When Moses first met the Lord, it was in the discovery of a bush that was burning but not burning up. The Lord spoke to him from within the burning bush, calling him to return to Egypt where he had been born and lead the Israelites out from slavery there to a new land. Moses, with the help of his brother Aaron, returned to Egypt with the Lord’s message. It took a lot of convincing, but eventually Pharoah allowed them to leave. All of this was accomplished with major signs, including plagues, floods, and the death of the firstborn children of the Egyptians.
When they went out from Egypt, the Lord went with them in a fiery cloud that led them by day and guarded them from behind at night. On Mt. Sinai, the Lord met Moses on the mountain top, again with dramatic weather and signs.
At Horeb, the people finally asked the Lord for less drama. It was frightening to have him always appearing in fire and a thundering voice.
Moses delivered the Lord’s response to them. The Lord promised to send a prophet like himself from among the people, a prophet who would guide them in the future. (Dt 18:15-20)
There were many prophets in the years between Moses and Jesus. These men and women were each called to speak the Lord’s word to their people. In the early years, the prophets were sometimes the leaders of the people. But even after kings had been introduced to rule the nation, prophets were called to speak the Lord’s word, reminding the rulers of the Lord’s ways and calling the people to repentance when they forgot the Lord and followed the gods and traditions of other nations.
Prophets are often described in this general way: The word of the Lord came to the prophet (insert name), saying, “Say to my people, Thus says the Lord…” This fulfilled the promise made by God to the people traveling with Moses in the desert. “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth.”
The role of prophet was well recognized in ancient Israel. Prophets spoke both words of encouragement and words of warning. Whichever it was to be, the Lord was clear about the responsibility of the prophet. Speak. In fact, in Psalm 95, the psalmist reminds us, “Harden not your hearts” as the people did in the desert. Listen to the Lord’s call and obey. (Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9)
When Jesus began teaching in Capernaum after his baptism and the call of his first disciples, he did not follow the typical pattern of a prophet. He spoke with authority, according to Mark. He wasn’t like the scribes who spoke only of what had been taught in and about the Law for centuries. He spoke with authority, from his own experience of God’s love. When one day a man cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus recognized the source of the words as coming from outside the man himself. He ordered the spirit speaking through the man to come out of him. The spirit shook the man and left him, with a loud cry. The man was healed. (Mk 1:21-28)
This authority to command a tormenting spirit to leave a man was new. People had never seen that. Word spread quickly throughout Galilee when this happened. Jesus’ role as a teacher and healer began in earnest. But unlike the earlier prophets, he didn’t begin his teachings with “Thus says the Lord…” He simply said, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” He taught with stories and direct instructions. “Blessed are the peacemakers …” “Blessed are you when…”
Christians recognized that Jesus was more than the prophets who followed Moses as teachers through the centuries. He was a law-giver who spoke God’s word with authority, bringing deeper levels of teaching to those he addressed. In fact, Christians recognize Jesus as the Word of God, speaking with even greater authority than Moses because he is both fully human and fully divine.
After his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, Jesus’ followers spread the news of his coming and his teachings. His call to serve God above all else and in very practical ways spread throughout the Roman empire. Those who received his words and became followers of his way of life were challenged to figure out how to do that in their ordinary lives.
They thought that his return would be very soon, of course. Paul was concerned that the regular lives and responsibilities of married men and women might keep them from being focused on serving the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32-35) To a certain extent, this can be the case today as well. However, since the timing of the second coming can’t exactly be predicted, the lesson to be learned is that we include serving and preparing the way of the Lord through our own vocations and lives in our world today. We are still called to be committed to the Lord, first and foremost. For married couples, that includes their commitment to each other and any children entrusted to them. Following the Lord and living a committed relationship with another person are not mutually exclusive.
Today we don’t typically hear prophets speaking to us, “Thus says the Lord…” But we learn from each other, from the insights of men and women through the centuries who have reflected on the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. We share our own experiences with our families and friends. We have the traditions of our faith community and our leaders to help guide our way. We take those traditions and interpret them in new ways as we come to understand human development and the great variety of human experience more deeply.
In the Synod, the people of the Church have been invited to share their insights and concerns together, to begin to glimpse the way the Holy Spirit is leading us today. We pray for the courage to go where we are being led, ever open to the wonder and diversity of the Lord’s people and creation. The process of the Synod is still on-going. We pray for those who will again meet in person later this year to consider and share what we have together learned of God’s love in our current time.
We don’t usually meet the Lord in a burning bush these days. We don’t expect to hear his voice in thunder or in fiery clouds. We hear his voice in the tender concern of others when we are in need of support and understanding. We hear his voice in requests for help from others. We hear his voice in the cries of the poor. We meet the Lord in each other. May we be open to see and hear and also be Christ present for those we meet each day.
Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B