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Following Pauline’s provocative titles of her recent sermons What/Who Do You Long For? & and Miak’s Do You See This Woman? I have titled mine this morning Who Is The True Prophet?
The lectionary reading is from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and I will read from the Bible in Contemporary Language. The Bible was given to me by a Buddhist friend!
God, your God, is going to raise up a prophet for you. God will raise him up from among your kinsmen, a prophet like me. Listen obediently to him. This is what you asked God, your God, for at Horeb on the day you were all gathered at the mountain and said, “We can’t hear any more from God, our God, we can’t stand seeing any more fire. We’ll die.”
And God said to me, “They’re right, they’ve spoken the truth. I’ll raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen. I’ll tell him what to say and he will pass on to them everything I command him. And anyone who won’t listen to my words spoken by him, I will personally be responsible.
But any prophet who fakes it, who claims to speak in my name something I haven’t commanded him to say, or spoke in the name of any other gods, thatprophet must die.”
You may be wondering among yourselves “How can we tell the difference, whether it was God who spoke or not?” Here’s how. If what the prophet spoke in God’s name doesn’t happen, then obviously God wasn’t behind it, the prophet made it up. Forget about him
Let me first admit that I had difficulties with the interpretation of this text and its sermonic value. I had to consult our contemporary Old Testament scholar Dr Nancy Tan through an exchange of emails with her in Chung Chi College, Hong Kong. She was helpful and encouraging.
This passage from the Bible turned the spotlight on Moses, the first prophet and the pioneer of the prophetic tradition in the history of the Abrahamic faiths – Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The historical context is when we find Moses standing in sight of Canaan, the Promised land of milk and honey, power and glory and looking forward to the establishment of the nation of Israel. Behind him is the Red Sea that he had crossed when he liberated his tribe and led them out of Egypt where there were kept in bondage as slaves.
It may be good to remind us of the historical back-drop of Moses. He is the son of one of the slaves in Egypt. Pharaoh the king of Egypt was worried about the increasing numbers of Hebrew births. To ally his fears, he issued the decree to kill all the babies born by the slaves in his kingdom. The mother of Moses who is a Hebrew, in trying to save her infant son placed him in small boat and let it drift away in the river and hoping that some Egyptian would pick him up. It was the daughter of the Pharaoh who found him and Moses survived and was brought up by the Princess.
The sense of justice was evident in Moses while he was living in the Royal Palace. He knew about the suffering of his people struggling to survive under the domination of the Ruler who had enslaved the Hebrews. On the occasion when he saw one being beaten up, he took the law into his own hands and killed the Egyptian tormentor. Fearful of arrest, he fled for safety and got away from the clutches of the Egyptian authorities to the neighbouring land of Midian. While he was in exile he had a religious experience known to us as the Burning Bush. There was this sense of the spiritual presence of Yahweh. Metaphorically, the conversation took place and he heard his God telling him that he is standing of holy ground and calling him to return to Egypt to set the slaves free and appeal to Pharaoh to let his people go. Moses became the liberator.
To be a prophet he or she must have a deep sense of justice. Following it is the recognition and acceptance of the divine calling.
Moses was aware that at the age of one hundred and twenty, he is not going to have the opportunity to enter the land of hope and plenty. He needed God to find among his own people another prophet to carry on the work. What are the necessary qualifications? The Bible simply stated that the teaching of the prophet must be true.
When we have to discern whether the prophecy is true or not, we must realise that there have been and will always be true and false prophets in our midst. There are many prophets around and not a few self-acclaimed ones. There are prophets of hope & success and prophets of doom & gloom. Then they are prophets purported to prophesy but they offer scams to cheat and enrich themselves.
Mathew warned against such prophets in sheep’s clothing. Further on, he talked about false Messiahs and false prophets who appear with great signs and omens to lead people astray.
Generally, the people of faith look for God to speak to them directly in human speech and carry on a conversation. But that was not to be. God is silent then and now. They must wonder why and were told that they were not good enough and do not have enough faith. So they look for others to have the qualities to be spokespersons for God. Even those who dare to claim to be one will say that God has put words into their mouths and they are merely the mouthpieces of God. The word “prophet” in Hebrew is “nabi”, and its basic meaning in the language is “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson.” Who speaks for God? Who is the mouthpiece of God? Who is the spokesperson for God?
It is also widely believed that the prophets will predict the future happenings. Prophecy is meant more about what will take place later. This is a risky thing to do. For it can easily be proven false if what they projected did not come about. To continue the deception, this kind of prophet will predict the happening to take place in the distant future when they are not expected to be around and do not have to defend themselves about the outcome. That is why few will pay attention to those who claim to have the power to predict future events. The prophecy in terms of fore-telling is questionable. Prophecy is seen now more in terms of forth-telling or speaking out without fear or favour in the present situation.
We still metaphorically believe that as faithful men and women, we dare to claim we speak for God. To justify it, we evaluate the words spoken. Are they reasonable and for evil or for good? Further, they have to be validated by the character of the person whether he/she is honest and a person of integrity and lives by what is said. It is the question of word and deed. What is proclaimed must be matched by the life he/she demonstrates.
The related New Testament lectionary reading is from Mark and it is about how Jesus recruited his disciples. He met and called the simple fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John with the plain invitation: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” His disciples are called to be prophets not to foretell or predict the future events. It is not to be just travelling companions. Jesus called them to discipleship with the two little words pregnant with meaning “Follow me.” This does not mean we just literally follow Jesus around or only say what he says. More importantly it is discipleship and do what he is doing and the kind of life that he has set as an example.
At this point, let me share an interesting coincidence. In the morning of January 28, and after I have completed drafting and was polishing my sermon, I came across one lectionary reflection published in January 27 (same day because of time difference) by Dr John Holbert who was my colleague when we were both lecturing in Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas in 1988-90. He was then the Professor of Homiletics. Strange that this was the first contact since 1990 and yet we are on the same page at the same moment. I wish I had seen it earlier and spare me the time I spent in preparing this one. We are on the same wavelength. But he gave credibility to this sermon. Dr Holbert’s conclusion is: “Well, does that help us evaluate a prophet? We might say at least this much: words spoken in the name of God should at least pass the test of God’s larger purposes for the world. God wills equality and justice for all of God’creation, and any word that flies in the face of that unique challenge surely cannot be a word from YHWH.”
The true prophet calls into question the role of religion and its relationship to culture, community and cosmos. Are we still stuck with religion as a private matter between me and my God? Do we just praise him with our lips? Moses got involved in a mission of liberation and in the shaping of a community of faith and the building of the nation of Israel. That was his prophetic mission? What is my mission and what is your mission. We must question ourselves and discover the meaning and purpose of our lives.
This brings me to the point when I raised a question to Emeritus Professor Julius Lipner, who is of Indo-Czech origin, Emeritus Professor of Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion at the University of Cambridge. He was invited to speak to a predominantly Hindu audience organized by the Hindu Endowment Board. He mentioned the fact that in contrast with other religions Hindus do not have one sacred text commonly regarded to be literal word of the Lord. Hinduism is based on a number of sacred texts. There are different interpretations and should not be taken literally Each devotee has the freedom to worship different manifestations of the attributes of God. There is no central authority and no dogmatic teaching. They are governed by the law of Karma and the life of devotion to be liberated from it. Hinduism is therefore polycentric. He uses the imagery of the widespread banyan tree which drops its roots from the branches and develop into trunks. It contains a vast array of different sects, cults, and denomination with its own stem system of worship and belief, connected textually, mythologically and socially.
For my own preparation, I was checking some Vedic or Vedanta teaching about what is expected from the devotees. One of the Vedantic teaching states that actions are subordinate to knowledge or devotion. Actions are useful only for preparing the mind for knowledge or devotion, and once this is achieved selfish actions and their rewards must be renounced.
Religions have these three characteristis that we share in common: Action – Knowledge – Devotion. We see more concentration on knowledge or doctrine of the scholars. More attention on devotion in terms of prayer or rituals of the priests. But less concern and even none on action of the prophets. Related to it is greater interest in next life in heaven than for this life in this world. So we have the Prophets who act, Scholars who study, and the Priests who perform. These functions are not mutually exclusive and no one is subordinate to the other two.
My point is that a religious person must incorporate all three aspects and none can exist alone by itself.
We need to have the right teaching or doctrine. We need to practice piety and in touch with the spiritual apart from the physical dimension. We need to act to develop a more caring and compassionate community on earth, doing no harm and working for common good. We cannot outsource action. We cannot just spend our entire life on prayer and let others engage in action. We cannot study our beliefs until we are completely certain and then only go out to act. We cannot only act without understanding our faith and prayer to God. Each has an impact on the other. Our worship and praise alone is worthless. Our study and knowledge alone is useless. Our action and involvement alone is pointless. We must engage in all and interact in all three aspects. They all together will result in transformation of self and the world.
Prophetic work must necessarily deal with the human situation that we are in. We are not placed here to prepare ourselves for the life hereafter. We have to be related to the life here and now. We notice how much religious life is unrelated to the issues of human existence today. We have been pushed to the margins and even out of the page. People in power fear the greater power of religious faith and want us to stay in our little corners and study and pray when they displace or detain the activists for change. The faith communities were not formed to concentrate only on spiritual matters.
With the threat of inter-religious clashes and wars these days we all desire peace and harmony. One persistent obstacle is that we exist in isolation from one another. Each in its own silo and there is far too little interaction. We still are chauvinistic, triumphalistic and imperialistic about our own religion. We still have problems in interfaith relations and look at people of other faith with suspicion. We still have difficulty in accepting religious diversity. We still have not fully acknowledge that we will and have to remain in co-existence with others of a different faith traditions and come to terms that our society will always be pluralistic.
While I am speaking in this mode what is our understanding of the God to whom we confess our faith and direct our prayers and worship. What is the relationship of God to the present world. We claim that we act and speak on behalf of God. Just pause and account for the image of God right now. God is still a magnified mega man, an all-powerful being who not only created all things but also controls everything. Just look at the unruly world in conflict, the unruly weather raging around us, unruly people in misery. It is legitimate to ask what this God that we have projected is doing right now. We know of our freedom to choose and the Creator has to live with the wrong decisions that we have made in our human history. In desperation we pray and ask God to intervene and restore this world and the environment and everything in proper order even when we do not admit that we have been responsible for most of it. We made a mess and now we only pray to God to clean it up. We made a mess of our personal lives and ask for forgiveness without repentance and even re-visit the wrong doing. Yes, I am guilty too. I must repent and grow more fruits of repentance to effect the necessary change. Can we be honest to God and instead of waiting for God to act who even now is with us in our pain and sorrow. Will we join and work with God in the creative and evolving process of shaping a better future for all God’s people.
Let us look at some people who have engaged and are engaging now in the prophetic ministry
In June 2013 I was invited by UNAids, United Nations agency for Aids to participate in a Regional Dialogue between Faith Leaders, Key Populations and People Living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific. It was held in Bangkok. The list of participants included Venerable Oeun Sam Art from Cambodia who is Personal Assistant to His Holiness the Supreme Buddhist Patriarh of Cambodia. He is also the Deputy Head of the Buddhist University. I had a long breakfast meeting with him the day after the Conference ended and it was one of the serendipitous or providential moment for me. Here was this monk committed to the training of leadership for his country. He is a respected leader barely 38 years old and on to Facebook and Twitter. I have since visited him twice in Phnom Penh to network him with my Muslim Turkish friends who in the span of just ten years established a top-rated International School, Zaman University and the Mekong Interfaith Dialogue Centre. I invited him to visit us recently to meet with some interfaith practioners including Miak. He is quietly making his contribution in his new project of micro-financing small business for his scholarship students as a learning experience. In a letter last week after thanking me for my response he wrote: “For many years that I have been teaching the youths in Cambodia to have confidence on themselves, to be brave to stand up to change the unpleasant history in their society and themselves. Later on I thought I don’t want just to talk, but I must walk the talk.” A Buddhist monk not just into walking meditation but walking the talk to change in society. We are keeping in touch regularly. I see a prophetic ministry now and a promising future in him.
Moving into the halls of academia and knowledge, we mourn recently the death of Marcus Borg. You may have read Sebastian Ku’s personal tribute and good for us to listen again.
“On many occasions when I was no longer sure about what I had been taught as a child, it was Borg’s books that gave me a framework to deconstruct my Sunday school Christianity. It was his indirect tutelage that helped me weather through my own crises of faith to emerge with a greater capacity to hold in tension life’s unanswered questions. If only I had a chance to talk to him, I would have told him without a doubt that his books are the reason I have not completely abandoned my religion. His passing is a huge loss to a world that should have given more credence to his thoughts. Far from the heretic that the mainstream church considers him to be, he has demonstrated a love for Jesus so authentic that he refused to trade honest inquiry for cheap certainty. For the model he has been to me and my many friends who are finding a footing in progressive Christianity, I thank God. Rest in peace.”
The influential New York Times has published a glowing obituary which I had posted on Facebook a few days ago. Marcus Borg is a brilliant scholar and he has left us a transforming legacy through his books.
Mark Tauber the publisher of his books wrote “I am deeply saddened by the passing of our author and our friend Marcus Borg. His life and his work have been a challenge, a comfort and an inspiration to literally of millions of readers and students over the years. Marcus was unafraid to follow the scholarly evidence where it led him while both communicating complexity fluently and remaining a man of faith… He was known for teaching that a deep understanding of the historical Jesus and the New Testament can lead to a more authentic life—one not rooted in dogma, but spiritual challenge, compassion, community and justice. Certainly he is a true prophet
Then I want to recall the prophetic ministry of Martin Luther King who is celebrated in the form of a National Holiday on every third Monday of each year in the United States. This is to honour him as the chief spokesman for non-violent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested againts racial discrimination. Reverend Jeff Hood in 2008 discoverd an old sermon of Dr King and realized that there was a way to follow Jesus beyond the narrowness and bigotry he had known. He started to follow the advice in that sermon to develop a world perspective that equipped him to fight against injustice and be maladjusted to the evils of this age. Currently he is the Minister of Social Justice in the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, the largest LGBT churh in the world in which I worshipped whenever I visited my son.
Rev Alveda King, the niece of Dr. King in her address in this year’s observance delivered a speech in which she said: “Uncle M.L. was born on Jan. 15, 1929. In remembering him today, I can tell you that he was a kind and gentle man who was used as a strong prophet of God. Many people called him ‘Black Moses’ and the ‘Apostle of Love’.
As a Baptist preacher, his sermons and speeches reflect his devotion to the Lord and his obedience to God’s call.”
With such a cloud of witnesses of true prophets around us in history, they call our lives into question, they renew our hope and they refresh our commitment to follow Moses and the prophetic line to Jesus in discipleship and live a life of action, knowledge and devotion. AMEN.