Who speaks for God? 7 tips for spotting false prophets!

In our passage the Deuteronmist deadpans, “Now, you might be wondering, how will we know which word God hasn’t spoken?” Who speaks for God? Our mainline churches, seminaries,  and denominational offices have given way to congregational authority. Progressives and traditionalists disagree about how to read scripture. Do the images of capital-storming, Bible-waving Christians shake our churches enough to denounce such Christian Nationalist heresy? Who speaks for God? Can we even design such a test? 

Often Christians only see rules within the Hebrew Bible instead of a progressive unfolding of prophetic insights. But here, in the heart of the law, the Deuteronmist affirms the role of the prophetic voice in correcting and perfecting the palace and temple. The prophetic edge over time becomes the Received Tradition. (Matthew 23) Abraham and Sariah hear God’s call and break away from traditions of idols and polytheism. Moses hears God’s call to resist systemic evil, injustice, and  oppression bringing 12 plagues of civil disobedience. After liberating the people, Moses hears God’s voice and writes down The Law. The prophet Nathan judges King David, Israel’s model king. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ruth, and Esther challenge the cultural status quo. Jesus’ words and deeds burst the trusted wineskins of tradition and foster a whole new religious movement called Christianity. 

Without the spiritual renewal of the prophetic voice, Jews, Christians, and Muslims would be polytheistic pagans. Without the prophetic words and deeds of Jesus, there would not be Christianity. Without the prophetic challenge, we might still stone Sabbath-breakers or hold slaves. Without the prophetic wisdom of Martin Luther, we might all read the Bible in Latin. Without the prophetic science of Galileo, we might still cling to pre-scientific wooden literalism. Without the prophetic challenges of Sarah Mallet, Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, Charity Opheral, Fanny Crosby, Anna Howard Shaw, Francis Willard, and Martha Drummer, we would have never ordained Marjorie Matthews as our first female Bishop in 1980. Without prophets like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, we might still have balconies roped off by racism.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us that without the Spirit, the letter kills, but Christ writes love directly onto our hearts and minds.  (2 Corinthians 3) If we believe a living faith, wherein God is present and active in our lives today, then we must listen to the prophetic challenge of our traditional interpretation and practice. Indeed, “The Lord our God will raise up prophets like Moses from our community.”

Who speaks for God? Let me suggest that the prophetic challenge is a bedrock faith value. 

  1. God sends prophets to challenge the status quo. (Deut. 18 & Matt. 23)

Admitting that God sends prophets means we must think! How will we know which word God has spoken? Even as Moses’ law establishes the prophetic role, the Deuteronomist suggests some criteria for determining who speaks for God.  

Following Jesus and the prophets we must reject the violent conquest of Cannan. But Jesus, like the Deuteronmist, calls us to live with a different set of values that season and judge all nations. Moses thunders, “Do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations around you, be blameless before the Lord your God.”  Jesus whispers, “Be perfect by building your Creator’s kin-dom on earth as in heaven!” (Matt. 5-7)  Dr. King thunders, “America, you must be born again.” (Where Do We Go from Here?)

The Deuteronimist warns us that false prophets practice divination, sign reading, fortune-telling, enchanting, and spell casting!  Moses thunders, “Do not listen to sign readers and diviners. Your God doesn’t permit you to do this.” When I was a teenager, we loaded into a van to hear a popular evangelist who offered a ninety minute powerpoint about the end of the world. The presentation was not about the climate crisis. I tuned out about 20 minutes in when he told us Micheal Gorbichoff was the Bible’s Antichrist due to a wine stain on his forehead shaped exactly like the Valley of Armageddon. The superimposed slide of the valley map over the Russian president’s forehead made me laugh out loud, drawing the ire of the more zealous. Is that sort of prophecy not a kind of Christian divination, sign reading, and fortune telling? Jesus says that nobody knows about the end-times, so stop worrying. (Matthew 24) Build the kin-dom on earth as in heaven. Magical thinking is a Biblical “thou shall not”. 

  1. God sends prophets to challenge the status quo.
  2. False prophets are sign-readers, fortune-casters and magical thinkers.

The Deuteronomist offers a second tell for spotting false prophets. Twice, Moses uses the word “arrogance” as a strong clue when identifying a false prophet. The prophetic voice comes without a sense of self-importance.  Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt? What am I supposed to say? What if they don’t believe me? What if they don’t pay attention to me? I’ve never been able to speak well…Please, Lord, just send someone else.” Then well into the liberation mission, Moses confides saying, “Lord, why did you send me to do this?” (Exodus 3, 4, 10,13) The prophet Paul describes himself as “ slave attached to Christ”, “a servant of grace”, “a steward of divine mysteries”, “the least of the apostles”, “a fool for Christ”, “unfit to be called an apostle”, and “the very least of all the saints.” (1 Corinthians 4, 15; Ephesians 3) Jesus warns us to beware of religious leaders that pray in public, enjoy titles, crave honor, seek the limelight, drill converts, and burden others with their rules.  Jesus tells us we must die to self-importance to become a disciple.(Matthew 6, 23) 

  1. God sends prophets to stretch and perfect the spiritual status quo.
  2. False prophets are sign-readers and fortune-casters.
  3. False prophets lack humility. How can we speak for Love with arrogance  or anger? 

Now that we have some “don’ts” we might still be wondering how will we know which word God hasn’t spoken? The Deuteronomist offers us some affirmative characteristics. Twice the passage says, “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me (Moses) from your community, from your fellow strivers.” Prophetic preaching is deeply immersed in the people’s struggle! Elijah called out kings. Moses brought liberation. Paul preached inclusion. When John’s people asked Jesus if he was the One to Come, Jesus answered, “Look around! What do you see and hear? Those who were blind see, those who were lame walk, those who were lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and people who are poor have good news brought to them. Blessed are those who don’t’ stumble along the way because of me.”  (Luke 7)

  1. God sends prophets to challenge and reset the religious and cultural status quo.
  2. Sign-reading and fortune-casting tip us off to false prophets.
  3. Look for humility.  
  4. The Prophetic word arises within the people’s struggle for Love and Justice

How will we know which word God hasn’t spoken? The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like Moses.” There is a prophecy of deeds. (Feasting on the Word) You can judge a prophet by their movements fruit! (Matthew 7) There is a prophecy of deeds. Moses only became a prophet when he took on God’s work of liberation. Paul enters the Cannon only as he widens the circle of grace and inclusion. (Grace given to bring the Gentiles into the boundless richness of Christ’s Love!  Explore this in Ephessians 3). We see Jesus’ prophetic work not just in sermons but in the prophetic work of deeds- giving away free healthcare, challenging arrogant preachers, picking up a defeated Peter, touching the untouchables, weeping with grieving sisters, dining with outcasts, flipping over temple tables, or forgiving from the cross. Jesus’ life shines like  stained glass icons modeling for us the ways we should live! Jesus promises God’s presence today when we feed the hungry, offer healthcare, provide clean water, care for prisoners, and welcome strangers. (Matthew 5,6.7, 23, 25) There is a prophecy of deeds. You may find today’s prophets less in pulpits, but more often in a public defender’s office, marching for justice, or feeding hungry people.  

  1. God sends prophets to challenge the status quo.
  2. Sign-reading and fortune-casting are marks of false prophets.
  3. Arrogance and self-serving theology clue us to false prophets. 
  4. Authentic prophecy emerges from the struggle to build God’s just kin-dom.
  5. Prophetic deeds accompany and measure words. 
  6. The Deuteronomy adds: “Is it true?” 
  7. And “Is it connected to our faith story? 

Well, my third draft of this sermon swelled to self-important nine pages, but mercifully, let’s close by turning to the most influential prophet since Jesus. The Apostle Paul penned more Bible books than anyone else gave us a simple test. Who speaks for God? 

Now  concerning (deeply contested theological debate number XYZ), we know that we all have knowledge.  Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone thinks they know something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know.” (What?!?! Say that again!) But if someone loves God, then they are known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1-3 CEB)

I grew up thinking that being a Christian meant knowing things! Indeed, theological certainty was considered to be evidence of deep faith. Paul begs to differ!

Now concerning (your deep theological divide), we know that “all of us possess knowledge.”  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;  but anyone who loves God is known by God. (NRSV)

Don’t be surprised that love is a better test than Bible knowledge. Jesus taught “that all the law and the prophets hang on just two commands, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like it, you must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”   Jesus said “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the law and the prophets.” Love and equal treatment (justice) is a simple test. Love, like any simple test and can be manipulated, but it is the best test we have.  

Who speaks for God? What does love say? Once upon a time, southern churches like ours stood with slave holders defending slavery with Bible verses. Knowledge puffs up. Love cuts through the crapola and asks if it is loving and just to own someone? Some resisted female pastors citing their Bible verses; we might ask if it is loving and just to deny a pulpit based on gender? We might ask if it is loving or just to withhold the marriage blessing to people who love each other and long to bring Christ into the center of their shared lives? Is it loving or just to feel the need to correct anyone who says “my life matters” or “Black Lives Matter”? Is it loving and just to dismiss people who once wore a red or blue ball cap? How will we know who speaks for God?  Let us resist  searching for Bible verses to back up our preconceived notions and perhap begin to ask, “Is this loving and just? Do I know things or am I building people up?” 

So let me suggest these seven guidelines for knowing who speaks for God: 

  1. God sends prophets! In time the prophetic edge becomes our tradition! 
  2. The prophetic voice challenges the status quo.
  3. Sign-reading and fortune-casting tip us off to false prophets.
  4. Look for humility.  
  5. Prophets arise within movements for justice and love.
  6. There is a Prophecy of Deeds!
  7. Ask : Is this true?. 
  8. Remember, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
  9. Is it loving and just?

Oh, and finally not fret when you do not know.  Stay humble.  Do not fear the sign readers or inquisition leaders. Remember, our calling is not to know but to love. So, let us love God and each other. Amen.

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