Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
“Prophets All” — Rev. Brent Gundlah
First Reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 1:21-28, NRSVUE)
It looks like it’s time to reconvene the search committee folks. Oh, I don’t mean here at HUCC — I have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon; I’m talking about Moses taking his leave of the Israelites in today’s reading from Deuteronomy (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
Deuteronomy, the name of the last of the five books of Moses, is Greek for “second law” and makes sense since the book is bascially a review of the “first law” that Moses has been conveying to the Israelites on God’s behalf throughout the rest of the Torah. Think of Deuternonomy like Moses’s lengthy (and I mean really lengthy) farewell letter to the people, or his very last Minister’s Report for the Congregational Meeting in which he talks about all that they’ve done and been through together.
As Moses sings his pastoral swan song, the Israelites are camping on the plains of Moab (no, not that Moab) about to enter Canaan — the “Promised Land” they’ve waited so long and fought so hard to reach. Now, on top of everything else they’ve had to deal with along the way, they now need to find themselves a new leader.
You see, Moses won’t be going with them into Canaan; God let Moses know that a long time ago. Way back in the book of Numbers, God, for reasons I don’t really understand, told Moses to perform another miracle for the Israelites by talking to a rock to bring forth water from it, but Moses went kind of rogue and struck the rock with his staff instead. That transgression is why Moses is being forced into early retirement here — and I don’t really understand that either.
I mean it seems kind of harsh, doesn’t it? After all, Moses had initiated miracles in a similar fashion before — way back in Exodus he struck a rock with his staff to get water for the people. He had done something, not just said something to accomplish that goal.
But, for whatever reason, God didn’t want action this time. God wanted words, and Moses didn’t deliver. Did he not hear God? Did he hear God and just think his way was better than God’s? No one — maybe not even Moses — really knows for sure, but let’s just say it doesn’t work out terribly well for Moses because he won’t be allowed to complete the long and arduous journey to the Promised Land; he’s punished severely by God for his lack of fidelity to — and trust in — God. After all, it’s never been about what Moses wants, it’s always been about what God wants. And, in fairness, Moses probably should have remembered that.
As I am sure you all know, a leadership change can be stressful, and I bet the Israelites found this to be the case too. Imagine what they might have been thinking and saying to each other: “Where are we ever going to find ourselves a leader like Moses? He got us out of Egypt, and now, thanks to him, we’re standing on the threshold of Promised Land. I mean, sure, we put up a fuss; sure, we gave him some lip about leading us around the desert for what seemed like an eternity and for giving us nothing to eat except for manna; but that’s all water under the bridge now [though they complained to Moses about not having enough water too]. Besides, we’d finally broken him in. He understood what was important to us; he knew what music we wanted during worship; and he cared about us.”
“With Moses leaving, where will our leadership come from?” they likely mused among themselves with some degree of anxiety. And so, in this time of high community stress, Moses tries to put the Israelites’ minds at ease by reminding them where their leadership really comes from. You have no need to fret, he says to them, because, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people.” Moses tells them that God will provide, because God always provides.
And what’s even better is that God will send not only the messenger, but also the message; as God tells Moses, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.”
Okay, so it seems like this is going to be really easy. The search committee doesn’t need to do anything because God’s got that covered. And the preacher doesn’t really need to do anything other than stand in the pulpit, open his or her mouth and wait for the words to come out because God’s got that covered too. It’s just that simple, right?
But as any minister who has found themselves agonizing over a sermon late on Saturday night, or any search committee combing through dozens of profiles and interviewing candidates, can tell you, it is definitely not that simple. Sometimes the words just come to you, but more often than not its a struggle — generally a joyous one, mind you — but still a struggle. And rarely is that choice for a leader really so straightforward and obvious. Working to heed God’s call in our world can often be challenging, to say the least.
Before this goes on one second longer, let me be very clear about something: I am not saying that either I, or any other pastor for that matter, are the new Moses. And should be wary of anyone who would make such an ridiculously audacious claim. Yet, we’re doing both ourselves and God a disservice if we don’t recognize and acknowledge the fact that there’s a little bit of Moses in all of us.
Sure, God sends prophets like Moses to share the Word with us, but this does not, in any way, absolve us of the awesome responsibility of discerning the implications of the Word, of finding ways to bring God’s timeless truth to bear in the context of our world, of living it in thought and speech and deed in our here and now. What I’m really saying is that we’re all prophets in some way, shape or form — every single one of us.
In spite of what we might think, a prophet’s work is not doing magic tricks or performing miracles or predicting the future (at the least in the “whose going to win the Super Bowl” sense); a prophet’s work is actually far more mundane than that.
Sure, God enpowers Moses to do a few cool miracles in order to get peoples’ attention, but it’s important to understand that such things are a means and not the end; in the biblical story, they always point us toward something else, something greater. Because prophecy is not ultimately about miracles or fortune telling, it is about love and truth telling. And we’ve all got the capacity to do that.
And, what’s more, God actually calls us to do it. Sure, God tells the Israelites that a prophet will speak God’s word to them. But then God goes on to say, “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.” In other words, we’re all on the hook for this whole prophetic truth-telling thing, folks. As we Protestants like to say, we are “a priesthood of all believers,” and one important implication of this is that we too bear the prophet’s burden.
As you may remember from our discussion of Jonah last week, people haven’t historically lined-up seeking to do the prophet’s job. And that is understandable since it’s often difficult and frustrating work.
God places in the prophets’ mouths timeless and essential truths, like: “Love God with all your heart and all your might,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Perform justice, devote yourself to mercy, and walk ever-mindful of your God,” and calls upon specific prophets to share them with the people. And while these prophets generally have to deal with some not-so-great consequences as a result of this truth-telling, this is the easy part.
I say this because then calls upon all of us, all the prophets, to go forth and live into those timeless and essential truths — and that’s the hard part; but, make no mistake about it, this is what God has always called us to do.
At the end of the day, prophecy is about seeking consistency between God’s Word and actions, on the one hand, and our words and actions, on the other;
it’s about being willing to shout at the top of our lungs and committing ourselves to setting it right when things go off the rails;
it’s about working to get us back on track when what we want for us seems to be more important to us than than what God wants for us;
it’s about loving God and loving our neighbor as God says we should.
So let’s go, my fellow prophets, because we’ve got a lot of work to do — and by that I mean all of us.