- Parish House
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Chicken entrails and coffee grounds, tea leaves and crystal balls, stock analysts and talking heads, gene tests and weather reports–we want to know what will happen. It is not just curiosity that drives us, the entertainments of water-cooler analysis. We want to know what will happen because we want to know how we should live. Is now a good time to go on vacation? Should we move our retirements accounts into more stocks or more bonds? What are the prospects for our children when they graduate from high school or college? Will we have enough to retire on? Will we live in good health long enough to enjoy it? The questions can be big or they can be small, but all of us ask them because we all have a stake in the future. And because we have a stake in the future, we all, to some degree want to control it.
This is an old problem, one that occurs again and again in the bible. One of the most famous examples is the story in the book of Samuel about king Saul and the witch at Endor. The prophet Samuel, Saul’s source of guidance died, and Saul, heading into battle, wanted to know what to do. Since he no longer had a prophet on staff he went to a medium at Endor and had her channel the spirit of Samuel. It doesn’t end well for Saul because mediums and fortune tellers are forbidden in the laws of Torah, but despite the evidence against it, we still act in the same spirit he did. As the theologian Dallas Willard has said, “many of us have our own version of a witch of Endor.”
We might delude ourselves that ours are more scientific, backed by genetics, the calculations of supercomputers, the visions of our best minds, but the reality is that we do not know. A history of our predictions shows little success. Theories change, science shifts, one day it is Ptolemy another Kepler, Newton and then Einstein and whoever is next, but still our wisdom of how to live into the vagaries of life makes little progress on the whole.
And still the question remains, how do we live into an uncertain future, a future where our actions now have great weight and great consequence? In our reading from Deuteronomy today we find an answer: what God gives us is not soothsayers, but prophets.
In this chapter of Deuteronomy (a book that by the way, is known in the Jewish tradition with the title “In the Wilderness” which I think makes it a much more attractive read) Moses is laying out the various roles of those who will lead the people. He gives an outline of the role of the priests and Levites, the sacramental leaders of the people–the position filled by his brother Aaron. But who will fill the role of Moses, who will give the people guidance into the way they should live into the future?
Just before where our reading today picks up, Moses tells the Israelites who must not fill that role: “There must not be anyone among you who passes his son or daughter through fire; who practices divination, is a sign reader, fortune-teller, sorcerer, or spell caster; who converses with ghosts or spirits or communicates with the dead.” “Instead,” Moses says, “you are to be perfect before the LORD your God.” It is then that Moses says that God will raise up for them a prophet like him to give them guidance.
This context is important because it shows what the alternatives are and also what the role of a prophet is in the community. It becomes clear that a prophet is not simply a divinely sanctioned fortune teller. What the people are to seek instead of knowing the future is to be perfect, that is to be their concern and that is what the prophet is to help them to do.
The Hebrew adjective for “perfect,” here is tamim (taw-meem’). It means complete and whole, sound and perfect. The vision here is for the people to be whole and complete, rather than simply to live exactly into some exacting moral standard. The goal of the people is to be complete and whole before God and the prophet’s role is to help them do this.
We can see then that a prophet in this role might be able to tell people what they must do as they face the future, but at the same time not be a fortune teller or diviner. A diviner is one who seeks to hear God for their own ends. This is so often our temptation when we want to hear what God is saying. As Dallas Willard wrote in his wonderful book, Hearing God : “I fear that many people seek to hear God solely as a device for obtaining their own safety, comfort and sense of being righteous. For those who busy themselves to know the will of God, however, it is still true that ‘those who want to save their life will lose it’ (Mt 16:25).”
The prophet is then not one who comes to help us toward a goal of self-actualization. The prophet is instead one who calls us to live into relationship with the God in whom we truly “live and move and have our being.” What the prophet knows, then, is not the future, but instead the nature of God and the way we should be in a deep relationship with God. “The prophets know in deep and intimate ways about the character of God and so can anticipate God’s constancy which will be as decisive in the future as in the past” writes Walter Brueggemann.
The question of what we should do and how we should live are important ones. Life has many twists and turns and the answers to the challenges we face as individuals and communities are not always easy to find. Discernment is important and because it is there are plenty of people ready to give us answers, usually for a price. But in our readings today we find that those alternatives will only lead to death, they will keep us from the completeness and wholeness we all long for.
If we want to know how live through the accidents and vagaries of life, the answer our scriptures give is that we should learn to live in close relationship with the decisive reality of all things: God, whom we call Father. God is known to us through Jesus, who was called a prophet, a priest, and a king, and is our guide to being complete and whole before God. In him we see the authority of one who has the answers to our longings. It was he who told us what we should do about the “what ifs” of our lives: “don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’” and we might add, “will we be successful?” “will our loved ones still love us or be with us in the years to come?” “will we find peace with our past and live with joy in our future?” “Instead,” Jesus our prophet says, “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Those are the words of a prophet we should heed. This is the guidance we need if we want to be whole.