Monday, August 16, 2010

Making the Sermon: Discerning the Real from the Fake

This past week my preaching text was Jeremiah 23:25-29. Heavy on my mind was the weight of the new office that I hold and the ways in which uttered speech affects the lives of the people. Our speech, as preachers, can harm or heal. At the end of my life, I want to be known as a woman whose words were breathed by the very breath of God; I want to be know as a woman whose words mattered. I want to be known as a woman whose words were healing. There is a balm in Gilead!

I chose my text early in the week from the Revised Common Lectionary. I do not come from a tradition where lectionary is used, but in my Advanced Preaching class, I learned to use it. (I also really like the African American Lectionary.) Lectionary is indeed a valuable tool for the preacher. It helps to guide the preacher through the Bible so that he or she may guide the people through the Bible, without falling victim to preaching the same texts over and over again. As I establish my preaching rhythm, I am interested in establishing a way of choosing a text that is not haphazard. That is not to say that I don't rely on the Spirit to lead me to a text, because I do. I also know that the people who hear our preaching do not live their lives episodically or haphazardly. Our preaching—my preaching—must have some continuity. This is wisdom gleaned from Rev. Dr. Gary Simpson. For that I am grateful.

Like I said, I chose the text on Monday. I spent Tuesday through Friday reading it over and over and over and over in again in various translations. I read the text at the pool. I read the text at Panera Bread. I read the text in my living room. I even listened to the text when I was out for a walk. During those days I was jotting down notes here and there as they came to me. There were moments, mostly when I was washing dishes, when I would hear the sermon in my head. At those moments I shut the water off, found my pretty preaching journal, and proceeded to write until it all came out. By the time Saturday morning hit, I didn't have a lot written down, but there was a lot ruminating in my head.

I didn't have a lot written down because I was being lazy. This was a hard text and I did not shy away from it. That did not make writing the sermon any easier. I knew early on, based on what I was hearing from the text, that folks weren't going to be "shouting down the aisles." But yet, I imagine folks weren't shouting when Jeremiah preached either.

On Saturday afternoon I finally opened up my laptop and knew that I wouldn't close it until the sermon was completed. The words poured out of me. For that I am grateful to God! At one point I knew the sermon was getting long. I mentioned this to my husband. An hour later the words were still pouring and my fingers were still clicking away on the keyboard. "Editing down, I hope," said my hubby. "Ummm, yeah, sure. That's what I'll be doing once I add this one more thing," I replied. He gave me the look. I kept typing. I typed until this phase of it was done. And I went to bed feeling good, ready for the Holy Spirit to complete the sermon on Sunday morning. It's not done until you preach it...

Here is the Text:

“I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart, who try to make My people forget My name by their dreams which everyone tells his neighbor, as their fathers forgot My name for Baal.
“The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream;
And he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully.
What is the chaff to the wheat?” says the LORD.

“Is not My word like a fire?” says the LORD,
“ And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”

Here is an Excerpt:

And Jeremiah wasn’t the only one living in troubled times and a world with false prophets. If I did not know any better, I would think that our text from today are not the words of an ancient prophet, but rather the words of a present day prophet stirring people to know the real word of God over the false dreams of prophets. Jeremiah preached under pressure, and is that not the case for the preacher/prophet today? Sunday after Sunday, we mount the pulpit and declare what thus saith the Lord in the midst of war, famine, despair, hopelessness, and nihilism. Sunday after Sunday, we mount the pulpit and declare what thus saith the Lord in a world rife with racism, classism, and sexim. Sunday after Sunday, we mount the pulpit and declare what thus saith the Lord while physical violence, emotional violence, and sexual violence are inflicted in the lives of people. Sunday after Sunday, we mount the pulpit and declare what thus saith the Lord while our children suffer in inadequate schools, our people live in inadequate homes, and healthcare is still a privilege for some and not a right for all. Sunday after Sunday, we mount the pulpit and declare what thus saith the Lord, speaking a word of hope in the midst of brokenness.

And it is this brokenness, this turmoil, this presence of pressure, that is fertile ground for the false prophet. You see, today, we have a proliferation of false prophets in our midst. False prophets see the brokenness in our world and capitalize on it. They use it as a way to pervert the Word of God and prey on the hearts and minds of the people. The text tells us a few things of note about false prophets. For one, they prophesy lies in God’s name. They build their ministries around untruths. They are frauds, masquerading as spokespersons for God when they really only utter falsehood. Don’t get it twisted...they will throw some Word in the mix. Make it sound real good. But remember, that is exactly what happened with the serpent in the garden and look where it got us.

Secondly, the false prophet will sell you a dream. A false prophet will tell you that God is going to give you something beyond your wildest dreams. Usually this prophesy is steeped in the American dream--health, wealth, prosperity, big houses, big cars, big bank accounts. And you find out that this prophesy is really just a pipe dream. In this society, in our current culture and ethos, we have been taught to fill our voids with stuff. Instead of promising you the peace that passes all human understanding, the false prophet promises you a piece of American pie. Instead of promising abundant love--agape--from God, the false prophet promises you abundant things to fill the empty spaces in your soul.

Lastly, the false prophet is not an authorized mouthpiece of God, but rather one who prophesies from the deceit in their heart. At their core, false prophets are wicked. At their center, false prophets are frauds. In the depths of their heart is not the love of God, but rather a love of lies and trickery.

I used to understand prophets as folks who stood in the pulpit, sometimes speaking in tongues, while intently surveying the room for someone to whom God wanted to speak directly. I encountered prophets who sometimes spoke harsh words, most times promised people an end to their suffering (or a new car), and never spoke to me. I now have a new understanding of prophets, rooted in the Old Testament tradition, where prophets are messengers of God, called to speak truth to power and motivate communities to live into their God-given identity. Think about it, when have you ever read where Jeremiah, or Isaiah, or Ezekial, or Haggai promised someone a new car, a new house, or a new job. Better yet, do you know of Jonah telling the single ladies of Ninevah that they would be married in six months. The prophets did, however, on many occasions, call people into a new way of being where they walk in the word of God and the beauty of holiness.

False Prophets…will tell you their dreams.

Real Prophets...speak the words of the Lord.

False Prophets…prophesy lies, and twist the word of God.

Real Prophets...speak what thus saith the Lord.

False Prophets…cause people to forget God.

Real Prophets...keep God front and center in the hearts and minds of the people.

False Prophets…will have you chasing after money, cars, houses and clothes.

Real Prophets...will have you chasing after God.

False Prophets…work out of their own agenda.

Real Prophets...say nevertheless Lord, not my will, but thy will be done.

False Prophets…are detrimental to your walk with God.

Real Prophets...say, “order my steps in your word.”

False Prophets…tickle the itching ears of the people.

Real Prophets…speak life to the broken hearts of the people.

False Prophets…will tell you what you can and should be according to American values rooted in consumerism and materialism.

Real Prophets…will tell us what we ought to be, according to values and standards of Almighty God.

False Prophets…are interested in profits, replete with dollar signs and lots of zeros.

Real Prophets…are interested in the integrity of the prophetic office, replete with repentance and salvation.

False Prophets…will prey on you.

Real Prophets…will pray for you and pray with you.

Fake Prophets...will tell you that Jesus is a way.

Real Prophets...will tell you that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

Fake Prophets...will tell you that sin is of no consequence.

Real Prophets...will tell you that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life!

False Prophets…will give you a word for the low, low, price of 19.95 payable by check, credit card, or money order.

Real Prophets…will give you a word and sacrifice their lives in the process.


The real prophet is inspired by the breath of God and the word of God. The very words they utter come directly from the Word. His or her words are God breathed. Biblical scholar, John Patterson writes, “two people may wear the clerical collar and the ministerial garb but one may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the other may be a dedicated spirit like Jeremiah. One may be the victim of illusion and the other may be the voice of God. How can we discern things that differ?” (64). Further, he states, “the inspired speaker is discerned by the inspired hearer...” (65-66)

Beloved, you must be inspired hearers.

And the way that we become inspired hearers is to be inspired readers. Beloved, we must know the word of God for ourselves. We must be in relationship with the word of God. We must meditate on the Word of God. We must hide it in our hearts that we might not sin against Him. We must eat the Word, savor it, digest it, and then live it.

Beloved, let us be inspired readers. Let us be inspired hearers. Let us be inspired by Almighty God so that we may discern the real from the fake and so we never forget God’s name.

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