Sermon: Dime Store Prophets

01.31.2014        Preaching Text: “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” (Deuteronomy 18:18b)

Being a prophet is serious business. Just read Deuteronomy.

Unable to face head-on the holy power of Jahweh, the Israelites wandering in the desert are granted a promise, that a prophet would arise from among them and lead them.

This prophet, however, must be true – as opposed to false. He or she must speak the word of God, for to do otherwise is to mis-lead, to serious consequence.

Intuitively this makes perfect sense. Someone given authority to speak the truths of God (and life) should be trustworthy. Certainly the past century, to cite but a few of its many examples, is proof-positive of the dangers of the abuse of power, what with all the Hilters, Maos, and Stalins, etc.

Proverbs, in the King James Version, offers this clue regarding genuine prophetic leadership: “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” And then adds: “but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

The New Revised Standard Version, the translation we use, reads: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law.”

In Eugene Peterson’s transliteration, The Message, it goes like this: “If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves. But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed.”

Note the ending of all three versions. They refer to the law, to God’s law. This is important because the temptation of contemporary thought is to reject godly laws for more personalized, subjective ones.

For Proverbs, a prophet rightly discerns God’s law and faithfully transmits it for the benefit of the people. But again, there is an explicit warning to those who would speak for God.

One of the clichés I hear again and again in U.C.C. circles, particularly among denominational leaders and pastors, is the call to be “prophetic.” It’s almost as if the job automatically attaches to the office. I mean, you get ordained, and presto chango, you’re a prophet! The bar should be set a tad bit higher, it seems to me. (See Deuteronomy.)

This easy human impulse to play the prophet is a particular danger in the West today, even among Christians. This is especially so given that we live in a culture that increasingly rejects the received wisdom of the past. And we’re impatient. We want perfection and we want it now!

Ironically, many today believe society’s problems are due precisely to the very caution and restraint of such received wisdom. The law, rather than a time-honored distillation of truth that guides and protects, is now an impediment to the sovereign Self, the new, all-knowing, all seeing arbiter of truth.

Existing law is an affront to the sovereign Self, its true purpose to control us and keep us down, like sheep. And who is it who’s doing the imposing? The power structure, that’s who. Based on nothing more than power and self-interest, it tells us what to think, what to feel, and what to do.

The “enlightened” soul, however, perceiving this nefarious plot, seeks to free itself from all such arbitrary outward constraint in order to discover the ‘real’ self, the real truth. In transgressing these oppressive and unjust rules, to embark righteously on a “crusade against standards,” as someone recently put it, marks the only path to true knowledge and real freedom. We must be our own prophet.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians, has a different take. Concerned with those in the Corinthian church who also were tempted to become a law unto themselves, Paul offers a simple counter-proposal. He argues for agape love.

A controversy had arisen in Corinth having to do with Christians eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. At first blush, this issue hardly seems relevant to those of us living in 21st century America. Yet Paul’s concern is timeless.

People in ancient times believed that daemons, or spirits, lurked within every animate and inanimate object. It was a fact of life. And these daemons, some good but often not, directed people’s everyday lives.

Much if not most of the meat found in the marketplace was left over from ritual sacrifices offered to these daemons. Were one to eat this meat, or so the logic went, the daemon would enter that person. Thus, seeking to avoid this, many of the Christians in Corinth refused this meat.

There was, however, an elitist group within the Corinthian congregation, known as the spiritualists, who, because of their superior knowledge (over and against the other less evolved members of the church), saw nothing wrong with eating this meat. They knew, as did Paul, that it was God who had created every living tree and blade of grass, and, thus, these daemons didn’t actually exist. As such, there was absolutely nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to these idols who weren’t real anyway.

Yet while Paul agrees with the elitists on this one point, he disagrees with what they do this knowledge. He too knows he’s free to eat this meat – meat which was, after all, perfectly harmless. But if, in his freedom, he would cause others to think he was doing something wrong, Paul will refrain from eating.

Which is to say that if freedom in Christ causes another’s conscience to be harmed, Paul will exercise restraint out of respect for the other. This is the essence of agape love.

Agape love, we as know, is selfless, sacrificial, concerned only with doing God’s will – God’s law – irrespective of the Self’s interests, desires, and insights. Agape love has been called disinterested love, for it is based on a decision to obey God in spite of how I feel or what I desire. It may in fact feel totally foreign to me and my immediate interests.

Consider forgiveness. Agape love requires that I decide to forgive, based not on how loving I may feel toward the one who has hurt me. Rather, in obedience, I am commanded to act rightly, an action more sacrificial than heartfelt!

Agape love, in the final analysis, is what distinguishes a true prophet from the run-of-the-mill, dime store variant. The true prophetic voice is one born of sacrifice, in obedience to God’s commandments, to the benefit of the other, and not the sovereign Self.

In the end, agape love is born not of self-made principles, or power, but of genuine discernment, obedience, and self-less service. Amen.