Certified Prophet

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year B
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28

Of all the the signs of crisis in our culture one of the most subtle is the proliferation of certificates.  It seems that there is a certificate for everything now, along with some official group to issue it and, most likely, take our money for the service.  For instance, one can become a Certified Special Event Professional (CSEP) or hold a Certificate in Career Readiness.  There are certificates for the mastery of various software programs, planning methodologies, and fitness routines.  There are Certified Dog Psychologists and Certified Beer Judges.  From one top tier university I found 31 certifications in leadership alone, from a Certification in Critical Thinking Leadership to a Certification in Servant Leadership.

Not all certifications are bad, of course, but their proliferation signals a crisis of legitimacy and competency.  What were once basic human skills, shared freely and developed in community, have become certificates that are given only after the consumption of some educational product.  And our judgement of those who are competent no longer requires our discernment of clear outcomes, but rather a glance at the frames on a person’s office wall.

Though there was no proliferation of certifications in 1st Century Palestine, the Gospel of Mark presents us with a Jesus who is stepping into a similar crisis of legitimacy.  There were a host of religious teachers who were presenting their varied solutions to the challenges at hand—the Roman occupation, covenantal faithfulness, living into God’s future.  And yet, so many of those in authority had become more interested in retaining and extending their status rather than entering the living reality of God.  So is that when Jesus takes up the scriptures he gains credibility among the people not through certification, but by his clear mastery of the scriptures and ability to make manifest the presence of God.

In doing this he reflects the authority of a prophet as Moses articulated it in Deuteronomy.  Moses knew the deep human need for guidance and thus for authority and expertise.  In the ancient world there were plenty of people who could provide such guidance through varied forms of witchcraft and divination. They could read the stars and signs and tell the community what is going to happen.  It might require child sacrifice to do so, but the future could be known and thus controlled in some way or at least appear to be so.

What Moses presents in contrast is a true prophet.  There’s no certification program or official test for a prophet.  A true prophet is known, writes Walter Brueggemann, “By holding present covenantal obedience in connection with the future of YHWH, the prophet makes clear that Israel is never fated, but is always situated in the freedom and responsibility of covenantal interaction” (emphasis his).  If the prophet doesn’t accurately portray the future that God is working, then that prophet is false.  And such a future can only be known through a close and intimate relationship with YHWH.

Such a relationship is open to possibility.  Rather than divinization that is always focused on controlling the future in some way, the true prophet calls on us to live in dependence and ongoing relationship with the God who lives and in whom we live.  Our best future is not as we determine it or find it determined, responding to our knowledge of what might come, but rather the life we live with and through a free God.  Such a way protects us from what Brueggemann calls the twin temptations of autonomy and fatedness.  We are not captive to our own agendas nor are we beholden to a predetermined future, written in the stars.  The prophet reminds us to listen to the God whose creation is alive and ongoing.

It is this ongoing life that is at the heart of Jesus’ mission—drawing Israel back into relationship with the living God and opening it to God’s future.  It is this power to name and demonstrate God’s will and work in the world that proves Jesus’ authority as a prophet and more than a prophet.

What is our call in response to these scriptures?  In a world that has lost the ability to judge competence, we must renew the only basis of authority upon which we can ultimately rest—an ongoing, deep life of listening relationship with the living God.  Such a life is a whole one, marked by qualities of character that extend well beyond words.  This authority is one in which the presence of God is made manifest.  As my friend Claudio Oliver recently put it to me, we must make Jesus manifest in the world, as Jesus made God’s covenantal relationship manifest in that synagogue on a Sabbath long ago.  If we do this, we won’t need any certificates hanging on our walls.  God’s power will be clearly present to all who can plainly see it in our lives.  So let us listen to the God who still speaks, and make our lives an echo of that speaking, reflecting the life that God is creating in the world.

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