TOAM – Prophetic Untimeliness

Adrian Warnock has been ‘live blogging’ from this week’s Newfrontiers Together on a Mission conference. I only got to attend one day (yesterday), and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I hope find time to post a few reports of my own of the talks and seminars I heard. First up was Thursday mornings seminar on Prophetic Untimeliness by Philip Greenslade of CWR

Philip Greenslade is not actually from a newfrontiers church, but has become a regular guest speaker at conferences over recent years. Personality-wise, he comes across as an intellectual – a deep thinker who presents his message humbly and clearly.

Prophetic Untimeliness

In this seminar, he borrows his title from a book by Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, which although I haven’t read, seems to have been well received by most reviewers (see Tim Challies, David Wayne, Douglas Groothuis). Guiness’ main thesis is that the church has been so desparate to be ‘relevant’ (i.e. to be seen as having a relevant message by secular society) that it has actually become irrelevant through compromise, and in fact what the world needs to hear and see (i.e. what is truly relevant) is a church faithful to the gospel.

Philip Greenslade chose Jeremiah as an example of a prophet who was ‘untimely’ – his message was what people needed to hear, rather than what they wanted to hear. The false prophets were simply echoing popular culture, speaking “peace, peace” when there is no peace – the right message but at the wrong time.

Emotional Untimeliness

He went on to argue that not just Jeremiah’s message, but his emotions were untimely:

a) He feels God’s grief over his people’s sin. The people were unfeeling and presumptuous (Jer 8:18-22), with no idea they had grieved God. God is looking for those who will join with his grief over sin (Jer 9:10,17)

b) His experience of prophetic ministry was bittersweet. He could not join in with the shallow party crowd and their hollow laughter. His joy was too fierce for an over satiated society to understand, and too intense for those suffering from terminal blandness to appreciate (Jer 15:16). He was emotionally out of sync with the prevailing mood.

c) He felt what the people didn’t – a sense of sin (Jer 17:9). He had a deep realism about the human heart, living in a society where sin had become blatant and public (Jer 17:1,2). As we get to know the heart of God, we will develop a deep humility as we discover the deceitfulness of the human heart.

d) He feels the scorn and hostility against God (Jer 20:7-9). God’s word is invasive – it claims territories in our lives that we don’t want to surrender. This is the cost of discipleship, and yet Jeremiah feels as though the overwhelming force of God has overcome his resistance and set him on fire.

We see two extremes of emotion juxtaposed in Jer 20:13,14 – extravagant praise to self-loathing – Jeremiah was learning to think more of God and less of himself. Bonhoeffer commented on “blessed are those who mourn” saying that “they see that for all the jollity on board, the ship is beginning to sink”. The early church fathers noted that the chief problem of the pagans was insensitivity – no contrition over sin.

Jesus told us that we will weep and mourn while the world rejoices (John 16:20). Our emotions will be out of sync with those around us, because the world knows nothing of our grief or our joy.

God’s Untimely Word

To illustrate the theme of prophetic untimeliness, Philip recounted three Biblical stories:

1) The story of Josiah in 2 Chron 34, rediscovering the law. Amazingly, though the law had been lost, they were working on the temple. There was much economic and even religious activity, but the word of God had been lost. Josiah learned that God must have the first word in everything.

2) The story of Josiah’s son Jehoiakim in Jer 36. Baruch wrote down all of Jeremiah’s prophecies and read them to the people. They were then heard by the king’s “think tank” and finally by the king. Jehoiakim tried to destroy the word, but discovered that God always has the last word. The Jehoiakim church is a church that cuts bits out of the word of God to tame it, and make it culturally acceptable. But is the Josiah church honouring the word? Do we simply assume that people know the “apostle’s teaching” or are we giving space to expository teaching. This is central and vital – so we need to do it, and do it well.

3) The third story is of Jesus being handed the scroll in Luke 4. He pointed out that Jesus himself chose to expound scripture, rather than telling his feelings, vision or his life story. This seemed to me to be a word of mild rebuke to charismatic churches whos sermons are less and less likely to be expository and instead focus on explaining plans and vision for the future, or testimony from recent missions etc. He quoted William Willimon, arguing that we too need to “take up the scroll” and be confronted with the “stories of God”. God’s first and final word is Jesus, and opening the scrolls speeds the momentum of God’s story and provokes a reaction. The Bible is like dynamite (Leonard Sweet), so open the scrolls, let God’s word consume you and affect your emotions.

Greenslade closed urging newfrontiers to “stay faithful to the written word of God as you follow the Spirit wherever he leads”.

My thoughts
It is interesting that Philip was invited to speak on this topic to newfrontiers as the emotion of “mourning” over sin and acknowledging of the depravity of the human heart is not a major emphasis of our group of churches. The worship is increasingly focussing on being extravagantly joyful, and only quietens down to be intimate. Songs of lament, crying for mercy are not to be found in our repertoire. Similarly, sermons strike a consistently truimphant tone, and the Puritan emphasis on the soul’s war against sin is rejected in favour of emphasising the power of the Spirit.

As I have already mentioned, while not overtly critisising newfrontiers, Greenslade seems to be concerned that though a church may believe that it is honouring the Scriptures, in fact they are being neglected, as less and less space is given to “opening the scrolls”. Ian Stackhouse sounds a similar warning in his book “The Gospel Driven Church”. I tend to agree with them on this point – I am concerned at a growing biblical illiteracy as young
people grow up hearing many motivational talks but few biblical expositions. Any reminder of the importance of letting God speak to us through the Scriptures is in my view a timely

Ironically, Greenslade may himself be “prophetically untimely”, as a call to lament and a call to expository preaching are not exactly top of the agenda at the moment in renewal / restorationist circles. Topics such as church planting, increase in signs and wonders, church growth, and leadership are perhaps more in vogue. Greenslade asked “was Jeremiah a melancholic?”, and concluded that perhaps he was, but he still had a message from God that needed to be heard. Is Greenslade himself a melancholic? Perhaps, but again, does he also have a message that we need to hear in these days?

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