Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 1, 2015, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Sermon Theme: “What Is a Prophet Anyway?”
(Sources: Anderson’s Cycle B Preaching Workbook; footnotes to the Concordia Self Study Bible; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; original ideas; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 25, Part 1, Series B; Harper’s Bible Dictionary.)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have two teenage Sunday School students and one teenage granddaughter, I believe teenagers are good and interesting human beings, and I enjoy being around them. However, teenagers, like other young people, need mentoring, don’t they? For example, consider this interaction between a father and his teenage son:
Father says, “Please cut the grass this afternoon.”
Danny says nothing. He is silent.
Father: “Did you hear me?”
Danny: “Yes, father.”
The father comes home in the evening after work and the lawn hasn’t been touched.
Father: “Didn’t you hear me tell you to cut the lawn?”
Danny: “I did hear you, but I never said I’d do it.”
That’s not unlike the relationship between God the Father and the Israelites in the Five Books of Moses. The responsibility of a prophet is to speak the Lord’s message. The recipients, that is, those who are supposedly listening to the prophet’s message, are expected both to hear and heed the word of the Lord.
You see, the Israelites shunned the immediate presence of God; it was too frightening. In today’s sermon text, they were quoted as saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” They demanded someone to stand between them and God. So they were given the prophet Moses as a mediator. He became a great mediator and prophet, and served the people for many years.
In today’s text, Moses, this mediator, this prophet, God has used for the last forty years to pass along His words to the people of Israel is about to leave, to die. So the frightening question the people are faced with is, ‘To whom should we listen now?’
Would the Word of God that’s been so faithfully given to Moses, and then passed on by Moses, still be passed on faithfully to the Israelites and to future generations, including our generation today? To whom should they listen? To whom should we listen? In our text, God gives us His answer: Christians, take heart! The Lord our God has raised up a prophet like Moses to whom we shall listen.
To be sure, the Israelites needed a prophet to mentor them and to pass on the Word of God to them.
There are two questions now that have to be answered. One is: What is a prophet anyway? And the second is: Which prophet (or prophets) is Moses foretelling?
First, what is a “prophet”? Students of the Bible don’t necessarily agree on the meaning of the word “prophet.” In a general sense, all Christians are prophets in that they pass on God’s Word to other people. However, that is not the sense in which Moses is using the word in our text.
The word “prophet” in our text is an English translation of the Hebrew word, “Nabi.” The Hebrew word for prophet, which Moses would have been using, literally means “one who is inspired by God.” It doesn’t mean “one who predicts the future, or a fortune-teller.” Prophets did not have crystal balls, or read the stars. Instead, prophets were teachers and preachers, explaining what God requires of the people and holding them accountable for their actions. A prophet was and is a divinely inspired teacher and preacher.
God did call some prophets to warn or console the people by telling them what would happen in the future. Moses did that in today’s text. Another prophet, John the Baptist, correctly foretold the coming of Jesus, to prepare people for His coming. Yet, most of the time, prophets are “forth-tellers,” moreso than “foretellers,” because a prophet, whether Moses, John the Baptist, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or any of the others, is not afraid to speak forth, to speak out, that is, the message God has given him to speak.
It is God who gives a prophet the words to say and the command to speak. A prophet, like the ones we’ve mentioned, is a person who speaks for God and tells forth His message.
It has been said a prophet is known, not primarily for his hindsight or foresight, but for his insight. He saw God’s plan. He was given insight into the mysteries of God. He knew the covenant God had made with the people and the response God wanted from them. Therefore, the true prophet delivered God’s message forcefully and faithfully. The false prophet does not speak for God, but may make ridiculous predictions about the future.
To be able to understand what a true prophet is, it is necessary to identify false prophets.
God says in our text, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.”
Our generation has been treated on several occasions to the kind of false prophet Moses was referring to. The two most spectacular candidates are, of course, Jim Jones of Jonestown and David Koresh of the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco. Each of these men evidentially started out as ardent followers of Jesus Christ, but in each case, they began to speak on their own, rather than seeking to speak the word of God. Each man became enamored of the power that comes with a charismatic leadership style, with the blind obedience of their followers, the sexual favors of the women in the movements, the ability to fulfill their every whim.
And with that growing power over others came the increasing intolerance for questions and disagreements from anyone at any level. Each man eventually led his band of believers into some sort of isolated situation – Jim Jones into the jungle of Latin America, and David Koresh into the Waco compound, which was fortified for defense against some vague “Them” they expected to attack.
And ironically, it was that enforced isolation that led the loved ones of those in these groups to bring in the authorities to investigate. Ironic, because the violent end that each group met was precisely the punishment that God said was due such false prophets. And ironic, because no one killed them; they killed themselves.
Now for the second question our text raises: Which prophet (or prophets) is Moses foretelling in the text? Moses says, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen.” That question would be easier to answer if our CPH insert had included verses 21 and 22 of Chapter 18 with our text, as those verses make it clear Moses is not talking about one prophet in particular, but a series of prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.
Some students of the Bible believe that “a prophet” in the text refers to Jesus, who is said to be our prophet, priest, and king. But Moses says, “a prophet like me.” Jesus is the sinless, only son of God, so how could He be like Moses? So, Moses is talking about a series of prophets, which do culminate in Jesus, who is our prophet above all other prophets.
No other prophet but Jesus was raised up to free an entire world from sin, to proclaim eternal life to all believers. So we must listen to this Prophet, Jesus, who speaks the Word of the Lord to us, and we must listen to the other prophets, like Moses, Isaiah, Samuel, etc., because God has spoken through them.
Although much of our text is a warning from Moses, and portions of all proclamations of the other prophets are warnings and admonitions, the prophets also spoke words of healing and comfort to the people. “Comfort, comfort, my people,” God says through Isaiah, speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed.”
The word of comfort that Moses speaks in our sermon text is the promise that God will send them other prophets to help them, guide them, and care for their spiritual needs. In the general sense, over the years God has sent pastors to pass on the Word of God and bring comfort and care to the people.
It should be reassuring to all of you here today that God has provided you with “prophets,” the ones like Moses and Isaiah who speak to you through the Bible; the Prophet, Priest and King Jesus who comes to you today in the bread and wine of the Holy Sacrament; and through the lowly preachers who are God’s “care package” to you. Be comforted knowing that you are completely loved and accepted by God, totally forgiven and redeemed by Jesus, fully healed from the ravages of sin, and truly guaranteed that your search for significance has ended. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.