SJF • Proper 28b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert...+
We have come to the time of year when it doesn’t take a prophet to notice the change in the tone of our appointed weekly scripture readings. The purple of Advent begins to glow in the distance, the flags of dawn are beginning to appear over the top of the hill, and word of the great King, who will come to judge the world, is beginning to echo down the corridors that in a few weeks will bring us to the start of a new church year. The language of the Daniel and the Gospel of Mark are heavy with apocalyptic visions, visions of what the old funeral hymn called the “Day of Wrath.”
The Gospel echoes Daniel and warns of the coming tribulation, a terrible time that will follow the appearance of the desolating sacrilege. However, at the end of the gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a most unusual warning. Jesus usually tells his disciples to believe and have faith, yet here he warns them to do just the opposite: to be skeptical and doubtful.
Of course, when Jesus told his disciples to have faith, it was faith in him and faith in God. Here he’s talking about false prophets and false messiahs — people so cunning and persuasive that they could even lead the elect astray. So Jesus puts the disciples on the alert: Don’t believe false messiahs who present themselves as the answer to the world’sproblems, who offer a quick fix and an easy solution. Don’t believe false prophets no matter how many wonders they produce.
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The world has seen plenty of false prophets and messiahs since Jesus spoke these words of warning. About a hundred years after Jesus’ time a zealot leader proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. He led a revolt that provoked a devastating response from the Romans, who wiped out the last Jewish presence in Jerusalem, and built a pagan shrine on the ruins of the Temple: an abomination of desolation on that holy spot.
And from then until now, time and again people have been misled by false prophets into mass suicide at the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate, people deluded by leaders who seemed themselves deluded into believing they held the keys to eternal life, but in the end only brought death.
Closer to home, I’m sure we’ve all encountered the more domesticated false prophets: not the ones who promise salvation, but the smaller, more modest rewards. Whether a smooth politician, a salesman with a clever tongue, a con-man out to bilk us of our last dollar, or an investment advisor who promises big returns even when the market is down, many of us have encountered such false prophets, and maybe been deeply hurt by them, when they “made off” with our pension.
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So, how are we to “be alert” as Jesus commands us to do? How are we to arm ourselves against false prophets and messiahs — especially seeing they can be so crafty, or so firm in their own self-delusion, as to lead astray even the elect? How can we tell a false prophet when we hear one, and be armed against the false prophecy? And how can we avoid getting caught up in the excitement of some new messiah, whose messiahship is in his own imagination or in the unfulfilled hopes of other people’s hearts? How can we be on our guard against even those in the church whose prophecy and speech are false?
Part of the key lies in how Jesus describes these falsifiers: they call out “Look, Here is the Messiah!” or “Look, There he is!” It comes down to a question of “here” and “there” — of “Look at me!” or “Look at that!”
The false messiah points to himself as the savior; the false prophet points to something else as the savior. Both of them imply that you can get a piece of the action, if only you will do as they say. They appeal to hungry people — and who isn’t hungry? Who doesn’t long for a better life, a brighter future, a greater happiness? We are all ready targets for these falsifiers, the purveyors of false dreams — for we all have dreams we wish would come true. The con-artists know the truth of their own gospel: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
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But Jesus said, Be alert! We are presented with two promises: “Here I am, your messiah”; or “There, that is your salvation,” and both of these promises — if they point to anything other than Jesus — are lies. The evangelist Mark warns us, “Let the reader understand...” We would do well not simply to read, but to mark, learn and inwardly digest how, as Goodman Ace quipped, “to read between the lies.”
So let’s look at these liars more closely, reading between their lies. On one side you have the false messiahs who say, “Look at me!” They promise themselves as the answer to your problem: like the politician who promises that somehow he has the power to transform society. And how quickly, do the promises of the campaign evaporate and fade away as the legislative term begins! Be alert to the those who promise themselves as the answer to your problems. People should have been for suspicious of Bernie Madoff, for instance, and his one-man-band — but he was playing a tune that sounded very, very good!
On the other side are the false prophets who say, Look what you can get — if you do as I tell you! They appeal to our needs, to our hungers and desires, and they claim to know how to satisfy them. You run into this sort even in church! There are some who promise happiness, church growth, or a bigger budget if only you’ll follow their scheme, use their product or their program, or follow their rules.
Recently we have heard strident voices of revived fundamentalism both here and abroad, pointing fingers in judgment. These false prophets say that salvation lies in following the rules — their rules — and please pay no attention to the many rules that they themselves may violate. These latter-day false prophets of the “Do as I say and not as I do school” point to the rule book rather than to its author: missing the point that Saint Paul tried to make again and again: It isn’t the Law but the Grace of God that saves us. The savior is a person, not a program, and it is God whom we follow: in Christ who said, Love God and your neighbor and do not judge. So be alert to those who promise results, apart from the love of Christ, the love of God and neighbor, and the love which does not judge but casts out fear.
Be alert! says Jesus. We need to be alert as well to our own needs and desires, for the falsifiers appeal to them, to target them. Who would follow a messiah who said, I can’t do anything for you! The liars appeal to our needs, but then we find they can’t deliver. Worse, they consume the very people who follow them. They consume them, use them, and sometimes destroy them.
Bernie Madoff’s offer was as alluring but as ultimately destructive as the Gingerbread House that trapped Hansel and Gretel. How thoughtful of the nice old lady to make her house out of gingerbread, and to make it available to hungry investors... sorry, children. But the horrible truth was that the nice old lady was only interested in herself; she was a witch, and the only hunger the witch wanted satisfied was her own! Her Gingerbread House concealed at its heart the horrible oven heated to cook the children for her own supper.
This isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales, or even Ponzi schemes; sadly it is the reality of false prophecy at its worst. For the Gingerbread House had an even more chilling reality some 70 years ago in the “model concentration camp” — Theresienstadt, or Therezin. The Nazis set it up as a false front to conceal the horror of the Holocaust; they made it look like a summer camp, with music programs. The propaganda office even made a film in Therezin as late as 1944, showing the children from the camp performing an opera written by a fellow prisoner. Yet thousands of those very children would in the next weeks be put on trains and sent to the ovens at Auschwitz. And how many Hansels and Gretels, how many Rebeccas and Jonathans would perish to satisfy the hunger of a nation gone mad, caught up in its own false prophecy, convinced by liars and ultimately made desolate by its own abomination. Of the 15,000 children who passed through the gates of Therezin only 150 survived. That’s one percent. Look around you today here in this church. There aren’t quite a hundred and fifty people here today — imagine all but one being burned to death. Which of you would escape that desolation?
False prophets will appear and produce signs and wonders, false messiahs will proclaim themselves and lead many astray. But we have been warned and armed against false prophets and messiahs. We have been given the tools to “read between the lies” and to look, not to the false promise of a liar’s future but the true reality of God’sown present; God’s kingdom here on earth, if we will but open our eyes to see it, as Jesus said, “among us.” We have been blessed by our Lord and Savior with the Gospel truth, and a table set not with empty promises but with simple bread and wine — a sign greater than all the signs and wonders of all the false prophets that ever were — the sign of the Body and Blood of Jesus, with us and for us, here to feed our souls with the bread of heaven, to quench our thirst with the cup of salvation.
And this salvation is not some promised pie-in-the-sky of Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown, nor a quick fix for what ails you, but a testament in bread and wine transformed into the presence of God, living and true. For this is the table of the Lord. We have no need of false messiahs and prophets, for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has already told us everything, everything we need to know: to love God and our neighbor, to break bread together and to drink from his cup at his table. No get rich quick schemes, no thousand-year Reich, no cosmic transport to the tail of a comet, but the radical reality of the here-and-now love of sister and brother in the family of faith, the kingdom among us. That is the great truth of Christ’s kingdom come, God’s good will done, right now, right here, on earth, even as it is in heaven.+