Sunday, February 1, 2015

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

And they were astonished at his teaching: For he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes.

What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? Over the past few weeks we've seen the stories of some of God's prophets: Samuel, Jonah and even John the Baptist. The words they said and the work they did was not always easy. They were not perfect; as a matter of fact, they were often afraid, uncertain, and unwilling to do what God was asking from them. In the end, however, they did as God asked, spoke the word that He sent them to speak and in doing so they called people to God and changed their lives. They did great things and are still remembered today for their gifts and their impact.

The prophetic word of God is a message sent through a chosen vessel for God's people. The message is not always the lesson we want to hear. Samuel's message to Eli was frightening because it meant death and an end to God's promise. Jonah didn't want to take that word to Nineveh because it meant mercy for his enemies. John's message disturbed the status quo; the call to repentance required an acknowledgement of sin. Some prophetic words are messages of grace and hope; as a matter of fact, every warning comes with a word of promise. John did call the people to repentance, but he promised that they'd see their salvation.

It is hard, though, to know for certain that the words we hear are from God. The prophets do not always fit our expectations. Samuel was young. Jonah was reluctant foreigner. John was downright bizarre. Why would anyone listen to them? Yet, people listened and were changed by the word. It wasn't Samuel or Jonah or John who made the difference, it was God and His word. We know this because the word was fulfilled.

It is very difficult for us because we are surrounded by many people claiming to speak for God. I used to belong to an email list that purported to send prophetic words to the world, most especially to Christians. Many of these words were (are) uplifting. They encourage Christians to go forth in faith, to do whatever it is that God is calling us to do. I became disengaged with the group when I realized more than half of their messages were sales pitches for the speaker's latest book or for a workshop on how to be a prophet in today's world. I have no doubt that some of their words are real, that they speak with God's grace and love for God's people.

However, some of their words have been false. I recall a message that came through the list a few years ago about an incoming weather situation. The word was for the city that was about to experience a catastrophic storm. The word told the people that the storm was a sign of God's wrath and that they would suffer the consequences of their sin. The storm veered off its path and had little impact on any cities. Not long after they released another word about another storm. This time they waited until after the storm hit, claiming that they knew what it meant when it was received, but that it was necessary to withhold the word until the time was right. Quite frankly, when the word was released, I could barely see how they made the connection, but they claimed it was the fulfillment of God's word.

We have to be careful about who we believe. The promise in today's Old Testament lesson doesn't help us much, either. God tells us that we can believe those prophets whose words come to pass but that those who try to speak for God that have not been called will die. What do we do in the meantime? What do we do when we are between hearing the message and seeing its fulfillment or lack thereof?

And what do we do when we think we've been given a word to speak, but we aren't sure and we are afraid because we know that the false prophet will die?

I attended a workshop by a speaker who was teaching the group how to start an evangelism program at our churches. One of the things I remember clearly had to do with dealing with seekers who misunderstand the Word of God. He recalled an experience he had with one of his students who had 'discovered' an exciting idea about God. The idea was not biblical, it was far from true and it had the potential of leading people down a false path. The speaker said that he didn't want to squelch the young man's excitement about his newfound faith and that he didn't want to discourage him from continuing to seek understanding of God's word.

His recommendation to us in those situations was to say, "Hmmm, that is a very interesting idea," and then to subtly take the conversation in a better direction. The story continued from the young man's point of view. He was so excited about his discovery that he went home happy and feeling very smart. He thought that he must be a prophet if he could think of something so great. As he thought about the conversation, however, he came to a realization: Christianity has been around for two thousand years and the teacher was extremely knowledgeable. How could his brilliant discovery have gone so long undiscovered by so many who knew and loved God's word so much? He was humbled and returned to the class the next week with more questions than answers. The teacher knew that the student needed some room to come to the right understanding on his own.

This isn't to say that the greatest among us have nothing to learn. None of us know God and His Word so completely that we can learn something from another Christian. We must be careful, however, that we make sure everything we hear and learn lines up to God's Word. The young man's idea did not and the teacher found a way to graciously allow him to discover the truth.

Not everyone is so humble. The prophets at that email list tend to have an arrogance that makes it impossible to show them how their words often twist God's word for their own benefit. When the word they sent about the storm failed to be true, they made a million excuses, never accepting that they could make a mistake. The twisted the word and the Word to still make it fit their interpretation to prove that they were prophets of God.

One more story: I was hanging out in an online chat room one day when a young woman was impressed with something I said. I don't remember what it was, I doubt it was anything of any real consequence, but she thought it was brilliant. She even called me a prophet. She told me that she was learning to be a prophet and she wanted to know if I would help her by reviewing a sermon that she wrote. She sent it to me.

I doubt that I dealt with the situation with the same grace as the teacher in the previous story. I tried to be kind, but from the beginning I knew that the sermon was problematic. The language, grammar and spelling required serious editing, but so does my writing (I'm sure there's at least one mistake every day!) I emailed her with some suggestions and we began a conversation about the sermon. Her ideas, like that of the young man, were the ideas of a passionate novice. They were new and they were unbiblical. We went through the text together, but she quickly realized that I was showing her the error of her ideas through the scriptures and she didn't like it. She refused to believe I was wrong and she continued to twist the scripture to fit her interpretation. She then turned the tables and tried showing me the error in mine. I listened, but she never argued from the Bible. She thought she was a prophet, after all, so she claimed she was arguing from the Holy Spirit. She refused to accept that her arguments were not from God even though they did not line up with the scriptures. She thought I was the one rejecting the Holy Spirit because I didn't believe her. Her argument had no authority, however, because it was not founded on God's Word.

Jesus had a way of stopping people in their tracks. In today's Gospel lesson we see the crowds in the synagogue ready to hear what they already knew about God. It was not unusual for visiting teachers to give a message at worship. They would be invited to read text and explain it to the congregation. I can just imagine the surprise of those people: Jesus knew what He was talking about. We have all had experience with listening to a bad preacher and we know a good preacher can change our attitude and our life. It is not just a difference in preaching style; the good teacher speaks according to God's Word rather than according to their interpretation of it.

God promised to give us prophets who will speak His word into our lives. Moses was the first among many. But Moses was followed by prophets, priests and kings who lost sight of God. They spoke words for other gods or claimed to speak for the God they did not know. The people followed these false prophets, over and over again. They believed in the false gods and the false ideas about God. They did not, or could not, test the words for themselves.

They heard something very different when Jesus preached. They called it "new," but it wasn't. It was the authoritative Word of God that had been lost to their human failing. There was something about His teaching that struck the people as true. He wasnít just a good spokesperson or a charismatic personality; He knew what He was talking about. He knew God, and when He spoke, He spoke with one who has authority. The difference between Him and the scribes must have been shocking; after all, they had been listening to the scribes for so long that they didnít recognize the falsehood. When they heard Jesus, they knew that He had something the scribes didnít have; they knew He had the truth.

We are blessed because we have something they did not have. We have the Holy Spirit. That doesn't mean we should rely solely on our human hearts, minds and spirits. We have to test the words we hear against that which God has given us in scripture. We have to ask, "Is that word from the prophet true?" Human beings donít change. We are as likely to believe the false prophets as the people in Moses' day and the people in Jesus' day.

Many of the so-called prophets talk about knowing God, knowing how to be a prophet, knowing what to say. Life in Christ is not about knowledge. As Paul writes, "Knowledge puffs up." No, living in Christ we have something even better than knowledge. We find wisdom in His Word. The self-proclaimed prophet demonstrates that they don't know God by usurping His authority. They are not humble, they do not fear God. They speak their own words while claiming to speak for God; they might have knowledge, but they have no wisdom. In the end, they will be proven to be a false prophet.

A common characteristic of false prophets is their haughty attitude; they act holier than thou. They are like the Corinthians in today's Epistle who took advantage of their Christian freedom by eating meat from the temples of the gods while ignoring the needs of the weaker believers who do not understand the proper use of our Christian freedom. They eat the meat without explaining what it means to have Christian freedom. Those watching know only that the meat has a purpose in that temple and they follow the example without knowing the truth. They put their trust in the idol without understanding that by trusting in that idol they are rejecting the true God.

There is only one God. We know this is true and Paul makes it clear in this week's epistle lesson that the other gods in this world are nothing. But Paul also reminds us that there are things--idols--that are like gods in the eyes of many people. They are nothing, not real, but they do hold the place of God in the lives of those who believe in them. All those things, or people, or ideas, in which we put our trust and faith, are gods to us, even though they cannot be compared to God. They are impersonators, given the power and authority of a god even though they are nothing and have no power or authority.

There is no real consequence to the eating of the meat, since the idols are nothing, but it is still a stumbling block to the faith of some. Paul reminds us that it is better to abstain from those things that might cause another to fall or be destroyed. Paul writes, "And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ."

We are called to live a life that glorifies God, the life that reveals Him to our neighbors in a way that is life-changing. We are called to speak God's Word into their lives so that they will know Him. We have to remember that as they learn they will watch us and learn from us, so it is up to us to be witnesses who will speak and live the truth. We have the freedom to do as we please, but if our freedom puts another at risk it is up to us to stop for their sake.

Paul writes, "We know that we all have knowledge." Lots of people know about God. They have read the scriptures and have prayed. Many people go to church and hear God's word read and preached. They sing the hymns and do the work of the Church. They serve in the community and live a moral and faithful life. Yet, knowledge is not the center of our relationship with God. The false prophets claim knowledge, but they ignore the consequences of their false prophecies.

Jesus was the prophet promised in our text from Deuteronomy, although some in our world claim to be him. Jesus fulfilled the promise, and everything we know about God we can know in and through Him. Those who claim to have something new that leads God's people away from Him will pay for their deceit. Now the authority to speak for God comes to us through Jesus Christ. We have His authority to share the Good News and to bring healing and redemption into the lives of those who are broken and burdened.

I don't know why so many people want to claim to be prophets. I understand that they want to encourage God's people and help Christians stay on the right path. It seems to me that too many give themselves the title so that they can sell more books or book more workshops. They think the title gives them the authority to speak for God, but in usurping this responsibility they make themselves accountable. Unfortunately, too many Christians believe what they say, follow their examples and walk down that dangerous path that leads away from God rather than toward Him.

The psalmist writes, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." This a hard saying for most of us. Fear in our world is a bad thing. We fear terrorism. We fear disease. We fear losing everything we own. We fear those things that can bring us harm. But we don't want to fear God; He is so good to us and blessed us beyond our understanding. His faithfulness and mercy is beyond comparison. Yet, He is fearsome. This is not to mean that we should be afraid; instead, we are to be in awe. "Holy and reverend is his name." If His name is holy and awesome, how much more so is He?

The psalmist knew God's mighty works among His people, but those works were little more than a memory, handed down by generation after generation. Yet, these are still worth our songs of praise. God did these things, and in them we see His power, faithfulness and grace. When considering the work of God we might want to reduce it to a few important tasks like giving daily bread and providing deliverance for those who seek His mighty hand.

David knew that God's work was not just that which is visible in the world. He did what He did to be remembered. The stories we hear in the scriptures pass on the message of mercy and grace from generation to generation. He remembers His promises and is faithful. God is not just a creator who set the world in motion and then walked away; His hand has been in the midst of His people from the beginning and in the end He sent His Son to win the redemption we do not deserve. He continues to work in and through His people today, granting us the authority and the power to make the world right according to His grace. God deserves our thanks and praise not just for creating us, but for recreating the world every minute of every day through forgiveness and grace.

And so, we are called to praise Him, not only for the beauty of His creation or for the goodness of His dealings with His people. We are called to praise Him because we fear Him. We know of His power. We also know of His mercy and grace. He is faithful. Wisdom is seen in the lives of those who live according to His good and perfect Word; not in the things we can see but in the things that are. Wisdom is seen in mercy and love, it is found in the words and deeds that glorify God and shine His grace.

What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? It means glorifying God in a way that sets people on the right path, turns them to the only God who can be trusted and who will save them from themselves. We might be called to speak a word as did the prophets throughout the ages. It might not be easy because the messages of the prophets are often words of warning. However, every word that comes from God comes with a promise. Even when we are called to bring people to repentance, we know that God has something wonderful waiting for them on the other side. The word that is true is the one that rests in authority of God and is delivered by His power. That word is the word that will succeed because it will lead God's people to praise Him.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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