This morning, just for something different, we are going to have the offering now, before the sermon. Then we can chat for a few minutes among ourselves while the stewards count it and give me the total. Once I know the amount I will know which sermon to preach! My first sermon is a fire and brimstone one, reserved for those Sundays when the giving is well down. My second sermon will be delivered if the giving is on budget, where I will exhort you to give more, because I’ll tell you that this that is one of the most important things you can do as Christians. And my third sermon will only be presented if the giving is way above our budget needs, where I will tell you that God wants you to be happy – so he wants to give you wealth because you are obedient people of God, with whom he is well pleased. Naturally all three sermons will be entertaining – although the fire and brimstone one will probably be the most popular, because people do love a good law sermon.
Sounds weird? Well, it’s not as strange as you might think. Micah, one of the prophets God sent to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 700 BC said: The city’s rulers govern for bribes, the priests interpret the law for pay, the prophets give their revelations for money—and they all claim that the lord is with them. “No harm will come to us,” they say. “The lord is with us.” (Micah 3:11 GNT). In other words, the sermon or message that the people got was influenced by the amount of money the preacher got. That is not so dissimilar to some the popular TV evangelists today, who have all become millionaires through the giving of their hearers. The thing is, there were many more false prophets than genuine prophets in the Old Testament times. The false prophets said what they knew the people wanted to hear, which would make them popular – and earn them some money. At the very time when the genuine prophets were preaching judgment to the people and personally suffering for their unpopular message, the false prophets were proclaiming that God was happy with his people and that they would soon be living in peace and prosperity. And Micah also wrote: If someone showed up with a good smile and glib tongue and told lies from morning to night— ‘I’ll preach sermons that will tell you how you can get anything you want from God: more money, the best wines . . . you name it’— you’d hire him on the spot as your preacher! Micah 2:11 (The Message).
Now, if we are to find any application for us today, we need to understand that prophets were not fortune tellers or those who predicted the future. It was God’s message that the genuine prophets proclaimed. So any predictions of the future came from God. And the message was pretty simple: If you continue to rebel against God by worshiping the gods of wood and stone of the surrounding nations; if you refuse to repent of your sins; and if you continued to abuse and mistreat the poor and those most vulnerable in society, then God’s judgment will come down hard on you.
The genuine prophet had to be one who was called by God; who was unpopular because his message was brutally honest about God’s judgment; who was often required to act out the message in ways that were embarrassing and painful; who unwaveringly called the people of God back to the Covenant the Israelites had made with God at Mt. Sinai; and who were passionate in proclaiming God’s unending grace to all who turn back to him.
The prophet’s message could be brutal, even today. In Amos 5:21-24 we read: Therefore this is what the lord, the lord God almighty, says: . . . . “I hate, I despise your religious festivals . . . even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . . away with the noise of your songs . . . but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
But then listen to the passionate plea of God through the prophet Hosea:
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for your sins have brought you down.
Bring your confessions, and return to the Lord. Say to him,
“Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us, so that we may offer you our praises.
Assyria cannot save us, nor can our warhorses.
Never again will we say to the idols we have made, ‘You are our gods.’
No, in you alone do the orphans find mercy.”
The Lord says,
“Then I will heal you of your faithlessness; my love will know no bounds,
for my anger will be gone forever.
I will be to Israel like a refreshing dew from heaven.
“O Israel, stay away from idols!
I am the one who answers your prayers and cares for you.
I am like a tree that is always green; all your fruit comes from me.”
Let those who are wise understand these things. Let those with discernment listen carefully.
The paths of the Lord are true and right, and righteous people live by walking in them. Hosea 14 (NLT).
What amazing patience the Lord demonstrates to his people!! And what “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound . . .”
Elijah said to the people who had wandered off to worship other gods: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is god, follow him.” But the people said nothing. 1 Kings 18:21.
All the prophets claimed that they were speaking the very words of God. But the proof of who was genuine and who was not could only be discovered if their words came true.
Are there still prophets today? Who say, “This is what the Lord says,” and then proclaim the Word of God in its truth and purity? Are those people genuine, called prophets who say, “The Lord told me . . .”? God’s Word says that there are still genuine prophets around today, but very few. And that’s because prophets are as unpopular now as they have always been. Their message usually contains harsh judgments and strong calls to repentance, while at the same time proclaiming clearly God’s undeserved love and mercy. Today we would consider our preachers, teachers and many layworkers to fill something of the role of prophets – they do proclaim the Word of God, both Law and Gospel – and are meant to do so without fear or favour. And, like the prophets of old, the modern-day preachers and teachers of the Word comes in many different forms (Billy Graham; traditional priest; lay evangelist (Aboriginal); and Nardia Boltz-Weber).
But all of them still need to be called and sent by God, and to demonstrate a ‘compulsion’ to proclaim the Word and will of God. And, above all that they always point their hearers to sin and its judgment, and to Jesus and his salvation. Romans 10:15 says: And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” And in 1 Corinthians 9:16 we read: For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
So today, as it has always been the case, we may struggle to tell the difference between a genuine and a false prophet. There will be times when we will be led astray by some who have glib tongues and seductive messages. There are pastors, priests and teachers who have fooled us in the past. But the apostle John wrote: Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1).
People of our Lutheran Church have always had great respect for their pastors and teachers. Even pastors who do not have the gift of preaching and who find it hard to develop a relationship with their members are still treated kindly. That’s grace. And most pastors are very grateful. But it is also true that there are many times in your daily lives where you are called on to act as a prophet in your family, your church family, and your community. When we speak the truth in love, and always do so with grace and mercy, God will use us to speak as his messengers. And his message never changes, even though the way we communicate it will always try to speak into the culture of the day. Every time we speak with love and encouragement; every time we stop ourselves from being judgment and critical; every time we act with mercy, justice and compassion; every time we gently show sin to be always sin, and then to point everyone to the cross of Jesus, we are proclaiming God’s Word – we are his messengers.
On the one hand it’s never easy to be a messenger for God, because it means that our words and our lives will be scrutinized and ‘tested’ to see if we are genuine. And God may ask us to become very unpopular by speaking words that are not easy to hear. On the other hand, those who are God’s messengers have the joy of telling others about God’s grace through Jesus.
We thank God that he has always sent messengers to us with his message of sin and judgment, and of forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to keep praying that God will send his messengers, and that we have our ears, eyes and hearts open to hear, believe and obey the message. And to pray that we will hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when he wants us to speak and act out his message of sin and grace.