A Homily for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who calls us to proclaim his authority. Amen.
A prophet like Moses. It’s quite a promise for the people so recently rescued from slavery and following the law-giver through the wilderness.
Here he is: their great liberator who has worked mighty deeds in the name of the Lord. How excited the people must have been to hear that there would be more prophets like Moses. And today, we know their names: starting with Joshua, followed by the likes of Deborah, Hannah and her son Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea, to name but a few.
These people were not mere fortune tellers, as we think of prophets in modern days, but rather these are the ones who give voice to God’s divine message of redemption and liberation. What a relief it must have been to hear that God will continue to speak to the people.
But this promise is not entirely good news. It comes with a warning: false prophets will arise and attribute to God that which the Lord has not said. These lying prophets are both a curse and accursed, speaking deception and oppressing the people. These liars will “presume to speak for the Lord” while serving only their own interests.
How do we know who’s who? When a prophet proclaims, “Thus says the Lord,” how do we know they are speaking truly? How do we discern the good from the bad?
For some unknown reason, the text today cuts off before an important line. Just after our first reading, Deuteronomy anticipates our very question:
“You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.”
In the first and second centuries, in the years surrounding our Lord’s life, false prophets and self-styled saviors cropped up with some frequency. The most famous of these was Simon, called Bar Kokhba, or the “son of a star,” who lived about a century after our Lord. Some rabbis proclaimed him to be the long-expected Messiah, and he led a violent rebellion that eventually led to the complete destruction of Jerusalem. There was reason to be frightened of his words. His actions were a curse and accursed.
In the early days of Nazi Germany, pastors and bishops within the German Lutheran churches moved closely in line with the fascist regime. Claiming support from Luther’s most anti-semitic writings, these church leaders pushed to implement Nazi ideas within the national church.
This included a concentrated effort to elect Hitler’s adviser on religious affairs as the presiding bishop. Nazi propagandists went to work backing Nazi pastors for church leadership positions. The end result was terrible and terrifying. Churches began to adopt so-called “Aryan paragraphs” which excluded all non-western Europeans from positions of authority.
And these false prophets were crafty, too. When Hitler’s hand-picked bishop went so far as to call for the removal of the Old Testament and the excommunication of Christians with Jewish ancestry, the Nazi government bypassed their own bishop. In a disturbing act of cunning, they installed a “Minister for Church Affairs” whose job it was to bring back moderates, speaking kind words to them while trying to quiet their dissent.
All the while, though, this same Minister was pushing the Nazi vision of so-called “Positive Christianity” – which in his own words was not “dependent on the Apostles’ Creed” or belief in Jesus Christ as the savior but held up Hitler as the “herald of revelation.” The message was the same – that is, racist heresies – but disguised in a gentler tone to make it more palatable.
Looking back some eighty years later, we realize that despite what it says in Deuteronomy, there was great reason to be frightened by the words of these lying pastors and false prophets. Their words sewed hatred and destruction. This false gospel was a curse and accursed.
False prophets come in all forms and in every age. In the days of Israel, they came as ones giving comfort to the unjust acts of cruel kings. In the time of Christ, they came as zealots and false messiahs trying to lead Judea in open and violent revolt against the Roman empire. In the 1930s in Germany, they came as Christian leaders incorporating Hitler’s genocidal regime into the Church.
Every time they speak their false message, blood is shed.
These false prophets are crafty; they claim divine authority and speak words that sound comforting. They play on the dominant mindset of the time and tell us to put our faith in something other than God.
“Serve wealth,” they say. “Seek power. Be tough. Trust violence. Put your faith in earthly rulers. Trust me. I alone can fix it.”
What then does a true prophet look like? How do we tell the difference between the prophet who speaks for God and the one who speaks curses? How do we find the ones like Moses?
Today, Christ shows us the answer.
In Saint Mark’s Gospel, this is the first of Jesus’ public teachings and miracles. With his first disciples following close behind and eagerly waiting to see what will happen, Jesus enters the synagogue and begins preaching. This is not the angry rhetoric of the zealots calling for war or the complicit silence of the pro-Roman leaders but a new teaching: one with authority.
How did his audience recognize his authority? How did they know? And how do we know?
Christ’s message – his Good News, his Gospel – extends beyond words. His teaching enacted miraculous deeds.
A man comes into the synagogue, possessed by demons. And here we see an early glimpse of the extent of Christ’s ministry. Here is one, plagued by an unclean spirit, an outsider, redeemed and brought in to the fold. Here, Christ’s struggle against powers and principalities, against oppression, against sin and death, comes forth.
Not a violent war, waged with weapons, nor a blind eye turned in exchange for power, but through the authority of his word. Here is the first sign of Christ’s sure victory over sin and death, put on full display. Here is the answer to the claims of the false prophets.
In Germany, as so much of the church failed, as so many Christians sold their souls for proximity to power, as false prophets took over the pulpits, Christ’s authority seemed so far off.
Reflecting on it after the end of the Holocaust, German Protestants confessed, “we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.” The Church failed, and in failing, condemned millions.
In the midst of their failure, though, a faithful remnant held steadfast. A group of Lutheran and Calvinist Christians organized the Confessing Church, a Christian body opposed to the Nazi regime, and joined by faithful Catholics. These Christians faced violent harassment and death for their trust in the Gospel. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, they persisted.
The Confessing Church’s opposition to the Nazi regime was limited in scope, focused primarily on the Church’s independence. They were neither a militia nor a political party. Instead, they proclaimed the Gospel free of Nazi influence – but in doing so, strengthened many of their members to enact their faith by actively resisting the Nazi regime, hiding Jewish people in their homes, helping refugees obtain exit visas and flee to safety, and working within the government to undermine the regime.
Pastors like Hermann Maas and Dietrich Bonhoeffer risked everything to exercise Christ’s authority in their struggle against the Nazis. Bonhoeffer, having fled to the US as a refugee, returned to Germany to serve the Church and, in his own words, “share the trials of this time.” He lost his life in a concentration camp, but he continued his ministry until the very end, even from prison.
Here are blessed saints who taught and acted with authority, joining Christ in the struggle against sin and death, their teaching proven by mighty deeds.
In our own time, false prophets ask us to put our faith in an authority other than God. They play on our fears, offering violence disguised as security. As the same racism that drove the Nazi regime continues to rear its demonic head in places like Charlottesville in 2017 and again at the US Capitol earlier this month, as people like Gavin McInnes and groups like the Proud Boys spew forth bilious hatred and sew the seeds of violence and destruction, as an ancient evils takes on a new name in the alt-Right, too many pastors and church leaders have remained silent. Some, like Eric Metaxas, have gleefully embraced this racist rhetoric. Others have turned a blind eye, choosing to sin through silent omission.
In years past, I have said, “The time has come yet again for the Church to resist the sin of racism.” But that’s not true – or rather it’s not the whole truth. The Church has been called to resist racism and to repent for centuries. That holy call never ceased, but the Church has so often neglected to do so. So many white Christians defended slavery, and every single white denomination split over the issue in the decade around the Civil War. White Christians flocked to join the Klan and to fight against their Black kindred in the movement for civil rights. White Christians have refused to join the movement for Black lives, instead turning a colorblind eye to injustice.
But it is not too late for us to repent! It is a long and difficult road; it is the way to the cross. But beloved, do not be frightened. These false prophets speak in the name of false gods and demons. They proclaim the way of death, and our Lord has already conquered the grave.
The same Lord who taught with authority and cast out demons, the same Lord who strengthened the Confessing Church to proclaim the Gospel, has called us through Baptism to renounces all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises. Through Baptism, our Lord has set us free from death. God has set us free to renounce – publicly and boldly – the racist ideologies that threaten our world.
Like Moses, we are called to liberate the oppressed.
Like Christ, we are called to cast out the demons of hate.
Like Bonhoeffer, we are being called to proclaim the Gospel centered on Christ’s authority.
May God strengthen us to do so. Amen.