Our text today is a part of Moses’ farewell speech to God’s people. Moses knows he won’t be the one to take them into the promised land, and it is time to pass on the mantle of prophetic leadership to someone else. We are eavesdropping on this farewell conversation. Let’s listen in:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name,
I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I’ve been in a wrestling match with this text all week, and one of the reasons is verse 16, where we learn that we have prophets in the first place because God’s people, gathered together to meet God at Mt. Horeb, said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Prophets sound like the buffer between us and God. That idea bothered me like a rock I couldn’t get out of my shoe as I walked circles around this passage. Why would engaging directly with God make someone feel like they are going to die? I’ve got a thousand questions and things to air out with God these days, and sometimes I wish I could have a little face-to-face with God to argue it out together.
I kept reading, to verse 20, where we hear a warning about prophets who speak in the “name of other gods…” and this confused me even more. Why would you be tempted by a prophet speaking for other gods if the God who had brought you out of slavery and through the wilderness had been with you face to face? If I had the choice between God engaging me directly and some soothsayers offering to perform divination to connect me to a higher power, surely I’d go with the God who had saved me!
Or would I? That’s when this text turned into a mirror, reflecting back at me some things I didn’t want to see. Because “other gods” in my context look like all the off-ramps I take throughout my days, trying to find a shortcut to deal with what overwhelms me in life. There’s the “other god” of comparing myself to other people in an effort to feel superior when my self-esteem is lacking. There’s the “other god” of outsourcing the work of justice to that new guy in the White House with a sigh of relief that turns back into the same complacency that got us here in the first place. There’s the “other god” of numbing my feelings with any number of things so I don’t have to feel the crippling grief of the past year.
I’ve had to ask myself as I look into this mirror, why I so easily embrace the words spoken by the prophets of these other gods. And I think it is because these other gods are all about transactions, and transactions require very little risk. I come to these other gods with self-pity and they give me cheap confidence at the expense of someone else. I come to these other gods with exhaustion and they give me the promises of a political party to address injustice so I don’t have to get my own skin in the game.
I come to these other gods with an emotion I don’t know what to do with and they hand me something that will help me avoid it. And this all feels safer than engaging with the God who doesn’t do transactions, the God who wants a relationship.
That episode at Mt. Horeb mentioned earlier in this passage, when God is giving the people the 10 commandments, involved God meeting them with a loud voice “out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness” (Deut. 5:22). “This great fire will consume us,” the people said. Consume us. It is as if meeting the God of the universe is like being consumed in a fire, because there is nowhere to hide. It is to be fully seen and known by the one who made you, the God who stopped at nothing to set you free. It is to be in relationship with a God who doesn’t just want to hand you something and walk away, but who wants every part of you, like it says in Deuteronomy 6, where the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might (Deut. 6:4). And if we are honest, a relationship like that is a consuming fire that will burn away the parts of us not yet liberated, and that is a risk indeed.
Because as much as we might say that we long for a relationship with a liberating God, that relationship is actually steeped in vulnerability, uncertainty, and the discomfort that comes with real transformation. Lest we forget, God set the Hebrew people free from slavery in Egypt, but getting free in relationship with this God was not as instantaneous as passing through the Red Sea and suddenly becoming different people. Getting free was a long process that involved wandering in the wilderness with no road map, and complaining to God about the food that was getting boring, and angrily telling Moses that we all should have stayed enslaved in Egypt where at least we had some meat to eat. We say we want a relationship with this liberating God, but actually embracing a world God imagines that does not rely on systems of punishment and violence like policing and prisons is terrifying for those who have always been protected by those institutions. We say we want a relationship with this liberating God, but we are tempted to return to the “normal” we knew before the pandemic, even though that “normal” was so deadly for people with less privilege than us. We say we want a relationship with this liberating God, but we feel that urge to reach for what is familiar and known, even as God beckons us into the unknown where there is no map to tell us what to expect. The truth is, even when God offers her presence in a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and a prophet named Moses to walk with us, the transactional shortcuts of comfort feel so much easier than a relationship with this God who desires our everything.
But there is good news if this sounds familiar to you and you’re like me, in need of some intervention as the prophets of other gods keep calling your name. The good news is that God has raised up prophets among us to keep speaking the words of God, to call us back to this relationship of liberation. And how will we know we are hearing the words of a true prophet? If the rest of Deuteronomy is any indication, we will know they speak the words of God because they are pointing us to nothing less than the total liberation and abundant life of all creation. We will hear words that challenge empires that hoard wealth and power and call for resources to be redistributed in such a way that everyone has what they need to thrive. For as God speaks to the Hebrew people, giving them the 10 commandments that will help them love God and love others, the first words out of God’s mouth are: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” God is a liberator, and every commandment for living is rooted in this longing of God’s heart for all of creation, including us, to live in the fullness of that liberation and wholeness, that shalom. As God says later in Deuteronomy: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15). The way of God is the way of life. Full stop. And we can know a true prophet is speaking among us if they carry a word to dismantle death-dealing systems, including the systems we participate in every day. We will know a true prophet is speaking if they call for the thriving and well-being of every person, every creature, and all the earth.
This way of life is abundance and wholeness, but that does not mean it is the way of ease, comfort, or safety. Mr. Beaver says it best in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Lewis, C S, and Pauline Baynes. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: HarperTrophy, 1994. Print.) when Susan asks if Aslan, the great lion coming to save them, is safe. “’Course he isn’t safe.” Mr. Beaver says, “But he’s good.” And that is why we are called to keep our ears open for the prophets among us who have caught God’s vision of the total liberation of our world, who challenge the halls of power so that resources are not hoarded but shared, who push us out of our comfort zones with words that sting because they have pointed out the truth of how far we have fallen away from this vision of God’s beloved community and with words that inspire us to be swept up in the new thing God is doing in the world. God has promised that these prophets will be among us speaking the words of life God has given them. Will we be a people who listen? Amen.