SJF • Last Epiphany 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.+
One of the most interesting characters in the legends of ancient Greece is Cassandra. She was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba — the king and queen of Troy, that ancient city that got into trouble when Cassandra’s brother Paris abducted Helen of Sparta. Sparta and its Greek allies launched a thousand ships to start a war that lasted ten years, just to win her back. I’ll tell you, sometimes the legends of ancient Greece sound like a cross between “Days of Our Lives” and “The World at War”!
But back to Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan royal family: she was so beautiful that, according to the myth, even the god Apollo fell for her. Instead of a box of chocolates and some flowers, he gave her the gift of prophecy. Oracles were his specialty, after all. However, Cassandra didn’t reciprocate Apollo’s love. I guess that’s natural — I mean, after all, he gave her the gift to see right through him, and know what he was after — a dangerous gift it seems to me for a man to give to the object of his affection! (I think we’re getting back into “Days of Our Lives” territory here.) Well, Apollo didn’t take kindly to this. Cassandra forgot it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of a Greek god. Apollo didn’t take away the gift of prophecy, but he added a curse to it: Cassandra would remain a prophet, able to proclaim what was going to happen, but with the added curse that no one would ever believe her.
And it was this curse that finally brought an end to the Trojan War. For when the Greeks seemed finally to give up and go back home, they left that gigantic wooden horse outside the gates of the city that had withstood the siege for ten years. And the Trojans didn’t believe poor Cassandra when she shouted from the top of the tower: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!” True to the curse, the Trojans didn’t believe her; they hauled in the wooden horse, and that night the Greek SWAT team crept out of hiding in the horse’s belly, opened the gates, and let in the army to enter and take the city. And ever since, the name Cassandra has been attached to someone whose warnings go unheeded.
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Have you ever experienced that in your own life? Perhaps you’ve given someone some sage advice that they ignored, and ended up paying for it. You’re left either to commiserate or say, “I told you so” — and neither one of those is very satisfactory, is it? I’m sure there must have been more than a few financial advisors who said, “You really need to diversify your portfolio. I know Bernie Madoff’s offering a great return — an almost unbelievable return — but it’s better to play it safe and spread your investments around.” Scientists have been warning about global climate change for decades — but it’s taken huge chunks of the Antarctic ice-shelf collapsing, and glaciers thousands of years old disappearing for people finally to take notice — and there are still people out there who deny it is even happening!
Prophets often go unheeded — even when the prophecy is no more than common sense; and that can be, let me tell you, a very discouraging experience — when you see something, a danger that you try to warn people of, but they pay you no mind, or take you seriously.
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Clearly that is how Elijah felt, in that powerful episode from the First Book of Kings. He’s ready to call it quits — earlier in the chapter he says he’s ready to die, but when God’s angel offers encouragement he continues on the run for his life. His zeal for God has not won him any friends, and it seems that all Israel is against him. He’s spoken the truth to confront their idolatry, and what has it gotten him? So he high-tails it to the mountains and hides in a cave. God speaks to him, asking him, “What are you doing here?” And Elijah offers his excuse — everybody’s against him; he’s the only prophet left. And God tells him to “step into his office” — to come out of the cave, for the Lord is about to pass by.
And what a passing by it is! God puts on a spectacular show of power: wind so strong it splits rocks, an earthquake that shakes the mountain, and a powerful fire. And yet God is not in these powerful, noisy forces — but rather in that sound of silence (a more accurate translation than“still, small voice” we are accustomed to). And out of that silence, God repeats the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Interesting how asking the same question twice forces the one you ask to think hard about his answer! Even though he says the same thing, I’m sure you can detect a little bit of doubt begin to creep into Elijah’s voice when he answers the second time, talking about how zealous he’s been, how solitary and alone, the only one who hasn’t forsaken the true God.
And that is when God drops the full truth on him, and the full depth of what God is about to do. God tells Elijah to get back to work, to anoint new kings, and a new prophet to succeed him — and they will tramp out the vintage of the grapes of wrath, slaughtering up and down the country all of those who have turned away from God to worship idols. And that is where the full truth comes in: Elijah’s mission has not been a failure. He is not the only one left. He has not been alone in the task. In fact, there are seven thousand others who have not been deceived, seven thousand others who have believed his prophecy, remained loyal to the Lord, not bowed the knee to the false Syrian thunder-god Baal, nor kissed his bovine statue. To put it in contemporary language, “They haven’t taken any bull.”
Elijah has not been a Cassandra after all — he has not been a solitary voice, ignored by all. In fact, a good number have heard and believed him — it is not “Elijah against the world.” His prophecy was understood and received by others, even when it seemed to him that no one cared.
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This is in part the point that the Apostle Peter is making when he says that prophecy isn’t a matter of speaking, and not listening as well. The prophetic message is confirmed by the believers who accept it — and by their own experience showing them the prophecy is true. Peter himself had heard Jesus promise that some of the disciples would see him revealed in glory — and Peter assures those to whom he wrote that it actually happened. He’s not making this up, people! He was there, on the mountain, and the promise was fulfilled, when he saw Jesus transfigured, robed in dazzling whiteness, and joined by Moses and Elijah. And so it was that the prophetic message was more fully confirmed. It wasn’t just his own individual experience, but that of James and John as well. It wasn’t a matter of personal interpretation — rather it was a confirmation of his actual experience, in that small company of apostles on the mountain, when God spoke through the cloud, out of the silence, to announce the presence of his Son, the Beloved.
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And so it is that the church has preached and prophesied ever since. It isn’t just me speaking to you, but you listening to me; it isn’t just me speaking at all, but also my listening to you, and to my teachers in the faith, and the many teachers in the faith that all of us have had, as we listen together to the words of God — not in a whirlwind, or an earthquake, or a fire: but speaking to us out of the silence of our own attentive listening, listening as we always do for the voice of God’s Son, the Beloved. We are not alone in this: we are together. And we find the words to be true because they accord with what we have been shown and know.
And just as God did not leave Elijah on the mountain, or the Lord Jesus leave the apostles on the mount of Transfiguration, so too we are sent forth, sent out on a mission with the message more fully confirmed, and the dawning of the morning star rising in our hearts — forth from this place where we gather to hear God’s word and find ourselves transfigured, commissioned by God’s power to go forth and spread that message to others, so that they too may become disciples of our Lord and God.
And as we go we will find that we are not alone in this missionary task either — others have planted seeds which we may water in the work of evangelism; we are not the only church in town, and thanks be to God there are many thousands who have not bowed the knee to the idols of our age — to easy wealth and scornful greed, of selfishness and scant care for others. No, we will find that the message has gone before us, and our main task will be to confirm — to remind those who received God’s word but have perhaps not yet acted upon it, that now is the time, the acceptable time, the year of the Lord’s favor, to do his work and will.
May we, my sisters and brothers in Christ, be strengthened in this confidence, not relying simply on our own personal interpretation, but in our communal discernment; encouraged as Elijah was, as were Peter, James and John— confirmed in the knowledge that God sends us out to do his work for the spread of his kingdom; through the coming Lenten season and beyond, to the eternal and never-ending Eastertide, to the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.+