“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.” (Deut 18:19-20) That’s quite a way to start a sermon, don’t you think? Either I’m speaking the word of God and if you don’t listen, you’re in trouble, or I’m not speaking the word of God, and I’m in trouble. There’s a lot of pressure here!
But seriously, this passage points out to us a real challenge that we have when we are trying to discern whether what we hear is truly God’s Word. Last week, I said that the church of Christ includes churches of different, and even opposing, viewpoints about what is the right way to live as God’s people. And I said that individual Christians can make completely opposite decisions about which path to take to follow Christ, and that they are nevertheless united in the one Body of Christ. But I didn’t say how we make those decisions. I didn’t say how we know whether our path is truly putting Christ first or whether it’s putting ourselves at the center. Each prophet, each church, each pastor will claim that they have the authority of God to speak and that every word out of their mouth is the word of God. Out of all the voices claiming to speak the Word of God, how do we discern which ones actually are?
I ask this because this is a very real and very serious issue. Claiming the authority of God and then speaking in God’s name is incredibly powerful. Done truly and it brings life and light and healing and helps us to feel God in our midst. In one of the older versions of the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, the pastor says, “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I proclaim to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That is powerful! That is life and light and healing! But claiming the authority of God and then speaking falsely in God’s name is also powerful. Except instead of life and light and healing, it brings darkness, and death, and trauma. It drives us away from God. It fractures the security we have in God’s love for us. There’s a reason that our Third Commandment is, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” There’s a reason that God says that false prophets will die.
And it’s not like it’s always easy to know whether the word we hear is God’s Word or not. Often, we hear what we want to hear, especially when the stakes are high. And, just as often, we don’t realize we’re even doing that. Sometimes we make decisions and choices about what path to walk, and only realize later that we actually weren’t listening to God’s Word. Instead, we were listing to worries, anxieties, unspoken fears over worst-case scenarios––sometimes our own, and sometimes someone else’s.
And the fall-out of all of those things is intense. When we realize our past decisions were not what God wanted we can feel incredibly guilty. We can then doubt our ability to hear God, and become anxious thinking about decisions that need to be made in the future. If someone in a position of spiritual or religious authority proclaims words that are not God’s words, it can be hurtful at best, and damaging or even traumatic at worst. Again, we can start doubting our own ability to hear God, and become anxious about God’s relationship with us.
But this is not God’s will for us. God does not will that we should doubt our relationship with God, or become so anxious about which path to walk that we do nothing. And so God, who is “ever mindful” of the covenant made with us, helps us with this. In our Scripture readings for today, we can see three guidelines in particular that God has given us to to help us with this whole “discernment” thing.
The first comes from our Psalm today. “The fear of the LORD––(actually, awe might be a better word here)––awe of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10) We start listening, and speaking, and making decisions from a stance of awe, and particularly awe that God alone has the power to give life. Anybody can kill, anybody can speak words and bring about someone else’s death, either literally or metaphorically. But only God’s words have the power to bring true life. And so we begin with the recognition of the power of God and of our own insignificance in the face of that. Which means that we begin with humility. How can we feel anything other than humility before God? I can tell you at least from my own experience, that when I am preaching a sermon that I truly believe is God’s word and not just my own personal insights, I am terrified. Completely terrified. Who am I to deliver this word? What if I’m wrong that it’s God’s Word? Who am I to be a prophet, claiming that I have the authority of Christ? Even this sermon––terrifying. But in any case, this terror, or humility, or awe is the beginning of wisdom. It is the beginning of discernment.
The second guideline comes to us from 1 Corinthians. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Our test for knowing whether we are hearing or speaking God’s Word, and for knowing whether our decisions are rooted in Christ, is simple: Does it build others up or does it tear them down? God’s very first act in our world was to create life. This is the first thing we know of God. And so we ask ourselves, do our words or our actions create or affirm the lives of those around us? Or do they destroy it? The path of Christ and the Word of God build us up through love, and more specifically, through God’s love for the world that we see through Christ. Do our words and actions, or do the words and actions directed at us, center on that love, or do they build walls between God and God’s children? Paul remind us, “Love builds up.”
[Speaking of children and love, I’m going to pause right here and ask the children to come forward so I can talk to them for a bit. [interlude for Children’s Message]]
So, our two guidelines for discerning God’s Word and will so far are awe and love that builds up. The last guideline comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. In the Gospel, we have people of faith asking the same question we are: are this person’s words from God or from somewhere else? Not knowing who Jesus really is, they want to know whether he is a true prophet or a false one. And, of course, they come to find out that he is a prophet, because his actions reflect our first two guidelines. That is, Jesus’ words and actions build up the man suffering from an “unclean spirit,” and the people around him are amazed––in awe of––the power of God that works through Jesus. Jesus’ action––his casting out of the unclean spirit–gives us our third guideline: God’s Word leaves us feeling clean and whole. Healed. At one with ourselves. With a clear conscience. We see in the Gospel that when Jesus speaks to others, and when he heals and does things for others, that the result is typically healing and cleansing, so to speak. People are granted new life, either in body or in spirit. The love that builds up leaves them feeling whole, what might be called “integrated.” When it comes to discerning what is from God, even though there might be a great wrenching, a convulsing and crying out even, as we let go of those things that are actually destroying us, in the end, if God’s will and God’s word are at work, there will be a calmness and healing and new life.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that any of this discernment is easy, or that following these guidelines is a fool-proof method for identifying God’s word or deciding on the right course of action. I said that the second guideline is that God’s words and actions build up, and create life, rather than destroying it, but even that’s complicated. Sometimes we have to tear things down in order to build them anew, sometimes one way of life must end in order for another to begin, and we don’t always know which is which. We can never see all of the consequences of our actions, nor understand the scope of how our decisions and words affect others. So it’s inevitable that we will, even in following these guidelines, even in earnestly desiring to do right, hurt people. We will make the wrong decisions. We will make a decision that we are convinced is focused on God and others, only to look back later and realize we were actually acting in our own interests. We are human, finite and limited in both our knowledge and our efforts. In the end, even following these guidelines will not make us righteous or justify us.
God alone, revealed to us in Christ, is the source of our righteousness and justification. God is the only one whose words and decisions always build up and always bring life. And so God alone retains ultimate authority and alone is worthy of worship. Nevertheless, God does desire that we, too, should be able to participate in God’s love and life-giving towards others and receive that for ourselves. God wants us to experience the joy that comes from walking the path of wisdom, and from hearing God’s Word and sharing it with others. And so God has given us these guidelines to help us discern whether God’s Word is being spoken: do they begin with awe, do they love and build up, and do they bring calm and healing and new life? If so, they are the Words of God, and we say, Thanks be to God, Amen.