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Deuteronomy 18:15-20

To whom will we listen? 

In Deuteronomy 18:9-14, immediately before today’s lectionary reading, we are introduced to some of the voices calling out to God’s people in days past, voices luring God’s people to listen, voices hoping to speak the authoritative word concerning Israel’s future.[1] These are the voices of Canaan, as worshipers of the Moabite and Ammonite gods practiced child sacrifice (v.10) and as diviners and sorcerers offered insight from the deceased (v.10-11). But the Deuteronomist warns against listening to such voices. Not with the complaint that the words spoken are the products of charlatans, though that may be so. His main concern is that these Canaanite voices undermine Israel’s allegiance to the Lord their God. The text then begs the obvious question: if Israel is called to ignore the voices calling from Canaan, to whom should they listen?

Our appointed lectionary reading (18:15-20) invites Israel to ignore these competing words for their allegiance and alternatively listen to the prophet and his word.[2] But the prophet and his word are not presented in an authoritarian “just-do-as-I-say” manner, as if the Lord simply commands adherence. Rather, the prophet and message are framed as a gift. Our text recounts an earlier narrative from Ex.20:18-21 (as much of Deuteronomy does, since this a second iteration of the law given to Moses and its accompanying narrative) when God’s people request not to hear the divine voice directly. Like Isaiah in his vision of God’s presence, they too are afraid that God’s presence and voice might be their own undoing. So God’s gracious gift in response to their request is the prophet and his word. This gift is the voice Israel is meant to heed. This prophet and his word are meant to speak to Israel regarding her life with God and the divine possibilities for her future.

With this gift, Israel is faced with a choice, the same choice that stands before the church today: to whom will we listen? The voices calling to us no longer belong to the followers of Chemosh or Molech urging infanticide-by-fire. Nor do today’s voices belong to the ancient conjurers and necromancers attempting to communicate with the dead. But we still hear a cacophony of others calling to us, hoping for us to listen to them and follow after them. For if we listen, if we take their word as gospel, then we pledge to them our allegiance and grant them the authority to speak into our life and future. What do these other voices sound like? Competing voices urge us to ignore the welfare of children, the poor, and immigrants, sacrificing their well-being on altars built to our own self-preservation and greed. Still other voices call to us, conjuring up the lies of men whose ghosts still haunt us, perpetuating messages of white supremacy and other forms of bigotry. Like the mythical sirens who lured sailors to their deaths, these competing voices lull us into believing their so-called truths and and wreck our future.

And like Israel, we as the Church are invited to listen to a different voice, one that rises above the din as a gracious gift from God – we too are invited to hear and heed the prophet and his word. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible carry on Moses’ legacy as they encourage us to faithful allegiance to our God. When read in the Christian tradition, we see this prophetic line and witness culminating in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Gospel portraits paint Jesus as a prophet who is uniquely like his forbearer Moses. For just one example, take the story of the transfiguration, where Christ (like Moses before him) ascends a mountain, is enveloped in a cloud, encounters the divine voice and presence, and experiences a transformation that produces a radiant persona.[3] In his preaching in Acts 3, Peter invokes this Deuteronomic promise of a prophet-like-Moses as part of his message about Jesus’ identity and vocation. In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, the prophetic word of Christ is strangely like Moses’ own speech in its persuasive authority. And our passage from Deuteronomy, when read through a Christological lens, serves as a very fitting Epiphany text as it “reveals” the One who uniquely serves as a prophet like Moses given to God’s people. Like Israel before us, our own faith depends on our faithfulness to the prophetic word, a word we receive as coming to a climax in the Living Word of Christ. For only this Word of the Lord, and no prophetic words of any other rival, can truly reveal what lies ahead for us in our future as God’s people.

Preaching this text will require an insightful look into one’s pastoral context to discern which voices are competing for listening ears. Rural or urban, wealthy or impoverished, aging or young, these different factors will result in different voices calling out to one’s congregation, or at least different voices calling out with some level of appeal. Urging congregants to simply avoid palm-readers or using a Ouija board misses the bigger picture. Faithfulness to the prophetic Word of the Lord means reconsidering to whom we listen and follow as our authority. Is “our god our belly” so that chasing our appetites and vices dictates how we live instead of practicing self-control and moderation? Do we allow partisan political narratives to shape our kindness and charity to others rather than biblical visions of justice and equity? Do we listen to voices of contemporary doomsday prophets who paint grim pictures of our future, or do we hear to the voice of the One who promises resurrection and life in the coming kingdom? Deuteronomy urges us to resist the “pantheon of other ideological gods”[4] that promise us better futures and instead listen to the prophetic Word given by God to lead us into life in the Promised Land.

As with all of Deuteronomy, today’s scripture reading hinges upon choice. God’s people must choose life or death in the Promised Land (30:15-20). They must choose whether or not they will listen to the voices of Canaan and wander into unfaithfulness. Or they must choose to listen to the prophets like Moses and heed the Word of the Lord. May God bless you in your preparation and preaching of this text so that those who listen choose to ignore the other voices calling for their allegiance and instead heed the prophetic word of Christ Jesus.

[1] Thompson, Deanna A. Deuteronomy: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Belief Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014, pg. 144.

[2] Rad, Gerhard Von. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library Series. London: SCM Press, 1966, pg. 123.

[3] For a more detailed comparison of Jesus and Moses’ prophetic similarities see pgs. 146-147 of Deanna Thompsons’ Deuteronomy: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Belief Series. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014.

[4] Work, Telford. Deuteronomy. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009, pg. 177.