I have conducted a number of baptisms now and I suppose that this event of purification at the Temple (that we have just read about in Luke – see below) is the functional equivalent of a modern Christening, the religious baptism of a baby.
And certainly a baptism is a moment when a baby is blessed by the minister rather as Simeon blesses Jesus, I may have predicted, perhaps guided by the Spirit, as Simeon was that at least one of the babies I have baptised would go on to do incredible things in the future, but I have never ever said at a baptism:
“this child is destined for the falling and rising of many….. and to be a sign which will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul too”
In this passage in Luke, Anna is described as a prophet, but it seems that it is both Anna and Simeon who are doing the prophesying over Jesus so we can see them both as prophets.
What is a prophet exactly? In today’s speech we think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future. But Biblical prophets were not just fore-tellers – telling the future – but also forth-tellers, telling the people what God thinks of a situation.
But how did you know if the person who said that he was prophesying God’s word was a true prophet or a charlatan, someone who is making it up?
In the Old Testament there were three tests to work out if a prophet was legit:
1. A theological test (Deuteronomy 13) – if what the prophet was saying contradicted what the Bible says about God, then he was a false prophet
2. A practical test – a prophesy which is not fulfilled, has not come from God (Deuteronomy 18). And so you would see whether the prophet had a reputation for getting it right.
3. A moral test (Jeremiah 23) – a test of character – was the life of the prophet consistent with Biblically moral teaching and did the prophecy itself support that moral teaching?
And Simeon and Anna fall clearly within this Old Testament test of prophets: What they were saying about Jesus was consistent with what had been predicted about the Messiah over the whole of the OT period – so the theological test was satisfied; We can of course now see that the prophesy was actually fulfilled, so the practical test was fulfilled and so far as the moral test is concerned, Simeon is described (verse 25) as righteous and devout looking forward to the consolation of Israel (i.e. the coming of the Messiah) and ‘the Holy Spirit rested upon him’ and Anna is described (verse 37) as being of great age and never leaving the temple but worshipping there with fasting and prayer night and day, so the moral test was fulfilled.
But what about prophesy today?
In the New Testament St Paul speaks of the gift of prophesy (in 1 Corinthians 12:10) as one of the many spiritual gifts given to members of the body of Christ, the church.
That’s you and me
And in Acts 2:17-18, after Pentecost, we see prophesy being exercised, as Peter quotes from Joel ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’….so not just Paul, Peter as well is talking about this..
The gift of prophesy Paul says in 1 Cor 14:3 is to:
So we should expect individual people within our church to exercise the gift of prophesy today.
So may be that’s you….
Prophesy is a bit like a radio signal: on the one hand there are the words that are being said by the broadcaster, in this case the revealed prophesy. And then there is the quality and kind of the transmitting equipment, in this case the prophet. And then the quality and kind of the recipient, can they hear – In this case the person who is receiving the revelation (the person who is being prophesied over).
We are all imperfect people, we are fallible and although there is nothing wrong with the message its possible that it is changed by what the prophet thinks about the message. Like a radio signal is difficult to hear sometimes because of static. And because we don’t necessarily understand what has been revealed, we run the risk of putting our own interpretation on what God has said to us to reveal to another, even though it would mean more to that person, completely uninterpreted….
If we are prophesying we can dress up the divine revelation we have received, in the clothes of our own experience and perspective if you like and then the prophesy gets distorted…..
But so do we who are prophesied over run the risk of distorting the image given to us: we may just have hard hearts, and not be willing to listen; or we may let the prophetic run off us like water off a duck’s back; or we may say ‘this is all nonsense’ and lose a potentially life transforming opportunity.
But then there are wonderful moments when the person prophesying just shares what they see or hear with no attempt to explain, however silly the image.
And the impact on the person receiving the message is quite out of proportion to what they expect…
Lucy and I have had some experience of being prophesied over and its like many spiritual things, you get a sense of when it is of God and in our experience, if it is, it usually resonates deeply within us.
There are lots of examples but most are very personal and I am not going to share them all with you.
But once, maybe 7 years ago, we were praying with a medical doctor (not someone flakey) a friend of ours called Vicky of impeccable personal character (so perhaps like Anna) and with a reputation for spiritual insight going back years.
She said, while she was praying for me at one of the Stewards Trust house parties we attend in the Summer she got in her head (out of the blue) an image of a biplane revving its engine trying to take off but there was a chock in the way of one of the wheels
stopping the plane even taxiing along the runway.
We felt that this was an image of there being an obstacle in the way of my Christian ministry taking off….
A good sign of a true prophesy is that the image or words resonate within the receiver and won’t go away! As those words of Simeon must have resonated with Mary..
And over the last 5 years we have been pondering these words and we have had a lot of other prophesy which I wont go into now….
Through all of this Lucy and I realised (we do all of this sort of thing together) that the main obstacle to our ministry was our house in Kilmeston: it was too precious to us both, taking up too much of our time and too much of our attention. It was may be, even a bit of an idol for me another god…..
So even though we did not want to sell it, we were not downsizing and we did not have to do so, we sold it…..
From the moment we did so and moved here, our personal ministry in Itchen Valley has just taken off.
And we know that the act of selling the house was God’s will because all the doors sprang open in the process of doing so: even our children raised no objection. And we have been abundantly compensated by God for giving it up. When we left Kilmeston we had no idea that we would go on to rent one of the most beautiful houses in the community: Chilland Ford, thank you Andrew.
And the friendships we have formed here have been just incredible – a total joy. It is a completely different experience living here amongst you to driving in from outside, as I did for the first two years of my curacy.
Of course one can say ‘well it would be wouldn’t it?’ you are living here, rather than there as you get to know more people you spend more time with them. But all I can say is that we perceive a qualitative shift in the ministry, which is hard to describe but is very different.
So how can we apply all this to the life of the parish as we go forward into the vacancy?
Well we had a go at some prophetic listening on Tuesday at our informal prayers which we are holding every week for 30 minutes at 1.30pm at Itchen Abbas.
8 others joined me to pray for the parish and this week we prayed particularly for our ministry to the young people of the Parish. We listened to some worship music, read a passage from the Bible and then prayed ex tempore.
But then we we listened in silence for what God might say to us about the parish and its mission to young people:
There were a number of very helpful pictures and thoughts, but the ones which resonated most with me were the expression ‘something for everyone’ and a picture of a Big Top.
I think this is an image of how God sees us and wants us to be as a parish: ‘something for everyone’; not just for the old and traditional; not just for the young and radical!
When we think of a Big Top, we think of a circus, or a fete or for me the amazing big top used at the annual summer Christian camp which Lucy and I go to in the New Forest which is full of over a thousand people all worshipping God together.
Above all IT’S FUN
This word also resonates for me with something that Tim Clapp, our new leader of the Ark, said to me the other day about the Ark ‘whatever we do, it will be fun’: Everyone is involved, like in a fete: lots of different stands, each of us is taking part not just spectating but also enjoying.
Of course, we have the humour of the clowns, but also we take risks, like the trapeze artists!
Everyone comes, not out of duty but because they want to…and everyone is involved, there are different acts which different people will enjoy: its a family affair, young and old
I think this is a picture for how God sees our future in this parish of Itchen Valley: something for everyone, under a big top, having fun, as we worship God together
Luke Chapter 2
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 2:22–38). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.