In February, as part of my series exploring the history and structure of the Bible, I included a sermon on the prophetic books. You may recall that Miles Overn joined us and performed Kris Kristofferson’s “Beat the Devil”, which gives one account of the meaning of the word prophet. Kristofferson pointed out that prophets speak to “the people who don’t listen to the things that [they] are saying” yet they keep “praying someone’s gonna hear” because they “don’t believe that no one wants to know.”
The text I used in February is the same one that we heard read this morning from the prophet Jeremiah – the story of his call, that moment when God spoke to him and declared that henceforth Jeremiah was going to speak so that someone would hear and heed God’s word. Jeremiah’s reaction, to protest that he was too young, echoes the reaction of several other prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jonah among them. They were similarly reluctant when God thrust this dangerous and lonely office upon them. “Get me out of here,” they cried, “I’m not qualified.”
As Heather and I talked about this text, it was Jeremiah’s objecting that kept speaking to us – “I am only a boy,” he said. Prophets speak truth to power. Biblical prophets are responding to a call by God to demand that the rulers and the ruled live in right relationship with God: by caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in the land and by worshipping no false gods, such as money, power and status. How can a mere boy take on that role?
But as we thought about the nature of prophets in our own time, it struck us that often it is children who are speaking to the people who don’t listen, it is children who are saying what needs to be said, and what many adults are refusing to hear. Consider the story of a boy named Iqbal Masih.
Iqbal Masih was born in 1983 in an impoverished small village outside Lahore in Pakistan. When his family needed to pay for his older brother’s wedding, they went to a local carpet manufacturer to borrow the equivalent of $6. To repay the debt, Iqbal was sold into bonded slavery at the age of 4. Iqbal learned to weave carpets and for most of his short life that is what he did, 12 hours a day, every day. When he was ten years old, he discovered an organization called the Bonded Labour Liberation Front and learned that the Supreme Court of Pakistan had outlawed child labour.
Iqbal went to the local police for help and was quickly returned to the factory owner, who put him in chains in front of his loom once again. A second time, he escaped, this time making his way to the offices of the Labour Liberation Front, who took him in and supported him as he pursued an education for the first time in his life.
It was at this point that Iqbal discovered his call to be a prophet. He found ways to speak to other bonded children, letting them know their rights and thereby empowering them to escape. More than three thousand children found freedom as a result of his speaking truth to power.
Iqbal was invited to the United States and to Sweden, where he spoke about conditions in his homeland and told the story of his escape. By carrying his message abroad, he inspired wealthy westerners to act to save children from slavery.
Iqbal was fatally shot at the young age of 12, but his legacy continues even now. Another 12 year old, a Canadian boy from Thornhill, Ontario, read of Iqbal’s life and his murder. Craig Kielburger, a middle-class kid from a suburb north of Toronto, was moved by the fact that Iqbal was the same age as he, and had accomplished so much in his short life. He was inspired to enlist the efforts of his fellow students to petition for children’s rights. In 1995, Kielburger traveled to India and Bangladesh to see the conditions of child labourers for himself. As it happened, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was traveling in India at the same time and Kielburger was granted 15 minutes to speak with him and solicit Canadian governmental action to combat child labour.
Craig Kielburger’s insistence on speaking truth to power gained wide publicity and led to significantly increased support for his “Save the Children” campaign. At first, he tried to liberate children directly. But when he learned that many children were returned by their parents to the factories, Kielburger shifted his energies to providing education to children as a means of empowering them, like Iqbal, to free themselves from the chains of carpet factories. This gave birth to the “Me to We” charity that you may have heard of.
When Jeremiah said that he was only a boy, too young to serve God’s prophetic purposes, God put the necessary words into his mouth. Iqbal Masih and Craig Kielburger give us another image of how God’s prophets find the words they speak to the people who don’t want to listen to them. In some cases, desperation and courage and a will to live in freedom help prophets to form the words. In other cases it is empathy, human compassion in the face of evil that motivates the prophet to speak.
Prophecy, though, is not reserved only for boys.
That’s right. Seven years ago, a Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban after speaking out in support of the right of girls to receive an education. She continued to speak out, in fact with more courage and determination after the incident than before. In December of 2014, Malala received the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest-ever Nobel laureate. The Malala Fund continues to work for universal education for girls.
More recently, a year ago in fact, a 15-year-old girl named Greta Thunberg began striking outside the Swedish Parliament buildings demanding climate justice. With astonishing determination, Greta continued her campaign every Friday into the school year and was soon joined by thousands of schoolmates in Sweden and then in countries around the world.
The call for climate justice is not a call for vague promises to set goals for carbon emission reduction sometime in the distant future. Greta and those who have responded to her call have taken seriously the scientific evidence that we are living in a narrowing window of opportunity to save ourselves and the planet, and that action is needed NOW – action that may be economically painful, politically difficult and profoundly challenging to our creature comforts.
We heard this morning from the book of Isaiah. In this passage the prophet speaks words of comfort to a people who have been through a great trial and are now seeking to rebuild their lives in a land ravaged by war.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. YAHWEH will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. (Isaiah 58)
God’s promise is not that God will wave a magic wand and restore things to what they were, God’s promise is that if the children of God act to ‘repair the breach and restore the streets, ’then life can again be good and rich and full. This prophet speaks after the calamity, but delivers the same message as the prophet who speaks before disaster strikes; they both call us to change our ways and restore the land, making it again the land that God has blessed us with.
Greta Thunberg is calling our attention to the fact that our house is on fire. The earth is at risk of becoming a parched desert that will make the land of Israel that Isaiah spoke of look like the Garden of Eden. Thunberg is also calling to awareness the fact that to say “I am only a boy [or a girl]” is not a reason to remain silent in the face of power. The prophets of our day are the children who will inherit the world we have come close to ruining.
In March of this year some 1.4 million school children in 112 countries joined Greta in her strike for climate action. You may have seen some of them in front of the courthouse here in Vernon. In the third week of September this fall, those children are inviting adults to join them and express our concern for the world we are handing to our heirs, and to demand that those who have the power to do so begin the serious and painful process of changing our economy and our way of life so that the world becomes safe for future human habitation.
As a friend of mine pointed out, action against climate change is not only a process of giving up things that are conveniences that we have learned are poisoning us – plastic bags, gas guzzling cars, cities and towns built to rely on the automobile – the list goes on. Climate action also means restoring clear running waters, ensuring that salmon in their millions return to spawn, having fresh air for all to breathe, and perhaps most of all, living our lives in a way that involves cooperation with our neighbours in order that we may limit the impact we all have on the natural world.
It is that restored world that God promises through the words of the prophet that provides the inspiration for us to take action.
May we have ears to hear, and may it be so.
Rev. Dr. John Burton and Rev. Heather Burton reserves all rights © 2019.
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