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Listen Carefully!

by The Reverend Karen Sue Hybertsen, Ph.D., The Presbyterian Church of Islip (NY)

     It was an ordinary Sunday.  The choir lifted our spirits.  The preacher’s message made us think.  Then right in the middle of the joys and concerns came a mad roar.  There in the back was a man dressed in black.  He was on a tear.  He had a whole lot on his mind.  All these years later I don’t remember exactly what he said.  I just remember that he didn’t think much of what he saw and heard in his world.  I remember that we all sat there in awkward silence as he delivered what he thought God told him to say. 

     Later the folks at coffee hour were buzzing with questions.  What were we to make of this unwanted intrusion into the hour of worship?  Who does he think he is anyway?  Ah, he’s just a nut?  But I don’t remember anyone seriously entertaining the idea that just maybe he had something to say that we needed to hear.

     Just how are we supposed to know when we’ve heard a message from God?

     Deuteronomy 18:15-20 takes up this question.  Deuteronomy relates the final days of Moses.  It is, if you will, his last will and testament.  As you might imagine there are some anxious folks with questions.    Just how do you replace someone like Moses?  Who will stand between them and God?  How will they know what God wants from them? 

     You see the Israelites had decided that they wanted nothing more to do with meeting God face to face.  They by and large considered it pretty amazing that they lived through that encounter at all.  What happens when Moses is gone?

     “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet…I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything I command.” (i)

     On the face of it this sounds okay.  Leave it in God’s hands.  But, wait just a minute, how in tarnation are we supposed to figure out who God taps for the job?  After all, anybody could say they had a message from God. 

     Anyone – even a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.  There you are in the synagogue one morning when the synagogue leader invites this fellow up to speak.  You don’t recognize him but, hey that’s okay, maybe he’ll be interesting.

     He unrolls the scroll and reads out the lesson.  Finished he looks out at you and begins to speak.  You know this guy makes some sense.   You find yourself nodding along with him.  But then, did he really say that?  He’s got a powerful point there.  Around you folks are murmuring.  We sure don’t hear stuff like this from other teachers.  What does he mean by that, do you suppose?

     Then out of the blue someone starts shouting:

     “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  You can hear the sneer in his voice.  Nazareth, you have got to be kidding.  Nobody from Nazareth ever has or will amount to a blessed thing.

     “Have you come to destroy us?”  You can’t talk about stuff like that you’ll get us all in trouble.  Do you think the authorities are going to put up with your ideas for very long?

     “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  Now the man sounds sly.  He’s got your number, fellow.

     “Shut up!  Get out of him!”

     The heckler begins to tremble violently and the unclean spirit leaves him.  We don’t know who this man is.  Maybe he’s a stranger in town or a regular sitting where he sits every week.  All we really know is that something Jesus said sets him off, something from deep inside him that tainted his very being.

     Now the crowd is really buzzing.  “What is this?  This guy’s got some serious power going his way.  Have you ever heard anyone teach like this before?  He’s got some new ideas.  Look at the way he took care of that fellow?  What do think of that?  This is the kind of story you just can’t keep down.  Wait until I tell my neighbors? 

     Jesus has made quite a splash in Capernaum.  He’s got everybody talking.  Some folks, I’m sure, thought he made more sense than anything they’d heard in a long time.  Others perhaps felt a glimmer of hope perhaps God hadn’t forgotten them after all.  But I’m equally certain there were some nay-sayers in the crowd, folks who didn’t like some nobody, a man from Nazareth for Pete’s sake, stirring things up.  So who’s right?

     Of course we know the answer to that.  But just for a moment put yourself there in that synagogue that day.  How do you know if this guy’s the real thing or not?  He’s not the first guy to pull off a stunt like that.  There was that magician who came through awhile back.  He was something else, too.

     “I will raise up for them a prophet…from among their own people.”

     It sounds good.  But how can we be sure?

     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. (ii)

     By the standards of Deuteronomy Jesus passes with flying colors.  He called out “Stop!” and “Come out!” and that’s just what happened.  Put like that it sounds pretty simple.  You want to know if what you’ve seen or heard comes from God then see if it happens.

     But it’s not really quite that easy.  Jesus didn’t even mention God.  He just gave some pretty preemptory orders.  They had to wonder, on whose authority?  Deuteronomy is pretty clear on this point, only the folks who speak in God’s name on his authority speak truly.  Isn’t Jesus taking on a fair bit speaking for God?

     If we are going to figure out if we are hearing God speak to us or through the words of another then as one commentator puts it, “Those who would decide whether a prophet’s words are true or false—and that includes all the people of God—must become theologians.” (iii)

     Is what we are hearing faithful to the one we name as God?  Does it make sense in light of what we know of God’s word to us?  Is it a word of truth for this moment, this situation in time?  The commentator continues, saying:

     A true prophet is, quite simply, one who tells the truth. The issues raised by this text, however, are not general and abstract, for example, “what is truth?” but specific and practical. Who is speaking the truth in this immediate situation?

     The prophet in the biblical tradition will take a further step, interpreting the relationship between ordinary human realities and the will of God, weighing the present situation in the light of that biblical tradition. Such a prophetic voice will say, in the last analysis, this is or is not consistent with the will of God.  A bold step, to be sure, but one that all the people of God must take, for life and death are at stake.

     Jesus begins his public ministry here in the gospel of Mark.  His words were powerful and they needed to be.  A life was at stake.

     I don’t know if the man who stood up all those years ago one Sunday morning was speaking God’s word that day.   I’m not sure any of us were paying him enough attention.  For you see he mostly made us uncomfortable.   But he has stuck in my mind all the same, a lesson to pay attention to what certainly was a cry of pain, a cry not all that different than one heard 2000 years ago in a Capernaum synagogue.  That day Jesus’ words spoke to the man before him and restored him to wholeness.

     Listen carefully, God is still speaking.  Amen.

_______________________________________

  (i)Deuteronomy 18.15 and 18 NRSV
  (ii)Deuteronomy 18.21-22, The Message
  (iii)Gene M. Tucker, Interpretation 41, 1987

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