Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 18.14-22
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Donald Trump has added a few words and phrases to our vocabulary over the last couple of years (some too rude to mention in church!). But I suppose one phrase we will remember him by is the cry of ‘fake news’ with which he describes any news stories which he doesn’t like. Trump has caught the mood of many in the United States, and here in Europe as well, who have become deeply suspicious of what he likes to call ‘The mainstream media’. For it seems that many folk are having trouble sorting out the wheat from the chaff in the media- they don’t know whether what they should believe in the newspapers, radio, television or the internet. Or perhaps many of them do know what, or who, to believe- whatever news agrees with their existing beliefs, or what TV personality or newspaper columnist suits them.
These are dangerous times for democracy, for often people are turning to sources of new and information which set out to deliberately mislead, or which peddle ridiculous conspiracy theories. ‘But facts are chiels that winna ding,/An downa be disputed’’ as Robert Burns put it ( A Dream 1786)– and that straightforward Scottish approach has a lot to commend it. But when even the facts are disputed, where can we turn? Whom can you believe?
Long time ago in Israel, they wanted to know who they could believe. Moses had told them that they would find in the promised land witches and wizards, seers and mediums, people who claimed supernatural ways of finding things out. Not only that, the orthodox religion had a tradition of prophecy: of people who said they spoke on behalf of God. Moses himself was seen as the first and greatest of the prophets. And God promised Moses that there would always be prophets to keep the Word of the Lord alive among the people:
‘I will send them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will tell him what to say, and he will tell the people everything I command’ (Deuteronomy 18.18).
And so, every so often, someone would appear among them and say, ‘Thus says the Lord…’ and they would claim that they were to be taken seriously, for they had been seized by the Spirit, and spoke on behalf of the God of Israel. The words of some of these people have been collected, and they make up a significant portion of our Hebrew Bible: Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the other rather obscure guys like Obadiah.
But what if prophets disagreed? What if different people said different things, but all claimed they were speaking ‘the word of the Lord’? They couldn’t all be right. Some of them might be of God- but the others must just liars. How to tell the prophets from the prattlers?
The authors of Deuteronomy tried to solve that conundrum:
‘You may wonder how you can tell when a prophet’s message does not come from the Lord. If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and what he says does not come true, then it is not the Lord’s message. That prophet has spoken on his own authority, and you are not to fear him’ (Deuteronomy 18.21-22).
But this is a rather rough and ready approach. It assumes the prophets will only speak about the future, little better than fortune-tellers. What if you can’t wait to find out if the message is true, because it’s something you have to act on today. What if the prophet’s vocation is not to tell the future, but to point out harsh truths about the present?
One of my favourite Old Testament tales is a fascinating story, contained in one of the books of the prophets, about a clash between two men who claimed to speak the truth about God. It is a story which takes us to the heart of the problem of whom we can trust to be speaking on behalf of God; the story of a prophet who took his protest to a major religious shrine, and was told to go away because he was upsetting people.
Amos was the first of a series of prophets who appeared in Israel during the 8th century BC, and who not only spoke about the future, but made people face up to uncomfortable truths about the present. It was a time of peace, and prosperity, and the people seemed pious. But the wealth of the nation was not divided equally. There was great wealth for a few, based on their oppression of the poor. And so this farmer from Judah, in the south of the country, felt moved to go the main shrine of Israel, in the North, and preach:
The Lord says, “The people of Israel have sinned again and again, and for this I will certainly punish them. They sell into slavery honest people who cannot pay their debts, the poor who cannot repay even the price of a pair of sandals. They trample down the weak and helpless and push the poor out of the way… At every place of worship people sleep on clothing that they have taken from the poor as security for debts. In the temple of their God they drink wine which they have taken from those who owe them money”. (Amos 2.6-8)
Amos stood at the door of the royal temple at Bethel and condemned the worshippers as hypocrites, as he dreamed of a time when the religious piety of the people to be twinned with a concern for justice:
The Lord says, “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry” (Amos 5.20b-24)
Bethel was a royal temple, and people got upset by this upstart farmer preaching judgement on them. The priest of Bethel decided to act:
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, then sent a report to King Jeroboam of Israel: “Amos is plotting against you among the people. His speeches will destroy the country. This is what he says: ‘Jeroboam will die in battle, and the people of Israel will be taken away from their land into exile.’”
Amaziah then said to Amos, “That’s enough, prophet! Go on back to Judah and do your preaching there. Let them pay you for it. Don’t prophesy here at Bethel any more. This is the king’s place of worship, the national temple.”
Amos answered, “I am not the kind of prophet who prophesies for pay. I am a herdsman, and I take care of fig trees. But the Lord took me from my work as a shepherd and ordered me to come and prophesy to his people Israel. So now listen to what the Lord says”. (Amos 7.10-16a)
Amaziah was the priest of God, the representative of the official religion which had its roots back in Moses’ time. He felt powerful enough to be able to say to Amos, ‘Stop preaching and go back to your farm!’ But Amos equally felt that he had a message from God. He felt called to go and preach against Amaziah and his official religion. He felt constrained to speak the truth as he saw it: that the official religion was hypocritical, for even as the people offered beautiful worship, it was worship which was worthless in the eyes of God, because those very worshippers oppressed the poor.
This is a story which dramatizes the question which our Deuteronomy reading asks: who speaks the truth? Who speaks for God? Who’s the prophet, and who’s just prattling on? Who is giving us good news- gospel- and who is giving us religious fake news.
And it is a question lurking in our New Testament reading as well.
Jesus, near the beginning of his ministry, comes to Capernaum, a town near his own home, and attends the synagogue there. Here is Jesus taking part in the official religion- and what a contrast people find:
‘On the next Sabbath Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach. The people who heard him were amazed at the way he taught, for he wasn’t like the teachers of the Law; instead, he taught with authority’.
What a judgement this is on the teachers of the Law, the leaders of the ‘official’ religion! They must have been held in pretty low esteem by the people there, for a wandering preacher to be able to show them up in this way. But recall, this is just after many people, in this deeply religious society, had streamed out to the Jordan river to be baptised by that great prophetic figure, John the Baptist. John, standing outside the tradition of temple and synagogue, called on people who had been going to temple and synagogue all their lives to repent, to turn their lives around, and to be baptised as a sign that they now were turning to God. Now Jesus appears on the scene, someone else who seems to come from nowhere, challenging the assumptions about who is to speak for God. And the people said of him that he spoke with an authority which they did not detect in the official teachers of the Law.
And there is a curious incident at this point, when a man said to be possessed by a demon enters the synagogue. The demon speaks:
‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are- you are God’s holy messenger!’
It is as if the demon knows who Jesus is, what Jesus is! And now Mark the Gospel writer indicates just why people thought Jesus spoke with authority. Jesus orders the spirit to be silent, and to leave the poor man- which happens. And so the people talk once more about Jesus’ authority:
The people were all so amazed that they started saying to one another, “What is this? Is it some kind of new teaching? This man has authority to give orders to the evil spirits, and they obey him!” And so the news about Jesus spread quickly everywhere in the province of Galilee.
Now, all this talk of demons and exorcisms is difficult for us nowadays. We hear that Jesus spoke directly to the demons who seemed to possess people: ‘Be quiet, and come out of the man!’ Jesus spoke, and this man- and others like him, according to the Gospels- were cured.
What is important as we read this passage is not whether we or not we can accept these ancient beliefs about demons. What matters is the end result. Into that synagogue that Sabbath day came a man in great distress, screaming and shouting. He would be feared by his neighbours- and he probably feared himself. But he left that synagogue that Sabbath day calm, in his right mind, restored to normal life, part of decent society once more, free of whatever evil influence was possessing him.
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, offered false comfort to people who oppressed their neighbours. Amos, on the other hand, called for change and dreamed of justice flowing like water. The teachers of the Law in Jesus’ day were great ones for tradition; but Jesus brought God’s love to people directly, in a new way. He spoke, and evil departed. He changed lives for the better. I think that is why the ordinary folk thought that he spoke with authority. It wasn’t the authority of some high representative of an ancient tradition. It was the authority of one who had gone back to the beginnings of that tradition, who had rescued the liberating word of God from the layers of traditionalism. Amos and Jesus made God alive and real, as they reminded folk that the God who had liberated the Israelites from Egypt was still at work- to liberate people from poverty and debt, to liberate them from evil influences.
I suspect most of us can work out a lot of the time what is fake news and what is the truth. But we are certainly living in an age when it is more and more difficult for us to know who is telling the truth, and who is trying to deceive us. Jesus ‘spoke with authority’, because when he spoke, it was liberating, it was good for people, it made things better. So when we are bombarded with news and find it hard to know what’s fake, perhaps we should ask of those who tell us these things ‘By what authority do you say these things?’ ‘Do your words make life better?’ ‘Do you really care about ordinary folk- or are you paid by mysterious billionaires to say what you say?’ In church we speak of the Gospel- a word which means ‘good news’. In the church, as in the world, the difference between fake news and good news is that the good news liberates us; but fake news makes us slaves of lies.
Today we celebrate a sacrament which has, perhaps, for some of us, become encrusted with layers of tradition, so that we sometimes forget what it is really about. It is really about pointing us to the Christ who, says according to the stories, liberated people from evil, and who can still liberate us today. This table, this bread, this wine, all point us to the One who speak with authority, because he speaks of God love and compassion to those who are hurting. Christ has authority because he makes a claim on our lives- calling us to know God’s love, and challenging us to share that love with others. Knowing who speaks for God is not easy. But we do have standard to measure today’s prophets by. When people claim to speak for God, this is how to judge them: is this a prophecy which brings goodness, love and compassion to those who are hurting and oppressed? If it is, then there must be something of God in it- it isn’t fake news, but good news indeed!
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo