Monday, January 29, 2018

Sermon: "A Prophet Like You", Deuteronomy 18:15-20/Acts 2 (January 28, 2018)



One of the gifts of the Revised Common Lectionary is that it draws our attention to things that we might not think about otherwise. For example, the last two weeks’ readings have shown us that prophets aren’t all cut from the same cloth: Samuel was earnest in his desire to serve God beginning in his childhood, while Jonah threw prophetic temper tantrums. Then this week, we get this informative flashback in Deuteronomy that provides helpful insight as to why God gave prophets to the Hebrew people in the first place. While we do tend to talk about prophecies often enough—especially around Advent—it’s less common to talk about the mechanics, characteristics, and criteria of prophet-dom. So I’m really glad to have this opportunity to dig into it, especially given a recent conversation I had. 

Little did I know when I was talking to my sister earlier this month (over Facebook, of course; we ARE both millennials) that our little chat would become sermon fodder. It began when she asked a question that I’ve heard many times before, one that I’ve pondered myself, in fact, on many occasions: “Why aren’t there prophets anymore? Is God just done talking to us? Has God already said everything that needed to be said?” How many of you have ever asked that before?

It’s a big question, with big implications, but in order to begin answering it, we need to think a little more intentionally about what we mean when we talk about prophets. While many traditions hold that there have been prophets of God since the beginning of creation, this passage from Deuteronomy is one of the first times in scripture that the idea of what we might call a “professional prophet” is discussed. It solidifies the idea of a prophet as someone hand-picked by God to lead God’s people morally and ideologically, who walks in the very footsteps of Moses—someone who more or less lives on a prophetic pedestal. This still-popular understanding of prophets as having a formal designation, a specific role, and, importantly, divine authority, has its origin here with Moses preparing the Hebrew people to enter the promised land.

So God’s promise in Deuteronomy is good news for the Hebrews. These people, who have literally been wandering aimlessly in the desert for forty years, can finally stop having to figure out for themselves when they’re practicing blasphemy and idolatry (which, let’s face it, is a pretty significant shortcoming of theirs, what with the complaining and the golden calf and all that). God is promising that they’ll no longer be alone in discerning God’s will. This is good news for us, too; we figure we just have to pay attention to those same prophets of old, and they’ll give us a fool-proof blueprint for our lives.

But while this sounds really appealing on the surface, there’s a sinister side to this promise: because of the rise of so-called professional prophets in scripture, we’ve been lulled into a sense that our only task is to identify the “right” people to listen to, those with some sort of innate, divine authority, and the rest will be simple. So, we figure we’ll listen to the folks with huge, billowy Moses-robes, with long white beards, who speak in a booming bass voice and gesture menacingly, and we’ll know that we’ve heard God’s very own words.

But we don’t see many of those types around these days, do we? So prophets must only exist in Scripture, we assume. Which bring us back to my sister: “Why are there no prophets anymore?” It’s a tough question, especially if you believe (as I do, and I bet most of you do) that God is still moving and speaking in our world today. Why are there no prophets anymore?...Well, what if it’s not that God has stopped giving us prophets, but that we’ve become so set in our understanding of what a prophet looks and sounds like that we have trouble recognizing them when they do speak today?

Verse 18 in the Deuteronomy text says that God will raise a prophet “from among [the Hebrews’] own people”. Even in ancient times, there’s plenty of evidence that prophets weren’t the imposing, mystical figures that we imagine, descending from on high and inspiring awe in all who encounter them. They were regular folks who were a part of the community. Moses himself was a poor public speaker who honestly didn’t believe that Pharaoh would even give him the time of day. Moses definitely wasn’t what WE might consider “prophet material” in any sense. And yet, God called him to great prophetic work—speaking God’s word to God’s people.

Despite our perception, prophets aren’t another species that stopped being born after the Bible was written; they’re humans, just like us. Why, then, do we insist that the age of prophets is over? The strongest evidence, frankly, is experiential: few of us have personally heard of anyone receiving prophecy in a clearly audible voice from heaven, as we assume happened in the good ol’ days. But what if that’s not how it actually works? Maybe part of the reason we don’t hear about God speaking much anymore is because we’ve collectively forgotten how to listen.

Since the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, humankind has become overly dependent on the traditional five senses (taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound), and we’ve forgotten that there are other ways to perceive the world around us, too. I’m not just talking about unverifiable things like intuition or sci-fi concepts like telepathy. Modern science readily acknowledges that there are far more than five senses, including the senses of balance, movement, hunger, and time, to name a few. So why are we, as people of faith, of things seen and unseen, so resistant to the idea that there might be spiritual senses, too?

I suspect the Hebrews were far more accustomed to “listening” in other ways, since they had far less suspicion of things that couldn’t be explained by science. The prophets, then, must have been particularly skilled at it, which is why they took on such an important role. But the ability to listen to God is just that—a skill. Some may be better or worse at it, but anyone can practice and become more proficient. Our spiritual listening abilities may have atrophied, but all hope isn’t lost. Just as you can exercise a muscle, you can exercise your spirit’s ability to hear God, with practices like prayer and meditation. I know, I know; it feels weird and boring and uncomfortable at first. So does running. But the more you work on it, the better you get, and the more places it will take you.

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Our ability to hear God’s voice may be diminished, but that neither means that God is no longer speaking, nor that there’s no one left to share the message. Even if prophesy was formerly a specialized career path for a select few individuals, the new covenant in Christ has changed the game entirely: we’ve all been empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak God’s truth in the world. On “the birthday of the Church”, Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the crowd, and EVERYONE began speaking in tongues, inspired by the movement of the Spirit. Peter proclaimed that Joel 2:28 was being fulfilled right then and there through the authority and power of Jesus Christ, with sons and daughters prophesying, with visions and dreams. From this point on, there’s no longer a division between those who prophesy and those who don’t. The professional role of prophet has become unnecessary—we ALL have the ability and responsibility to speak God’s word to the world.

Now, there are obviously some powerful modern-day voices that are easier to identify as prophetic than others—Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, or Mother Theresa, or even Pope Francis. All of these human beings boldly proclaimed the Word that they heard from God without shame or hesitation, regardless of personal flaws. But even if a voice isn’t loud or far-reaching, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong to a prophet. Think for a moment about a turning point in your life of faith—a time when you came to understand something you hadn’t before, or heard a truth clearly as if for the first time, or became convicted of something that God was calling you to do…

The first time I remember hearing a prophetic voice was in middle school when our youth pastor left. On her last night, she began her goodbye to me by saying, “Ah, yes; Katey, the future pastor…” I thought she was completely nuts at the time, but her words settled in my heart. Eventually, the seed that she had planted bloomed into a ministry that I have no doubt God had intended for me all along. In those few words, she didn’t transform society or turn the heart of a king, but she changed my life. And because I’m standing here today, she changed your life, too.

I’m sure she doesn’t think of herself as a prophet. Few of us do, because being a prophet isn’t always so much who we are as it is who God calls us to be in the moment. It’s not an innate, immutable quality, like your eye color or your height. It’s not even really like a job, something that’s integral to how others see you and how you understand your own identity. It’s more like a dormant responsibility that could be called upon at any moment. Kind of like jury duty.* Nobody thinks of themself as a potential juror, but when duty calls, that’s exactly what you are in that moment. You show up and do what you’re called upon to do for the good of society. Sometimes it can be an unpleasant experience, to say the least, but when you get the summons, you go. 

That’s what happened to Moses, when he found himself on top of Mount Horeb facing a burning bush. That’s what happened to Jonah, when he had to bring a message he didn’t want to deliver to people he didn’t like. That’s what happened to Samuel, when he had to decide whether to give terrible news to his mentor. And that’s what happened to Peter and those gathered with him in that place, when they demonstrated the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence among the people. God called, and they responded. And now, I invite YOU to consider when God might be calling you, and how you’ll choose to respond when you finally hear.

The trouble is, of course, that the stakes can get frighteningly high. In jury duty, your vote can mean the difference between life and death for another human being. In prophesy, your words can mean leading others away from God if you’re mistaken about the message. Fortunately, verse 20 from the Deuteronomy text has a safeguard against that: “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” Fortunately for who, am I right?!?

In fact, I briefly thought about omitting verse 20 today because I thought it might sound intimidating. I heard a rumor that a certain Bible study couldn’t believe that I’d consider doing that, so let me explain: generally speaking, when I ask you in a sermon to do something, I don’t like to follow up my request with a death threat for doing it wrong. If you think you’re being called upon to speak prophetic words, that verse suddenly seems a lot less harmless to read in worship. Let’s be honest; if given the choice between sharing what you THINK is a message from God and risking death, or keeping it to yourself and living another day, how many of you would take one for the team? I absolutely wouldn’t. It’s way too much pressure.

In that conversation with my sister I mentioned earlier, she also asked me, “How did the prophets know it was God talking to them and not just their own thoughts or feelings?” The truth is, there may have been times that they didn’t know. But they believed in their message, and believed that it was from God, so they pressed on. The task before them outweighed any fear they might have felt.

That’s the key, I think. That they honestly believed God was behind them and their message. The text doesn’t say, “Anyone who makes a mistake shall die.” It talks about presumptuousness in prophesy, words spoken in arrogance and hubris rather than in faith. The truth is, we might get the message wrong, too. Prophecy is never easy. But as long as we approach the task with humility and trust in God, it’ll be okay. After all, there are more important things than always saying exactly the right words. Better to get it wrong in the service of God than to remain silent in the face of that which desperately needs transformation.

So—if you feel a tug on your heart, don’t be afraid to stop and listen to it. And if you listen and realize that God is placing words on your lips, don’t be afraid to speak them aloud. Though your voice may tremble, though your knees may shake, prophesy boldly the truth that God gives to you. Yours may be the very voice it need to bring it to life. There is so much happening in our world today, this very moment, that’s dark and profane—we need a prophet to wake us up. We can’t wait for some other “right person” to say the “right words”; there isn’t time for that. Besides, maybe, to God, you are exactly that person. God doesn’t want a prophet like Moses, or like Samuel, or like Jonah. God needs a prophet like you, to speak truth to a world like this. Amen.


*Hilariously, we had decided a week ago to sing "The Summons (Will You Come and Follow Me)" immediately following the sermon. I completely forgot about this until I got to worship that morning. The Holy Spirit has a FANTASTIC sense of humor :) 

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