Most of what we hear about prophets in this 21st century is related to prophecy, specifically false “end of the world” prophecies. These have ranged from the “most famous false prophet in history- William Miller. In the 1840s, he began to preach about the world’s end, saying Jesus Christ would return for the long-awaited Second Coming and that Earth would be engulfed in fire sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844— causing over 100,000 Millerites to sell all of their belongings and take to the mountains waiting for the world’s end”— that never came.
The Time is Now
Mark 1:20-28 / Epiphany 4B
Then there was Harold Camping, who predicted Jesus’ return’ and the world’s ending not once or twice but three times in the late 90s- noting the Bible and his second-grade math skills as evidence for his 99.9% certainty rate. No shebang.
Then you have William Branham and the Pentecostal Prediction. This one is just too great not to share—one of my favorites— Branham saw a stunning and mysterious cloud passing over the northernmost part of Arizona and decided the world must end. He should have known his cousins from Colorado couldn’t be trusted when they offered him those sweet homemade brownies. He climbed a nearby mountain and met seven angels who shared the secrets of the seven seals from the Book of Revelation. He might have convinced some people had he thrown in a few 7-headed beasts or the angel with the medusa talons.
I must not forget to name the prophecy that landed during my senior year of high school. Y2K baby! You will graduate, but instead of heading off to college, you will need to (you guessed it) take to the mountains. You will need to stockpile toilet paper to use as a bartering item. The digital infrastructure as we know it will be dead.
Prison cell doors will fling open, creating mass mayhem.
Planes will fall out of the sky
911 will cease to operate for safety needs
GPS satellites will fail, leaving people stranded
Elevators will stop working
And best of all—computer problems will influence nuclear defense systems between the US and Russia, leading to the accidental launch of weapons and mutually assured destruction.
Underneath the slogan for my graduating senior class (“1999 by Prince) was the tagline: we’re toast.
As you can see, we aren’t toast, and nuclear weapons didn’t blow us up; we aren’t living off the grid in the monitions (side note, as if any of us would have survived out there in the first place-)
As we think about prophets and prophecies, most of us are skeptical. Why?
Because most of modernity has experienced decades of false prophets and their ridiculous end-of-the-world prophecies. They lack credibility and authority for us.
When Jesus walks into the temple, Mark writes, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” He performs an exorcism that is common during that time, and the onlookers are amazed and ask, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Mark is writing about 40+ years after Jesus’ death, similar to Harold Camping, who tried to speak with authority in 1994, predicting the end of the world; yet here we are 30 years later. So for Camping, it was a hard no, But Mark observes Jesus and the crowd and continues to write about the authority with which Jesus teaches, heals, and tells stories. He is such a dynamic and powerful presence because of the authenticity pouring out of his pores, spilling over into the crowds, villages, synagogues, and mountaintops he is preaching on. Mark records at the end of this text in vs. 28: At once, his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Remember, Mark’s literary approach summarizes Jesus’ actions as a direct reflection of his identity. “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” the facts. Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, as prophesied in Jewish scriptures. Look, he is the living embodiment of Moses’ words.
The Hebrew lesson from the lectionary we heard this morning is from Deuteronomy 18:15-20. From the mouth of Moses (supposedly), we hear: The LORD your God will raise for you a prophet like me from among your people; you shall heed such a prophet.
God responds, “I will raise for them a prophet like you from among their people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.
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.”
William Miller, Harold Camping, William Branham, and the YK gang are lucky they didn’t live in the 6th century. “I’m like the boy who cried wolf again and again, and the wolf didn’t come,” Camping told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. “This doesn’t bother me in the slightest.” Sure doesn’t, since the flames of the 7-headed dragon didn’t smite you.
We know the origins and development of prophecy in ancient Israel are complex. Exegete Richard Puckett writes, “This text represents the paradigmatic canonical text for authorizing that prophecy. In the canonical sequence, all prophetic power, even the understanding of what a prophet does, flows from this Mosaic authorization. According to the text, the prophet will be “like” Moses, and a look at the canonical picture of the prophets confirms that the Mosaic model shapes their call and vocation. The prophet is to be from among your people; that is, the prophetic voice is to be one of you, one who has shared the history and the struggle, one who knows the history of YHWH with Israel. Thus, authority in ancient Israel rests in the words, or more specifically, in the mouth of the prophet. And for this very reason, they weren’t popular.
When Jesus walks into the temple, what precedes him is his authority, as that of Moses, which God appointed, and he (clothed in this authority) is an insult to the unclean spirit— who is immediately threatened by the power of his very presence, by the power that was also born into the mouth of Moses, Jeremiah, Micah, and Muhammad.
The power which was none other than their faith in the God whose power they carried with them. The scribes and chief priests likely also believed in God, in YHWH, in the law of Moses, but what distingue this young Rabbi is how he speaks, from a position of deep passion and conviction, of a love that he also experienced. Jesus spoke with authority, and his actions and words were “like Moses,” he was one of them, a carpenter’s son from the neighboring lowly town of Nazareth. He knew his scriptures, the history of God’s people, well enough to speak God’s future into their existence.
Mark is perhaps belaboring the issue, but it’s essential if we are to be a people who believe in the power of love to transform this world rather than give lip service to ancient traditions and creedal anecdotes, worshiping the stained glass of our past and refusing to dissect the very colonized faith heritage that is our holy book, our religious history, and even our own unexamined lives.
Christianity today is wrestling a lot with this word: authority. In fact, from our own reformed scandalous birthplace as Rome was tightening its fists and the purse strings of the poor, conspiring behind the cloth to bleed out every last penny, selling indulgences to aid the refinery of the papacy, Martin Luther asked this question- By whose authority…? Martin Luther, in his famous Here I Stand speech, claims:
“I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me God, Amen.”
Luther believed that ultimate authority rested in God’s word- holy scripture, and his authority came from his extreme conviction and public witness to this position. Again, the historical canonical depiction of a prophet, or litmus test, is simple: if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck.
Luther was a prophet, like Jesus, whose faith conviction and Mosaic-infused disposition put him in direct opposition to the political forces of the church as a state. He was charged with heresy, put on trial, and excommunicated for his prophetic teachings and witnessing.
—Fast forward a few centuries—
Our siblings in Christ, if only in a name, are prophesying in the name of YHWH truths or half-truths that seem to counter the words and actions of Jesus. Preaching hate and exclusivity, proclaiming a narrow path laced with fire and brimstone, a wrathful God in whose authority they claim power and might.
Churches in every city across America are splitting wide open over the question of authority. Who is worthy to be a prophet, priest, and Pastor to God’s people? Who has the authority to wear the robe and crown? By whose authority do LGBTQ clergy think they are called to serve the church? Those same would-be prophetic preachers and teachers are mixed up with the likes of modern-day conspirators, end-of-times prophets, and charlatans who seek the modern-day American throne, the highest seat in the land as the pulpit, claiming false truths, coercing a coup between the modern day bourgeoisie and proletariat. Of these who bear false witness, the God of Moses and Abraham and the prophet Jesus says, 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.”
Church, we live in a world with too much death, too many divisions, and too little hope lest we need one more reason to fear than to fall silent on the matters of faith that are life to God’s people.
This week, many of us from this Fri-faith campus gathered in Mary’s Hall to view the documentary “A Time for Burning.”
If you haven’t seen it, please find a way to view it yourself. You can watch it on YouTube. The documentary tells the story of Pastor Youngdhal, a clear prophet of God, at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church in the 1960s, who sought to build relations between his congregation and Calvin Memorial Presbyterian, a black congregation down the street.
The story goes as expected: his own people reject their prophet. He is convicted by the gospel to take a “stand” and is rejected by those who fear what they do not understand. In this case, white people do not understand black people and thus fear, objectify, dehumanize, and oppress them. Rev. Youngdhal is forced to resign and later becomes a thriving UCC clergy (yay!), but his experience at Augustana is profound for those of us who live and work in this city. Without spoiling it, I will share this.
The teenagers from the black congregation are sitting in the basement of their church with some of their youth leaders, debating the issues that have arisen of late. Rev. Youngdal had asked his congregation’s social ministry to plan house visits with the congregants from the black Presbyterian church in their neighborhood. There was an uproar, excuse after excuse, from the white male leaders as to why they should not do this. The most consistent response was, “It is not the right time.”
The black teenager’s discussion goes like this:
If he is a prophet, doesn’t he have to preach the word of God?
If the people see him as their Pastor, won’t they listen to God’s words preached in God’s church?
So the story goes…
Youngdal did preach the gospel; he did hold up God’s word for God’s people, and not only did they reject God’s word, but they rejected God’s prophet.
Youngdahl resigned, and Augustana Lutheran Church continued to say, “It’s not the right time.”
Church, if I know anything, it’s that God’s time is not our time, but it is always right now.
Jesus walked into the synagogue, and immediately, the people were amazed. The only one Mark names as having a “demon” is the one who resisted God’s prophet and God’s word.
If we seek God’s wisdom, we must listen to the prophets of God, speaking with authority the word(s) of God and embodying in flesh the LOVE of God. May we be God’s church, a city on a hill, a beacon of light to a world hungry for Good News. The time is now. May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Jenny Shultz-Thomas
 Webley, K. (2011, May 20). Top 10 end-of-the-world prophecies. Time. https://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,2072678,00.html
 Rossen, J. (2022, December 21). 7 wild predictions about Y2K. Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/posts/y2k-predictions
 “just the facts, ma’am.” Strategic America. (2022, November 18). https://www.strategicamerica.com/blog/2012/10/just-the-facts-maam/
 Suddath, C. (2011, May 20). Top 10 end-of-the-world prophecies. Time. https://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2072678_2072683_2072703,00.html
 Chestnuthillpres. (n.d.). https://www.chestnuthillpres.org/sermons/2012/jul29.pdf