Words of Faith: Prophets
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But 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.” -Deut. 18:15-20
Have you ever been in a situation where you really wanted some direction from God? Maybe you were struggling to make a choice about work, or a relationship, or a medical decision. We have these moments in life where the weight of what we are being asked to do or the decision we have to make is tremendous; we have to make life changing choices. Maybe you’ve prayed, “God, just show me the right path; just give me a sign of what I should do.” Wouldn’t it be great if it worked like that? I think sometimes it does.
But God doesn’t often send us clear signs – messages written in the stars. God gave us the Bible where we meet the son, Jesus, who God send to teach and save us; God gives us the wild Holy Spirit to fill us; and, in great love, God gave us the church, our community of faithful friends, trusted companions with whom we make tough choices, risk boldly, and find our way together. God gives us faith and hope to have courage to risk the uncertainty, and unconditional grace to embrace us in our missteps and mistakes.
Mysteriously, when we look back, even when things didn’t turn out the way we imagined or hoped, we may see how God has been gently guiding us all along. There is a long and winding path that leads us to this moment, and God has ushered us here. Our gut and bravery, gifts of the Holy Spirit, enable us to take the many leaps of faith in our lives. We trust that God, full of grace, is there to catch us, however things work out.
But there are times when the heavens break open and God’s voice is, one way or another, made abundantly clear, as when Jesus was baptized and there was a voice from heaven saying,
“This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. LISTEN TO HIM!”
Very helpful, clear direction for those who were there to hear it. Or when the heavens suddenly filled with angels who told some terrified shepherds that the Christ was born and they should go check it out. Or those astrologers, the magi, who had one bright star to follow across nations to find the savior. God has given clear and certain directions to humans in extraordinary ways.
Often in the Bible, when God has a message for God’s people, it’s not through choirs of angels or miraculous stars or a voice from heaven, but through some strange and poetic people called Prophets that God gets through to the people.
So, what exactly is a prophet? Prophets appear through the Bible – the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Technically speaking, a prophet is one who declares the mind of God, or speaks with the inspiration of God and sometimes can be inspired by God to foretell or speak of what is to come. Mainly, a prophet is one who speaks out and announces on behalf of God. More likely than an angel, when God has a message in the Bible, God sends a person like the prophet Elijah, a hairy man and with a leather belt, who appears and says, “Thus says the Lord: How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him.”
Prophets in the Bible rarely come with personal messages about individuals’ choices. A prophet wouldn’t appear to help someone decided whether to get a sedan or SUV. For the most part, the prophets in the Bible came to communities with messages urging people to stop being greedy, or making corrupt political treaties, or mistreating the poor, and start being obedient to God. The prophets come to remind people that they are part of a promise with God, and that they are to be faithful to God and that promise, just as God is faithful to us.
Moses is the first great prophet in the Bible. Moses’ calling came from God out of a burning bush. God sent Moses to the ancient Hebrews when they were slaves in Egypt, with a message that God had heard their centuries of prayers and lament and would bring them out of slavery, into the land promised to their ancestors; a land of freedom and prosperity. Moses acted as a prophet when he pleaded with Pharaoh for their release and told him of the plagues God would send if Pharaoh failed to act. As the Hebrews fled Egypt and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness on their way to the promised land, God continued to encourage and guide and gave the Hebrews the Law through Moses. In our reading from Deuteronomy, God says that Moses will not be the last great prophet and promises to raise up prophets from among them saying, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” God keeps God’s promise. God continued to send prophets and put his words in their mouths, and God’s will in their hearts.
Much of the Hebrew Bible is devoted to the stories of the various prophets: Isaiah, Jerimiah, Ezekiel, are among the longest books. There are also twelve shorter books about other prophets working in ancient Israel: Jonah, Amos, and Micha. These prophets spoke to cities and whole nations, rulers and common folk, with warnings about what would happen if the people continued in their ways, and didn’t return to faithfulness to God.
Now, prophecy is a risky business. God said, a prophet “who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” So, the stakes are pretty high. Someone who comes speaking in the name of God, better be certain what they are about to say is something they were commanded by God to speak, or else. It’s a bold move to declare oneself a prophet, as some these days are wont to do.
There are modern day prophets. The Apostle Paul tells the early Christians that God gives certain people in the church spiritual gifts: teaching, administration, healing, and prophecy. But prophecy, in particular, comes with some stipulations. Paul knew the chaos that could come with lots of folks popping up saying they have a special message from God and then spouting off whatever comes to mind. Paul said, “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” therefore if somebody thinks they have word from God, Paul says they should share it with another prophet. It shouldn’t just be one person’s vision alone, but if two people have the same word there might be something to that. But before a self-professed prophet gets to get on the phone with the president, or takes to Twitter, their message needs to be weighed by others. Paul says, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets,” which is to say, you don’t get to just stand up with a special message on behalf of God. What you have to say is subject to some evaluation and critical analysis by the professionals.
Jesus warned his disciples about the danger posed by false prophets, saying:
“beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits." (Matt. 7:15-16)
Jesus’ concern has been proven warranted. There have been trusted people in authority in churches who have been as destructive to the community as ravenous wolves – false prophets. You know them by their fruits, their wake of destruction. There have been charismatic leaders who have created cults that have led people to getting hurt, killed, or taking their own lives. Families have been torn apart recently by conspiracy theories that often claim to come with some divine prophetic promise. When those prophecies don’t pan out, some become understandably disillusioned, realizing they’ve been duped. But false prophets keep twisting and spinning lies, keeping much of their audience captive.
Some of those who attacked the capitol this month came in the name of God following some false prophecy and many of their lives have been ruined. Jesus says, look at the fruits produced by one who claims to be a prophet. Are those fruits loving, patient, kind, are they a blessing; or are they full of rage, fear, and judgement? Do good things surround the life of that person? Use your judgment.
Paul says a true prophet would welcome scrutiny saying, “So, my friends, be eager to prophecy…but all things should be done decently and in order.” A person who creates division and fuels chaos and hate, is not a prophet. But if you do have a good word from God, one that can be weighed alongside Christ’s gospel of love, then please do speak it, for it will be a word of hope, a blessing for the community.
Jesus is our best prophetic guide. Jesus was a prophet himself. Not only did he speak the word of God, he was and is the word of God. In Jesus, God’s word became flesh. All Jesus said and did are a revelation of God’s will. Jesus created beloved community, he healed the broken, lifted up the beaten down, welcomed in the outcast, and stared down corruption. Ultimately, Jesus gave people hope in a brighter day to come, and also a taste of that goodness in the present.
Here is where we can learn from the prophets in the Bible: they came to their communities, not to build up their own ministries, or grow big, wealthy churches; not to become famous, but to call out corruption, to call out bad behavior, to bring attention to the situations of people neglected or hurt by the ways of the community, and to call attention to God, whose judgment is righteous and good. Prophets give hurting people hope for a future worth living for today, inspire imagination, and give guidance and encouragement to begin living into that possibility now.
This is what the world needs from the church today. We don’t need folks with special secret messages, we need people who love God, who are rooted in the gospel, who call out injustice, shine a light on the forgotten and mistreated, point to Jesus; folks who are willing to love their neighbors so deeply that it gives them hope, and inspires them to live into that hope today, to take risks together for the upbuilding of the whole hurting community. That is our holy work, Church, our prophetic ministry.