Lent: "Prophets in Our Midst"

The Revd Robin Sims-Williams

When I started working at Airbus it was a time when there were lots of TV dramas being based around careers. There was the obvious - ‘Spooks’. there was also the slightly less obvious TV series, like ‘Teachers’ and then ‘Lawyers’. There was even ‘A Country Parish’ following a local vicar around. I wondered briefly why there wasn’t ‘Engineers’, then I looked around the office and realised. Even though CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had done an impressive job of sexing up forensic science with a bit of clever lighting and background music, it did at least have a who-done-it mystery element to keep you entertained.

It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy engineering - it was massively rewarding - but it mostly doesn’t make for compelling viewing. And unlike the suits in lawyers, and the trendy dress in teachers, engineers didn't always look like they could hold a conversation, unless it was in binary. When it came to career paths Airbus had made an important realisation… mostly after trial and error. Good Engineers don’t necessarily make good leaders nor are they necessarily much bothered about it. One of the least corporate looking engineers in Bristol was probably one of the most important people. He had nobody who worked for him, he dressed like he was on holiday most of the time, and his beard looked like mine does after 3 weeks away without scissors or a razor.

He wasn’t management and to a young Engineer from Cambridge whose friends were mostly working in the city it would have been easy to dismiss him based on his appearance. But he was recognised as an Expert, in fact he was probably The Expert. When it comes to aircraft, understandably, regulatory authorities need know you have people who know how it all works, who review and eventually sign-off on the designs. In most companies (even in other parts of Airbus) the assumption was that to be the engineering manager you needed to be capable of signing these things off. But in the UK they had recognised that some people were really just destined to be Experts - and you listened to them, least of all because you knew they were the ones who were signing off your work at the end of the day.

It’s easy to accept what you are being told when it comes from the voice you expect. But prophets come in all shapes and sizes, we need to be aware of all of them, whether they are on the world stage or right in front of our noses. I think many people in the west would have little trouble with me describing Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for saying girls should be provided with an education, as a prophet. You could say that her being awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize was making a statement that she was and is a modern-day prophet. But, clearly, to the people who shot her, the idea that she, a young girl could be a prophet was anathema.

Jesus is on one level a prophet. When asked by children why Jesus had to die, one response I sometimes give is that, when somebody so good starts telling people the way things should be, or starts showing people a different, a better way to live. It can make them feel so angry, so unhappy with themselves that they blame the one who came to show them another way and sometimes people have such a clear idea of what they want God to do, they don’t like it when God comes along with a different plan. The people wanted a Messiah to drive away the Romans, or to build a pure practice of Temple worship, strictly adhering to the rules, or to lead them away into a new promised land… but Jesus wasn’t doing any of those things. In fact perhaps the most telling bit of his ministry, the real prophecy, was what he did do - that he came to care for the sick, to set prisoners free, to feed the hungry, to dine with sinners…

Even more important than what Malala said, is what Malala did, that she gained an education, that she has carried on speaking out, and that she has sought to be reconciled in some way to the Taliban.

The other thing about prophecy is that it isn’t always known to the prophet what they are really saying. Prophecies are mucky business: In Harry Potter it is the incomplete hearing of a prophecy that leads Voldemort to attack Harry as a child, giving him the power to destroy him. In Star Wars nobody is ever quite certain whether it is going to the dark side, or returning from it, that is the point when Darth Vader brings balance to the force.

The very person who decides that Jesus must die, Caiaphas, the High Priest in the Temple first prophecies that “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.”

Looking around us today, we need to be willing to listen to the unlikely voices. It is often easy to point a finger at characters like Donald Trump and say that they are ridiculous,but without agreeing with them, they do warn us to listen to those who would follow them and to recognise that somewhere along the line there is a failing to listen, to value different views, to make robust debate.

These are all important to keep in mind as we look forward to a referendum on Europe. They are also important to remember as we listen and watch those around us, to hear God calling to us through one another.