Rev. Katherine Todd
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb onthe day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But 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.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
This week I was listening to a podcast by one of my favorite social scientist reporters, Shankar Vedantam. He was interviewing a teacher of American History. In her classes, she shows her students newspaper clippings from around the time they were born, and she observes many responses – from laughter to shame – but the profound feeling that usually sweeps the class is a sense of shock that people really believed the things that were being talked about.
And yet, if they press in further, inevitably they can draw parallels between the old news and the news of today.
In some ways we feel shocked, perplexed, and sometimes ashamed by the views of our ancestors. And in other ways, we can see the same issues playing out – with different characters and back-drops – through-out all of history.
We are both vastly different
And ever the same…
When we, as a Christian faith community, look back on the stories that have shaped our faith and the people in those stories, we can be equally shocked and amazed…while feeling connected on some level, as the same stories play out among us now.
Looking back at the Israelite people, after they have escaped Egypt and as they wait for Moses at the edge of Mount Horeb – waiting on the Lord and growing more anxious by the day…
We can clearly point out their mistakes. As if with amnesia, they totally forget the miraculous and powerful acts of God that brought them safely out from under the yoke of slavery and oppression. Rather than feeling cherished and chosen by God, as they are, they begin to feel lost and alone in this desert of uncertainty, without comforts or direction. And they build a shiny statue of gold – a golden calf, comfort from Egypt, something they can see and worship.
We watch all this, gasping at their choices.
And yet, we too grow o-so-anxious when the way before us is unclear,
When we cannot see God moving or working, or opening doors quickly enough on our behalf…
So we both gape and relate to this people, as they feel adrift, waiting for Moses, who takes ages meeting with God on the mountain.
And so our scripture today reflects back on this people. In our scripture, we read that after all goes down there at the base of Mt Horeb, the people cry out – “We cannot hear God’s voice orsee God’s great fire again, or we will die.” And God talks with Moses, the presumed author of Deuteronomy, saying, “They were right.” In other words, the people are correct in saying theycannot handle hearing my voice because indeed they cannot. They are right. And this is why God has raised up Moses to lead them. This is why God will raise up more prophets for them – so they might have mediators between them and God – a fellow human to bring them the Word of God.
And God here makes clear, that once God has spoken to them through the prophets, the people will be held responsible for that knowledge. They will be expected to respond in faith and trust, obediently following the Word of God to them. Because as we’ve noted these past few weeks in worship – when God reveals something to us, we are then responsible. We see this theme repeated again here. The people are responsible for the messages God sends them.
But God recognizes this leaves the people in a particular dilemma. There will be false prophets.There will be those who speak falsely in God’s name. So how will they KNOW who to believe, what to follow?
To this, God assures them that a prophet speaking falsely in God’s name will die, and that thepeople can know false prophets from true by whether or not their words prove true.
Now this sounds all well and good, but as we know – especially when we want to get out of doing something or when we are questioning the wisdom of what appears to be God’s Word… We can find every shade of gray. Discerning whether or not a prophet’s words come true is a tricky business. Sometimes, the words come true over lifetimes and generations. How are WE to know and follow, in our day to day lives?
Now generations of God’s people wrestle with this question,
And then Jesus comes,
And they are still wrestling with this core question – “How will we know?”
So Jesus speaks to this very question, with images of fruit. Good fruit trees bear good fruit. Thorn bushes do not bear grapes. Thistles do not bear figs. Good fruit comes from a good tree. So you will know them by their fruits.
So in this age-old question of “How will we know?”, Jesus speaks in an image.
Many will claim to bring the Word of God to us, and so we must exercise wisdom. Jesus directs us to look beyond the exteriors – the facades, the “sheep’s clothing,” the images of piety and religiosity – and to look for substance born from the prophet’s own life. “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus says.
And so Jesus invites us to step back a bit. Jesus invites us to take in the big picture.
I must admit that when I was in the early years of my journey in listening to God, I used to get worried at so many things. While God’s callings can jump off a page of scripture, imprinting itself on our minds, our own fears can also draw us in – like a moth to flame.
Fear mimics calling, in its drive.
Leaders from the dawn of time have capitalized on this fact, keeping entire peoples under their thumbs through fear. Fear motivates us. In fact, it has been shown to be a stronger motivator than pleasure. (We are more likely to run from fear than to run to pleasure.)
So I used to read a scripture or a devotional, perhaps, and both God’s voice and my own voices of fear would be talking in my ears. I felt anxious. It left me feeling directionless and afraid.
But over time, I have found that this same principle Jesus gave us applies in our daily walk with God – as we come before God directly, directly because Jesus has paid our debt and called us brothers and sisters in the family of God,…directly because God has removed our sins from us, by the blood of Christ, and God has poured out the Spirit of God on all flesh.
And so WE are now given this opportunity to come before God in prayer, to speak and tolisten… We are now afforded the opportunity to hear God’s Word and to follow, to speak truth and make God known in our very lives…
But this leaves us with the age-old, classic burden of “how do we know?!”
How do we know what is God’s voice and what is our fear? How do we know what is God’s Word to us and what is simply the tapes that play on repeat in our brains, baked into our minds and hearts by our families and communities, from the time we are born?…
How do we hear???
So I say, let’s return to Christ’s words to us: “You will know a tree by its fruit.”
Christ has given us a litmus test. And Scripture can be a guide:
God is love. Whoever loves is of God.
Love is kind. It is not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends….
Our words should build up and not tear down.
We are to make certain we do not become a stumbling block to others.
God desires that ALL shall be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.
God came to us, just as we were, bringing healing, speaking truth, setting captives free, proclaiming the year of God’s favor!…
Scriptures are an excellent guide to us. They give us glimpses into the character and heart of God – far beyond and more true than fears or idols of God.
…And so we test the thoughts in our minds.
Does a thought invite – invite us to take action?
Does a thought consume? Does it suck away all our life energy and cloak us in fear?
Does a word center you? Does it ground you? Does it calm you, as if Jesus himself were before you, looking upon you with eyes of loving compassion?
Or does it send your heart into panic?
Does a message invite you back to God? Or does it condemn.
Remember, even Christ’s words to the woman caught in adultery were not to condemn. They were words of rescue. They were words of safety along with the command to “go and sin no more.”
God’s discipline is meant to restore us. God’s truth sets us free.
As you listen for God’s Word to you, in your everyday life, during breakfast, as you watch TV, as you plan your schedule, as you talk with friends and with strangers… As you listen for God’s Word to you, you can test the Word by its fruit – by what it bears out in you.
Before I could sort and name the voices in my mind and heart – both those of God and those of my fears and failures – I used to feel stopped in my tracks. I felt passionate to live for God, but I was terrified of making a wrong move, and this stopped me from LIVING OUT my faith, from putting my faith into action, from taking risks and following God in uncertain new terrain…
I am learning to sort out the call of God by discerning which Word bears good fruit in my life.
Whatever is good, whatever is pure, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy or praise…follow your God in these paths.
Our God is guiding us, in peace through the storm, in an overflowing cup – even while surrounded by our enemies, in love that overcomes hate, in light that overcomes darkness.
As we grow in communion with God, day by day, may we come to KNOW the voice of our God. May it be to us a beacon in the night. May we rightly discern the call of God in our lives and follow our loving God, wherever God might lead us.