Handwriting on the Wall

But you may wonder, ‘How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?’ If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared. Deuteronomy 18:15-22

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” Jeremiah 23:16

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:15-20

“Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4

There have always been people who claim God has given them a special message about future events. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought more than the usual number of these people out of the woodwork and into the news. It’s natural to want to know for sure what is coming in order to be prepared and take whatever action you can, but a lot of the current crop of self-proclaimed modern prophets are speaking words not from God, but words from their own minds. Perhaps they really believe God is speaking to them, but that doesn’t mean God really is. It’s important to recognize that not all the voices in your head- or someone else’s- are from God.

Most of the earlier coronavirus-related prophecies seemed to promise that it would dissipate quickly and that we ought to go about our business as usual. These people have mostly gone quiet, but I still have a screen shot from Twitter of a person who said in early March that the Lord told him “I am removing the threat of this”  and that within a short time the virus will die out. Because of other things the tweeter said, it was obvious to me that the person was speaking from a place of strong political opinions. It echoed words the president was saying at that time, and blamed those who disagreed for sounding a politically motivated false alarm. I was reminded of the story of the prophets consulted by Ahab, who told him what they thought he wanted them to say.  Only Micaiah dared to speak the truth, likely at great risk to himself.

On the other extreme, there are people who see the pandemic as evidence that the end of the world is near. They pull together diverse Scripture passages, often pulling passages written in the apocalyptic genre out of their original context and applying them to our place in space and time. Sometimes they throw in ambiguous prophecies from Nostradamus, or more modern sources written by people who consider themselves to be clairvoyant and/or in possession of a listening bug in God’s throne room.

So who are we to believe? My answer is: likely not any of these people. I can’t remember where I first heard it put this way, but prophecy in the Bible is generally forth-telling, not fortune telling, and I agree. And I think the same criteria ought to be applied to modern prophets as well.

I’m a subscriber to Richard Rohr’s daily meditations, which generally center around a different theme each week. Last week’s theme was “Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics”. Guest writer Albert Nolan wrote, ” Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as people who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by focusing their attention on, and becoming fully aware of, the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading”.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Biblical prophets were men and women so in tune with God that they knew what was likely going to happen. Their minds and hearts were focused on God, not on the kings they may have served, or the societies in which they lived, which gave them the ability to decipher the handwriting on the wall.  Often their prophecies involved speaking truth to power, as Samuel did with Saul, Nathan with David, Elijah with Ahab, and Jeremiah with Jehoiakim. So I’m immediately suspicious of any “prophet” who has an obvious political affiliation. Prophets speak for God, not any human being or group of human beings.

Additionally, prophecies were not necessarily  “fixed points in time” that could not be altered, as Jonah was dismayed to find out. When prophets speak for God, it is because God hopes that people will change their behavior for the better, hopefully in time to mitigate the dire consequences that will otherwise ensue. Those consequences may sometimes come as a result of direct divine intervention, but I think more usually they are natural consequences.

For example, I do not think the current global pandemic is a direct punishment from God, but it may be the result of what some might call karma…a law of cause and effect God built into the fabric of the universe. As I understand it, novel viruses like this one are not the result of spontaneous generation, but of existing animal viruses that mutate enough to jump species. It’s possible that  the virus originated with our poor stewardship of the earth, which resulted in loss of habitat for many animal species, which resulted in animals encroaching into areas occupied by humans, which resulted in close enough contact for the virus to move from animal to human hosts.

I’m skeptical of those who claim to know God well enough to speak for God, especially if I don’t see much in the way of what Jesus called “good fruit” in their lives. I’m skeptical of people who claim to know God well enough to see the future, especially when they have repeatedly made incorrect predictions. I’m especially skeptical when someone claims to have a message from God that will personally benefit the “prophet”. That isn’t how these things usually work.  What I am convinced of is that there is a force for good in the universe, which I know as God, and that force is working to redeem all that is broken and sick and hurting in this world and in me.

“Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand, but I know who holds the future, and I know who holds my hand.” And that’s good news to me!

Eureka!

The following is the script for the sermon I gave on Epiphany Sunday at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, with added hyperlinks to supplemental information.

When I was a science teacher, I used to tell my students a story about Archimedes, the Greek philosopher and scientist who lived in the 3rd century BC. Here’s how it goes: The king had commissioned a goldsmith to make a solid gold crown. When he received the finished work, he suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him by substituting a cheaper metal for some of the gold the king had given him. But he didn’t know how to prove it. Archimedes, who was employed by the king for his scientific knowledge, knew that different metals had different densities. If he could determine the density of the crown, he would know whether it was solid gold or not. Density is mass divided by volume. He could determine the mass of the crown by weighing it, but how could he calculate the volume of an irregularly shaped object without melting it down and destroying it? For days he thought about the problem, trying to come up with a solution. One day, he happened to be puzzling over the problem as he lowered himself into the bathtub. He noticed that the water level in the tub rose as his body went under water, and suddenly a light bulb came on in his head. He could calculate the volume of the crown by measuring the amount of water it displaced! Archimedes was so excited that he jumped out of the tub, forgetting to dress, and ran naked down the streets of town shouting “Eureka!” which translated means, “I have found it!”

You might say that Archimedes had an epiphany. If you look up “epiphany” in a thesaurus, you’ll find that its top synonym is “revelation”. Other synonyms include appearance, manifestation, and realization It comes from a Greek word that means to reveal. In is a moment like Archimedes had, you realize something you hadn’t realized before, you understand something in a new way. An epiphany is a sudden realization that can change everything…a Eureka moment!

The story about the Wise Men is an epiphany- something about the nature of God is revealed to those who are paying attention enough to notice it.

Despite what the carol “We Three Kings” says, the Wise Men were probably not kings and we don’t know how many of them there were. The tradition that there were three of them probably came from the three gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. The idea that they were kings probably came from a passage in Isaiah which says “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Matthew just writes that “there came Magi from the east. “Magi” is often translated “wise men”, but it has the same root meaning as the word “magic”. It’s the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts, who was not an exemplary character. Magic was not exactly kosher; God’s people were advised to stay away from it in rather strong terms. Although we are not sure exactly where in the east they came from, one widely accepted theory is that they were most likely from Persia, where modern day Iran is.

The book of Jeremiah makes a couple of references to magi in the role of advisors to the Babylonian king, and their presence is implied in the book of Daniel too. Magi were astrologers and priests of the Zoroastrian religion, who cast horoscopes and interpreted dreams in order to advise the king. This would have been a high-status position in the Persian court for which they would have been well compensated. They must have been wealthy in order to afford the long trip to Bethlehem, bearing expensive symbolic gifts.

So what’s the epiphany? What did Matthew realize about the character of God that caused him to include this particular story in his gospel? You’ll remember that Luke chose instead to include the story of angels announcing Jesus’s birth to shepherds, but in Matthew the good news of Jesus’s birth is communicated to those on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. As one of my Baptist Sunday School teachers used to say, “God is concerned with the down and outs, but also the up and outs.” God cares about everyone and everyone needs God, whether they know it or not.

The epiphany, the big reveal of the Wise Men’s journey is that God is God of all people, both Jews and Gentiles. God doesn’t play favorites. Paul came to this realization when he wrote to the Ephesians that the mystery of Christ,“ was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”(Ephesians 3:2-6)

This idea that God was the God of all people would not have gone over well with many of the religious leaders at this time. Most of them thought of God in rather tribalistic ways. That is, they were God’s special favorites. As long as they were careful to observe all the laws God had given to them, God would specially bless them. Outsiders were dangerous and should be avoided, because they had different customs and beliefs that might cause God’s people to fall into sin.

Although the Wise Men were well-educated, rich, and well-respected in their own country, they would have been considered outsiders by most of God’s people at the time. They were of a different religion, were of a different culture, spoke a different language. They worshipped one god, but they called their god Azura Mazda rather than Yahweh. Their primary prophet was Zoroaster, not Moses. They were not descendants of Abraham and they did not observe the laws of Moses or the traditions interpreting these. They were not of the same tribe, and therefore potentially dangerous.

God’s people at that time took very seriously what they understood to be God’s command to separate themselves from Gentiles. They feared they might be contaminated by association with them. Had the Wise Men wanted to learn more about the God of Israel, they would have found it very difficult. For example, they would not have been allowed into the Temple past the outermost courtyard. They would have been told that in order to become a part of the people of God, they would have to be circumcised and follow all kinds of dietary laws and other customs. They’d probably have to give up their day jobs, too, as the magic arts were generally frowned upon.

God had commissioned his people to be a “light to the Gentiles” beginning with Abraham, whom he promised “in thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Whenever God’s people decide to hide God’s light under a bushel and hoard God’s blessings for themselves, God is going to act, sometimes in ways that surprise us. God met the Wise Men where they were. If you think about it, God actually used one of the tools of their religion to bring them to Him. They studied the stars looking for meaning and guidance, so God gave them a star, a star that led them to Jesus. And when they finally found Jesus, they knew they had found what they were looking for. Eureka!

The Bible records many Eureka moments, moments when God breaks through our blurred vision and our impaired hearing and makes an appearance. With Abraham, we have the beginning of the understanding that there is only one God. With Moses, we have the genesis of ethical monotheism; that is, the one God expects us to behave in certain ways. With the great 8th century prophets like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, we see the light beginning to dawn on people that God is more concerned with how we treat other people than if we are saying the right religious words and performing the right religious rituals.

All these glimpses into the nature of God are leading up to one great epiphany, the one that was first glimpsed in a manger in Bethlehem. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Epiphany is more than a once-a-year celebration of divine revelation. God revealed his nature fully and completely in Jesus and God is still revealing himself to those who seek him. During his last night before he gave his life for us. Jesus told his disciples that epiphanies would continue: I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me by taking from what is Mine and disclosing it to you.” (John 16:12-14)

Not everyone in Bethlehem heard the voices of the angels which directed the shepherds to the manger. Not everyone in Persia understood the meaning of the star that guided the Wise Men on their journey. The year to come will hold many Eureka moments for those who seek God, for “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18)

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is saying through the Spirit to us today. Amen.

Audio of sermon can be found here.

Daniel: Live Strong

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

In the Christian Bible, Daniel is included among the major prophets with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. However, in the Hebrew Bible, Daniel is sorted into the Writings along with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and other wisdom literature. It seems to be a composite book, with chapters 1-6 relating stories of Daniel’s legendary faithfulness, and chapters 7-12 containing a series of apocalyptic visions of the future. Parts are written in Aramaic, and parts in Hebrew.  And although its stories are set during the Exile in the sixth century, many scholars believe the book was written or finalized during the second century. If the late dating is correct, Daniel would then be chronologically the last book added to the Hebrew canon.

The book of Daniel contains such familiar stories as Daniel in the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace; and the moving finger which writes Babylon’s doom on the wall. Daniel’s apocalyptic visions are probably less familiar than the stories, but are often interpreted (usually wrongly) by people who would like to pin down the exact date of the end of the world. For example, I can remember that during the sixties, there were those who thought that the ten toes of the giant statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream predicted the creation of the European Common Market. When it reached ten members, all hell would literally break loose. That theory went away after the Common Market grew to involve considerably more than ten nations, but after Brexit, it has popped up again in certain circles.

Those of you who regularly read my posts know that I am not an inerrantist. I don’t think the Bible exists to communicate facts, but to illuminate truths. Its purpose is not to provide scientific information, historical records, or future predictions, but to bring people into a transformative relationship with God. I’m in agreement with the scholars who ascribe a date of circa 165 BC for Daniel and categorize it as wisdom literature written in the apocalyptic genre

I’m a fan of science fiction, and of Star Trek in particular. (Yes, I’m old enough to have watched the original series when it first aired.) What I like most about it was the way it used stories to offer social commentary on current events. By telling stories instead of reporting or editorializing on the news, it was effective in getting people to see those events in a different light. The Vietnam war was ratcheting up; cities and college campuses were aflame with race riots and student protests;  JFK, RFK, and MLK were assassinated;  big cities were blanketed with smog and several rivers caught fire due to extreme pollution; and women were generally treated as second-class citizens. In the midst of this, Star Trek envisioned a generally optimistic future where all kinds of people worked together to explore the galaxy, one in which “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” was celebrated. .I see apocalyptic literature as being akin to science fiction in that it utilizes fantastic imagery in futuristic settings to talk about problems that are going on in the present. It just makes sense to me to think of Daniel as written to encourage the second century Jewish people, who were living in particularly perilous times, to “live strong” under Antiochus Epiphanes. It makes much less sense to me to think that God would decide that what the newly exiled, bereft  Israelites of the sixth century really needed was a detailed description of events that would happen hundreds of years in their future, telescoped with events that would happen thousands of years in the future.

You may or may not agree with me about the origin and purpose of Daniel, but here’s the spiritual truth I think lies behind Daniel’s stories and visions: Stay strong. Stand up for what you believe, and do what is right, even if you pay a price for doing so. Evil may reign for a time, but it will never have the final answer. Go with God, and you will find yourself empowered to boldly go into that undiscovered country where the future lies. And that’s good news to me!