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4th Sunday of Epiphany

TEXT:  Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (NIV)

15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16

For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

17 The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him.

19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.

20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

SERMON:  Prophets or Professionals?  January 29, 2012

When the phone rings during the dinner hour, it is usually a good idea to just ignore it.

Chances are pretty good that the caller on the other end is someone trying to sell you life insurance, ask for a donation, or poll your opinion for a survey about which you could care less.

These telephone solicitors have so perfected their techniques into an art form over the last few years, however, that once you answer the phone it is virtually impossible to escape their clutches. The good ones begin by asking for you by your first name only -- "Is this you?" Quickly they ask some other innocuous question -- "And how is everyone at home today, doing all right?"

Lured into thinking you are talking to someone you actually know and care about, you respond to the caller with conversation. Before you know it, you've spent 10 minutes listening to a long-winded sales pitch. If the caller is really good, he or she then tries to make you feel guilty for taking up all his or her time by listening, and shame you into signing up for whatever the person is selling. Being polite doesn't help. Politeness only eggs the person on. Being firm only makes the caller more determined. The only recourse we are really left with is to hang up.

These annoying salespeople are perhaps the pettiest version of a "false prophet" our culture has to offer. They pretend to have a "word" for you--but all they really have is the need to spread their own message. They have no concern for your life insurance needs or the state of your reading library or the profitability of your business. They just want to make a buck. In a sense, they are false prophets.

Advertising is even worse! Those smiling faces looking at us out of a mansion’s kitchen, a new car showroom, or even medical facility. All of them saying we’re not complete unless we try/use their product. Their “word for us” is money in their pockets if they sell you on it. False prophets.

The word “Deuteronomy” means “repetition of the law.” After 40 years the Israelites were about to enter Canaan. But before they did, Moses wanted to remind them of their history, all that God had done for them, and the laws they had to continue to obey as God’s chosen people. We could think of it as his last will & testament to the people he had led for 40 years.

In today’s reading we see that God gives the Prophet, God gives the Word, and it is up to us to hear and heed the Prophet & the Word. In these 6 short verses we have the essence of what is stated repeatedly in the Scriptures.

From the Commentary on the Whole Bible (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 1871).

"...the prophet here promised was pre-eminently the Messiah, for He alone was "like unto Moses"  "in His mediatorial character; in the peculiar excellence of His ministry; in the number, variety, and magnitude of His miracles; in His close and familiar communion with God; and in His being the author of a new dispensation of religion." Deut 34:10-ESV, 10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,

This prediction was fulfilled fifteen hundred years afterwards and was expressly applied to Jesus Christ by Peter. . . . Acts 3:22 ESV, 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.

. . . , and by Stephen." Acts 7:37 ESV, 37 This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.

As the church, are we being prophetical or professional? Are we doing church or are we being the church? Too many churches expect "professionalism" from everyone on the staff--from the senior pastor to the preschool teachers.  We expect well-tuned and well turned out choirs. We want state of the art music programs and cutting edge educational classes.

Excellence, in and of itself, is no crime. We should aspire to be our best and do our best at all times, individually and as a congregation. But, have we grown overly concerned with outward appearances and neglected the heart of the matter? Why are we finding young people waving goodbye and taking a hike instead of taking a seat?

This is the church's problem. It is our problem because the church is becoming just another "dysfunctional family" among all the others. Our dysfunctions affect our attitudes and betray what have become our greatest convictions and compassions.

We have become so concerned with preaching our message to the world, finding our own politically correct niche on the liberal-to-conservative, Evangelical-to-Pentecostal, liturgical-to-nonliturgical spectrum of religious life in America that we have lost track of what we were prophetically called to preach. We have become our own "false prophets," speaking our own message while proclaiming it to be God's word.

In Israel's day this practice carried with it a death sentence.  Might our dwindling numbers be another form of that "death sentence"?

--Concerned with making an impression instead of making a difference, we have beautiful churches in beautiful neighborhoods and abandoned churches in poor neighborhoods.

--Concerned with "fitting in" to our culture, we don't "fit together with one another.

--Concerned with sanitizing the messier, unpleasant parts of Scripture, we have domesticated God and dropped the Devil.

--Concerned with being "politically correct" rather than spiritually urgent, we have made Jesus' teachings more about fellowship than discipleship.

--Concerned with "taking stands," some Christians seem to rally at political protests and boycotts rather than attending prayer services.

We have forgotten we are God's people, and we have fallen into the worship of American gods. Now God's word to us is to return. Church historians may someday describe our period as the "American captivity of the church." It is no less real than the Babylonian Captivity in the history of Israel. Trapped in our false worship, we no longer experience the freedom that is our birthright in Jesus Christ. --Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 31.

Soren Kierkegaard once told the story of an immense vestibule with two doors. Over one door the sign reads: "Heaven." Over the other door the sign reads: "Lecture on Heaven." Guess which one Kierkegaard said the people were flocking through?

Are we ‘doing’ church, or are we ‘being’ the church?

When a church no longer has any real prophetic witness, it affects the entire body. When animals are scared or in danger, their bodies betray their state of mind. Cats fluff up to twice their real size, snakes rattle their tails and hiss, dogs' hackles raise and their heads lower.

Likewise, a Christian community will send out a physical message about its ultimate concern. The posture of the entire church body not just that of the preacher will reveal what is that community's driving force.

Is there a death sentence on many of our churches? Could that be why so many of them are slowly dying, or "sick unto death"? The medical establishment defines "death" as "when a body no longer changes." How many of our churches, refusing to change to enter this new world and to reach out to new generations, are the walking dead?

It's never too late to choose life! Will we? Will you?

The church has an opportunity to exercise its prophetic gift; today, it is clearly being called to do so. Yet, the challenge of the church is not merely to survive; that issue has been settled. In Matt.16:18 Jesus declares, “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

“Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated,” to paraphrase Mark Twain.  Jesus, in his words to the disciples (Matthew 16:18), affirms the church's continued and growing strength and presence in the world.

The church will grow, not wither; it will march, not falter; and it will prevail, not surrender. The challenge, then, is to find out what God is doing, how God is doing it and where God is doing it!  And then getting on board to be the church God calls us to be. Right here, in our community, in our neck of the woods.

As a confused and desperate world looks for truth amid many pagan and secular claims, what manages its religious load? Does God have a certain predictable character? The central thrust of today's passage (Deuteronomy 18: 15-20) is a big "yes."

In a world of competing religious claims and much human confusion, the Israelites are told that God will raise up a "prophet" to reveal God's will. This "prophet" will be like Moses so everyone will be able to recognize him. This "prophet" will bear remarkable consistencies with Moses.

Jesus' own understanding was in line with the life of Moses. Regardless of the unpredictable nature of life on earth, God's dealings with humans would be dependable and reliable. There would be a unified character of God, a certain recognizable predictability. The old tradition (Moses) would help make the new tradition (Jesus) recognizable. God's revelation would be a continuous and recognizable revelation.

The parallels between Moses and Jesus are rather obvious. Moses and Israel are in bondage to Egypt just as humankind today stands in bondage to sin and death.

The Egyptian pharaoh receives a sign in the form of a dream, consults with his staff, and decides to massacre male Hebrew children. In like manner King Herod receives a sign in the form of a star, consults with his priests, and decides to massacre all male Hebrew children. The infant Moses is rescued from the Nile and secures an Egyptian education. Mary and Joseph rescue the infant by fleeing to Egypt where their son receives his formative training.

The Egyptian soldiers die in the sea by water to give liberation to those who were in bondage. In like manner the waters of baptism symbolize the death of one's old life and the birth of a new one. Moses and Israel wander for forty years in the wilderness where God feeds God's people on manna and at Sinai delivers to them the purpose of their calling. In like manner, Christ is tempted in the wilderness forty days where his purpose is revealed, enabling him to emerge as the bread of life.

The parallels could continue. Suffice it to say that the Exodus and the Cross are tied together with remarkable clarity. Whereas the old exodus delivers a nation, the new exodus delivers a world, a species, a universe. This God who relates to us does so in rather familiar and consistent patterns.

Both the Exodus under Moses and the cross of Jesus are actual events in human history, both create groups -- the nation Israel and the Christian church -- and both proclaim a saving message. This saving message points to the humanness of the endeavor.  The Exodus and the Cross are not isolated events, participated in by the generation among whom they occurred. Rather, each generation as it tells those stories encounters the same God at work and experiences the same liberation from bondage to sin and death.

In short, the recognition of the birth of our Savior has to be brought down to earth. It is not a remnant of a fairy tale first learned in childhood, as we encountered Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, or today, the Lion King and Forrest Gump. It is a real, predictable human story. It relies on the most ancient words heard about a Promised One: "The Lord will raise up from you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren." When he comes, he does not come in the mystery of some other-worldliness; he comes as a consistent, down-to-earth, liberating human reality that is recognizable.

Consequently, we find ourselves back there with the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, remembering the clouds and the storm that churned over the heights. The long connection between Moses and Jesus rests solidly on a conviction that God operates not by fate, reflex, or blind chances, but by one predictable, righteous will.

Following the death of Moses the title of prophet served Israel well. When the Christian faith moved into the Greek world, the title was replaced by "Lord." Our joy in the Christ experience has deep roots. Its unity between testaments exhibits a powerful concentration of purpose and drive. Like a river, the unity of God from Moses to Jesus to us, consists not in its absence of cross-currents but in its total flow and main direction.

The tie between Moses and Jesus represents a marvelously integrated God. If ever there was a need to have some clarity in our religious world of information overload, such a time is now. People in all lands cry out like ancient Israel for world deliverance. And our overloaded human hopes seem always to betray us.  

The prophets among us will attempt to follow God, speak God’s word, and be part of God’s plan. The professionals among us will simply continue to plan, organize, and discuss the current state of the church. Let us pray . . .


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