4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I used to love fake news, and by that I mean, back when it meant “satirical news.” Satire is healthy, and wonderful, and good for us. Satire tells us the truth about ourselves with just enough absurdity to it to make us not take ourselves too seriously. There’s a website I like called the Babylon Bee. It’s set up to look like a news site, but it is obviously satire about the Christian Church. And it’s usually pretty good: they go after everybody. Like not long ago when they ran a story about a Presbyterian church, where the motion-sensor lights turned off… during worship. It’s funny because there is a truth to it. Did it happen? Of course not. Could it? Sure. Satire is good for us because it makes us laugh at what is true about ourselves and maybe even nudge us into being better than we are.
But somewhere along the line my “fake news” took a turn. As the devil will, somewhere along the line, this wonderful thing I called “fake news” and made it bad. Somewhere along the line the made-up stories stopped trying to be satire and just started being absurd. Somewhere along the line, websites, and emails, and Facebook posts just started lying to us. Sure, like satire, some were surreally absurd, but they were told with such conviction that we believed them. For me, the one that tends to come to mind at times like this was the one about the guy who went to a pizza place with a high-powered rifle and shot off some rounds because he was convinced that Hillary Clinton was selling children out of it. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but it was certainly absurd; certainly a story like that is satirical on a level; but certainly not very funny when it gets to that point.
But what bothers me more is that Truth is important. We are in the Truth business, you and I. As the Church of Christ, we have a prophetic calling to speak God’s Truth, through word and action, to one another and to the world around us. So we need to be able to recognize it when we see it. The Truth we proclaim to the world is a valuable commodity, these days more than ever. And so, as we gather around God’s Truth, God’s word to us, may we learn to seek it, treasure it, and even separate it from all that other stuff.
As you’ll perhaps recall, I’ve been talking about prophecy lately. And although we’ve been looking at prophecy through the lives and words of some of the Old Testament prophets, you may have also noticed that I I’ve been talking about prophecy in terms of us. I believe we don’t really see grand prophets like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Moses any more for a reason: because we are, together, God’s great prophet in this world. The office of prophet is an office that we each share together. As I see prophets described in Scripture, they are those who speak a Truth that comes from God alone. And what is a church for, if not, by the power of the Spirit; to speak God’s Truth. And we see that central task of the prophet laid out by Moses this morning.
What we hear this morning are the last words of Moses; the many, many, many last words of Moses. I enjoy famous last words, but I prefer the shorter, pithier quotes. Like the great comedian Groucho Marx, whose last words were, “This is no way to live!” What a great, sardonic last thing to say. Moses’ last words go on until the end of chapter thirty-three. I am confident in my salvation, so I hope that, when I go, I go out saying something memorable and funny. If I don’t get a chance to leave a funny deathbed quote, here’s what I want you to say about me: “Well, he went out doing what he loved: screaming.”
Moses, at the age of one hundred and twenty years old, is coming to his end and he knows it. The people of God are about to cross over into the Promised Land and Moses is not coming with them. So the next fifteen chapters are among his instructions to the people before he and they move on. He is preparing the people, but he is also transitioning his leadership over to Joshua. As a prophet should, he tells the people what God has told him: he quotes God, saying, “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.”
They would have understood that prophet to be Joshua, but we know where this story is going. We know how God continued to keep that promise, not only through Joshua, but beyond. After Joshua came the Judges. After the Judges came the Kings. And when that didn’t work out, God sent more prophets. And of course, when we read “I will raise up for them a prophet from among their own people” we think, “Well he means Jesus.” We hear something in this promise that Moses couldn’t: we know Jesus, the ultimate prophet. Who could possibly speak the words of God with more authority than the incarnate Word of God?
But we also know that there is yet more to this story. Not only do we see this promise as pointing to Jesus, who was more than a prophet, we know about the Spirit he left here with us. You see, that’s where I get the audacity to say that we are God’s prophet in this world: by the Spirit, we proclaim the words that our Savior commands us to say. By The Spirit, we are God’s prophetic voice.
We talked a bit about this kind of thing yesterday, as it turns out. Yesterday, your elders and I gathered in Durango to meet with other leaders in our Southern Cluster of Presbyterian churches to talk about church leadership. We do this every year, and I am always nourished by it. The pastors take little pieces of the teaching and we (sort of) coordinate with one another. Because we all do our parts separately, it’s always interesting to see if the Spirit will weave a common theme in there somehow. Apparently, yesterday the Spirit wanted us to know about the Spirit. I’m not going to lie, the event wasn’t perfect; some parts were a bit weird, actually. (If you were there, he’s a wonderful man, but he’s been through a lot. The fact that he’s still talking to Presbyterians is a testimony to God’s grace. If you weren’t there, just know: just know that the person I’m talking about is not going to be doing any pulpit supply for us.) But one theme did rise above everything else: discernment. How do we, as the people of God, discern what God is calling us to say to the world around us?
In our Scripture lesson today, Moses poses an interesting hypothetical question: he says, “You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?’” That’s a good question. It’s easy for the prophet to say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” but how do you know the Lord really sayethed it? (That’s the past-tense of sayeth, right?) We strive to listen for what God is saying through prayer, through Scripture, through the confirmation of what we feel God is doing through one another; but how do we know we’re hearing God’s voice and not just our voices?
Moses says, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken.” I’m not much on predicting the future, so I’m glad Moses adds Truth as a measure. And indeed, we do see in the church today (not ours I hope), those that presume to speak on behalf of God, but speak things that do not prove true about God.
I saw a survey recently that was put out by the Barna Group (they do social surveys that are mostly church-related). This survey asked, among other things, why millennials don’t go to church. Among their answers, two things rose to the top: they are repelled by the church’s lack of tolerance and its hypocrisy. Two things that don’t really describe our church particularly, but it’s the perception that many may just have of us. Someone has been spreading this fake news about us, but even more upsetting, it’s fake news about God too. How do we tell the Truth about who we are and who our Savior is, to a world that has been told lies?
Well, we’re back to discernment. One of the ways I personally listen for the Voice of God is when multiple people start separately saying the same thing; kind of like at Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus, although they were speaking in different languages, were all saying the same Truth about God. Lately, a lot of people around here have been saying the same thing. We haven’t been using the same language: some express it through a concern for the future of the church; some express it through a concern for those in our community who need to hear the gospel. Some call it being a more “missional” church; some simply call it being the church Jesus made us to be. But it’s all going in the same direction and it’s all being moved by the Spirit. It’s what’s leading us to plan our workshop event on February 24 and it’s what’s leading the survey that is in your boxes this morning. Some are already hearing God’s prophetic voice speaking through one another and we want to hear it from you too. The Spirit of God uses each one of us to contribute to this church’s prophetic voice, and Moses was very clear: you shall heed such a prophet.May we continue to listen for the words that God would have us say through Scripture, prayer, and one another. And as we do, may the world around us hear news (for a change) that is indeed Good.