Series: January 2024
Speaker: Bethany Nelson
"Abide With Me"
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is God’s work, and God’s righteousness endures forever. God has gained renown by God’s wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.The Lord provides food for those who fear God; the Lord is ever mindful of God’s covenant. The Lordhas shown God’s people the power of God’s works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of God’s hands are faithful and just; all God’s precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. The Lordsent redemption to God’s people; the Lordhas commanded God’s covenant forever. Holy and awesome is God’s name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This 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.’ Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. 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. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But 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.’ You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’ 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. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.
The Israelites have relied heavily on Moses as they have escaped from Egypt and made their way through the wilderness toward the promised land. As a prophet called by God, it is Moses who has shared God’s word with the people over and over again. Encouraging them, inspiring them, guiding them, chastising them when necessary. It’s no accident that Moses is an important and central figure in our faith tradition. His role as a prophet was a big deal for the people, both then and now. So it makes sense that the people are a little worried about what will happen after Moses. He won’t live forever … so then what?
This passage from Deuteronomy is a response to those concerns. God has heard the cries of the people, and, speaking through Moses, seeks to alleviate their fears. Moses tells the people that God will not leave them alone, that God will in fact raise up another prophet. The people will continue to hear from God. This is good news! Moses then goes on to describe in detail how the people will know that the prophet who follows is a true prophet, someone called by God, speaking in the name of God. This was a real concern at the time, as false prophets abounded. Prophets who either spoke for other gods, or for no god at all. The Israelites had to take care to not be led astray by people claiming to be prophets who were actually not speaking the word of God at all.
That really doesn’t sound so different from today. We have so many voices in our lives telling us what is right and good and true. How do we know who to listen to? How do we discern the voice and call of God from all of the rest of the noise we hear day in and day out? I wasn’t here last Sunday, but I read Rob’s sermon from last week with interest, as he actually answered many of these questions. In lifting up various members of the Westminster congregation – people who have been called by God to serve in various ways – Rob noted qualities they shared in how they listened for and responded to God’s call. If you weren’t here, I encourage you to look up that sermon on our website.
Would you consider these Westminster members prophets? Would you consider yourself a prophet? A prophet is someone called by God to share God’s word with the people. I don’t know that any of the people Rob highlighted would compare themselves to Moses, and I don’t know that God speaks to prophets today in the same way as God spoke to the Biblical prophets. But, each of the people Rob described has definitely been called by God to share God’s love and compassion and grace in service to others. That sounds pretty prophetic to me.
So how does one tell a true prophet from a false prophet? This is certainly a main question in this passage from Deuteronomy. I found some great examples distinguishing one from the other from seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker. She says that first, a true prophet does not seek to be a prophet. How many times did Moses argue with God about being the one God called? Not me, not me! I’m not the right one! Call someone else! Schifferdecker says prophets become prophets not because they want to or because they think they are qualified, but because they cannot avoid God’s call. God can be persistent!
Relatedly, the true prophet seeks neither self-promotion nor riches. Rob mentioned this last week … there is no ego involved in being a prophet. No get rich quick scheme either. Being a prophet is simply about serving God. Think about all the people in our world telling you what to do, how to think, what is important … who make it all about them – their power, their status, their success, their ego. Those people are likely not prophets. You are not going to find the word of the Lord coming from them.
Schifferdecker goes on to say that a true prophet speaks God’s word, not their own. Yes, prophets are called to speak words of comfort and hope, but they also speak words that are uncomfortable. Words of judgement and challenge. Words that could make them unpopular. Words that move you outside your comfort zone. Words that urge you beyond yourself to serve and care for others. Who in your life does that for you? Those are the prophets among us.
Finally, a true prophet is known by their “fruit.” Does the prophet lead others to be disciples of Jesus or of themselves? Does their preaching lead to repentance and transformation or to complacency and self-absorption? That is a key difference between a true prophet and a false prophet.[i]
Why is any of this important, you may be asking yourself. Two reasons. First, it is important to examine who we are surrounding ourselves with. Who is a part of our chosen communities? To whom are we giving our time and attention? I hope it is true prophets, people who urge us to do better and be better. Who encourage us, and cajole us when necessary, to shine God’s light in the world. Who hold us accountable when we fall short. Those are the people we need in our lives, even though they may make our lives more difficult when they challenge us and urge us to do God’s hard work of justice and mercy.
I once read a story about a pastor who preached a wonderfully eloquent sermon one Sunday morning. It was both brilliant and scintillating. The people were deeply moved by it and said it was the best sermon they had ever heard. The next week that pastor preached the same sermon, and again the people were excited to hear it. But when that pastor preached the very sermon, word for word, the third week in a row, people began to wonder. Finally, one of the congregants shaking the pastor’s hand at the door with a small crowd gathered around him said, “Preacher, that was a great sermon – thoughtful, insightful, even inspiring. But some of us want to know why you keep preaching the same sermon again and again.” The pastor smiled and replied, “Because I haven’t seen anyone do anything about what I said.”[ii]Once we discern who the prophets are in our lives, it is not enough to simply listen to them, we must respond to the call.
I also hope you are encouraged to consider your own role as a prophet. How are you urging others to follow God’s call? How are you sharing a hard but necessary word with someone when they need it? How are you offering encouragement and compassion? All of this not for your own glory, but for God’s glory?
Lest you be getting a bit overwhelmed at this point - remember, no prophet ever wants to be a prophet because it’s a hard job – know that we don’t do this work alone. I think that is the most important part of this passage. God is reminding us that God never leaves us alone. I read one commentary that said, “God doesn’t play hide and seek.” God wants us to know God. God wants to be present and active in our lives. God wants to guide us and love us and gently correct us when we stray. God wants to share God’s wisdom with us. We heard this in the Psalm this morning – “The Lord is gracious and merciful … The works of God’s hands are faithful and just … God is ever mindful of God’s covenant.”
I love the hymn, “Abide With Me.” It is often misunderstood as a hymn just about death, but it is about God being with us through all the parts of our lives. At the end of every day. Through the tough times. As well as through our final breaths. God abides with us. When we are called and when we are calling. When we are the ones prophesying and when we are following the words of another prophet. When we are serving and when we are being served. God abides with us. Let’s sing together.