Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18.15-20
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ 17Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. 18I 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. 19Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’

Caucus and primaries
Nomination and campaign
Victory and transition

I guess I had the sense it would someday matter less, or at least fade into my day-to-day as every other President’s activity. I could switch away from Sirius Satellite CNN (never fun without the pictures) and go back to “Totally 70’s” or “Radio Margaritaville” or “Hip Hop Nation.”

I guess I had the sense that my “uncommon interest” in all things Obama would recede as politics in Canada became less mind-numbing, or at least departed from a self-imposed coma. Call it misplaced patriotism, wanting to look to Ottawa for something engaging, even for a moment. It was not to be.

The next malicious trick of Sirius Satellite CNN is something called the daily White House Press Briefing. The Press Secretary appears on my little radio every afternoon and describes what the President has been up to. These things have certain sameness:

“Can you tell us what the President is thinking?”
“I can’t tell you what is in the mind of the President.”
“Can you tell us what the President will do next?”
“I can’t predict what the President will do next.”
“What will you do if the worst happens?”
“I can’t talk in hypotheticals, so I can’t say.”

I could do this job. It wouldn’t be as fulfilling as life at Central, and there wouldn’t be an endless supply of tiny crustless sandwiches, so I’ll just stay put. Besides, the love-in on the Potomac can’t last, and someday the Press Secretary will regret speaking for the President.

The task of speaking for someone else has a long pedigree. Who could forget the first Mt. Sinai press briefing, with dancing, golden livestock and tablets thrown in anger? Not as effective as tossing your shoe, but just as memorable. Moses, then, becomes the model for God’s press secretary: sitting in on the key discussions, engaging in a little back and forth on the big decisions, and announcing the outcome to an anxious population.

And as we sit in on what amounts to Moses final press briefing, he makes some summary observations that will help the community move forward and prepare for a time when new voices begin to speak for God. Let’s listen in:

Of course God will appoint a new voice to speak, a prophet worth listening to. Remember, you asked for this, when you decided that direct contact with God was too scary. And God agreed, saying ‘it is better to appoint someone to speak for me, and I will put my words in their mouth.’ ‘Ignore the prophet,’ God said, ‘and I’ll know…and just in case anyone gets the bright idea to speak false words on my behalf, trust me, it won’t end well for you.’

So we know that the role won’t be retired with Moses. Clearly the need to communicate God’s intentions is ongoing. And so the role of principle spokesperson is institutionalized in the role of prophet. And like the daily briefing, God’s desire to communicate is comprehensive and ongoing. It will occur among the ordinary people and before the seats of power. It will be met as welcome advice or it will be violently rejected. However it is met, the role remains the primary way God will speak to God’s people.


Every year, about this time, a handful of people in each region of the church will head in for ordination interviews. Now, it’s a small church, and so year-by-year we tend to know someone who’s going to be on the hot seat, someone who will be questioned one last time on their suitability for ministry in the United Church. A team will assemble, and nervous candidates will be asked the same questions that generations before have been asked.

“Are you willing to join the pension plan”
“Can we send you somewhere no one else wants to go?”

These are the standards. All-in-all, these interviews seem to be asking the same “do you know what the heck you’re getting yourself into” question, asked in a variety of ways. One of the perennial favourites goes something like this:

“Ministers take on a variety of roles: priestly, prophetic and pastoral. What role do you find most engaging?”

As always, there is no correct answer. Saying “Gee whiz, I never thought of that” over and over might amount to the wrong answer, but in general terms, there are no wrong answers. The role of a question like this one is to get a sense of the person, to draw them out and learn what they think about the vocation they hope to assume. And by setting up three roles: priestly, prophetic and pastoral, the interviewers can check that this potential minister is aware of all three.

The ‘priestly’ role puts us behind the table, or at the font, or saying farewell to friends at the graveside. The ‘pastoral’ role finds us at the hospital, or at Timmy’s, or wherever people are feeling lost or alone. And the ‘prophetic’ role might find us at City Hall, or chained to a tree, or pounding this pulpit to test how well it’s built. Of course, we do more, but priestly, prophetic and pastoral provide perhaps a perfect precis. We’re told you love alliteration too.

It is the prophetic, of course, that remains the most vexing. Overstep, and you will alienate the very people you are charged to reach. Understep, and your ministry lacks the critical edge that says ‘I understand the way of the world and it’s just not right.’ We need to be able to find the gap between the way of the world and God’s intention for the world and tell others. We need to be able to name the powerful forces at work in the world and the ways in which they do not represent the Maker’s plan. And we need discernment.

One of the quirky and ultimately unhelpful parts of our passage from Deuteronomy 18 is the “false-prophet” detector mechanism built into the whole scheme. Make up some prophetic utterance: you die. Decide to speak for any pagan god-de-jour: you die. Say anything for God that God doesn’t want said: you die.

Imagine doing a new JNAC and a new search every time some careless pulpit-pounding minister misspoke. All that smoting would start to wear on you after a while. It would, however, make the whole issue of authenticity very clear. We could instantly tell who was being fair and accurate and who won’t get the chance to try again. In this way the heavy lifting belongs to someone else, and the small matter of discernment need not trouble our minds.

Since our automatic false-prophet detector seems broken, we are left with the onerous task of deciding for ourselves. People continue to speak for God, both in an official capacity and as a function of being a person of faith, and it falls to us to decide if what they say and what they do seems consistent with the God we know. It falls to us to compare the words of the prophet to the biblical record, to the tradition of the church, to the gift of reason, and to our very own experience of God and decide if the prophet speaks for God or for someone else.


There’s a twist here, as is usually the way, a twist that begins simply with the words “Jesus was teaching and speaking from town to town on down to Jerusalem.” Here is the prophet, lifting up the sick and the broken-hearted, casting out demons and trying to explain the ways of mercy and forgiveness. And looking on, he sees the gated splendor and holy places and must speak out:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!

The demons cry out in the face of their destruction, but the real destruction is the destruction of the Great Prophet, the Son of the Most High, the one who would cry out on that holy hill and say “forgive.” When God no longer killed prophets we filled the void. And the voice on the cross said “forgive.” And when God entered the fullness of human experience, even death on the cross, the single word was and remains “forgive.”

The task of speaking for God falls to each of us now, the task understanding what makes the world work, what is scandal in God’s eye’s, what word we could say to further God’s way. We listen to the urging of the Spirit, seek out saints and sages, and we read our Bibles: then as now, a single word appears to end conflict, to end bitterness, and to reconcile the hardest of hearts: and that word is “forgive.”


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