Hearing Prophetic Voices in a Year of Zoom and Wilderness

As someone who mentally tries to inhabit antiquity – particularly the first-century Mediterranean world – as much as possible, I am no technological guru. That’s my excuse at least. In any case, I had never heard of Zoom just over twelve months ago when, reluctantly but necessarily, Boris Johnson imposed lockdown on the United Kingdom.

Most of us, however, have found ourselves on Zoom a lot over this last year. I think my record is nine hours in one day. I realise that is probably paltry by some standards. We might complain about it; but Zoom has some significant positives which have led us to stick with it despite the fatigue it can bring. Personally, it has enabled me to keep in contact with my family – Team Muir Sunday afternoon Zoom is a highlight of the week! – and friends around the UK and further afield. In my research, it has also created opportunities for hearing and accessing lectures and ideas from other institutions, which would not have been possible otherwise. I particularly fondly recall tuning into a book review panel that was being hosted in Cambridge and hearing some delightful English voices which sounded nearly foreign to me, having been ‘exiled’ in Scotland for so long.

There is an inherent issue with Zoom and other such platforms, however: how can we find our own voice and hear other people’s voices as effectively as we can in-person? Even with breakout rooms, the process is slower and less natural. The fact that only one person can speak at a time means that dialogue is harder to develop. It is less easy to gauge other people’s reactions – both positive and negative – in the room and to explore those feelings and emotions. Inevitably, some voices end up being amplified, while some go muted. In short, the relative polyphony that comes through physical presence is reduced.

As I reflected last Tuesday on the anniversary of lockdown, it came home to me that these have been difficult months, where collectively, we have doubtless lost more than we have gained. For many, it has been a time of great wilderness. Recently, in addition to some excellent devotional material,[1] I have slowly been reading through Hebrews. I came recently to one of my favourite parts where the writer repeatedly quotes the second half of Psalm 95 about the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness (Hebrews 3:7–8, 3:15, 4:7 = Psalm 95:7–8, AT[2]):

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the time of testing in the wilderness…

Here, and in Exodus and Numbers, we read that in the wilderness, the Israelites rebelled against God. They heard his voice, saw his works, but they were led astray and did not enter the rest of the promised land for forty years – some of them didn’t make it at all. They didn’t even have Twitter to fill those forty years! It is a sobering account which is used here and elsewhere in the New Testament (see, e.g., 1 Cor 10:1–13) as a means of exhortation to communities to listen to the spirit of God and enter rest and freedom.

Then and now, the process of listening and responding is always a collective one. It won’t have escaped our attention that we have heard some very important voices over the last twelve months. I’m thinking in particular of: those at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly following the murder of George Floyd; female victims of rape and harassment, following the murder of Sarah Everard; those abused by supposed pillars of communities – religious and otherwise. Many of these voices have been prophetic in some way: calling for necessary change in the face of injustice. Many of these voices have been rightly amplified, having been muted for too long. Crucially, in all these areas, further voices still need to be heard.

What do social and political events of the last twelve months have to do with faith? Well, certainly in the Christian tradition that is rooted in ancient Judaism, God consistently sides with the oppressed and the disempowered. According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus Christ famously makes this clear at the start of his ministry, by citing some Jewish Scripture (Luke 4:18–19 = Isaiah 61:1–2, AT):

The spirit of the Lord is on me because he anointed me to preach to the poor, he sent me to proclaim release for the captives and sight to the blind, to release those who have been shattered, to proclaim a favourable year of the Lord.    

Having opened the temple scroll to this place and read it aloud, Jesus then sits down: his work more or less done for the day. There is considerable discomfort among those present who are powerful.[3] Those in the temple gaze awkwardly and probably angrily at Jesus, as he sits down. Luke adds that Jesus says one more thing as a bit of a mic-drop: ‘He began to say to them that today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (lit. in your ears)’ (Luke 4:21, AT). This doubly prophetic voice – Jesus via Isaiah – still applies in our testing times today. Collectively, there is a responsibility to let the voices of the oppressed ring in our ears, then not to harden hearts, but to seek to liberate. By doing so, we shall see not just a year of favour – which we probably all think we’re definitely due – but one which belongs to the Lord, on his terms of justice.

I believe that when we follow Christ, we are called to listen to other human voices; but to help us to do so and to discern their prophetic value, we are first called to listen to the voice of God. Returning to Psalm 95 as cited by the writer of Hebrews, before the part about hearing God’s voice today, the psalmist declares (Psalm 95:6–7, NIV):

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

Here, we are presented with the image of God as shepherd. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus applies similar imagery to himself in his declaration: ‘I am the good shepherd’ (John 10:14). Jesus then articulates how his followers are called to be a united flock around him. Jesus was talking about how gentiles (non-Jews) would be incorporated into his flock; today, the flock is to remain united regardless of race, gender, wealth, and more besides. Collectively, the task of the ‘one flock’ (John 10:16) is to listen to the voice of the one who laid down his life for the flock, who can be trusted in the wilderness, and who brings release from earthly and cosmic powers of captivity. Through hearing the voice of the shepherd, the flock discerns and develops its own prophetic voice, which really matters in a time of Zoom and wilderness – and will continue to matter as we emerge from it.[4]


[1] I have found Simon Ponsonby’s last six Monday devotions on ‘The Wilderness: Where God is’ (available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM5iHVdu2cs) and the most recent book from my own dear godfather, Canon Andrew White: Glory Zone in the War Zone: Miracles, Signs, and Wonders in the Middle East, to be particularly inspiring.

[2] Author’s (/Alex’s!) translation.

[3] I know that as a privileged white, straight, male, many of the narratives of the last twelve months have made me feel uncomfortable and have led to some soul-searching and reflection. I was grateful for my church’s recommendation to read Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk About Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches, from which I learnt much as part of this ongoing process.

[4] In terms of things mattering, I still stand by what I wrote this time last year (https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/22/things-that-matter/). I hope this piece brings another angle, a year on.

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2 thoughts on “Hearing Prophetic Voices in a Year of Zoom and Wilderness

  1. Thanks Alex! I’ve been doing a lot is Social Justice reading over the last months relating to my Art History MA (and beyond!). Superficially many of the movement, BLM etc,. Have much to commend themselves in terms of alignment with the gospel, however, they are founded on the post-modern premises of no absolute truth so every marginalised group is free to find their own truth. There is no solution available because there is no individual redemption allowed for in their premise that enables society to move forward together led into a collective redemption. The danger is that binary lines are drawn that make social justice unachievable despite good intentions. Lots more thinking to be done here but a book that is well worth reading is Cynical Theories – Pluckrose and Lindsay.

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    1. Richard, thanks for reading and for this important comment. I saw snippets of good discussion between you and Rev. Briggs last week on a similar theme. You know about as well as anyone that (meta)critical reflection is not my strong point(!); but I realise it is so necessary in this area. I think your main point about the lack of absolute truth within this ‘social justice’ movements is a cogent critique. Of course, the true voice of Christ the shepherd, particularly in John’s Gospel where truth plays a fundamental role challenges that – although there is a fair distance to travel from truth in a first/second century text to the present day. I haven’t come across Pluckrose and Lindsay. Happily, it is available online through my uni library, so I shall have a look in the next few months. I try to engage some more cynical voices in my work on consolation in Paul (particularly with regards to rhetorical considerations, discourses of power etc.), so I really hope we can have a summer symposium to discuss more.

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