Sermon for Sunday, January 24, 2021 || Epiphany 4B || Deuteronomy 18:15-20

This is a sermon about prophecy, but first I want you to put a question in your mind because I’m going to ask it again at the end, and I don’t want you to be caught off guard. Here’s the question. How are you challenging the world of today in order to make the future better?

Got it in your mind? Good. Because that question is the essence of prophecy. How are you challenging the world of today in order to make the future better? We’ll get back to that question in a few minutes. For now, let’s talk about Moses and prophecy. 

The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final words to the people of Israel before they enter the promised land. Moses stands on the heights looking out at the promised land spread before him, and, knowing he would not make it there, he gives the people his final message. In the tiny part we read today, Moses tells the people to be on the lookout for prophets who will come after him, saying: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”

Spoiler alert: They don’t heed the prophets.

Throughout scripture, one of the occupational hazards of prophets was that they were not heeded. The story we read last week from Jonah stands out as an exception when the king and people of Nineveh listen to Jonah, repent, and turn from their evil ways. It’s such an exception, in fact, that Jonah himself gets upset when his prediction that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days does not come to pass. What Jonah doesn’t realize is that he might have been the most effective prophet in the entire Bible.

I think Jonah fell victim to the problem that still plagues us when we try to conceptualize the concept of prophecy. Jonah mistakes prophecy for prediction. And I’d wager the average person, when asked to describe prophecy, might compare it to fortune telling. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary includes “to make a prediction” as one of its definition for the word “prophesy.” But prophecy and prediction are not the same thing. Prophecy is not fortune telling. The problem is that we tend to use the word “prophecy” imprecisely, and it gets conflated with the idea of prediction. 

Prophets only predict insofar as they speak the truth of the present. The better verb to use for prophets is this: Prophets challenge. They shed light on unjust structures in society and spell out what will happen if (and that’s an important “if”) those structures don’t change. More than anything, prophets do not want to be right about the dire futures they foresee. They want society to change for the better – to become more just, more equitable, more peaceful. Prophets call people back to God when people stray from God’s life-giving priorities. Prophets tell truth to power so that an unjust present can become a more just future.

The most common issues that the Old Testament prophets railed about were (1) unjust treatment of vulnerable people, (2) predatory financial practices, and (3) a religious system bent on seeking power instead of seeking God. Sounds pretty familiar. And it should because true prophecy has a timeless quality. The biblical prophets identified structural problems in society, problems that distorted people’s relationships with each other and with God. (We call that “sin,” by the way.) The prophets saw in their own time versions of the same challenges that confront our society. The prophets warned that their societies would fail because they were already crumbling due to pervasive injustice. Israel and Judah were easy targets for the foreign powers of Assyria and Babylon precisely because their societies were already falling apart when the conquering armies arrived at their gates.

There are two types of prophets in the Old Testament. There are prophets who encounter the challenging word of God and speak it to their societies. These are the ones who have biblical books named after them (plus a few more like Elijah). These prophets spoke truth to power, and many of them had a rough go of it. Jeremiah got thrown into a cistern so he would starve to death. The queen put a hit out on Elijah which caused him to flee the country. (This after killing nearly all the Lord’s prophets, only missing a hundred who a brave palace official hid in caves). And we all know what happened to Daniel. (Thankfully, the lions had a sudden and inexplicable night of vegetarianism in that one.)

The second type of biblical prophet is better classified a “false” prophet. This is a yes-man, a toady, a lackey — someone who always tells the king exactly what the king wants to hear. The false prophet is invested in the current power structure to such a degree that to challenge it is to challenge their own prime place in the structure. And so they never challenge. They only reinforce the whims of the unjust rulers they serve.

The false prophet is the placebo to the true prophet’s medication. The true prophet tells hard truths, knowing full well that the power structure of the day will come down hard on the prophet because it does not want to change. And yet true prophets continued to prophesy because they have had encounters with the God of justice, love, and truth, who is always calling people to return to right relationship with each other and with God.

Earlier this month, we celebrated the national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This day of celebration is fraught with complications. On the one hand, it honors the witness and legacy of someone who lived the challenging life of a true prophet, who called all Americans to work together to make our society a more just, equitable, and peaceful one. On the other, the holiday allows us to mythologize Dr. King without continuing to struggle with the forceful prophetic message that he persisted in sharing, especially when that message was most unpopular, when that message was anti-war or had to do with poverty or challenged the pace that white people were comfortable at moving towards integration. The church remembers Dr. King not on the Monday closest to his birthday, but on April 4th, the day of his murder. Such observance is common for martyrs, and the April 4th date forces us to contend with the violence that abounds when someone is speaking truth that the powerful don’t want to hear. And make no mistake: we might not hold public office or run huge corporations, but we are numbered among the powerful. Dr. King’s seminal work, The Letter from the Birmingham Jail, was addressed to white pastors like me, moderate pastors who took issue with the methods and timing of the nonviolent direct action. They declared King an extremist, and he decided to take on that mantle, saying,

“Was not Jesus an extremist in love?…—’Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice?—’Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ … So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” 

(Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”)

The cause of justice. This is most often the subject of prophecy. Remember, prophecy is telling truth to power so that an unjust present can become a more just future. And so I ask myself and I ask you the question I began with: How are you challenging the world of today in order to make the future better? For me, the work of anti-racism has become a spiritual discipline, and I feel God calling me to continue my personal and communal work for racial justice. How is God calling you to step into a prophetic role in our society? Where does your personal passion or heartbreak intersect with the deep hunger of this world?

In his final speech given the night before his assassination, Dr. King paid homage to Moses, in whose path he had walked. He said, “[God has] allowed me to go up to the mountain. I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land!” As we pray for the courage and vision to use our voices prophetically in order to make the future better, we can share in Dr. King’s hope. For hope, as Emily Dickinson said, “is the thing with feathers.” Hope helps us to set our sights and our hearts on the God of justice, love, and truth, and then to soar.

Art: Detail from “Prophet Jeremiah” by Marc Chagall (1968)

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