Called a Prophet – Jan. 31, 2021

Called a Prophet

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

January 31, 2021

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Mark 1:21-28

Main Idea: We are called to listen and to act.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Way back in the days of Moses on Mount Sinai and God speaking the 10 commandments amidst fire and thunder rolling down from the mountain, the people were overwhelmed by the majesty and power of God.  The book of Exodus tells us that, “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” (Ex. 20:18-19).  And so, Moses became their official prophet, the spokesperson of God.  Moses brought their concerns to God and brought God’s concerns to them.  This is the dual role of a prophet; One who is called by God in order to call others to life in God.  It is the prophet’s job to listen to God and to act on God’s behalf.

Now who would you say are prophets today?  Who, do you believe, are listening to God and acting on God’s behalf?  Who are you listening to? And why are you listening to them instead of someone else?  Who do we serve and to what are we called?  These are the questions that have been rolling around in my mind these past weeks and I invite us to hold on to these questions as we explore today’s Scripture texts.

Our Hebrew Scripture today comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which tradition holds as Moses’ farewell addresses to the Hebrew people.  By this time, Moses is old.  The people have been wandering for 40 years and are getting ready to pass over the Jordan to the Promised Land.  Deuteronomy is the record of what Moses wanted the people to remember in their new life together.  Today’s text is a proclamation that there will be new prophets after Moses is gone and that the people will need to listen to them.   Moses reminds them about the time at Sinai when they had specifically requested such a person.  This prophet would be from among their own people, (not an outside savior swooping in to save them), and God would put God’s own words in the prophet’s mouth.   God reminds the people, “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.” (Deut 18:19).   And anyone who claims to be a prophet but speaks in the name of other gods or presumes to speak for God without God’s authority will also be held accountable.  

This time of transition was so very important.  Who would speak for God when Moses was gone?  How would the people recognize God’s prophet amidst others whose purpose was to lead them astray?   Especially when God would hold them accountable for not listening or for going astray?   How can we recognize God’s prophets amidst the cacophony of voices enticing us to believe and act one way or another?  These questions lead us to our Gospel lesson for today where Jesus, God’s prophet, is confronted by a voice seeking to lead the people astray.

Today’s Gospel text is Jesus’ first act of ministry.  Mark’s gospel starts with Jesus’ baptism and his receiving of the Holy Spirit.  He went out in the wilderness, he called a few disciples, and then here he was.  At the beginning of this story, all seems to be well.  Jesus preaches his prophetic word of challenge and liberation. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.”(Mk 1:15) So far, so good. However, in the midst of the sermon, a person stands up and begins shouting.  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mk 1:24) This person was not a wild outcast but actually a member of the synagogue, a person who was invested in the life of that community.  There is no mention in the text that the person had ever acted out before, but the unclean spirit within very clearly saw Jesus as a threat to its existence.   That which was “not of God” very clearly recognized the threat of Jesus, the Holy One of God.

Jesus spoke calmly but with authority to the unclean spirit.  “Be silent and come out.  Your fears and your defenses are not from God and yes, I do come to destroy them.   I come to destroy all that separates humanity from God.  I come to release you from all idols and illusions of self-sufficiency. Only God can save you.  I come to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is here among us and to invite you to abundant life. 

With these words, the unclean spirit was cast out and all who witnessed it were amazed, saying “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” And at once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee (1:27-28).

Although we are loath to admit it, each one of us has some of this unclean spirit within us, the voice of that which is “not of God”.   This unclean spirit manifests itself in many ways, none of which are as dramatic as a demon in a horror movie.  Instead, it lures us to choose against God rather than for God. This is what Moses is warning about in the Deuteronomy text.  This unclean spirit amplifies our fear.  It pushes us toward selfishness. It rationalizes our systems which privilege some at the expense of others.  It isolates us in our griefs and keeps us from sharing that which is most important to us.  It traps us in addictions that promise to distract us from our pain and the pain of others.  In these and other ways it tries mightily to keep us from following the one who would lead us to joy and honest community.  The unclean spirit tells us that we are not worthy to be happy or safe.  Jesus tells us that God loves us just as we are.  The unclean spirit tells us that nothing we do makes any difference in the world.  Jesus tells us that we are participants in God’s kingdom and plan for all of creation.  The unclean spirit tells us that we must fight for all that we have, there is not enough to share.  Jesus tells us that God will provide all that we need. 

With the words of Moses, and the words and actions of Jesus in our mind, how do we recognize God’s prophets in our midst today?  How do we think critically about to whom we listen and who we follow? Do we listen to those who support and confirm our opinions or do we listen to those whose life stories and points of view are different from ours?  Do we support those who encourage our prejudices or those who challenge our preconceptions?  This discernment is vitally important.  At one time we could naively point to evil bad guys like Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, condemn their atrocities, and pledge to never allow such forces to take root here.   But this past year, this past month, has shown us that evil lives among us in white supremacy and Christian nationalism.  Embedded in the systems in which we live every day are racism, sexism, greed, and apathy which impact us all and which lure us away from God.

As Christians, we are called to listen to Jesus as our ultimate teacher and lens into the heart of God.  He is our prophet, our authority above all else.  Moses calls us and Jesus calls us to listen and act on God’s behalf.  Not only are we to discern God’s prophets but we are called to be prophets too!   

We are called to speak out against systemic evil.   We are called to witness to the inclusive welcome Jesus gives to all, especially to the vulnerable.  We are called to speak against those aspects of society which tear people down and divide people up.   We are called to hold accountable those political and religious leaders who seem to care more about power than about those in need. We are called to be reflective and humble about how we may have hurt someone.  We are called to pay attention and speak out about the evil and injustice we see around us.  We are called to work with others called by God to make God’s will manifest.  Jesus shows us, Jesus calls us to be prophets; to listen to God and to show God’s love to others.  

And here is some good news.   In all that we do and all that we are, Jesus gives us encouragement and power to live lives of love and purpose.  Those that attempt to lure us away from God, may distract us at times, but they cannot sever our connection to our God who will not let us go.  With God as our foundation and Jesus as our guide, we can be prophets, sharing compassion and love so that abundant life abounds. 

Let us pray.  Liberating God, we thank you for Jesus who shows us your love and refuses to leave us in our sin.  Make us your prophets.  Embolden us to face the evil in the world so that we might banish its power.  May we live joyously and abundantly within your purpose and love. Amen