Where have all the prophets gone?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

It is said that many, if not most, college students will change their majors five times before settling on a vocation to carry them throughout their lives. Even after choosing a career path, quite a few will make job adjustments before midlife. None, it is certain, will willingly choose to be prophets. Consultants, maybe, but not prophets.

Prophets, in a sense, were the ancient equivalent of consultants. Their counsel, however, did not arise out of life experience. Prophets were middlemen; they passed along to heads of state words of instruction and -- quite often -- messages of impending doom from the Lord. Kings did not like to see prophets coming; prophets, conversely, couldn't always be sure of long life expectancy if the kings got mad.

In Kings 17, Elijah shows up to tell King Ahab that God is about to send a drought, which, in an agrarian culture, is bad news indeed. After delivering the awful news to Ahab, the text says, "And the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, 'Get thee from here and turn eastward and hide by the brook, Cherith, which is before the Jordan.'" (I Kings 17:2-3) Prophets kept the kings in line with God's will, but the kings saw them as irritating pests.

Prophetic influences have always been resisted by those in authority. The 12th-century English king Henry II, in exasperation with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

Four of the king's knights, hearing Henry's rant, went to Canterbury and assassinated Becket inside the sanctuary in 1170.

To speak with a prophetic voice can get you killed, which is why we don't hear many of those voices today. Prophets, who often speak an unpopular word, are desperately needed today in a world where boundaries continue to be disrespected and disregarded.

If someone had spoken prophetically to Elvis Presley, had the courage to bring that music superstar an unpopular word about his health, he might not have died at the age of 42.

A prophetic word might have kept pitcher Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner in major league baseball, from going to the penitentiary for drug trafficking, embezzlement, mail fraud and racketeering.

Lindsay Lohan's Hollywood career and Michael Vick's future in pro football are both endangered by their recent scrapes with the law.

In antiquity, it was the kings who needed prophets. Today, where are the prophetic voices for athletes and entertainers, those who earn royal salaries?

A New York restauranteur who has spent a lifetime waiting on celebrities summed up why so many youthful celebs have so much trouble bringing order to their lives: "Too much money, too soon, too much time on their hands, too little guidance and too many sycophants [yes-men]."

You don't need to be wealthy and/or famous to be on the wrong path. The world is desperate for those willing to speak unpopular but truthful words on occasion; a latter-day prophet, speaking candidly in the midst of everyday life, can help someone avoid personal disaster. The world needs a few Elijahs.

There's no money in it, and there will almost certainly be recrimination of some type. Don't look to be congratulated and admired but rather to be seen as a pest. Nobody likes to hear the unvarnished truth. It takes courage to be an Elijah. But you may be able to help one person, just one, avoid a catastrophe. That's a decent and God-honoring accomplishment for a lifetime.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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