Scripture: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Michel was born in France in 1503, and while he did not come for poverty or have any physical ailments stacked against him, he had hard time finding his footing once he was old enough to leave home. He wanted a career in academia, but his first year of university was cut short by an outbreak of the plague. To support himself he worked as an apothecary. At this time this work was considered a manual trade and beneath a scholar. This meant even after he restarted his university career he was promptly expelled when his work as an apothecary came to light. His personal life also struggled. He married at the age of 27, but only a few years later his wife and two children died in another plague outbreak. Finally, in his 40s he finally fell into a career that suited him and that gave him some notoriety. He began working as an astrologer for wealthy patrons, and his fame grew in this role. To the point that we still remember him today. His full name was Michel de Nostredame, but we know him best by the latinsed version of his last name: Nostradamus.
Nostradamus is known to us today because in 1555 he published a book called The Prophecies which borrowed heavily from a number of existing works. These cryptic poems, some claim, foretold future events. For example, some believe that Nostradamus predicted the great London fire of 1666, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, the writings of Nostradamus leave out a lot of detail. For instance, the quatrain that is often pointed as predicting the great fire of London reads: The blood of the just will commit a fault at London/ Burnt Through lighting of twenty threes the six/ the ancient lady will fall from her high place/ Several of the same sect will be killed.”
The lines do mention London and twenty threes the six could mean 66, but the London fire was started in a bakery not by lightning and nothing surrounding the historical event really seems to fit with a an ancient lady and several of the same sect being killed. All of the writings in The Prophecies are this way. In hindsight, they can kind of/ sort of fit various events but never perfectly, and never in a way that is truly descriptive of what is going to happen. Yet, by and large this is what we think of when we think of prophecies. Often a prophecy is a vague riddle of a future event, and the prophets are the mystics that through some divine connection can spout this shrouded knowledge. Outside of tabloids and fantasy novels the only place where we encounter the idea of prophecies and prophets is the bible, but the biblical idea of prophecies do not really fit the pop culture cryptic future prediction definition we normally think of. This morning’s scripture is a fairly clear prophetic statement. By considering it we can come to a better understanding of prophets and prophecy in the bible, as well as how God might still speak to us today.
Perhaps at first glance this morning’s scripture might feel like the kind of cryptic, future telling idea of a prophecy that we tend to think of. After all, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites.” The scripture reading did not explicitly identify the speaker of this morning’s scripture, but it is Moses. So a foretelling of what seems to be a future Moses does feel prophetic, but when put in the full context of Deuteronomy it is less so. This morning’s scripture comes from the Torah, the first five books of the bible, commonly referred to as “the Law”. The Law contains the rules for righteous living that the Israelites were to follow so that they lived at peace with each other, peace with their neighbors, and in right relationship with God. This morning’s scripture is part of a section that outlaws the civics of life under the Law. Specifically, it addresses the qualifications and roles of three types of community leaders: The King, the priests, and the prophets. When put in this perspective this morning’s scripture does not read like a future prediction, but rather a prescription of what to expect and look for. As professor Ronald Clements writes in the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, “The formula that is put forward is that all true prophets must be like Moses.”
This scripture reveals two key features of the biblical prophets. First, anyone could potentially be a prophet. This is different than the other leadership offices mentioned in this section. The king and the priests were hereditary rules passed down family lines, but in this morning’s scripture states in verse 15 and 18 that it is God who calls and raises up the prophet. Second this morning’s scripture states the role of a prophet for the Israelites. The prophets speak on behalf of God. According to verse 16, God used prophets to speak to the Israelites because it was their request. When the Israelites were wondering the wilderness, God met them at Mount Horeb and Exodus 20:18-19 records the reaction of the people: “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself, and will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ “
The biblical prophets spoke for God, it is through the prophets the word of God, the will of God, and guidance from God was communicated. Unlike Nostradamus, biblical prophets were not in the habit of writing down cryptic lines that could possibly elude to some foreseen event. While some of the writings and teachings of the prophets did look towards the future, their point was not to predict what would happen. The point of the prophets was to communicate for God and in doing so point people back to God. The various writings, styles, and ways that God used prophets are as varied as the works we have preserved in the Bible, but there are some common threads. The prophets tend to be less concerned with the future and much more concerned with the here and now. Even when the prophets talk of future events, it is often in the form of a warning. For instance, last week we considered scripture from the prophet Jonah. Jonah’s message to Nineveh as recorded in verse 3:4 was “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Yet the book of Jonah tells us that is not what happened. The people of Nineveh believed God, the people repented. God out of compassion and abounding in love relented from sending calamity.
The biblical prophets are not fortune tellers, but it is through them that God warns. Through the prophets God advises the people on the best course of action and gives the consequences of what will happen if they do not turn from their current path. In most instances, the goal of the words spoken through the prophets are to bring people into repentance and bring them back to God. Through the prophets, God spoke to the Israelites and while there are a lot of messages scattered across all of the prophetic books the primary thing that God had to say to them can be summed up as “Stop doing what you know is wrong, and come back to me.”
This might lead us to question why are there not prophets today like there were then, because given the state of the world that is still a message that a lot of people need to be hearing. This morning’s scripture, which comes from the law, sets forth the office of prophet. Under the law, God speaks to the people through the prophets. But friends as followers of Jesus, the law-while beneficial-is not what defines how we live in right relationship with God. We are under grace. Under the law, God used prophets to guide and lead those who followed God but Jesus promised something different. In the gospel of John, Chapter 16, Jesus tells his disciples these words: “I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate, will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When comes he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.” Jesus then continues, “But when he, The Spirit of Truth, comes he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears and he will tell you what is yet to come.”
Where once God spoke to the people as a whole through the prophets, with a message to turn back to God. Now, God speaks through the Holy Spirit into the lives of individuals. Much like the prophets did for the Israelites, the Holy Spirit in our lives can remind us of who God is, convict us when we do what we know we should not do, warn us of the consequences, lead us into repentance, and guide us into a way of blessing and way of life that is in right relationship with God. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives that our Lord Jesus is with us always.
While we may not have prophets in the same way as were present long ago and described in this morning’s scripture, prophecy is still mentioned more than once as a spiritual gift in Paul’s writings. The office of the biblical prophet may no longer be around, but the prophetic voice still is. Remember, the prophets of old did not focus on predicting the future. They focused on the now. The focused on helping people turn back to God in the moment. The prophets cut through the spin and the posturing of the time, to reveal eternal truth. The prophets spoke truth to power, and the prophets had the keen ability to focus the people on what God was doing in the world. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, faithful followers of Jesus can still be used for these very functions. The prophetic voice is still alive and active today. In their book Find Your Place Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps define how this prophetic voice works within the life of the church. About this prophetic voice they wrote it “questions and critiques. These are people who feel called to maintain faithfulness to God among the people of God [They] are guardians of the covenant relationship, calling out sin and challenging God’s people to greater fidelity to God.”
In the Christian faith today, the prophetic voice is the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that can cut through our excuses, and weak justifications. The prophetic voice convicts our hearts and can inspire real change and transformation. The prophetic voice can encourage and rally us to better follow God.
One example that we are likely all familiar with that perhaps illustrates the prophetic voice in action involves a preacher from who once served the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. This African-American pastor grew up in a deeply racist country that had held to an unjust and prejudices doctrine of separate but equal for almost a century by the 1950s. From a deep faith conviction, Martin Luther King Jr. became involved in the civil rights movement to help end the oppression of people in this country based on the color of their skin. His words and his voice, had the power to change mind and transform hearts. This was most evident in 1963 when he stood in Washington D.C. and said “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of tis creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character. I have a dream today.”
Now clearly, there is still a lot of work to do. This dream has not been fully realized. Racism is still present, and the sinful hurts of the past have not yet been fully healed or reconciled. There is work to do, but much progress had been made. I think a strong case can be made that through Martin Luther King Jr. the prophetic voice was heard, and it helped brought about real transformation. It helped and continues to help convict people of their sinful attitudes, and it continues to inspire to new generations of activist to speak truth to power and be a prophetic voice that God can still use to bring about change today.
We no longer have biblical prophets speaking for God today. Instead, if you are a follower of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fulfills that role in our lives. In the biblical accounts the Israelites were infamously bad at listening to the prophets. We should examine ourselves, and consider how well of a job do we do at listening to the Spirit. If we take Jesus at his word, then the Spirit works in our lives it should be leading us from wrong and pointing us back to God. So may we listen to the Spirit’s guidance in our lives. May we listen, but if need be may we also respond. Because there are not prophets today, but through the Holy Spirit the prophetic voice still speaks. It still proclaims truth, calls out sin ,and points people back to God. If God has placed a message in your heart, if that voice is ready to come out of you, then by all means let it out. Speak your truth even if your voice shakes, because when we speak the truth about who God is and how God loves, then we have the real potential to make new disciples and transform the world.