Second Sunday after Pentecost, May 29, 2005
False Prophets in the Wilderness
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You are standing in the middle of a great wilderness, a desert of sand and rock where oases are few and far between and shade seems nonexistent. You cannot remember a time in your life when you were not in this wilderness. To judge by all appearances, there is no other place except this wilderness; based on everything you have seen, the desert covers the entire earth, and you can never reach the end of it. You’ve heard rumors about a place beyond the edge of this dry and arid wasteland, but you have your doubts. Or at least you have your doubts about ever getting there.
Thinking of that desert reminds me of the scene in the Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where Clint Eastwood’s character (“The Good”) is forced by Tuco (“The Ugly”) to walk across 100 miles of desert. My throat gets a little dry just thinking about it. He has nothing to drink, and he has no hat to cover his head. His face is soon blistered and cracked from the effects of the sun. That’s what the desert does to you.
Lest you think this is all simply a thought experiment, recall St. John’s vision in Revelation 12. He saw a “great sign” in the heavens of
a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. … [T]he dragon…[who] had been thrown down to the earth…pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 12:1-6, 13-17, ESV).
The woman in this vision is crowned with twelve stars for both the Old Testament tribes of Israel and the New Testament Apostles. She is the Church throughout all times and places, which the dragon, Satan, is working to destroy. As in the rest of the book of Revelation, 1,260 days and a time, times, and half a time, along with their counterparts 3 ˝ years and 42 months, all represent the time from Jesus’ ascension until He returns again. This is the time of the Church in the wilderness.
Of course, this is not a physical wilderness where physical water is in short supply. Some of our brothers and sisters, offspring with us of our Mother the Church, have indeed faced physical hardship because of the devil’s furious raging, but this is first and foremost a spiritual wilderness, where the Church is persecuted and beset with every sort of trouble and trial. We are faced with sometimes bitter dissension, like two starving men in the desert fighting over the last piece of bread and the last drop of water. We appear as weary travelers clothed in worn-out rags and staggering from the sheer distance of our journey. We are like sheep wandering in a grass-less wilderness, who seem to have no Shepherd to guide us.
And then there are the false prophets in the wilderness. They are nothing else than the disciples of the dragon, who makes war on the saints (Revelation 13). Jesus told us to beware of them. He said that even though they looked exactly like us, worked with us in the same causes, acted concerned for the future of the church, and talked piously about the love of God and Jesus Christ—-in other words, dressed like sheep—-we would recognize them by their wolfish “fruits.” What are the fruits of false prophets? While fruit often refers in the New Testament to actions or deeds, here it must refer to the words and teachings of the false prophets. It is not by the actions of the false prophets that we recognize them because they do the same things we do. A false prophet is one who declares that God has said this, when He has not said it, and one who teaches that God did not say so, when He has. The false prophet claims to speak for God, but really speaks for the enemy of God.
It seems so easy to tell the difference, doesn’t it? An apple tree has apples on it, a blackberry bush has blackberries on it, a peach tree has peaches on it, and a grape vine has grapes on it. But what if no one ever told you the difference between apples and peaches, blackberries and grapes? The only way you could distinguish between them would be to guess, but that’s not very reliable when you want to make apple pie and not peach cobbler. Ah, but apples and peaches are both good for you. How much more important is it to distinguish correctly between good fruit and poisonous fruit! It is not as if one is ripe, and the other has gone beyond ripe to rotten. They both appear good; the only difference is that one will kill you and the other will give you life.
How, then, can we learn to distinguish between the false and the true prophets? The one sure way is the one St. John gives to the congregation to which he wrote his first letter. “Beloved, 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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3). And no one can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). If we are to distinguish between those who confess Jesus Christ and those who do not, we must also understand that such a confession includes all the words inspired by the Spirit of Jesus, namely, the entire Bible, with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection at the center of it. Jesus is the Word of God in human flesh, and He speaks in unison with the Spirit of the written Word.
But here we have a bit of a problem, because it is not as if the false prophets are going to come out and agree with our assessment of them. No heretic in the history of the Church ever called himself a heretic (except, perhaps, in our own distinguished age). The heretic or the false prophet claimed the correct understanding; he said that all of the forces arrayed against him had it wrong! Thus, the judgment on false prophets within a Christian congregation does not come from individuals, but from the Church, led by the Spirit of Christ. The Church here, First Lutheran Congregation as a whole, is the Body of Christ which must expel false prophets, like a cancer, from its midst.
Well, we’ve been talking us vs. them, and it’s just not that clear-cut, is it? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus. We’re well-trained to recognize false prophecy in its most blatant forms. We can recognize the false prophets who deny that Jesus is God, or deny that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, or deny that they will be judged according to God’s standards. Those false prophets do exist within Christian congregations, and to them the truth must be spoken in love. If they will not repent, they will be treated as a tax collector or a pagan, which is to say, as one who needs to be reconverted. But let us give credit where credit is due: the devil does not always play the same note, and he certainly does not always play at the same volume. There are many more subtle ways of deception.
Can you recognize the false prophecy that infects you? Physician, diagnose thyself! There is the false prophecy that gives up God’s holy ground to the fickle winds of social acceptability. Here, the first and greatest commandment is “Thou shalt not offend.” And the second is like unto it: “Thou shalt not call wrong what the world has called right.” “Did God really say only one man and one woman for life?” “Did God really say that Jesus is the only way to heaven?” “Did God really say, ‘Love your neighbor exactly as yourself,’ instead of looking out for your own interests first?” “Did God really say…?” The evil spirit of false prophecy is as old as creation.
There is also the false prophecy that explains away in your own case what you would never allow in others. You can always find extenuating circumstances for your “mistakes.” You had to lie to protect your spouse’s feelings. That person has no excuse. Why can’t those parents control their children? Yours are just doing what children do. The temptation came on too fast for you to stand strong against it. He must have allowed himself to be tempted. Certainly God knows how much pressure I’m under; He can’t hold that sin against me. But that person acts like she doesn’t even know that what she’s doing is a sin.
Do not be deceived! God has no double standards. If it’s no tolerance for them, it’s no tolerance for you or for me. You know, that whole speck and plank thing. Judge not, lest you be judged. Beware of false prophets, even when they come dressed in your own skin. Beware the fruit of self-righteousness, just as much as the fruit of complacency in the face of false doctrine. They are both poisonous, and they are both fatal. The wilderness in which we live is the wilderness of Sinai, brought on by our own rebellious actions. We are the complainers, the idolaters, the ones longing for the good old days of whips on our backs and making bricks without straw. We call good what God calls evil, and we call evil what God calls good. We are the ones who said the land was filled with giant sins too big to conquer; the ones who took God’s mercy for granted in our own case, but doubted it was big enough for them.
What will the Day of Judgment bring? Shall you be the ones who cry out, “Lord, Lord,” but to whom Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness”? Oh no, dear friends! The shoe fits, but you do not have to wear it. The One who will judge all people has taken the judgment upon Himself. He took on the flesh of the false prophet, the excuser, the adulterer, the complainer, the arrogant, the liar; He became the thirsty wanderer in the same desert where the devil prowls, roaring in his fury at the Son of God and all who would believe in Him. No, you offspring of the Church will never be devoured by the dragon, because the Husband of the Church was devoured on the cross in your place. The planks in your eyes became the boards to which He was nailed, and His blood washes your sin away for all eternity.
We still live in the wilderness, but it is no longer the desert of Sinai. This is the wilderness in which God has prepared a place for us to be nourished until Christ returns. We are still in this world, and those who belong to the world and its master the dragon still oppose us because we are not of this world. “If you were of the world,” Jesus said, “the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19).
The time of the Church in this world is a limited time, but it can seem as endless as a 100-mile walk across burning sand. My brothers and sisters, the rumors are not false: there is another world beyond the edge of time, untouched by the sin and death that are common to this world. And the dry rot of sin around us is not the only reality. There is an oasis in this place, and it is most assuredly not a mirage. The water of the baptismal font is very real, as real as the Word that was spoken and as real as the God who put His holy Name on you. When you feel the hunger and thirst of your weakness in the face of temptation, here is a resting place along the way. The food of Christ’s Body is real food, and the drink of Christ’s blood is real drink. Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:55-56, 58). That is why the color of the season of Pentecost, the season of the Church in the wilderness, is the bold green of new life. No dry, sand-colored paraments here! You have life, and you have it abundant in Jesus Christ.
There are still some who do not realize that it is wilderness in which they walk. Their mouths are dry, and their tongues stick to the roofs of their mouths, and yet they look to drink in the dragon’s lair. Bring them, as fellow travelers, to the living water of the Savior! He longs to satisfy their thirst so completely that they will never thirst again. “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isaiah 41:17-18). God does the impossible, and turns hearts of stone into hearts of faithful flesh.
“For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and thirsty ground springs of water…. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:5-7a, 10). Praise be to our God through Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation! Amen.
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).