God is not bound by anything we set up as good

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. Moses is speaking in Deuteronomy 18:15

How can we know who speaks for God? Who has the true word? Lots of people say they do. “God said to me,” we hear them say. Or we hear them say as the prophets in the Bible would have said: “Thus saith the Lord.” Who do we believe? Should we listen to the TV evangelists, the talking heads of Fox News or MSNBC, Barack Obama or Mario Rubio, the writers of great novels, the makers of movies, or our local minister? It’s very confusing.

Maybe a prophet should be judged by how closely he or she follows in the footsteps of Jesus. In “Who Speaks for God” Jim Wallis makes the case that God’s message must reflect compassion, community and civility. He said that all the prophets in the Bible, including Jesus, speak for the “least of these” in terms of compassion, favor community over individualism and are always civil (well-mannered and polite) in their actions and discourse. But, if you think of a prophet as one who “speaks truth to power,” the civility of it all may not be so apparent. Think of biblical Jeremiah and Hosea who compared the tribes of Israel to a “woman gone a-whoring on every hill and under every green tree.” Is this a compassionate approach? Is it aimed toward community building? Look at Jesus with the whip in the temple. And Jesus said things to the Pharisees that don’t sound very compassionate: “You serpents, you generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, for you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” Civility? Not so much.

The prophetic voice responds to real crisis, real oppression, real grief and loss. Where there is deep distress, prophetic voices will rise up. It’s hard for us to think of Osama bin Laden as a prophet.

But consider it for a moment.

Prophets sound like the voice of Jeremiah, crying against the domination of the east by the west, of the poor by the rich, of one religion by another, of tribal and family culture by consumer culture not through reasoned rhetoric, but through suicide bombers. We hate that; it is not civil, compassionate or communal. But, neither are intractable oppression, grief and loss.

Prophetic voices see the truth of the situation they are in. They do not wear rose-colored glasses. They see the truth and they tell it loudly. This is not very pleasant. It can be unpopular. It can be very dangerous. Many of the Bible’s prophets and our prophets today have died trying to tell the world what they see. Think of Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Peter and other martyrs, Martin Luther King Jr., Menachim Begin, Mohandas Gandhi, Bishop Oscar Romero, Sitting Bull. Osama? Putin?

The truth is God is not bound by our Western culture. God is not a U.S. president, or Pope Francis, or even Billy Graham. When we tie God up to our culture, our religion and our politics, we miss the truth about God. God is not bound to anything we set up as good.

The minute we are sure that God is on our side here in the USA, God escapes out the back door in the whirlwind and the Russians come up with a solution. You can’t keep God in a box, in a country, in a Congress or in a White House, even in a church. God does not live where we think God should. God does not do what we think God should do. God is God and surprises us with stuff we can never imagine. Though we humans carry the image of God, we are not God.

If you are expecting “Thus saith the Lord” only from those who agree with you, be careful, and expect fireworks.

The Rev. Marilyn Levine is pastor of New Town United Church of Christ and Parshall Memorial Congregational Church.