Super late today because I was up last night having a fun time. Then, I made the terrible mistake of looking at the internet, as I too often do, in the early hours, particularly the app formerly known as Twitter where there is a plentiful cacophony of authoritative posturing and preaching. One person writes an article, or tweets a tweet, and then begins a methodical cutting away the argument and the personhood of the poster by enemies or eye-rolling gifs of support by friends. When the original post is pure drivel, the business of whacking at it is a pleasure to read. When the original post is sensible, reading the ensuing thread feels like an exercise in futility and the end of all things.
The sources of the cacophony are as murky and interesting as the Nile Delta. The one that seemed most obvious to me in my blurry-eyed scrolling, though, is that there is no shared authoritative content that people who have phones and the ability to tweet are willing to defer to. Some might appeal to the Bible, but because they don’t accept it, and are passionately incurious about its purpose, authorship, and nature it often feels like those particular tweeters are sitting angrily in the corner, tearing up bits of paper and bellowing about how everyone is doing it wrong. Those that do more fully understand what the Bible is and what it is for, however, often get sucked into arguments that can have no resolution because of the people who don’t know what it is or what it is for. And there is evening, and morning, and another long day of societal devolution.
Into this babel, the disappointed and discouraged Christian might creep up to the lections appointed for the day and find some sanity. The first lesson finds the people of Israel listening to what amounts to a long sermon by Moses. They’re finally set to enter into the Land the Lord promised to give them, and they have to be reminded about what the plan is, what’s expected of them, and how it will go. At some point in the sermon, Moses gives instructions about how to tell who to listen to. Some prophets will say some things, others will say other things—how will you know what’s true and what’s fake news?
There is a way to know, according to this short text, so you don’t need to wonder very long when someone comes along and says, ‘thus saith the Lord’ or ‘it’s ok for Christians to do such and such’ or ‘the problem with the church today is something or other’ or ‘if you are really a Christian you will accept this thing that I’m telling you now.’ In any of those cases, whether or not the person claims to be a prophet, or, in these latter days a preacher or an expert or an influencer, you can hear them out, or read the tweet, and then do what Moses says to do here, which is to consider if the “word” has “come to pass or come true.” If it hasn’t, the prophet is false.
Second, and this is perhaps more obvious in our age, if the prophet speaks “in the name of other gods” or “a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak,” you shouldn’t listen. There is a slight wrinkle, though. In order to be able to judge, you would have to know all the things that have already been said in God’s name and know them so intimately that when someone said something false or contradictory, you would immediately understand the person was lying or gaslighting you, or maybe, sincerely believing it, but is just flat wrong.
And here is where all online discourse is such a mess. For, I don’t think it should be controversial to say, Christians today know the scriptures even less well than Jewish people in the time of Jesus did. And those people so long missed the most essential thing—that the person God promised, a prophet like Moses, came into their very midst and they weren’t expecting him and didn’t recognize him.
God had been very clear, unbearably so, it seems. “I will put my words in his mouth,” said God, “and he shall speak to them all that I command him” he had said, and yet, when the moment came, they didn’t know the words and didn’t recognize the speaker.
One shouldn’t be too hard on those ancient people. For it took an awfully long time for this person, Jesus, to appear. In between the sermon of Moses and the sermon of Jesus, a lot of people had claimed to speak for the Lord, and only some of them had not been lying. The ones who were telling the truth were very often persecuted. The words they spoke were abhorrent to God’s people. Kings took knives and cut the scrolls apart and burned them bit by bit. Priests and servants of God found the bible too tedious to study and shoved it into a cupboard. When that didn’t work, sometimes the kings and people killed the prophets because the Word of God was too heavy, too clear, too personal.
Strangely, Jesus, though it must have been exasperating, attended the weekly synagogue service faithfully though no one was expecting him. Before he began his public ministry, he must have heard so many bad and unhelpful sermons, rabbis wandering around the text in search of a point, nice people trying to work their way out of the exegetical and hermeneutical bag.
Once he’d been baptized and gathered some disciples, he himself taught whenever invited. So this morning, in Capernaum, while he’s explaining what it all means, “with authority” Mark notes, a man stands up and cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” “Us?” wondered the people, looking at Jesus. Does he mean the whole congregation? Or is there more than one of him in there?
I sometimes wonder what it would be like on Twitter if Jesus came and started casting out the demons, for that is what is going on in the Synagogue on this bright morning. It’s not the congregant who said those things—it was the demon possessing him. What sort of man must he have been? Someone known by all the other people sitting there, someone who had incited no particular suspicion about not, for example, speaking his own mind because it had been taken over by an “unclean spirit.”
Jesus on his own authority doesn’t talk to the man, but talks to the demon, telling him to “come out of him.” And the demon does, because demons especially have to obey God, even though they most particularly don’t want to. But not before convulsing the man and “crying out with a loud voice.” I imagine the man slumped back into his pew—or whatever was the usual seating arrangements in Sabbath worship—feeling amazed and exhausted, and probably relieved such as he had never been for many years. The rest of the gathered throng were also “all amazed” and Mark tells us, “They questioned among themselves saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”
At once, of course, “his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” And people came to hear him, but they did not—not even the elders of Israel—rush back to the text to see if what Jesus was saying comported with what had already been said. They tried to, but because they had come to rely so fully on themselves, and not on the Word so graciously given, they were not able to work it out.
I feel like, not to be pedantic, that certain parallels to our current moment ought to be inescapable. The confused anger with which so many people wander around the Bible, unable or unwilling to see that it is all about Jesus, that he is the Truth and the Life and the only way to understand its meaning—well, in some sense, it feels very demonic. And yet, the way to know what it is about is there, if anyone desires to hear, to be delivered out of the darkness, to see the true Holy One of God who has the power to speak and the power to save.
Pro-tip: If anyone—any pastor, any influencer, or any passerby—tries to speak with authority, go back to the text and check it, carefully, to see if what that person says is true. Do it especially every Sunday as you trundle off to church. All kinds of people will stand up and “explain the text” and many of them will be lying and others will just be confused. Goodness, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are actually possessed by demons. But fear not, as Moses said, if you have your Bible open in your lap, you can look down at the page as the person is speaking, you can ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of your heart, and you can know—for God wants you to know—whether the Word of God is actually being spoken.
So anyway, go to church, even if it’s complicated, and have a nice day!
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