The text is Moses’ promise of “a prophet like me”. Prophet is one of those words that feels slightly archaic, but it just isn’t. It is used all the time. What this sermon does is hopefully three things:
Define what a prophet is
Understand what “a prophet like me” means, how that is different from many standard uses, and how Jesus is the only one who really qualifies
And finally equip everyone how to not get suckered by people claiming Moses like prophetic authority.
The day was the feast day of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The Gospel text is Zechariah’s song which is what the Baptist’s father said after his tongue was loosed. And what a good portion of that song amounts to is a job description of a prophet. What this sermon does is compare that description with the modern popular conception of a prophet. It then moves on to why one of those is just as important for us today as it was for ancient Israel. It then ends with a recent example of prophetic work according to the Baptist’s model. The world would like us to dismiss or make silly the prophet, the biblical definition is our daily bread.
The confrontation of Jesus with the chief priests and elders is the confrontation of the prophet with the stewards of the priest and king roles. It is a confrontation of authority. And the abiding question is how do we know when we’ve heard THE WORD of GOD?
The typical authority granted is of that priestly or kingly type. It comes with the office and the special garb of the office. The authority of the prophet is different. And we still long to hear that prophetic authority. The first part of the hard answer is that the prophetic authority is self-authenticating. You know it in your hearts and guts when you hear it. Our opening hymn was “Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding”. That is the part of the response. The second part of the hard answer is that THE WORD comes to us under the cross. It comes in power and can be crucified, the violent can bear it away. It is always “punching up” as it were. If it is not, it might be something you desperately want to be THE WORD, but you are fooling yourselves.
When we hear the prophet the most likely response is repentance. That is the goal of THE WORD – Repent and believe. The Kingdom is here. A contrasting honest response would simply be to have the courage of your convictions. Sit in the seat of the priest or the king and deny that the prophet has any authority. It is at least a courageous honesty response. The worst response is “we don’t know”. Did you hear the Word? “We don’t know”. Stop it. You know. You just don’t like the decision is forces. True repentance or true rebellion. We want it both ways. The safe authority with the romance of the prophet.
Recording Note: You might notice during the sermon a shift in sound direction. For some reason I think the pulpit mic cut out. The altar mic picked it up fine, but it will sound more ambient. I also had to amplify the line just a smidge. We had some great hymns, like the opener mentioned, but I didn’t include any in the recording because it was one of those days where the recording just didn’t sound as good as live. Come to church, a much better experience.
One way of talking about our three great enemies is as the devil, the world and our sinful nature. (The alternate three are sin, death and the power of Satan. The difference is a question of time. Those second three are what own us prior to Christ and justification. The first three are what tempt us back into slavery.) What this sermon does is concentrate on the middle one – the world. It does so based upon the appeal of the Nazareth crowd, which is the argument of the world. You are one of us, right? All things in the world come from selling our freedom in Christ to that desire to be one with the world. The sequence looks at how Christ has freed us and the nature of Christ’s prophetic office. Then it looks at how we can fight the world in our lives. And it grounds the necessity of this in the eschatological reality that this world is passing away, while the word and promises of God stand forever.
John the Baptist is always an interesting week (or two if you follow the lectionary. Due to the kids program on Advent 4 we usually move Advent 4 which is Mary’s week up). Luke incudes Isaiah’s words about the work of the forerunner which I can’t help but hear in the strains of Handel. Every valley shall be exalted, and the mountains and hills made plain. You see this work in how rough John is “You brood of vipers! Who warned you.” Bringing the mountains of our pride low. But you also see John building up. When the tax collectors and soldiers, hated and excluded members of society respond to his calls to baptism and ask “what do we do?”, John’s answer is not give up you immoral jobs but do them honorably and without corruption. The Word of God that came to John in the desert leveled and built up. The Word of God still does that today. It calls us to repent. It levels our grand visions and petty desires, and it builds us up through the fruits of repentance into the people of God.
That might be the general story of John, but the way Luke tells it is masterful. This sermon attempts to give Luke his due specifically looking at how he situates John. I’m hoping that the analogies to the world we live in are plain. If they are not, the sermon doesn’t work. But it is just that juxtaposition of the prophet John so clear, and the social reality that Luke brings home. And that gives rise to the hope of the Word of God in the wilderness.
Music Note: I left in the Hymn of Day. Lutheran Service Book 345, Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding. Of all the John the Baptist Hymns, and he has many, this one interestingly comes at his preaching from a direct hearer’s standpoint. John’s prophetic clearness and immediacy is thrilling, progresses through startling and then moves on to expectation and praise. It moves from bringing down our mountains to filling up the valleys.
The gospel last week included the saying “pick up your cross and come after me.” The gospels were written after everything that happened happened, but in the moment, think how nonsensical that must have sounded.
Higher Critics, like the Jesus Seminar, reject all saying like that as inauthentic (i.e. Jesus never said them, the church made them up). One can understand such a reaction, but then read John 7:14-36, pay close attention to the end and the Jewish questions. “What does he mean by saying…”
The golden gut isn’t always reliable, but doesn’t that have the feel of truth. Some guy is walking around doing amazing stuff (i.e. the miracles). He gives teachings like the sermon on the mount and some of the parables. He eats with sinners and pokes up the status ladder instead of kicking down. And occasionally he says things like ‘pick up your cross’ or ‘where I am going you cannot come’. OK, Jesus, whatever you say. Just keep the bread coming and the show rolling is a natural response to those enjoying it. To those being poked, the eccentricities compound.
Rough edges, eccentricities, cryptic remarks, call them what you will, but Christ the prophet holds together contra the Jesus seminar. This is an example of something that makes complete sense in the original setting. Translating it to us is tougher. Where do those who follow Christ poke up the status ladder today? Who do they poke at? (Christ and prophets almost exclusively save their best poking for religious leaders.) What are their cryptic sayings that cause people to say “what does he mean?”