No Soothsayer Nor Philosopher - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.'”
Deuteronomy 18:15–19

Prophets in Scripture are not soothsayers or fortune tellers. We must say that right up front. Our image of a prophet is often of a seer with apocalyptic augeries, cryptic messages we must decode with a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. A prophet in Scripture is someone who declares God's word. It's right there in our passage: “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” (Deuteronomy 18:18b) Prophets received from God not primarily foretellings of distant times, although there was a bit of that, but rather messages about who God is and how He desires His people to live. Thus the warning in verse 19 about those who fail to listen to His words.

What's more, this passage is not only about Jesus as the coming Messiah. We must say that too. Some in the church have thought to apply this passage only to Him. It is true that the New Testament authors do connect it to Jesus in a special way, but God provided a whole string of prophets after Moses to communicate His word and His will. This passage pertains to them all.

And yet... and yet there is something here that hints at Him. In the first place, Moses promises a prophet like himself. This is a high bar – while no Old Testament figure escapes unmarred by sin, Moses more than perhaps any other stands as an example of faithfulness. Which explains why, at His death, the inspired editor comments “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10) As much as this passage is about all prophets, none of them do measure up to Moses. Because, as that last understated phrase puts it, Moses knew God “face to face.”

So prophecy is not forthtelling. It is also not philosophy. It is not a product of man's speculations about the divine, and it never claims to be. Prophecy comes with an inherent self-justification. It does not argue or dialogue; it declares. “Thus says the Lord.” The reason for this posture, though, is not arrogance but humility. Scripture assumes on every page that God in Himself is unapproachable and unknowable. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” asks the apostle Paul, quoting the prophet Isaiah. (Romans 11:34) God is not a specimen to be studied or an idea to be dissected; He is above and beyond us, and the only way we can know anything about Him is by His making Himself known.

We should display this same humility as we approach the Christian God. Our reason can do incredible things. Within the context of creation it is remarkable and powerful. Within the context of the divine, though, our reason is impotent. The Biblical God is a being who knows everything about everything all at once. One who doesn't simply operate according to the tenets of wisdom but who is the definition for it. It is He who formed our minds themselves, and so we cannot hope to comprehend Him any more than a calculator can rethink the math with which it was programmed.

Yet God Has not stayed distant in ineffible mystery. He has made Himself known. Through Moses and the prophets, as we have said, and then ultimately through Jesus Christ. The New Testament does claim this mantle of the prophet as great as Moses for Jesus – Peter cites these words in Acts 3 to talk about Christ's ministry, and in John 6:14 and 7:40 the crowds proclaim Him as such. Indeed, it goes even further – Jesus is not just Moses's equal but his superior. “For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself.” (Hebrews 3:3) All of this because, if Moses is special for having met with God, then Jesus is greater still – He is God making Himself known. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)

This is what we encounter when we meet with Jesus. Not a fortune teller. Not a philosopher. Not even just a divine messenger. When Christ came into the world it was as the coming of God Himself. In the child we celebrate this season we see the very self-revelation of God.

Look how long
the weary world waited,
locked in its lonely cell,
guilty as a prisoner.

As you can imagine,
it sang and whistled in the dark.
It hoped. It paced and puttered about,
tidying its little piles of inconsequence.

It wept from the weight of ennui,
draped like shackles on its wrists.
It raged and wailed against the walls
of its own plight.

But there was nothing
the world could do
to find its own freedom.
The door was shut tight.

It could only be opened
from the outside.

Who could believe the latch
would be turned by a pink flower—
the tiny hand
of a newborn baby?

-Pamela Cranston, Advent (On a Theme by Deitrich Bonhoeffer)