A Prophet From Among Your Own People

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
January 29, 2012
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28

Deut. 18:15-20 ¶ The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 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.” Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 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. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 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.”

Mark 1:21-28 ¶ They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

I. BEGINNING

Nobody likes wearing a sandwich board.

A few years ago, we had a student who kept saying that if we made a sandwich board for the community she’d wear it.  But when we finally made it, she balked.  Understandably so.  It’s uncomfortable having that much attention drawn to you.  You start to feel awkward.  Scrutinized.  And like a bit of a nut.

After all, who wears sandwich boards anyway?  People who really need the job, I suppose, and doom and gloom prophets predicting the end of the world.  Perhaps, it’s that association with the latter that makes us reluctant to wear sandwich boards.

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

Actually, perhaps is that association with the latter that makes us reluctant to talk about prophets in the first place.  I mean, we’ll talk about prophets in the Old Testament.  Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, Hosea.  We’ll even refer to other figures throughout history as prophets: the Prophet Muhammad, the Baha’ullah of the Baha’i faith.  We will speak of people acting prophectically, but we don’t really describe people as “prophets” any more.

Probably because most of the folks who self-identify as prophets are nutcases.  If they’re not actually wearing a sandwich board downtown with the words “The End Is Near” on it, then they’re calculating the date of the Rapture and garnering a lot of media attention with their bulljive.  They tend not to be the people that we afford a lot of respect to.

Or, we might associate the word with a number of other religious movments—the Mormons, the Milllerites—and so we tend to think of prophets as something, well, not mainstream.

On the off chance that we begrudgingly call someone a prophet, it’s usually someone like a Martin Luther King or a Mahatma Gandhi, someone of such high stature that we jump right over the loonies in our associations and go right back to the Old Testament prophets.

And so for various reasons, we don’t encounter a lot of prophets these days.

II. TEXT

That’s understandable, I suppose.  The job requirements are pretty intimidating.  Moses refers to this in the passage from Deuteronomy.  In it, Moses is reminding the people that they demanded a prophet at Sinai.  He is referring to the story in Exodus when God began to reveal the law to the people, they implored that Moses speak for God, for they could not bear to hear God’s voice directly.

There is an old Jewish midrash about this event.  The rabbis wondered how far God had gotten in dictating the law before the people begged off and said they could not stand to hear.  One rabbi said, it was the very first commandment: “I am the Lord, your God” when they asked God to stop.  Another rabbi answered, no–it was the very first word anochi “I”, when they asked God to stop.  A third rabbi responded that it was after the very first letter that the Israelites said no more.  The very first letter of anochi is an aleph (?), which has no sound.  To this rabbi, even the silence that begins God’s speech is too much for the people to hear.

And thus there was Moses, who spoke to the people in God’s stead.  This passage from Deuteronomy tells of Moses informing the people that God will raise up a prophet like him from among the people, one who will speak the word of God to the people as Moses has done.

But lest there be any doubt–this is a high pressure job.  “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.”  That last part is meant to encourage people from taking up prophecy lightly.  There’s a pretty heavy penalty for being a false prophet.

Besides, the job is pretty thankless.  You are held to an incredibly high standard.  You have a terrible burden and responsibility.  And most of the time, the people will not listen to you anyway.  Is it any wonder that whenever a prophet is called in the Hebrew Bible that that first thing they do is declare that God must have the wrong person?  Moses says he is not sure of speech.  Isaiah claims that he is not pure enough.  Jeremiah protests that he is only a boy.  They all beg off.  It’s a thankless job.

III.  TODAY

So is that it?  Is that why there are no prophets today?

It’s not like there isn’t a need, is it?  As the hymn we sang earlier notes:

Still your children wander homeless,
Still the hungry cry for bread,
Still the captives long for freedom,
Still in grief we mourn our dead.[1] 

It’s hard not to read the writings of the prophets and not see that we’re facing a lot of the same problems.  The accumulation of power and wealth in the hands of the few; the neglect of widows, orphans, and strangers; the reliance on material goods; trusting in military might or alliances; the suffering of the land; and the misuse of the gifts God has given.  All those sound pretty familiar and are straight out of the things the prophets seem the most focused on.  So if there are no prophets (aside from the sandwich board wearers), it’s not because there isn’t a need.

Perhaps it’s because the age of prophecy is over.  There are some in Christianity, known as “dispensationalists”, who see history broken into “dispensations”.  Often they see prophecy as tied to a particular dispensation that is no longer operative, and thus no longer exists as a phenomenon.

In addition, most religions usually close the book on prophecy at some point when they come up with their official canon of teaching.  Jews end the prophets with Malachi and don’t consider anyone after that time to be a prophet, and so while you’ll hear some individual Jews talk about respecting Jesus as a prophet (though not messiah), Judaism as a whole does not include him as one.  Christianity, of course, considers Jesus as a prophet–in fact, the greatest prophet, but does not consider anyone following him to be.  To be sure, Jesus is a tough act to follow.  Tonight’s lesson from Mark’s gospel illustrates how Jesus taught “with authority”, not as the scribes.  Jesus taught as one who embodied the Word of God, not as one who just taught it.

Islam considered Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus to be prophets, but considers Muhammad to be God’s final prophet.  The Baha’is all consider Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad to be prophets, but claim Baha’ullah to be the final prophet.  Do you see how this works? If you came before our guy, you’re a prophet.  If you came after him, you’re not.  And so, since most religions are have been established for a long time, there aren’t a lot of prophets being recognized out there.  And those that are are usually leaders of a fringe group of some kind.

No, it seems the prophets are no more.

IV. FROM AMONG YOU

But maybe that has little to do with God and more to do with us.  What if we’ve become so convinced by our own dogma, our own tradition, our own cynicism, our own inertia, that we fail to see that God is still calling prophets to proclaim the word of God?  What if God is still raising up prophets from among our people?

Perhaps we become confused by the dramatic way in which the call narratives of the prophets are told and expect that when God calls, God does so with style and showmanship.  But perhaps we’re looking for the wrong thing.

In the hymn Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart, George Croly asks for God to be revealed not in the dramatic ways we expect from scripture, but deep in the soul:

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies,
But take the dimness of my soul away. 

Perhaps God is calling us to the ministry of the prophet.  Perhaps God is doing this even now, but not with ‘rending the veil of clay’ or angels visitant, but somewhere deep in the stirring of the soul.

The way we talk about prophets is often with such lofty understanding or scorn.  They are either the great figures of old, or the great leaders of this age, the Gandhis and the Kings, or they are some nut in a commune out in the desert.  But the scripture says that “God will raise up for you a prophet… from among your own people.”  The prophets are neither the remarkable greats nor the outliers.  They are from among the people. From among us.  From among you.

Now, I am not saying that everyone has to drop out of school and go down to Capitol Hill and start crying out “Woe!”.  I am not expecting to see you all standing at the Tenleytown metro station proclaiming “THUS SAYS THE LORD!”  Please don’t do that.

But if the prophet is called to share the word of God, that is certainly something you can do.  You needn’t go into ordained ministry to do that.  We all can share the word of God with others.  It was St. Francis of Assisi who said that we should preach the Gospel at all times, using words “if necessary”.

For it is not as if the world does not need a prophetic voice.  There is still so much injustice.  There are still so many who suffer.  There are still so many who put their trust in things other than God.  So many who misuse faith, using it to harm rather than build up.  There are so many who seek to create division rather than unity.  So many who are still on the margins of the church and of society.  So many who are in need of a word of solidarity and grace. This is the work of the prophet.  It is work that needs to be done.

V. END

It is work you are called to do.  Now, maybe you are called to the ordained ministry.  Maybe at this very moment you are putting your seminary applications together.  Good for you.  I’ll see you at annual conference.

But maybe you’re called to a life of public service.  You still have the opportunity to be a prophet for God.  To witness to justice, to demand equity and righteousness.  To serve not with an eye toward your own power and aggrandizement, but out of service and compassion for your fellow human beings.

Maybe you’re called to a life of business.  You still have the opportunity to be a prophet for God.  By developing business practices that are sustainable, ethical, and treat workers and customers with dignity and respect, you can speak a transformative word.  Wesley himself thought that Methodists should “gain all you can” and make a lot of money.  But he also believed that they should live simply saving all they could, not in investment accounts, but so that they might “give all you can”.  There are those who see wealth as an end in itself.  And there are those who can speak a prophetic word who see wealth as one of the tools that God gives us to take care of each other.

You may be called to all kinds of vocations.  All kinds of callings.  But each of those can be a Christian vocation.  Each of those can be a way of being prophetic, of speaking out on behalf of the marginalized, on behalf of the poor and needy, on behalf of the oppressed and those denied justice.  You don’t need to be a prophet in the court of King Hezekiah to speak out against an unhealthy reliance on military might.  You don’t need to preach against the royal sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan to speak out against the corruption of idolatry and the economic injustices that come with it.  You don’t need to confront the false prophets of the kings of Judah to speak out against those whose conduct harms the earth itself (Jer. 12:4).

We’re going to try something later that we haven’t done in a while.  Toward the end of the service, I’m going to invite you to come down for an altar call.  If you are feeling God’s call on your heart–it doesn’t need to be to the ministry–then I invite you to come to the front of the sanctuary and kneel in prayer.  One of us will be there to pray with you in your time of reflection as you consider how God is calling you.  It may be that God is calling you to something you are not now doing.  It may be that God is calling you to precisely where you are.  Either way, if you want to pray over it, I invite you to come down.  Now, I know that this may seem a little ‘evangelical’ to many of you, but honestly, are we gonna claim that God can’t call mainline Protestants into prophetic ministry?  Of course God can.

The word of God is powerful.  There is a reason the Israelites in the wilderness shied away from having to hear it directly.  It is a burdensome task to discern the word of God and then to communicate that word to others.  But we are all followers of the one who was himself the Word of God made flesh.  We are disciples of the one who lived out that word, not merely preaching it.  We are disciples of the one who risked everything to proclaim that word and in whose self-sacrifical love we see the model for our own living, our own witness.

And it is that One who walks beside us all the days of our lives, standing with us, as we hear that voice of God calling and realize that the prophet who will be raised up from among us, is us.

 


[1] Albert F. Bayly, “Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” United Methodist Hymnal, 581.

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