Preaching on the prophetic discourse in Matthew 24 this past weekend, I was reminded that prophetic preaching is not so in vogue these days. We have survived the “prophetic voices” of the Lindseys, Kirbans, LaHayes, and more recently the Campings, and are not so inclined to listen to those who have seemingly cracked the code or created impressive time charts. And that is good. How they have done these things in the face of Matthew 24:36 is rather mystifying. But prophets are still needed, and prophetic preaching is more necessary than we realize. Ours may very well be the “days of Noah” Jesus warned about. We may be so consumed with present activities we are oblivious to how God is actually moving.
What is needed are different kinds of prophetic voices—prophets less obsessed with calculation; more consumed with preaching a message of vigilance. Prophets less concerned with the times; more concerned with untimeliness. Nearly ten years ago, Os Guinness, in his Prophetic Untimeliness, challenged us to become “untimely prophets”, prophets who speak the word of the Lord, interpret events from the perspective of faith, and fearlessly declare how we must then live.
Untimely is an interesting description, but his illustrations help flesh it out. Untimely prophets are ill-timed and inconvenient because they declare what the world is not so inclined to want to hear. They discern the times and have the courage to repudiate powerful interests and fashion. They look something like Winston Churchill. Because he was an historian, he was enabled to at the same time be a visionary (what’s called the Janus Effect-the more one can see in the past, the more one can see into the future). But very few were willing to listen to his premonitions, his prophetic voice, and so the 1930’s were his “wilderness years”. Though he warned of the mounting menace of Hitler (something he could see because of his reading of European history), and though he declared that Hitler must be checked, hardly anyone listened. The nations were “lulled into oblivion” before the rapidly growing power of Nazi Germany. His words were timely, yet untimely for the culture he lived in. It was that way with Noah. It may be for emerging prophets today.
But in an age where the church is becoming increasingly captive to culture, untimely prophets are needed more than ever. Guinness warns in his book that they, however, must prepare to pay a price. The first is maladjustment. Prophets who choose to be faithful will increasingly find their message is out of sync, irrelevant (though he also warns that those focused on being relevant to the times ultimately become irrelevant). The second price is impatience. Prophets who face an increasingly godless and corrupt culture will feel the frustration of God’s delay, God’s bringing to fulfillment His kingdom. The third cost is a sense of failure. They will not necessarily amass a crowd nor sell a lot of books.
The good news is that our failure may very well be His success, and our setbacks will be His turning point. Timely words. Future prophets who redeem the time will do so by being untimely.