to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed and the year of the Lord’s favor—because that is what will ultimately lead us all home, to “a home not made with human hands, but an eternal home, one secure in the heavens.”[3]


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/us/harold-camping-radio-entrepreneur-who-predicted-worlds-end-dies-at-92.html

[2] This story is summarized from Chapter 10 of Bryan Stevenson’s brilliant and important book, Just Mercy.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:1

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