False Prophets, Barbed Wire, and Our Presidential Hopefuls

**Special thanks goes out to the fine folks in “Refining [cyborg] Theology” (you know who you are) who once again helped me navigate the tricky passes of the narrow ravine we call the Holy Word of God.**

“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.”

So who would do you think should die?  It’s an election year so this is important.  Some of our would be leaders might be wolves in sheep’s clothing.  Maybe Newt Gingrich–after all there was that 1997 ethics violation.  Of course many are not entirely sure of Trinity United Church of Christ’s orthodoxy, and Obama was an active member there for twenty years, so maybe he’s the first to go.  Then there’s Mitt Romney, he served for a while as a Mormon missionary in France, how can we let him live!

But maybe we’re biting off more than we can chew.  You know what they say, Think globally, act locally.  I am sure within a twenty mile radius we can find all sorts of egregious offenders: Imams, rabbis, cardinals, priests, certainly a few maverick reverends, a couple troubling pastors, maybe even a manbo or two (afro-Caribbean spiritualists)–all of them false to the core and worthy of divine wrath.

Are you uncomfortable?  I hope so.  I hope you want this sermon to go in a different direction very soon.  It will, but not entirely.

With each generation the world changes.  My world is different than my parent’s world, and different than my child’s world, and so on and so forth.  Social scientists tell us that the world is changing now with great rapidity.  Advancements are relentless with the globalization of economics, politics, culture, and communication.  We are all adjusting on the fly.

While we are adjusting we people of faith are asked to hear the words of a text that has not changed in thousands of years.  The text, at this point in time, is so far removed from our present realities that we must admit that it is completely alien to us and us to it.  We approach the text as strangers, and the text we approach has no idea who we are.  Yet, because of our faith, it holds a certain importance to us, even a power over us.

You should know that this reality is fraught with danger.  We change; the text stays the same.  It is like putting new wine in old wineskins.  It is like wrapping a sapling tree tight around the trunk with barbed wire and letting the seasons and years go by—soon the wire that has stayed the same cuts deeply into the trunk of the tree which has doubled or tripled in size.  There was a time when that wire was rightly sized, and it served its purpose well.  But as the tree grew, the wire did not.  Instead it rusted, and its original purpose was forgotten.

If you spend much time walking the fields and woods of rural America you get used to watching out for old barbed wire.  It hides just out of sight waiting to trip you.  The person who put it up is long in the grave.  The reason it was put up in the first place is no longer applicable or even known.  Yet there it is, suffocating the life out of an otherwise healthy tree and lying hidden to innocent travelers.

This is why in seminary we engage in the study of hermeneutics—the study of building a bridge between the ancient text and the present world.  It’s the theologian’s task to take the danger out of the equation—to avoid the wire cutting deep into the trunk or tripping up the unsuspecting traveler.

Did you cringe when you heard it?  Maybe not. Maybe you are well seasoned in dealing with the text as stranger.  But what about when the text was heard by all the kids that gather each week for children’s circle like a flock of playful innocent little lambs—did you cringe then?  How are they being prepared for their brave new world by the texts they hear the adults around them intone each weak from this pulpit of authority?  What are they learning that they will later pass on to our grandchildren?  Do you know my grandchildren will likely see the sunrise on January 28th, 2100?  What will the world be like then?  Will it be a place in need of what we heard this morning?

Let me read it again, “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.”

OKAY–now we heard it!  Yikes!  That’s hate rhetoric you know.  We live in one of the most religiously diverse parts of the United States of America.  Here more than anywhere else, unless we want the streets flowing red with blood, we have to learn to get along.  We can’t say stuff like that, we can’t even joke about stuff like that.

Let me tell you what has just happened in this ancient text.  During the reign of king Josiah, at the end of the seventh century B.C.E. there was a campaign of religious renewal amongst the people of the southern kingdom of Judah.  Now I should tell you that religious renewal was very political.  Why?  Because kingships were divinely appointed, and military might was synonymous with the might of a nations patron deity or deities.  Exclusive faith in YHWH, the God of the Israelites, meant an absence of faith for the gods of the Egyptians, or the Babylonians, or the other people groups of the Mediterranean world.  It was a stamp of your national identity and loyalty; it was a sign of your allegiance to the king that YHWH had placed on the throne.

Before Josiah, infidelity to YHWH was a real problem.  His predecessor Amon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served and worshipped idols.  The text of 2 Kings reads that “he abandoned the Lord, the God of his ancestors and did not walk in the way of the Lord.”  Before Amon, his father Manasseh had done the same but worse.  2 Kings accuses him of “following the abominable practices of the nations.”  He rebuilt pagan high places, he erected altars for Ba’al, he made a sacred pole (a symbol of the goddess Asherah), he constructed altars for the heavenly hosts in the very temple of YHWH, he consulted with mediums and wizards, and perhaps most damning, he made his own son pass through the fire—a likely reference to the practice of child sacrifice.  He was so bad, says 2 Kings, that he led the people to do more evil than the nations that God drove out from the land before them.

Now during the reign of Josiah a temple renovation was underway when a mysterious book containing the Laws of YHWH was found—the text is not explicit but suggests that the temple high priest found the old book under a pile of money.  When the lost book of the Law was read it was discovered that the people were not living according to YHWH’s commands and so Josiah gave over the rest of his reign to religious reform and revival.

Because of the nature of the reforms, and the language used in the book of Kings and elsewhere scholars are fairly certain that the book reported to have been found was an early version of Deuteronomy chapters 5-26.  The text I read to you, and that was read earlier today is from Deuteronomy chapter 18—right in the heart of the book that spawned a nation’s denouncing of paganism and dramatic religious reform.  The text we read sentenced prophets of other gods, and false prophets of YHWH to death—a rather useful sentencing mandate for political leaders and priestly elites to use to bring the people back under submission to their deity.  It served its purpose well.  During the reign of Josiah the reforms were successful.

After Josiah’s reign, in spite of the dire warnings, things defaulted back to the way they were in the days of Amon and Manasseh.  The harsh language of Deuteronomy 18, with all of its restrictions and rusty barbs was forgotten.  Oh it still found itself wrapped around a few trees, and it still lay hidden beneath the field grass, but time marched on.  Years later during the Babylonian exile the dusty old manuscript would be edited and given and introduction and a conclusion.  Well meaning priests would attach it to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers and speak of its venerable tradition, coming from the very pen of the great prophet Moses. Subsequent history would see it passed down through the centuries as a canonical book of the Hebrew Bible, and later the Christian Old Testament.  From house church to catacomb, from catacomb to basilica, from basilica to cathedral, from cathedral to sanctuary–all the way until this day, the 29th day of January 2012, in the year of the I-phone 4, the launch of Facebook timeline, and baby brother Manning’s second trip to the Super Bowl, at a little suburban church, on the Island they call long, it was read to all of us–the same message, as of old, unchanged: kill the prophets of false gods, and kill the prophets who speak false messages from YHWH.

It begs us moderns to ask, in light of our sacred text’s commandments, what should we do?  Well I wouldn’t suggest knocking off any of the presidential hopefuls, or the president himself no matter what their short comings.  Sure, some of them might be lying through their teeth.  Sure they might claim God but be far from God.

I also wouldn’t suggest finding the local religious leaders who think differently than you and dropping poison in their coffee, or pushing them in front of a bus.  Sure some of them might be giving false messages in the name of YHWH, and some of them might not recognize Jesus as Lord.  Regardless, suburban New York can ill afford that kind of sectarian violence.

There is sectarian violence as part of our world today, and it is a tragic.  I cringe when we read verses like those found in Deuteronomy 18 in our worship, because left unchallenged by our modern circumstance these verses add fuel to a fire we should be trying awfully hard to put out for the sake of our children and grandchildren who will see the sunrise in 2100.

But sectarian violence is not part of our little suburban church on the Island we call long.  We might get red in the face at times, but none of us struggle with thoughts of cold blooded murder of those who think differently–times are different now.  Deuteronomy 18 for us is just an old piece of barbed wire lying in the tall grass that the lectionary unearths every three years around the fourth week of epiphany.  Our problem is not killing the prophets of foreign Gods.  Our vice is not killing the false prophets of YHWH.  We can’t listen to this text any longer.  But still, it asks us to hear something, anything, doesn’t it?  If our time and circumstance has changed, then what is our problem, what is our vice?

Do you know how hard it is to hear the authentic word of God?  It’s not that God is quiet.  The psalmist says that the word of God snaps the cedars of Lebanon in two like twigs.  The cedars of Lebanon grew to 130 feet tall and were 8 1/2 feet in diameter.  The voice of God makes a thunder clap sounds like a feather falling on pillow.  It’s not hard to hear the word of God because the word of God is silent, it’s hard to hear the word of God because there is so much competition.  There are so many prophets preaching a gospel of health and wealth and maintenance of the status quo in a world of great suffering, and there are so many people eager to hear something easy.  Hearing the word of God can be like picking out a lone tenor in a chorus a thousand people strong.  Even when we have success, sometimes the word of God is so piercing and difficult, that our anger isn’t focused at all on the chorus of false prophets, but rather on the one true prophet.  Sad but true, in the recent history of western humanity, in ‘our’ time, we’ve often been better at killing the true prophets than the false ones.  Perhaps out task isn’t to worry about killing the plethora of false prophets, but to worry about not killing the few true ones.

The message from Deuteronomy 18 is this: Discerning the real word of God is a task none of us can avoid, and it’s not easy.  Take it seriously.  It’s a matter of life or death, and it is vital to the Christian walk of the individual and the congregation.  If we want to kill something then let’s put to death our eagerness to ignore God’s commands, and to bury them, and forget about them.  Let’s hear the words that give hope of life to all, even our enemies that make us red in the face.  Let’s listen to the true prophets no matter how angry they make us.  Let’s pray for our future, for generations to come, that we may know the peace, equity, and justice that transcends the reign of a reformer king and is with us forever and ever, Amen.

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