Would You Know a Prophet in Your Midst?

Mark 6:1-6
July 8, 2012

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching.

            Are you a person who likes high school reunions? Many people love their reunions. I have to say that my feelings about them range from lukewarm to dislike. It’s the reason I haven’t gone to that many.  I have a 35th one coming up this fall, and I haven’t decided whether I want to go or not.  I have gone to a few, though.

            The reunion that sticks in my mind is my 15th reunion in 1992. It stands out both because it was very well attended by my classmates, and because of the way some of my classmates reacted to me at the reunion. As is typical in these kinds of reunions, much of the initial talk surrounds “where are you now and what are you doing?” I had a bunch ask me that question, and when I said, “I’m a Presbyterian pastor,” they visibly moved one step back. Then they’d say, “C’mon,… really,… what are you doing.” I’d repeat that I’m a Presbyterian pastor, and they’d say, “You’re kidding. How did THAT happen?”  

            There’s a reason they reacted in this way. If you looked back at the way I was in school, especially junior high, there seems to be no possible connection between that guy and who I am now. They remember me in seventh grade, helping spark squirt gun battles in English class each time the teacher turned her back to us to write on the chalkboard. They remember me as the idiot who would put thumbtacks on people’s seats. They remember me as the guy who was always getting bad grades, always getting in trouble, and who seemed to have no interest in religion. My interests were sports, television, and getting into trouble.

            What they didn’t know, because they hadn’t seen me in years, was that when I went to college, I went with the intention of reinventing myself. It can be hard to reinvent yourself in your hometown because your past sticks with you there. People always hold your past against you, which makes is hard to develop a different future. By going somewhere else I was able to begin working on becoming someone else.

            It’s because of that reunion in 1992 that I really resonate with our passage for this morning. Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” I certainly don’t count myself as a prophet, but I understand what it is like to go back to a hometown and have people be incredulous that I could be what I was. Too many people knew my past to accept my present

            Apparently too many people in our passage knew Jesus’ history. We have no idea what that history was, but apparently it was enough to make people skeptical about Jesus’ preaching and teaching. Maybe Jesus had raised hell when he was younger. Maybe he had been a nobody. Who knows,… but because people knew too much about him, they were not able to hear God speaking through him.

            Would you know a prophet in your midst? How would you tell if someon was or wasn’t a prophet? What might get in the way of your accepting her or him as a prophet? All throughout the history of Israel and Christianity, there have been false prophets. In fact, all of the true prophets of Israel complained about them. Ezekiel said this about them, speaking God’s words: “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations…” Zechariah said this: “For the teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they suffer for lack of a shepherd.”

            There were many false prophets in Jesus’ time. They were preaching all over the place. Whenever I think of the false prophets of Jesus’ time, I think of a very funny scene in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian. When the film came out in 1979, Christians from all corners protested the film, complaining that the film belittled Jesus. In fact, the film only shows Jesus once, during his preaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and it was very respectful of him. They were really making fun of Jesus’ time, not Jesus himself.

            The film is about a man named Brian, who can’t seem to find a job, who is something of a simpleton, and who has horrendous luck. For some reason, people think he’s a prophet or a messiah, even though much of what he says is fairly banal and ridiculous. The scene from the film that reminds me of false prophets is a scene in which Roman soldiers are chasing Brian through Jerusalem, after seeing him paint anti-Roman graffiti on a wall. As he runs through a marketplace, you see prophets, all lined up and preaching.

            The first prophet is covered with dirt, has wild eyes, holds a forked stick with two amputated hands on them, and has a thick accent that makes it almost impossible to understand. He yells to the assembled crowd, “And the Bizan shall be huge, and black, and the eyes thereof RED with the blood of living creatures! And the whore of Babylon shall rideforth on a grey headed serpent,…”  Then the next false prophet comes into view. He’s wearing a crimson red garb that cascades off his shoulders and arms in tatters. A hood of the same material covers his head and falls across one eye. He says, “And the demon shall bear a nine bladed sword. Nine bladed! Not two, or five, or seven but NINE! Which he shall wield on all wretched sinners, sinners just like you, sir, there. And the horns shall be on the head…”

            Finally, the screen pans to a last false prophet who has bushy gray/black hair, wears a ripped and moth-eaten cloak, and a faint, almost confused look. He speaks in a quiet, timid voice: “There shall in that time be rumors of things going astray,…erm,… and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi,…with the sort of raffia-work base, that has an attachment. At that time, a friend shall lose his friends hammer, and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock…”

            The scene is a lot funnier when you see it than when I describe it. I was able to show this clip during the actual preaching of this sermon (sorry you missed it). It shows that in Jesus’ time there were many false prophets, just as there are many in our times. Back them they were in the street. Today they are on television, radio, and the internet. Jesus warned us of these false prophets in Matthew’s gospel, saying, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Jesus recognized that it’s hard to distinguish between false and true prophets.

            I think that in our day and age we have more false prophets than at any time in history because of television, radio, and the internet. It has become easy to follow false prophets in the media because they look or sound so good, and they appear to deeply care about us while they rake in millions for themselves. What makes them false is that they say what’s necessary to make themselves popular, loved, and rich, without really caring much about the impact of what they say. Their preaching is self-focused in the sense that it’s intended to make the world in their image, and it is followed by millions because they tell people what they want to hear. That doesn’t mean they tell everyone what they want to hear. They may only target a small, but passionate, segment of the population, but this segment is enough to make them millions.

            So how do we tell a false prophet from a real one? Here are my thoughts. Let’s start with the false prophets:
  1. They tell people what they already believe, which means that they’re not hard for people to follow. They preach messages that are simple and simplistic, often intended to inflame people’s passions. They are articulate and powerful, and the result is that they help people feel as though someone speaks for them. The key is that they do not stretch people beyond what they already believe, but placate people to believe that where they are is where God wants them to be.   
  2. They prey on people’s emotions. They want to make people feel fearful, angry, or righteously indignant. They tend to preach an “us versus them” message, getting people to fear “them” and what “they” will do to us if “they” gain power. They want people to be angry at “them” and what “they” are doing to us, or will do to us,if we don’t wield out power properly. They want people to feel indignant at what “they” are doing.
  3. They invoke God’s name and will in a way that promotes their own agendas, not God’s. They want us to think that God is behind whatever agenda they are promoting. The newest form of false prophet today is the atheistic false prophet who speaks in almost prophetic terms about the fact that God doesn’t exist, and they do it with such force that they aren’t questioned.
  4. They often hide their backgrounds so that people won’t know that they are charlatans. Or, if they’ve had an unpleasant or checkered past, they use their backgrounds to gain credibility. They create stories about how they used to be an addict, used to be a con man, used to be “whatever,” so that their transformation will make them appear more credible.
  5. They make themselves wealthy in the process. Ultimately, their wealth is the focus. False prophets are always focused on themselves. The key to asking whether someone is a false prophet is to look at his or her lifestyle. A false prophet gets rich through prophecy, and that’s the key to them regardless of what they may say to the contrary.

            How do we distinguish these false prophets from real prophets?  
  1. The first thing you have to recognize about prophets is that despite what we have come to think about them, they do not really tell the future. They tell the present. What I mean is that they look at the world around them, and speak about where God is and what God is doing. They then call people into a life with God. They call us to live God’s way in light of current events. Prophets only rarely speak about the future, and when they do it is almost (although not always) about the near future—what for us would be thousands of years ago.
  2. They literally are an “advocate” for God (προφήτης or “prophatas” in Greek). They are advocates for God, keeping our focus on God, and especially on God’s Great Command to love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and others as ourselves.
  3. They always call people to carry out God’s will in a way that cares deeply about all people, especially the poor and marginalized. This is a feature that bothers many people in modern American culture, and which has given rise to a prosperity gospel that ignores this aspect of the prophets. The prophets are constantly criticizing the rich for their treatment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Many people today see this as a liberal interpretation of the prophets. The prophets certainly called people to a more moral way of living, but they also constantly criticized Israel for not caring about the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. It’s what led Isaiah to say, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners,…”
  4. They often put themselves in harm’s way and crisis as a result of what they preach. They often live with targets on their backs. Their willingness to speak truth to power makes them very unpopular in their time and place, and usually poor. For example, Elijah had to run in the desert because of his prophetic activities. Jeremiah had to run to Egypt. Daniel could have easily been killed for his work as a prophet in Babylon. Prophets don’t live cushy lives. They often have to live in caves, sleep outdoors, and live on very little.
  5. They tick people off because they call people to change, to stretch, to think and be different from the world’s way. The fact is that no one in any day or age wants to be told that they way they think or behave is wrong. Prophets challenge us anyway.
  6. They struggle personally with their calling, and sometimes falter and fall as a result. They are not always confident. They struggle with God, and not always privately. They also have faults that are pretty apparent for others to see, and that sometimes robs them of credibility. For instance, Jeremiah clearly had some mental health issues that caused people to criticize him. Amos was a shepherd and a fig farmer—hardly the background that the people of his time would expect of a prophet. Hosea married a prostitute named Gomer, and she didn’t necessarily give up being a prostitute while married to him. Again, hardly the kind of family one would expect of a prophet.
  7. They call people to a better way of living, to God’s way of living, regardless of the consequences.

            If you want an example of a modern prophet, think of Martin Luther King, Jr. He received little personal gain from his message. He called people to change radically to join God in what God was doing. He ticked people off everywhere by calling for equality of everyone. He struggled and faltered, sometimes publicly. He transformed the nation to a better way of living. He was killed for what he preached.

            Who are the true prophets you see in the world today? They’re hard to pick out. Television makes it harder to recognize them because it’s too easy to know people’s backgrounds, which makes them seem like prophets in their hometown. I would imagine that any really popular true prophet would be investigated and turned inside out, being criticized for things he or she did in his or her youth.
            I’ll give you the secret to finding that true prophet, though. He or she is out there telling you things that make you uncomfortable. He or she will make you question your beliefs, get you to care about all people (especially those you may not care about), call on you to do something to make the world better, and lead you back to God.

            Are you following any of these prophets?