By Cynde | Wednesday, December 21, 2016 | 2:40 PM
I began this transitional ministry with you in August 2105. The end of this month I will have been with you for seventeen months. That is longer than I expected. During transitions people begin to wonder – about a great many things. You have questions. When will the real pastor start? Who will the next real pastor be? Some folks have been thinking, “How can we ever replace this pastor with one as good as he has been?” Others were thinking, “Do we have to wait the entire year for him to leave?” Some begin to remember what it was like when other new pastors showed up and they tried to recall, “How long does it take to break in a new one?”
Moses reads the minds of the people of Israel. Moses tells them that God will raise up a new leader. In other words, Moses says to Israel, “Stop worrying. God will provide.” Moses tells Israel that the leadership will come from within. I believe that is crucial for every congregation to hear when it faces a transition. The leadership in Presbyterian churches always comes from the congregation. Yes. Of course pastors provide leadership, but the ongoing leadership for Presbyterian churches always comes from the congregation.
Moses knows that his time has come. Moses cannot lead the people forever. He is not burned out. The people are not finishing his sentences in his sermons. God has told Moses that it is time for a transition. God said to Moses, “It is time to retire. Tell the people that I will provide so they will not worry about it.” God will provide a new leader for the people and the new leader does not need to worry about what to say to the people because God will provide that as well.
Preachers know that we are like windows through which God’s light shines. At our best we are the conduit through which the Holy Spirit empowers the people. Pastors are like the ushers in the performance hall. The usher is not the point of the great opera. The great spectacle on the stage is the point. Pastors usher people into the presence of the Almighty. The preacher is not the point; Christ is the point. Preachers know that our job is to get out of the way and allow the glory of God to shine. One of my Buddhist priest friends described our work as pastors as “threshold ministry.” We stand with God’s people on the threshold of life events: births and deaths, baptisms and confirmations, weddings and divorces.
One of the difficulties the church and church people have today is that we do not believe what God told Moses. We do not believe that God will choose the leaders and the pastor of this church. We know that we choose. In fact, we know that we have freedom of choice. What we too easily forget is that when it comes to our relationship with God, God chose us first. Before we existed, God chose us in Jesus Christ. With all of our anxiety about the future we do well to remember that God chose us. Jesus tells his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
God provides by calling the new leader. God provides the words the new leader will say. But the final piece is the one most difficult for us. We must listen to what the new leader says. Public speaking does not happen unless there is a public present and paying attention. God said to Moses, “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.” God is, in effect, repeating the Shema, “Hear O Israel.”
The people of Israel say to Moses, “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever see this great fire, I will die.” What are they saying? What does this mean? They are confessing that they have not lived lives worthy of God. They have hurt or ignored the poor. They have cheated and lied. It is a scary thing to come into the presence of God when you know how you have been living. And you know the way you have been living is not the way God has called you to live. The people are afraid to hear the voice of God spoken directly to them. That is why we need a vessel, no matter how earthen, through which God speaks of love, mercy and justice.
Where are the prophets today? I do not mean the mega church preachers. Not Rick Warren from Saddleback, or Bill Hybels from Willow Creek or even Brian McLaren’s Emergent Church movement; certainly not Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel. Another famous, or infamous, preacher of today, Jeremiah Wright, said that there are no prophets in the written record who were pastors of mega-churches. Must we go back forty or fifty years to Martin Luther King. Jr. to find a prophet who challenged the establishment and called people to faithfulness?
In my experience the prophets are faithful preachers and pastors in small struggling churches. In those same churches we also find prophets sitting in the pews. There are people in those small faithful churches who dedicate their lives in public service: advocating for the poor, and calling neighbors and communities to accountability. Just as Moses did more than proclaim God’s wisdom and love through sermons, so do you. Moses took a rag tag, dysfunctional family out of slavery and formed them into a community. Moses established laws. He fed the people. We do the same.
Where are the prophets today? If being a prophet means that you are following the Word of God, then you are right here. You are supporting Kids to Love and the homeless. You are teaching English as a second language or tutoring students.
The story goes that the old pastor finally retired. The congregation was fortunate to find a transitional minister available to begin immediately. On the first Sunday she preached a great sermon. Her delivery was amazing and the content was brilliant. The congregation was deeply moved. Many said it was the best sermon they had ever heard. The second Sunday came and the congregation was excited to hear what this new pastor would preach next. The congregation was not sure what to do when they heard the very same sermon on that second Sunday. On the third Sunday it was again the same sermon as on the first and second Sundays. You know where this is going. But it is my last sermon so I can tell it anyway. After the fourth Sunday of the same sermon one of the elders spoke privately to the new pastor. “Uh pastor, the congregation wanted me to ask you – did you catch that? He is speaking for the entire congregation. – Why are you preaching the same sermon every Sunday?” The new pastor smiled and said, “Because I have yet to see any of you doing what I have been preaching.”
Moses tells the people, “God will continue to care for you after I am gone.” The promise of God is true not because of any spectacle or splendor God miraculously performs, but because of God’s word. It is the word of God that validates the prophets. The prophets are called to speak God’s word. The role of the faithful people is to listen. In the Biblical sense to listen means more than to simply hear, but to listen thoughtfully and courageously. Hearing the word of God leads to action. That is how prophets know when the people have heard the word of God. The people go out in faith to do the word of God, to live the word of God, to become the living word of God.