Today’s Old Testament lesson is part of Moses’ final sermon to the Hebrew people. Let me give you a little of the back story. As you know, Moses was called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses led the people to the foot of Mount Sinai and prepared them to meet God. At Mount Sinai God spoke in a booming, loud voice from the fire and cloud and dark mist. After the people heard God’s voice out of that dark cloud and saw the mountain on fire, they were a bit intimidated. So they went to Moses and said, “We’ve seen God’s glory. We heard God speak from fire. And we’ve seen that God can speak to humans and they can still live. But why should we take a chance. This huge fire will devour us and if we hear God’s voice, we’ll die for sure. So, Moses, from now on, you go and listen to what God says and then tell us what God tells you. We’ll listen and we’ll do it” (Deut 5:22-27 MSG).
God heard what the people said to Moses. “Tell them to go home,” God told Moses. “But you stay here with me” (Deut. 5:30-31 MSG). Then God wrote ten commandments for the people to live by on two slabs of stone and gave them to Moses. Moses became the intermediary between the people and their God. All communication from God was delivered by Moses to the Hebrew people.
God’s people continued their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. In the desert climate water was in short supply. People got thirsty and they complained bitterly to Moses. Moses turned to God who gave him instructions about how to get water from a rock. Moses didn’t follow God’s instructions exactly, appearing to lack faith in God’s ability to supply water. Because of Moses’ lack of faith and his rebellion, God told him he would not be allowed to cross over the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.
So now the people have arrived at the border of the Promised Land on the plains of Moab. Moses stands before them and delivers his final address. As he begins to speak, the people face the reality that they’ll be entering the Promised Land without the only leader, spiritual guide and teacher they have ever known. They are sad and anxious because Moses will not be guiding them as they transition to their new home. They wonder who will communicate God’s words and desires to them. But in the section of Moses’ sermon we heard read today, he assures his community that God will send a new prophet, a new leader and spokesperson for God. “The new prophet will be someone from our community,” Moses explains, “and will be like me in many ways. God will tell the new prophet what to say and he’ll pass on everything to you. God will hold accountable any among you who don’t listen to and obey the prophet” (Deut. 1818-19 MSG). “So pay attention and act accordingly” (Forney 294).
The job of this new prophet that would follow Moses was to speak God’s word to the people. To name the ways they have sinned and call them to repent. To remind them of their covenant with God and to constantly invite them back into that relationship (Forney 290). God’s promise to choose a new prophet is a word of hope for a people who fear a change in leadership. The promise of a new prophet indicates that God intends for this community of chosen people to continue on. God wants to continue to be in covenant with the Hebrew people and continue to speak to them (Forney 292). So even though Moses is nearing the end of his life, God and this community will continue on into the future. And we know that many prophets follow Moses. The word of God continues to be spoken in different times and places by a variety of people. People like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Joel. Some of them were ordinary folks. Some were a bit eccentric with odd forms of dress. Some were reluctant. Some spoke God’s word to kings and rulers and synagogue leaders. Some spoke to people like you and me who were just trying to live in good relationship with God.
God’s desire to continue to be in relationship with people and to continue to speak to them has not waned. So God continues to call modern-day prophets to speak God’s word in our time and place in history. In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann says that the task of modern-day prophets is “to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us” (3). What Brueggemann means by those lofty words is that the job of modern day prophets is to persistently keep people aware that God’s way is most likely not the way of the culture and values that surround us. Another Biblical scholar says the prophet’s task is to tell folks in what ways we have broken our relationship with God and then provide the vision for how to repair it (Forney 294).
We are all familiar with some of the more recent prophets in our nation and world. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw the Christian church in Germany buying into the agenda of Hitler. Bonhoeffer called on the Confessing Church to wake up and then live up to God’s expectations in the face of Hitler’s atrocities. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked us to open our eyes and see the injustice of segregation that we had preferred not to see. Or at least if we saw it, we chose not to rock the boat and do anything about it. King called us to confess the ways we had oppressed people and then through his powerful speeches created a vision about where we should be in our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. Sean Claiborne is a modern day prophet who challenges the status quo of us middle and upper class Christians to really live the gospel. He calls people to live in solidarity with the poor which to him means living in an alternative community with other Christians in a poor, diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia.
I believe that all of us are called to be modern-day prophets. People who look carefully at the systems, the values, the power structures of our society and then challenge those that are not consistent with the teachings or priorities of Jesus. Each of us has been called to ministry at our baptism and that call includes speaking the word of God in the places and situations in which God’s word desperately needs to be heard.
This week alone, we’ve heard news of a predator habitually abusing young female athletes. We have heard from women who are speaking out about their wages that fall far below their male counterparts. We’ve learned that the number of school suspensions is much higher among African American high school students than any other racial group. We’ve heard of yet another school shooting where innocent teens have been killed.
As modern day prophets God calls us to speak God’s word into these sad situations in our world. According to Brueggemann, prophets of today are called to break through the numbness that enables us to accept things the way they are (117). We recognize this numbness when we observe that the news of school shootings is no longer front page news but is relegated to interior pages of the newspaper, because we’ve become so used to those events.
Way back in the day it was possible to tour the actual Hershey Chocolate factory and see the actual chocolate being made by real live people. I have a vivid memory of seeing women watching hundreds and hundreds of Hershey Kisses move by them on a conveyor belt. The women’s task was to pick out the kisses that were imperfect. They were the quality control of kisses. As I watched, they’d reach down and pick out one kiss, then another and then another. I wondered how they could even spy an imperfect kiss in that fast-moving, sea of silver. To do their job, those women had to be alert and not become numb to the mass of silver foil moving by them. They had to have keen vision and quick reflexes in order to pick out the individual pieces that were not as they were supposed to be. Like those workers, modern day prophets are quality control for God. We must stay alert so we do not become numb to the parts of life in the world that are not the way God intends them to be. Modern day prophets must have keen vision and be on the constant look-out for those attitudes, behaviors and values that have become so ingrained in us that we don’t even realize they don’t measure up to God’s desires for us and our world.
The prophet’s task is to challenge those attitudes and behaviors to which we’ve become numb. We have to do more than just notice. We have to speak up and name the ways we are not measuring up to God’s standards. Then the prophet must create hope for a different way and inspire new ways of being and living. Prophets must remind people that change is possible and that God is more than able to create a different future than the dire one we might imagine (Brueggemann 117).
Not only do we 21st century prophets speak about God’s new and different future, Brueggemann says we must be an alternative community in our world (117). We need to live as if God’s new and better future is now. We must believe differently and do things differently than the society around us. That is the calling of us as individual followers of Jesus. And doing things differently is the calling of the church. We need to be in relationship with our society, but demonstrate that there are alternatives to the violence, the injustice, the abuse of power, the greed and the anger that is everywhere.
God assured the Hebrew people that God wanted to continue to be in relationship with them. So God provided a new prophet to communicate God’s word to them and guide them into the Promised Land. In the intervening thousands of years, nothing’s changed regarding God’s relationship with God’s people. God continues to desire a relationship with us. God wants to speak to us, to guide and shape our lives and our world. So God calls prophets for today. Quality control people who will be alert to the ways we are not measuring up to God’s standards. God calls us to be prophets who speak a word of hope. Prophets who speak the good news that God wants to lead us into a future unlike the one we might imagine (Brueggemann 117). And God calls us to be the prophets of today who live as an alternative community. A community of people who follow Jesus. A community in which peace dwells, forgiveness is offered, justice reigns, love is extravagantly offered, and God’s resurrection possibilities are proclaimed.
May God bless all of you 21st century prophets with the ability to be alert, with keen vision and the courage to speak and live God’s word in our time and place. Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis:Fortress, 2001.
Forney, David. “Theological Perspective on Deuteronomy 18:15-20.” Feasting on the Word,
Year B Volume 1. Bartlett, David and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Eds. Louisville,
Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 290-295.
Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. “ Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20.” February 1, 2015.