Back in my early twenties, I found a girl I liked . . . a lot. I met her while I was traveling to summer camps as a college recruiter. She was gorgeous. In fact, I went on to marry her. But don’t let me get too far ahead of myself.
Just prior to that summer I spent traveling for the college, my long time high school sweetheart broke off our engagement. I was devastated by the whole thing, and so traveling the midwest, spending time with young people, getting to be the hip college guy was pretty good tonic.
Anyway, at the end of the summer, I had a new girlfriend and a changed outlook on life. Some time early in the fall, my old girlfriend called me up and wanted to get back together. I tried to be kind, but essentially what I said was, “Thanks, but I’m good. Happy where I’m at right now, and I don’t want to screw that up. So . . . no.”
Well, when my friends from high school found out I wasn’t getting back together with my old girlfriend, it apparently caused a great deal of consternation. Not quite sure why they were so invested in the whole thing, but they came at me like a spider monkey.
Two of my oldest friends called me up and said they wanted to get together with me. They had something they wanted to talk about. One guy was a hipper form of pentecostal, the kind you see wearing those mics that swoop across their faces—very much into the whole Christian lingo thing, like “I’m in a new season of life; I’m just dancing in the Lord,” or “God has put it on my heart that Joel Olsteen is a modern day prophet.” That kind of thing. You know what I’m talking about.
To be fair, I had a higher tolerance for that kind of Christianese, growing up myself in an evangelical household—now it just sets my teeth on edge.
The other one was Lutheran—so, I don’t know what his deal was. In my experience, Lutherans never said a whole lot about God out loud, but, I mean whatever. The Lutheran was there too.
Anyway, when we three finally got together, they wanted to tell me that independent of one another, they both felt like God had “put it on their hearts” that I was supposed to get back together with my old girlfriend.
The fact that they both got the same message indicated to them that this was clearly a sign from God. Apparently, it never occurred to them that projection is an actual thing, and that maybe it was they who wanted me to re-up with my old girlfriend, and that God might even then be looking down and grumbling, “Look, you idiots, I never said that.” (God probably wouldn’t say it like that, but that’s how I think, so maybe I’m guilty of a little projection myself.)
At any rate, certain that I would see the predicament the same way, they rushed to the phone to call me to set up a meeting, where they would let me know that God wanted me to get back together with my old girlfriend. I don’t remember much more about the conversation, except that basically, I said, “Thanks, but I’m good. Happy where I’m at right now, and I don’t want to screw that up. So . . . no.”
But I was a little rattled. I mean, what if God had sent a message, and I was guilty of ignoring it—putting my own stupid feelings first? What if God had sent them on an errand to steer me down one road, but I was yanking the wheel in the opposite direction?
See what I mean? The way I grew up, if somebody told you that “God had put something on their heart,” you didn’t just casually ignore it. You listened, because, what if really was God?
So unnerved was I that I went to my parents’ house and told them everything that had just happened. I’ll never forget my dad’s response. He said, “That’s not how God works. Don’t listen to them. They’re idiots.” (My dad would definitely never say it like that, but that’s how I think, and I don’t really remember his exact words. So, I’m going with that. It just feels right to me.)
After that conversation, I was relieved. I really felt like I was already doing the right thing. But, you know, if somebody comes up to you and tells you that God told them that you’re supposed to do something different, it’s hard to just ignore it.
Who gets to speak for God? That’s not an idle question, is it?
Over the past week, I’ve heard Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Jerry Falwell Jr speak, they would like us to believe, on behalf of God about the president’s $130,000 hush money payment for a year long affair he’d had with—how do I put this delicately?—an adult film star. The gist of what they all said, distilled to its essence, amounted to this: “It was 10 years ago. He says he didn’t do it; I believe him. I like him. Therefore, I’m going to use my position to confer upon him God’s endorsement.” They were, for all intents and purposes, presuming to speak for God . . . like really publicly . . . in front of the whole world.
And, as is my custom, I cringed. I wanted to shout to the whole world, “That’s not how God works. Don’t listen to them. They’re idiots!” (See, I told you that’s how my mind works.)
Who gets to speak for God? That’s the question Moses tries to answer—or better, God tries to answer through Moses—in our text for this morning. And it’s a pressing one. If you read the lectionary text, our passage seems to come out of nowhere. But I’d like to suggest to you that, in fact, the first part of chapter 18 illuminates our passage.
What am I talking about?
Well, Moses has been laying down the law—literally laying down the law. This is the oral law. There’s all kinds of “thou shalts” and “shalt nots” in the preceding chapters. But just before our text, the issue on the table is how the children of God are supposed to act when they come into the new lands God has promised to give them.
Apparently, there will be those who practice “divination, or are soothsayers, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead” (18:10).
We’re quick to learn that God doesn’t like these sorts of things, and that the Israelites are supposed to stay far, far away from them.
“Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.”
Fine. But why do people consult soothsayers and diviners and augurs and sorcerers, or people who casts spells, or who consult ghosts or spirits, or who seek oracles from the dead . . . in the first place?
Because they want to know something, right? Whether that something is about death, or the future, or the divine. People consult soothsayers and diviners because these sorts of people claim to know more about the hidden mysteries of the world than you or I do. They claim to be able to solve the riddles of life—which, who doesn’t want to know about that?
So, what’s the problem?
These soothsayers and diviners more or less claim to have access to the divine, to know the mind of God—and for a price, are wiling to let you in on the secrets.
But in our text, God warns against listening to these people, because God will make God’s mind clear enough through the people God chooses. And the people God chooses are those whom we call prophets.
But the problem with prophets has always been, how do you know which ones are actually speaking for God . . . and which ones are just making it up as they go along?
See what I mean? There are plenty of people out there claiming to speak for God. Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Jerry Falwell Jr., for instance, seem pretty sure they’ve got a hammerlock on God’s mind. And there are plenty of people willing to believe they do. But, I mean, come on, man. These people rarely get God right . . . even by accident.
So, if just anybody can claim God “put something on their heart,” how do we make a determination about who’s actually speaking God’s mind?
Well, here’s a place to start: anyone who claims to be a prophet—like anybody who claims to be a stable genius . . . probably isn’t. Because prophets have actual work to do, which prevents them from expending energy trying to convince people they’re prophets. Prophets, in the bible, tend to be those folks who’re dragged kicking and screaming into the whole messy affair of speaking for God. They’re not out there bragging about being prophets.
Our text for this morning gives another tip-off about how to identify a false prophet: "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" (18:20).
Now, you may chime in at this point that that’s question-begging, that such a tip-off doesn’t tell us much. After all, isn’t the whole issue who’s speaking in the name of other gods, and who’s speaking in God’s name a word that God’s not commanded them?
Good point. Perhaps we can get at it this way: What kinds of things do we know God has said in the past, the kinds of things we already know that scripture describes as reflecting God’s thinking?
Well, here’s one. In the Torah, the admonition to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger is far and away the most cited responsibility for those who would follow God. Over three dozen times we hear about caring for those who are most vulnerable—more than murder, more than stealing, more than adultery. It’s a biggie.
So, any person who comes along and claims to be speaking for God, but seems not to care at all about those whom God singles out for extra protection probably isn’t speaking for God.
See how that works? You can expand it too.
Any preacher, for instance, who says that what God cares most about is answering your dreams for a bigger house, a nicer car, or fatter bank account is a false prophet.
Any yahoo that tries to convince you that what God’s most concerned with are sexual sins, except when those sexual sins are committed by somebody you think can deliver your partisan policy Christmas wish list, is a false prophet.
Any loudmouth who says God cares more about refusing to bake gay wedding cakes than about offering hospitality to those who’ve been systematically cut off from God by “well-meaning” religious types is a false prophet.
Anybody who claims that God is a God of grace and not anger when it comes to dealing with systems and authorities designed to keep the last last and the first first is a false prophet.
I remember being in a preaching class one time, when one of the African American students preached on a text from the prophet Amos. It came off to me as judgmental. “You’re not doing this or this. Moreover, you should have done this and this. As a consequence, God’s really mad.”
And I remember saying something along the lines of, “Well, that’s fine and all. But where’s the grace in that sermon?”
All these years later, I think I have an idea about where to find grace in that student’s sermon. I think it goes without saying that there are people who show up in church who don't have the slightest idea why they're even there . . . except that they need to hear about a God who holds the hand of the anxious, who bears up those too weak to stand, who loves those who think themselves unlovable, who forgives the unforgivable. So yes, we need to comfort and console the frightened and grieving. We need a God of grace.
But there are also people who need to hear about a God who is furious with a world in which immigrant families are torn apart, a God whose anger flares when terrified refugees are turned away, a God whose indignation burns hot against those who would mistreat women and minorities, a God who’s unafraid of the rulers of this world who abuse the poor, who lead cheers of hatred against Muslims and the undocumented.
There are all kinds of people who would love to hear about a God who raises an arm against injustice, who will not tolerate bigotry, who refuses to sit by while the work of the laborers is monetized in ways that only benefit the people in charge, who are desperate for a word from a God who is incensed with a world in which African America parents lie awake at night in fear of what might happen to their children on the way home from school.
If you happen to be one of the people kicked to the curb by the folks in charge, God's outrage may just be what grace sounds like.
And if you hear it coming from someone who claims to be speaking for God . . . they just might be speaking for God.