I'm working my way through the Old Testament, as I usually am this time of year, and Moses is about to die. He's written a song to help the people remember what it's like to be God's people, but let's be honest - they don't really know. How could they? Generations of Israelites (at least two generations) have spent their lives looking to Moses so that he could look to God so that he could come back and tell them what God says. They only know God through Moses, despite the fact that God has so tenderly, and miraculously, cared for them and shown Himself among them.
They know what it looks like when the Red Sea parts. They know what manna from heaven means. They don't know how, but they've seen water pour from a rock. They're familiar with the cloud of fire and the pillar of smoke. They have a vague idea of God from these sorts of things, but they decided long ago that whenever they needed to hear from God, He was going to speak through Moses. Now, Moses is about to die, and he warns the people to remember, although even he knows they can't. Their hearts have already started corrupting, he says. They have already begun turning away.
As I read these words, I also think about how many other times that was true for these people. In the wilderness, of course. They didn't think they had God among them, so they started looking elsewhere in a span of less than 40 days while Moses was on the mountain. They could see the smoke and hear the thunder, but without someone bringing the word to them, they had nothing. After this generation, there are many, many more. The book of Judges, for instance, is a series of "It's been awhile since we had a prophet, and we forget, so we turn our hearts away and then God gives us a prophet and we turn our hearts back because we can hear Him again." God is endlessly patient with His people as they turn away from God for lack of a man, and then He graces them with a man. Until that man dies, and His people turn away again.
It's heartbreaking. And...cautionary.
It's cautionary for those of us who would be seekers. Who are, perpetually, seekers. It's easy to get attached to the way this or that pastor preaches, to start looking to our preachers to answer our God-questions. We tie ourselves to a man who gives us an idea of God, and we love him for it. But one day, that man dies, or moves on in the ministry, and we're left wondering what of this God we actually know. Our hearts feel empty because the man left and took the God with him. I've heard of this far too frequently, and seen it with my own eyes. A preacher builds up a reputation in his church for being a man of God, and then he is called to serve elsewhere. In his wake, he leaves a congregation desperately searching for God with no idea of how to find Him. That, my friends, is called a "cult." It is a faith based on a human leadership, and it survives only to the extent of that man and never beyond it. It's agonizing for those caught up in it; it's incredibly painful for those watching on the outside.
It's also cautionary, and perhaps most so, for those in the ministry. As always, it doesn't have to be an official ministry, although it could be. Whether you preach from the pulpit every Sunday, serve meals to the homeless on Thursday nights, walk across the street to share coffee with a neighbor...wherever you go that you take the name of God with you, the story of the Israelites is a cautionary tale. Take not just the name of God, but His very presence.
Because what people need is not to know that there is a God but to know who that God is. They need to meet Him. They need to be introduced. They need to understand that there's a way to get to Him that doesn't require a middle man, that doesn't take some prophet or pastor or preacher. Isn't that the message of Christ?
Christ had His voices in the world. We call them disciples. He had people who could have spoken for Him, who knew Him well enough to know what He might say, who could guard His scheduling book and be gatekeepers to His presence. Yet only once in the Gospels do we see evidence of this ever happening (the little children), and not once do we see the people asking for it.
No one comes to Peter and says, "Please talk to your Lord for me. I am in need of His healing touch." Blind men were not lining the roads crying out to James and John, requesting to speak to the Master. The bleeding woman did not push through the crowds and tug on Bartholomew's coat. Jairus did not bow before Andrew, begging for his daughter's life. No. People came straight to Jesus. Blind men called out His name. The bleeding woman touched His coat. Jairus fell at His feet. A whole group of friends grabbed their paralytic buddy and dropped him through a stranger's roof right in front of Jesus Himself.
As easy as it would be to think otherwise, the people don't want a prophet. They want a presence. We who bear the name of Jesus have to figure out how to do that.
On the surface, it's simple: We don't bring God to the people; we bring the people to God. In reality, it's a touch more difficult (or in some cases, ridiculously hard). It's a lesson I take with me into chaplaincy. The more I meet with families in tough times, the more keenly aware I am that I cannot put them in a place to build a relationship with me. I cannot let them get attached to the chaplain; I have to bring them to the Christ. Because the day is coming when life moves on, when they are no longer in this place, when my shift ends, when two paths diverge and I may never see them again. They may never see me again. If they look back at the wonderful chaplain who got them through such a tough time, that's as far as it goes. If they look back and see Christ at the bedside, that's the beginning of something else entirely. In the former, they have nothing to hold onto. In the latter, they have everything they need. That's the goal of ministry.
There's a catch, and it's a tough one to swallow. Some people are just not open to the presence. They aren't. The people of the Old Testament saw the power of the Lord. They saw the seas parting. They saw the fire and smoke. They heard the thunder when He spoke. And they decided they wanted no part of it. They begged for a prophet to stand in the middle. People today are no different. While they long to stand on the sides of the roads, as in Jesus' time, they also harbor the fear of the Old Testament and cower in the presence of God. There will be people who are so afraid of the thunder that they will never take another step closer. That's a shame. It is not, however, permission to be the prophet. It does no one any good for us to stand in the middle, regardless of our motives. The more we stand between man and God, even under the guise of bringing the two together, the more we build faith in a man. And that faith is sure to crumble.
It doesn't surprise me that the Israelites turned away again and again. They knew of their God, but they never truly knew Him. It doesn't surprise me that there are so many among us today in the same heart. They know of their God, but they never know Him. But I think those of us who bear the name of Christ in this world have a good deal to say about that, and the sooner we start introducing more than the idea of God, the sooner we get our friends, family, neighbors, community to shake hands with the God of the Universe, the better. It is our mission, our calling, the very purpose of our lives, to teach people to have faith in God alone.
That doesn't start with a prophet; it begins with a presence.