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Need for a Prophet"
It seems that there are always a number of groups within Christianity who make much of Biblical prophecy. Yet, wherever I turn, the word "prophecy" is used to refer to some kind of FORETELLING of the future, and prophets are viewed as "fortune-tellers."
Now, I don't know WHY it is that way, but maybe it makes prophecy sound more exciting. Maybe we only pay attention when prophecy focuses on the unknown future.
But prophecy has not always been that way, and my understanding of prophecy is that it SHOULD not be that way now.
There are three Hebrew words used in the Old Testament to designate the prophets, and for at least two of them, we might call the prophets "seers." But probably a more accurate definition would be "one who speaks for God." And it might be said that prophets "see the message God gives them."
And this "seeing" might also be interpreted as "insight," or understanding of the mind of God.
So IF we take these interpretations, we are dealing not only with FUTURE events, but also with God's presence in the here and now. And the prophet can be a preacher or teacher in the present.
And what, in fact, did MOST of the prophets DO? What are they doing NOW? Well, it was a mix of things. But my understanding of them is that they were attempting to call folks attention to WHO they were and WHAT they were doing with their lives.
John the Baptist, who wrote no books like many of the prophets, called upon people to repent of their evil ways. And although he DID foretell the coming of the Messiah, I suspect that he spent MOST of his energies on drawing the attention of the people to their sin. And when prophets spoke of "the wrath to come,” that was ONLY as a BYPRODUCT of the more central message of repentance.
In the fifteenth verse of the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses tells his people, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; and you shall heed such a prophet."
Now, I have a bunch of footnotes in one of my Bibles that tell me that throughout this passage, whenever Moses speaks of “A” prophet, it might almost be plural. He may be speaking of MANY prophets.
And if it WERE singular, we Christians would be tempted to assume that the prophet was Jesus of Nazareth. But who BETTER than Jesus? He meets all the criteria: somebody like Moses, somebody from among these people, somebody everybody should pay attention to.
But I like the idea of MANY prophets. Because then I can find meaning in this passage of what PROPHECY ITSELF is all about. And this doesn't mean that Jesus was NOT a prophet, but it does mean that many others COULD be.
So look again at those criteria. A prophet needs to be somebody like Moses. Now, that may be asking a lot, but what WAS Moses like? Wasn't Moses a spokesperson for God? Didn't Moses speak for God to the Pharaoh? Didn't Moses bring the tablets down from Sinai?
And, in, fact, aren't prophets glorified MESSENGERS?
Second criterion: "from among your own people." A prophet is one of us. And that also tells me that in many respects a prophet is NOTHING SPECIAL.
A prophet is not like the mythical movie cowboy who rides into town from NOwhere, saves the town, and rides out again. No, rather a prophet is one who is from among us. And, unfortunately, for this reason prophets are too often ignored.
And Moses tells the people, "you shall heed such prophet." Well, maybe. The toughest part of being a prophet is getting anybody to pay attention to you. Because the words God puts in the mouths of the prophets aren't always the words we want to hear.
So why has Moses brought up this subject, anyway? Because, "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."
And sure enough, following the presentation of the ten commandments, in the twenty-second through the twenty-seventh verses of the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, "These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me.
“When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; and you said, "Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to SOMEone and the person may still live. So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die.
“For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? Go near, YOU yourSELF, and hear all that the Lord our God will say.
“Then tell US everything that the Lord our God tells YOU, and we will listen and do it."
And Moses is telling his followers, "You ASKED for prophets. You WANTED messengers to bring God's word to you." You go. You hear. Then you tell us, and we will listen. Well, it SOUNDS like a good plan.
And Moses continues, "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."
And now, let's return once again to the fifth chapter, where we left off with the twenty-eighth verse: "The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me:
"I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are RIGHT in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!"
"If only they had such a mind as this." Do you suppose God has doubts? I've heard pastors and district superintendents say that they have heard churches say, "If only we had LEADERSHIP!" And then, when the leader emerges, the followers disappear. I once had a parishioner who said to me, "What this church needs is LEADERSHIP!" And whenever I suggested anything new or different, she either opposed it or ignored it.
We all want prophets...until the prophet speaks and we don't like what we hear. We all seek advice...and KEEP seeking it until we hear the advice that agrees with what we already believe.
And what were the children of Israel talking about when they spoke of God speaking out of a fire that would consume them? What were they AFRAID of? Do you suppose they were afraid of the TRUTH?
Do you suppose they wanted someone ELSE to go hear it, water it down, tame it, and make it more "comfortable" for them to hear?
In the twelfth verse of the sixteenth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus said to his disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." What was he saying? Was he saying that the truth hurts us too much to hear?
And that if we REALLY heard it, we would ignore it?
I suspect that if we truly want to understand the role of the prophet, we need to understand the relationship between children and parents. In our early childhood we don't know ANYTHING, so we rely upon our parents to learn about ourselves and the world.
And we learn QUICKLY. In fact, we soon know EVERYTHING, and during adolescence our parents become more and more stupid and finally become dumb as posts. But most of us, fortunately, grow out of our adolescence. And as we do, an amazing thing happens. Our parents become smarter. And the older we become, the smarter our parents become. But why is it that our parents become dumber and smarter the way they do?
Well, seriously, I suspect that it has less to do with THEM than it has to do with US.
Prophets, in their own time, are the dumbest, craziest, even most dangerous, people on earth. And then time passes. And as time passes, the TRUE prophets get smarter and smarter.
I can remember decisions--I may have even preached about them--that my grandfather made that at the time seemed crazy to my father, but in hindsight turned out to be brilliant.
And the reverse can, of course, often be true. What seems to be a brilliant decision can later turn out to be the dumbest thing we ever did.
So where is God in all of this? Well, I am definitely NOT saying that God's truth is present in ALL the zaniness that goes on in the world; but we SHOULD be prepared to find it where we LEAST expect it.
And when we think we have a handle on truth and have no need of God, just as adolescents have no need for the wisdom of their elders, in hindsight we had better be prepared to discover that WE weren't in charge AFTER all.
And God continues speaking through Moses, "Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable."
Now, it's one thing to KNOW that God will provide prophets. God HAS provided them to us, and our perfect hindsight can help us spot them. But how do we know, in the moment, and how WILL we know, in the future, WHO the prophets are?
Does everyone who ever said, "I told you so," merit the label of a prophet? EVERYBODY likes to be right. But how many folks do you know who will admit to being WRONG? How many do you know who will say something like, "Boy, was I wrong about that!"
Or, "Did I ever misjudge that person!" When we're right, we shout it from the housetops; when we're wrong, we shut up and go hide.
So seriously, how DO we know a prophet? Look again at that verse: "the words of the prophet shall speak in my name." What we SHOULD be looking for is not a PERSON. What we SHOULD be looking for are words spoken in God's name. And we should be asking, "Is the potential prophet following his or her own agenda, or God's?"
And I think all clergy, including myself, should be subjected to the test, "Did God put you up to this, or is this your OWN hangup?"
And again, God speaks through Moses, "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."
That's scary. But more important, it should be HUMBLING. ARE we speaking in the name of other gods? Are we speaking words not commanded of us? Are we running around PRETENDING to be God? HOW do we KNOW? In the midst of turmoil in the Christian church and in my own denomination, there's a question I try to keep asking myself: How will all of this look ten years from now? Or even better, how will it look FIFTY years from now? Because down the road--and not even ten or fifty years--we're going to be looking back and discovering prophets. But we're also going to be discovering FALSE prophets. And when we DO that, who will be in which categories?
And where will WE find ourselves?
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