This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The situation of the book of Deuteronomy is that the children of Israel are gathered on the east side of the Jordan.  They have come out of the wilderness where they have been wandering for forty years after having escaped from slavery in Egypt.  And their leader, Moses, gives them one last, long teaching.  He knows that he will not be going with them, that he is about to die.  So the book of Deuteronomy is his instructions and advice, warnings and reflections, to guide them as they move into the land that God has promised the people.
One of the questions they have now is: What are they going to do for leadership once Moses is gone?  Who will be the one who delivers the Word of God to them?  How will they know God’s will for their lives?  How will they make sense of the world and of unfolding history?
Just before this passage, God, through Moses, has forbidden them from turning to occult practices like divination, sooth-saying, augury, sorcery, spell-casting, or the consultation of ghosts or the dead. These were all ways that people used, and sometimes and in some ways still do use, to determine God’s will.  God says that these methods are abhorrent and disloyal.  The nations they will be displacing in Canaan use them.  But these are not how God’s people discern God’s will.  So rule that out.
The people are also deeply conscious that they do not have, and could not possibly survive, the intimacy with God that Moses has.  They know that direct contact with God, even hearing God’s  voice first-hand, or feeling God’s fire, would be lethal to them.  This they learned on Mt. Horeb when Moses climbed right up into the clouds and lightning, which scared the living daylights out of the people.  At that point the people were quite content to receive God’s Word second hand, through Moses.  As long as they didn’t have to get any closer to this awesome God of fire and thunder.
But they are also still very conscious that, without Moses, they have no access to God’s Word at all.  They had become dependent upon him.  And they worry about who would lead them once Moses’ time with them was over.
How do we know God’s will?  How do we know what God wants, as opposed to what we want for ourselves, or what others want?  How do we distinguish the voice of God in our lives from all the other voices that are always yammering at us from the world, or even from inside our own heads?
This is an important question because sometimes we go off very enthusiastically on a course of action we are convinced is God’s will, when it really isn’t.  Other times God is practically yelling in our ears what we are supposed to do and we don’t hear it.

The answer is that God will “raise up for them a prophet” like Moses “from among their own people.”  That prophet will communicate God’s Word to the people.  So God establishes this institution of prophecy.  The implication is that in every generation, God will chose someone as the mediator of God’s Word.
A prophet is chosen by God.  No one decides to take up this career.  You could not send your son or daughter to prophet school.  One does not choose to be a prophet.  God chooses prophets.  The prophets who followed Moses had no credentials.  They do not get this job by taking over their father’s position.  Prophets are not elected by the people.  Neither would the King, even one of the relatively good kings, select true prophets.  A prophet is not necessarily a wealthy or powerful person; just the opposite.  Sometimes God calls a priest like Ezekiel, and sometimes it is a shepherd like Amos.  God calls whom God wants to call to this unique line of work.    
The reason that those other occult methods of divination are rejected by God is that they involve human initiative.  They try and force information out of God by throwing dice, or cutting open an animal and reading the entrails, or trying to open a line of communication with the dead.  They use methods and techniques to compel God to divulge something.
But prophecy, like God, is totally free.  It exists over-against all the official institutions of the society, and calls them and their agendas into question.  All of them.
I recently heard an interview with Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in which he said that the prophets were universally critical of all power; there was not some specific ideology or political/economic philosophy they advocated.  They pointed out how all of them fell short of God’s will.  Their job was to be the critics who knew that any system will fall into idolatry if we do not exercise constant vigilance and perpetual reform.
So the prophets function as a brake against the idolatry that always takes root when the people are left to themselves.  Without God’s Word, expressed through the mouth of a prophet, the nation will succumb to idolatry and injustice.  And injustice is always punished by God.
The Word that prophets communicate to the people is invariably critical of human institutions, while ever hopeful about the future God has promised.  Basically we could sum up the prophet’s message as: “What you’re doing is wrong, and will attract God’s wrath; but in the end God is faithful and will forgive and deliver us.”

What God is doing here is embedding what we might call a kind of charismatic element into Israel, almost as a counterweight to other, more conventional and stabilizing institutions, like the priesthood and the monarchy, that would also develop.  God wants to make sure that there is always this free voice, accountable solely to God, who speaks God’s Word to the people unencumbered by allegiances to any other power.
God’s free Word, then, is what is spoken by the prophets.  They are the vessels, the conduits, the vehicles of God’s Word. The Word of the Lord comes over them and they speak this Word to the people.
Then, hearing the words of God through the prophet, it is up to the people to obey.  Once they have heard, it is on their own heads whatever happens as a consequence of their disobedience.
God then tells Moses that a true prophet will not speak in the name of other gods.  In other words, God’s prophet will not look to other authorities, “other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”  If a prophet is appealing to any other source, he or she is a false prophet.  If they appeal to history or tradition, if they appeal to pragmatism or popular opinion, if they appeal to a particular philosophy or theology, if they appeal to the hierarchy of the church or the government of the state, if they appeal to the dogmas of a particular economic theory, if they appeal to nationalism or some mythic story of a people… then they are not God’s prophets.  Even if they speak for a certain religion or spirituality, liturgical practices or missional strategies, they are not God’s prophets.
Those prophets, God tells them, “will die.”  They may not drop dead right there on the spot.  But they do not participate in God’s life.  Their words are merely human words and they do nothing but reinforce the bondage of various forms of sinfulness that bind us.  Their words lead to death.
Make no mistake.  The true prophet of God is responsible and accountable to God alone.  The true prophet will be critical of all those things I just mentioned.  The true prophet will almost always be unpopular.  Prophets do not win elections.  They don’t get invited to give the invocation at the inauguration of the President.  They don’t sell a lot of books.  They are often dismissed as traitors and enemies because they rarely have anything good to say about those in charge or the prevalent institutions.
God insists that this kind of figure be authorized.  It is an essential component of God’s people, along with priests, judges, and, eventually, kings.  Against all these powers trying to spin things to their own advantage, God places this other figure to stand up to them and tell them, in the name of God, “NO!”

In a sense, the prophet is an engine of progress because they are never satisfied with where the people are.  They are always calling the people beyond the status quo, they are always calling for improvements in the way people live, they are always placing before the people the vision and promise of God and God’s Kingdom of justice.  They constantly sow dissatisfaction and a sense of yearning for a better world.  They are always calling for the people to live up to God’s Word.
And God’s Word does not just refer to the Scriptures.  It does not say here that prophets should read this book that Moses is writing, and teach the people what it says.  No.  To prophets, God’s Word comes directly.  Not only that, but prophets were universally unafraid to contradict the written text if that’s what God was telling them to do.  Because from Amos and Hosea to Jesus and Paul they knew that the text could become an idol like anything else.  So they criticize even perfectly biblical practices, like sacrifices, holidays, the monarchy, and various purity laws.
In the end, the Word of God is Jesus Christ.  He is “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”  We know that a prophet’s words are from the Lord when they not only express criticism of our human institutions, but when they express the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  If a prophet says something you can’t imagine Jesus saying, they’re not a prophet of God.  If a prophet says something that would make the rich richer and the strong more powerful, they’re not a prophet of God.
That is how we know whether a prophet is giving us words that God has commanded.  They don’t refer us to other gods or powers; they only refer us to Jesus.  He is the Word; he gives us the words.  All other words lead inexorably to death.
In the gospel reading for today, we see that even the unclean spirits, even evil demons, recognized Jesus as “the Holy One of God.”  They recognized him because they understood that he was a threat to them.  As prophets are always threats to the forces, ideologies, traditions, and structures that possess, and bind, and strangle us.  That’s how they know that he is the prophet that is to come into the world.

I think that God’s people continue to be driven by the Spirit of prophecy when we also make it clear that we are bound to no one and nothing but God.  It becomes our role as well to cast out demons in the sense of help people find freedom from the many forces that would keep them bound and crippled.  This could be obvious things like addiction and destructive habits.  But it could also be more subtle ways we are possessed by forces that we might normally think of as good.  The “other gods” and the “unclean spirits” in our lives are frequently things that society has decided are beneficial.  The prophets were critical of everything, because anything can become an idol.
We too must have disciplines in which we separate ourselves from whatever possesses us and gets in the way of our relationship with God.  For an idol is usually a good thing that we have made into the highest and only thing.  And it can be any number of good things, like food or success, family or nation, health and security.  it can be the way we have learned to cope with the world, which might have worked when we were little but now doesn’t work at all but we don’t know how to behave any differently.
When we turn away from idols we do not turn to a cynical worship of nothingness.  God gives us the Word, that is, God gives us Jesus Christ.  He is the one who emerges when all our idols have been revealed as empty, bankrupt, toxic, and crippling.
Above all we are prophets when we in our lives reflect him.  Idols are all false and illusory; Jesus Christ is real.  And when he becomes the center of our life we are real as well.  Saying no to our idols means saying yes to Jesus, and devoting our lives to following him.

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