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January 31, 2021

“Are You God’s Prophet?” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, January 31, 2021, Year B / Epiphany 4 –  Deuteronomy 18:9-20  •  Psalm 111  •  1 Corinthians 8:1-13  •  Mark 1:21-28

The big idea:  Jesus is the prophet God promised through Moses and we are all prophets to whom and through whom God speaks.

Application:  Make sure what we say conforms to God’s Word in Jesus’ life and teaching.

Who speaks for God?

That question is as old as humanity itself.  From the very beginning, getting it wrong caused uncertainty and conflict.  In the Garden of Eden, it was downright catastrophic.

You’ll remember what God instructed Adam. “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden,” God said, “Except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Immediately, the crafty serpent saw an opening.  He began questioning and twisting God’s words.  He asked Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 

What follows is a tragic mixture of human uncertainty and satanic sophistry that distorts God’s words and subverts his purposes.  Even though God had spoken directly to Adam, Adam listened to those who did not speak for God.  

As a result, Adam and Eve did the very thing they were never supposed to do.  They paid the price for their disobedience.  So do we all, to this very day.

Adam was not the only one to whom God spoke directly.  There were Cain and Noah.  Then Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. 

And then came Moses.  One day, while he was out tending his father-in-law’s sheep, Moses came upon something he had never seen before:  a bush was burning, but it was not being consumed.  As he approached, God spoke to him from the bush.  And so began Moses’ lifelong dialogue with God. 

From that day onward, Moses became God’s preeminent prophet.  Let’s be clear about what a prophet actually does.  The role of a prophet is to be God’s spokesperson.  The prophet listens for God’s word and then speaks it to God’s people.  

In ancient Israel, there was never a shortage of prophets.  In fact, there were hundreds of them.  So, the problem was never finding a prophet.  The problem was finding one who truly spoke for God.

And that is the concern that Moses is addressing in our passage from Deuteronomy.  Moses has faithfully listened for God’s will.  He has relayed it to the people so they can live in obedience to God’s commands.  

Under Moses’ leadership, God has brought the Israelites out of Egypt, through the desert and to the brink of the Promised Land.  

But now, Moses is approaching the end of his life.  And the people know it.

He is the only leader most Israelites have ever known.  His imminent death makes the people anxious.  If they don’t know God’s will, they can’t be sure that they are following it.  That puts the entire community at risk. 

Moses knows they will be sorely tempted to resort to the sources of divine knowledge claimed by the Canaanites:  sorcery, human sacrifice, mediums who claim to consult ghosts and spirits, and even the dead.

These specious sources of divine truth may suit the pagan Canaanites, but they are strictly prohibited for the Israelites.  Israel has but one source of truth, wisdom and guidance:  Yahweh himself.  Moses warns them, “You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God.”

But how will they know God’s will when Moses is gone?

And so God makes a promise and tells Moses to relay it to the people.  Tell them “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.”

To the readers of Mark’s gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is that prophet – and more.

One Sabbath day, along with his disciples – Andrew, Peter, James and John — Jesus  enters the small synagogue in the fishing village of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The congregation is gathered for worship.  As a guest, Jesus is asked to assume the role of rabbi, teacher.

As soon as he begins, it’s clear that Jesus teaches with a singular authority.  His content and conviction are unlike anything the people have heard before - from the scribes, or anyone else. 

And when he casts out a demon who recognizes him as being from God, the people are even more amazed at his power.  “What is this?” they ask, “A new teaching—with authority!  He even commands the unclean spirits!”

They may be amazed, but they’re not entirely sure of Jesus, or his divine pedigree.  The Jews and their leaders continually question his authority throughout the gospel, all the way to the cross.  Everywhere he goes, and everything he does causes people to ask, “Does he really speak for God?”

There were a lot of prophets around back then, and a lot of false ones.  The same is true today.

These days the folks claiming to be God’s prophets tend to be from the charismatic wing of the church.  More often than not, they make dramatic predictions about current events and the end of the world.

Other supposed prophets are prosperity preachers.  They all generally want us to think that God wants nothing more for us than to be materially wealthy. 

Still other self-proclaimed prophets have found a following online as divine self-help gurus, religious bloggers and prophetic podcasters.

I confess my first instinct is to dismiss them all out of hand.  On occasion, I have even been known to poke fun at them from the pulpit.  But, as I thought more about today’s scripture, it occurred to me that I ought to be a little more careful.  I am one of them. 

Every week, I spend hours studying scripture and trying to listen for what God is saying to me, so that I can share his word with you on Sunday morning. 

So, for me the question becomes personal.  How do I know I can speak for God?

Any preacher worth his / her salt asks themselves the same question.  They will tell you this is their heaviest responsibility. 

The surest way to tell if we are being faithful to the word of God is to measure what we preach against the full arc of scripture, which is God’s love story for his children.  But God’s love is not one-way traffic.  God demands something from us in return.  And it’s the job of the preacher to communicate that.

Like the Bible, preaching should call us to repent – to change.  We are all sinners.  None of us is even close to being the perfect disciple.  As the saying goes, God loves us just the way we are, and too much to leave us that way!

At the same time, preaching should also encourage hope, peace and justice.  There is another saying that preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Good, faithful preaching does both.

It also requires that we balance the personal and the public application of faith.  As Reformed Christians, we believe that God rules over all of life, not just our church life.  That means that God’s word applies not only to what we do here, but also to our families and friendships, our school, our work, our community and our government.

It is striking how often in scripture God speaks to kings through his prophets.  He either affirms their faithfulness or he calls them to account for their lack of it.  Sometimes both.

In the gospels, God speaks through Jesus not only to the Jewish leaders, who were corrupted and coopted by Rome, but also to the values and practices of the Roman Empire itself.  When we pastors preach, we need to be sure to offer the alternative Kingdom Jesus began to usher in, and which stands in direct opposition to Roman rule.

As a result, what we preachers have to say – if we are being faithful to scripture – often challenges our social, economic, religious and political norms.  The reason is simple:  Jesus’ message and ministry threaten human powers that claim ultimate authority over people’s lives. 

In the final analysis, it is Jesus, the living Word, the embodiment of God’s love, that we are to preach.

Now, if you have been sitting back, feeling safe and comfortable in the assumption that it’s only we preachers who have to worry about being faithful in speaking for God, let me now call you out of your comfort zone.

This Reformed tradition in which you and I stand emphasizes the responsibility of each individual Christian to listen for and interpret God’s word for him / herself.  The fundamental Reformed principle that Martin Luther called the Priesthood of All Believers affirms that we all have direct access to God.  We don’t need an intermediary like a priest to communicate with God, because – like Moses – God is already speaking to us and through us.

Each of us not only has the right to discern what God is saying to us, and what he asks of us, we also have the responsibility to communicate his message to one another.  As John Calvin himself put it, we are responsible for one another’s salvation.  So, we’d better speak up.

Which means we are all prophets – we all speak for God.  And we all have to make sure that our message is faithful to God’s word. 

As one writer has said, “A true prophet . . . is like a good parent. A true prophet sees others, not himself.  He helps them define their own half-formed dreams, and puts himself at their service.  He is not diminished as they become more.  He offers courage in one hand and generosity in the other.”

That is what it means to be a faithful prophet.  This is what Jesus has done for all of us. 

If we are to become a grace-filled family of faith, sharing Christ’s love with all, then we need to ask ourselves, “Are we doing that for one another?”


May it be so.

Last Published: February 2, 2021 12:22 PM
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