Prophecy and the imagination

9 minute read

Preached in the chapel of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, at Evensong on 25 May, 2014

Trinity Hall ChapelIt is quite odd for me to be standing right on this spot. This is a building I know very well, but I’m used to seeing it from a different perspective. In my time at the Hall, I spent a very great deal of time in here, sitting in these pews.

I have come back into Trinity Hall on quite a few occasions since graduating, and it’s always been a nice feeling. Partly because I still have friends here—among the students, the fellows, and of course the porters. But the best part is that it always feels like coming home. I was here most days for three years. The Hall had an enormous impact on shaping who I am and what I am doing with my life.

Now I was reflecting on this as I prepared this sermon earlier in the week. It’s a happy coincidence, because our readings tonight are also about homecomings.

Our first reading was from the book of Zechariah. The prophet Zechariah lived at the end of the most fruitful period in the literature of ancient Israel. This was the period of the Exile: God’s people (well, some of them) were taken captive and held in Babylon for about fifty years. In this time, much of the great literature of the Hebrew Bible was written. The great prophetic works of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, much of Isaiah, a lot of the history of Israel, many psalms, even a lot of the law: they were written in the time of Israel’s exile and shortly after her return to her land.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising to us. It’s true in our culture too. Poetry, rock music, truly great films: they tend not to come when we are comfortable, but when we face economic or social difficulty.

Now, when Israel returned to her land, the people sought to rebuild what had been destroyed: the great city of Jerusalem and, at its heart, the Temple. The Temple was the heart of Israel’s society. According to their understanding, the Temple was the dwelling-place of God. It was the place where God and his people could meet. It was the place of worship, of reconciliation, of atonement. Its destruction was the most painful thing Israel endured in the Exile. And now, with the people returned to their land, the focus went to building the new Temple. The people returned to their home, and, with the Temple rebuilt, God could return to his home.

It was in this context that Zechariah made his prophecy, just as the Temple was being rebuilt. The prophecy is his vision of the future of Israel. At the time, Israel still struggled to get by. The glory days had not returned. Life was very difficult. Israel was a client kingdom, subject to the whims of her lords in Persia. Despite all this, Zechariah has a vision of a future of extraordinary plenty. ‘I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem … Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age … the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.’ Then we hear the words that sum up the covenant between Israel and God: ‘They shall be my people and I will be their God.’

In Zechariah’s prophecy, we get an image of what the restored community could be like. It is a world where the elderly can sit in comfort, rather than struggling to find food. The young have the freedom to play. Israel’s society is at peace with itself and with God.

The reading from the Revelation to S. John is, in many ways, really quite similar. Like Zechariah, it is about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming-home of a people. Zechariah imagined the rebuilding as an event in history, but for John it is something different. It is an event that happens in the end-times. The reading we had this evening follows on from last Sunday’s reading, when we heard John’s vision: ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.’

And, as we heard tonight, this new city is quite an extraordinary place. There is no day and night, because the glory of God is the light. There are no nights, and the gates lie forever open. One tree provides twelve different types of fruit, and manages to come into fruit every month. The servants of God see his face; his name is on their foreheads; and they will reign for ever and ever.

This is also a kind of homecoming. In the same way that Zechariah pictures the people of Israel and God returning to the rebuilt Temple, so John pictures the servants of God finding their eternal home in the heavenly Jerusalem. The Christians of John’s day were persecuted terribly under Roman rule, but now they could look forward to their new, eternal and infinitely superior home with God.

There are some striking dissimilarities between them. Zechariah’s vision is basically one that happens in history, whereas John’s is one that happens with the end of history. In Zechariah, and throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Temple is central, essential to the future of God’s saving action. But John gets rid of it. The Temple is no longer necessary, because God himself is fully present in the whole city.

Now, it would be quite easy to preach a sermon on this change. It would be easy to talk about how John changes things so we look to God’s personal, unmediated presence rather than to the Temple.

But I want to talk about something different. I want to look at something Zechariah and John have in common. The principal thing that they share is that they’re both doing prophecy.

This, of course, introduces another question. ‘What is prophecy?’ The naïve answer would be ‘predicting the future’. Lots of Christians have taken it like that. They have spent many hours explaining precisely how various aspects of the book of Revelation map onto human history. They essentially think that prophecy in the Bible is an occasion when God takes over a human being and tells the world what’s about to happen.

That is, as I say, rather naïve. Prophecy is not about predicting the future. John didn’t expect the events of the book he wrote to happen literally in the way he wrote them. Neither did Zechariah expect the future of the city of Jerusalem to look exactly as he wrote it.

Not only that, but God didn’t overwhelm John and Zechariah. He didn’t make them write down his words like a businessman dictating letters to his secretary. God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t treat people like we treat our pens or computer keyboards. No, he uses us as human beings, with all the creative and imaginative gifts that human beings have.

Prophecy is a creative and imaginative act. John and Zechariah, like all the prophets in the Bible, were using their imaginations to interpret their past and their present contexts. They used the images and cultural motifs that they had inherited, and they were creative with them.

Zechariah sought to imagine what the perfect earthly society might look like, based on the faithfulness of God and his people. John, meanwhile, sought to imagine the future consummation of all time and history. Here, then, is the final clue to what prophecy is. It is a creative and imaginative interpretation of the past and present that seeks to transform the future. It is not a prediction of the future. It is not merely assessment of the past. It is a vision, born from the prophet’s own experience and infused with the Holy Spirit, of what could be.

We can probably think of one or two people from our own era who do this kind of creative, imaginative prophecy. We think of Martin Luther King proclaiming, ‘I have a dream.’ Think, indeed, of Desmond Tutu.

But the sad fact is that, a lot of the time, our society doesn’t go in for grand visions any more. We don’t go for imagining dramatic transformation in our society. Sometimes the transformation creeps up on us unexpectedly, but those who profess a grand vision for how things could be are mocked and ignored. Our society prefers pragmatism to idealism. We prefer cynicism to hope.

We get so tied up in the details of working out whether something can be done, and then we get tied up in asking how it might be implemented. And we fail to dream big.

But this should not be so. Above all, it should not be so in the Church. We have inherited a challenge from the prophets of the Old and New Testaments. The challenge is to imagine genuine transformation. It is to imagine, like Zechariah, transformation in history, the transformation of our society. And it is also to follow S. John and to imagine the transformation of God’s new creation.

The challenge is to look at our society, to look at its injustice violence, and to proclaim ‘this doesn’t have to be so.’ It is to look at those who suffer, weep and mourn and to proclaim ‘there is a future that is good, a future that is ludicrously, exhileratingly good.’

To be a Christian, then, is not merely to receive and hand on the visions of those in the past. It is also to imagine how the future could be. To be a Christian is to use every creative, imaginative faculty that God has given us. It is to transform the world not only with deeds or with words, but also with hope.

To be a Christian is to be a prophet. We must be audacious. We must speak new things. We must engage in fantasy and dreaming. We must conjure alternative futures to challenge the world’s pessimism. We must hope even when we want to despair. And even when the world mocks and laughs and ridicules, we must keep on dreaming of what could be.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of the Church in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord who raised Jesus from the dead? Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; and I will bring them to live in the heavenly Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.