SERMON ON THE MOUNT: False Prophets–Then & Now  Mt. 7:13-20

Pastor Ryan reads Scripture from Matthew 7:13-20 — Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them.  Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

{AJ begins by showing a video on stars and narrates it.   Portion:  As beautiful as they are…are they an end in themselves, or a means to greater questions?  Are stars the point?  Or do they point to the point?  Is there a thing under the thing under the thing?  Perhaps…not a what, but who.  Maybe Dante was right when he said that “love moves the sun and all the other stars.”  These have been the questions since the days of old, since our ancestors laid on their backs and connected them in shapes.  Maybe this is the message of the stars guiding light, if we are willing to get out of our heads, to stop looking down into battery powered screens and to look up…..transcendent electricity.  Stars…..millions and billions of stars; such beautiful sparks they are.}

So God, would you awaken us to your presence, to the reality that you are?  I pray that you would bring us into a larger cosmic story of what’s unfolding in all the universe that we get to play a part of.  So this morning, God, would we encounter your nearness, your presence, your grace, your love….and be drawn in to who you are.  In Jesus’s name.  Amen.

My name’s AJ.  I’m from Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It’s really good to be here.  Here’s a question I want to begin with:  Can we go deep this morning?  Is that okay?  Richard Foster had this amazing sentence in his work, Celebration of Discipline, when he says, “The world’s greatest need today isn’t for intelligent people or cool people or innovative people.  All that’s well and good.  The world’s greatest need right now is for deep people.  People who are thinking deeply about good questions about life and beginning to live in accordance with what they’re discovering.”

In America, I’ll suggest this, fifty years ago, God was largely assumed, so the temptation was to doubt.  In America today, God is largely ignored and the temptation is to believe.  We’ve entered a kind of cultural moment where the longing for something transcendent is returning.  I think we’re discovering the career ladder isn’t enough and that our consumer habits don’t quite satisfy like they once did.  And more technology has only led to increased anxiety.  Do you remember the fax machine?  When that came out, everyone thought finally, we can rest, right?  I think many are beginning once again to ask the great questions, curious if maybe there is something beyond the stars.  Maybe what you’re going to hear for the next few minutes isn’t actually for you, but it’s for your colleague, for your neighbor, to better understand the cultural moment that we’re in, that we can begin to sort of say that’s the frame of the twenty-first century American life.  How do I actually live within that frame given my neighbors and given my friendships and given my family members, who are just now moving out of cynicism and beginning to say maybe there is something beyond our grasp….something beyond that maybe just knows our names and maybe calls us the beloved. There’s a haunting suspicion, I think, that’s returning to the twenty-first century western hemisphere.  The haunting suspicion is that perhaps the cosmos is, in fact, enchanted with the divine, and that’s it’s not all just probability and a collision of molecules.

Transcendence is all over our films.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed the emergence of Marvel and Arrival.  Even movies like The Greatest Showman, A Wrinkle in Time, Stranger Things, Walking Dead…..everyone’s searching for narratives that are pushing us beyond ourselves.  Almost like something pushing us beyond our grasp.  There’s a return in the twenty-first century, post-secular west to, sort of, longing for something greater than what we can manufacture.  Longing for something that might just be beyond our grasp that’s going to take a kind of faith leap to move toward.  I think our culture is obsessed with transcendence.  In major cities in America, like Denver, steeped in a post-secular worldview, the big questions are returning:  Is there a god?  Is this god relationally available?  Does this god have a name?  I love the chilling phrase by the agnostic writer from London, Julian Barnes: “I don’t believe in God….but I miss him.”

So I’m suggesting what is beginning to break through in our culture once again is an opening to transcendence, an opening to possibility.  What this doesn’t mean, necessarily, is an opening to Jesus.  This doesn’t mean, okay, great, Christendom’s returning…..that’s not what this means.  It just means that there is a new sort of understanding, a new longing, for something beyond the self.

So what does this have to do with the text this morning?  In that kind of a cultural milieu, that kind of a cultural moment…what I want to suggest is that prophets of all kind are rushing to fill the gap with their own ideas of what this transcendence could be, of what this life means, of what this God or these gods or this meaning beyond the cosmos, fill-in-the-blanks as to what it could be, to chase that kind of a life down.  An uptick in podcasts and books and sermons and social media posts and tours…..all of these voices trying to fill in the gap and capitalize on the transcendence moments.  Those are our prophets for today.  The prophets from all over that are trying to define what life now means as we sort of wake up from a technological hangover.  What does it mean to live fully human?

I want to define prophets, this morning, as simply this because there’s so much confusion around this.  I would simply say prophets are—-I’m steeling this definition from author Mike Breen.  He says prophets do two things: They forth-tell and they foretell. Those are the two vocations of the prophet.  Some prophets try to define the present moment—they’re forth-telling.  In other words, they’re trying to make sense of all of the chaos of life, all of the sort of confusions and all of the particularities of life.  They’re trying to make sense of it into a cohesive whole.  They’re forth-telling what is happening in our time, right?  Often it’s insightful, when you feel like someone has such an altitude that they’re trying to take all this scattered data and minutiae and actually wield it into a cohesive whole, where you’re like, oh, that makes a lot of sense to me.  Do you know people like this?  There’s another kind of prophet as well.  Not just those who forth-tell, but those who foretell.  Who often paint a sort of picture of the future, right?  Some prophets do both—forth-tell and foretelling, both present and future.

Let me walk us through our text.  I just want to hit a couple of these verses and then I just want to say two things.  Matthew 7:13-20 — Enter through the narrow gate.  There’s so much cultural baggage that we sort of import into every text based on where we come from, our tradition, and even where we are.  I think, when he says enter through the narrow gate, it might mean truth is not always obvious.  Truth is often something that you might miss is you’re not looking for it.  The reality might not be in plain sight.  It’s buried under layers of cultural illusion.  Culture upon culture upon culture and prophet upon prophet upon prophet has built a kind of understanding of the world that when you’re looking for truth, it might be narrow and hard to find.  It might not be so obvious. The path that leads to the kingdom is riddled with paradox, things that you wouldn’t have thought or assumed.  In other words, truth sometimes takes some searching for before it’s found.  I don’t think this means God is making it hard for us to find him, as if God is in this sort of divine game of hide-and-seek.  I think it means the world as we know it has drifted so far from reality that the kingdom of God is really hard to find.  There’s going to have to be a sense of agency and longing and desire and passion to seek what is real amidst all of the noise.

The text goes on where Jesus says:  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  I don’t think this means that God only cares for a few people.  I think rather it might mean that in this world that we’re in, there’s not very many people who are interested in a crucified God.  That’s not like a popular thing.  That’s not trending right now on Twitter….where can I find the God that loses in order to win?  How do I chase that pattern in my life?  Philippians 2 — We all want narratives of victory where it’s just one success after another.  That’s not actually the pattern of Jesus….these deep troughs that lead to a new height.

The text goes on to say:  Watch out for false prophets.  Here’s why.  In every environment in which history has always found herself, including this one, false prophets fill the gap to sell you their vision.  That’s what it means to be a false prophet.  It’s to capitalize on the cultural moments, often for profits.  Often for some sort of name building.  Often for something else in a very different direction.  Often for the celebrity culture that we find ourselves in that the church herself has bought into.  That’s often how we recognize these things.  Jesus says: They come to you in sheep’s clothing, {They’re not obvious.} but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.   This is offensive for post-modern, sensible humans living in the twenty-first century west.  Jesus is offensive.  I think this is the challenge of this part.  Jesus is saying listen, truth-seeker, it’s going to be hard for you to discern what’s true and what’s illusion.  It’s going to take some work on your end not to be so naïve, because you sometimes won’t know what’s true from what’s false.  You’ll sometimes buy into false vision that isn’t actually from Me, that isn’t obvious.  False prophets and true prophets, Jesus is saying here, both appear the same, and you have to learn to look for motives, because they’re driven by different things and they’re pointing towards different ends.  By their fruit you will recognize them.   In other words, it’s often after somebody’s ministry plays out that you can discern fact from fiction.  You can see what’s the fruit of this person’s ministry.

He concludes by saying:  Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Here’s the question I want to sit on for a few minutes.  What do two false prophets look like in our church context today?  It would be good to discern that, particularly in a moment where institutions (particularly the church) has a lot of suspicion from the world because of the ways we have mismanaged our authority.  The ways that we have politicized and manipulated authority.  The ways that we’ve covered up the authority that we had to help raise children and exploited that for sexual purposes.  Pick your poison!  There has been so much that has been hacking at the roots of the foundation of the integrity of the church.  So how does the church wake up to discern what is fact from fiction?

I think the first is that we have to become aware of false prophets of duty.  One of the ways we can discern false prophets of duty in a religious context is that false prophets of duty always shift us from abiding to attending.  This idea of filling in programs.  This idea of doing the attending thing—filling seats.  Voices that call you back to the ‘what’ but can’t articulate the ‘why.’  That are just like come in and do the thing, check the box and you’re in.  What happens with false prophets of duty is conservatives are vulnerable because it’s often the way conservatives brains are wired.  They are often vulnerable to false prophets are duty—-do your part, do what you were raised to do.  You don’t have to question it, just do it, just sit in that.  I think large amounts of well-intended Christians sitting in churches on Sundays, in the greater Denver area, are doing it out of a sense of duty.  We just show, that’s what we do, that’s what we’ve been asked to do is just fill seats and give when the budgets down, and hopefully this is all going to be just fine.  There’s sort of an equation that happens in any local church……as the sense of duty, as ‘shoulds’ goes up, the sense of Presence goes down.  The sense of longing and passion and conviction wanes, when all you are asked to do is fill seats, check boxes, and come back next week.  That’s a religious spirit that doesn’t actually open to the full Presence of God.  So many people in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I live and pastor, are simply showing up on Sunday mornings to put in time in churches all over that city, and hoping to get out in time to beat the lunch crowd.

I was recently in a conversation with a worn-out Christian who said, “I think for a lot of Christian folks who grew up in the church here….it’s a struggle because so much of our faith was built on “people will know we are Christians because we don’t……”   We don’t drink, we don’t have premarital sex, we don’t believe in gay marriage, we don’t smoke week, we don’t say blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.  It just went on and on and on.   He wasn’t saying those things are well and good and do whatever you want, he was saying where can we drink from the well of life rather than attending the fences of duty.  Is this a community that is defined by your fences, or is there a well that we are calling us to centralize our lives around that leads to a kind of vibrancy where the kingdom of God flows?  Where the fruits of what Jesus is talking about here of true prophets is welcomed and that the presence of God is the most desirable reality in our midst.

For Christians, the aim of this move toward transcendence…..if the culture is moving back toward transcendence, for the Christian, that aim is the radical transformative presence of Christ in our midst, not attending functions that keep us in good social standing.  If you find yourself back here at church and you don’t know why, but you know what I’m talking about and it’s just not life-giving—this sort of what you inherited growing up.  And somewhere along the line you chucked it—-who needs that?  On behalf of pastors all over the world, I just want to apologize, for leaders like me that are more interested with nickels and noses and meeting budgets and attendance forms and filling in programs than we are designing a community where the presence of God is the center of our existence, where we take risks, and we long for the Spirit, and we long for life and more life, and for grace, and for vulnerability.  I just want to pray this confession over you.  This might not mean anything to you, but if it does, receive this from someone that works as a pastor at a church.

Dear Guest:  We the followers of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, confess that we, at times, attempt to shrink God down to our size.  We are truly sorry.  Dear Guest:  We confess, at times, that we are far more interested in looking down in judgment and unforgiveness rather than looking up in awe and wonder; looking in to confess our own hypocrisy rather than looking out and caring for the oppressed.  We’re truly sorry.  Dear Guest: We confess that doubt is real, that mystery is real, and that sometimes we try to fake answers rather than sit with hard questions.  We’re really sorry.  Dear Guest:  We confess that taming God in the name of religion and apologize for ways we restrict the mysterious ways of the Spirit’s presence to fit our worldview.  We’re really sorry.    Dear Guest:  Would you kindly be patient with us?  You are always welcome here.  Always feel free to come and doubt with us and also re-believe with us as we gather together to seek the mystery and wonder of the God who was made manifest in Christ Jesus, the crucified and resurrected King, who will return and make all things new.

One of the things Ryan said to me, last night over dinner, is how he longs for this community to become a community where we practice together.  Where we just don’t attend.  We live life in such a way that we attend toward the presence of God and we show up with practices that help us actually move into and encounter the Divine.  I affirm that and I think that’s beautiful that you have a pastor that wants to move you beyond a sense of duty and attendance.

Second and the last prophet I see a lot in the church today, and I think the one that grieves me most, is the false prophet of deconstruction.  I don’t know if you’ve experienced this here yet, but you will.  It is happening everywhere right now in the U.S.   If the shift of false prophets of duty was from abiding to attending, the shift for false prophets of deconstruction is from abiding to ambiguity. Somehow moving away and distancing ourselves from the incredible mystery we have discovered in Jesus.  I cannot tell you how many podcasts I hear right now where speakers are getting large audiences through simply tearing things down rather than building anything up.  Where someone is very articulate about what they’re against, but cannot precisely name what they’re for.  Where the foundation of love is rooted in an ambiguous sentiment rather than the specific name of Jesus.

Like duty, I think deconstruction is to move away from seeking the Presence and relying on doubt as one’s central value.  Don’t get me wrong…..and this is so true for those I find in their 30s and 40s who, growing up, weren’t given permission to doubt.  It was almost like that’s wrong.  But here’s the thing—doubt is real, but doubt is never the goal.  The aim of our faith isn’t to doubt.  The aim of our doubts is to move back toward trust.  That’s not certitude, that’s a very different thing.  Doubt is always validated as part of the journey.  If you’re here this morning and you’re like yeah, I’m tired of cheap answers and I’m tired of people thinking they could solve everything and all the mysteries of the universe, there’s a place for doubt and mystery and transcendence that we don’t know, but we’re going to sit in that anyway and it’s hard.  Here’s the thing—Doubt is always validated as part of the journey, but doubt is never celebrated as the destination.  There is not one New Testament passage that celebrates doubt.  It’s valid, but it’s not the goal.  It’s not the aim.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about yet, you will.

Trust in the Presence within the midst of our doubts in the aim.  Allegiance to the kingdom.  Loyalty.  This is the meaning of faith.  This is the meaning of pistis.  Faith doesn’t mean the absence of doubt.  Faith doesn’t mean all things will become certain.  Faith means we trust into the mystery of what we know.

There’s this beautiful church in Paris called St. John/St. Louis.  They had this artist install this light exhibit and the artist did this.  {Picture of a lit question mark.}  You look down to the altar and you see this big question mark.  The artist beautifully validated the reality that we just don’t know everything.  We come to church not because we have all the answers….because doubt is real and uncertainty happens.  You walk in with tons of questions about God, especially if you’re in a time of pain.  Who’s Jesus?  Is God real?  Can God be trusted?  As you walk that aisle toward what is signified symbolically as the center of that church, which signifies the presence—where God is most present in the Eucharist there—what happens is the light ends of looking like this.  As you get closer and closer to the center, to the well, and you move further and further away from the outside walls…..what you realize is that it’s not that the questions, the mysteries, or the doubts go away, but it’s that they get resized in the Presence.  That as you move toward the presence of God, we experience something far greater than our doubts; we experience divine embrace.  It doesn’t solve all of our questions, but it puts them in a context where we can hold them and still believe and still walk forward.

If conservatives are vulnerable to prophets of duty, progressives are vulnerable to prophets of deconstruction.  It’s the way our brains are wired.  Doubt is real.  Doubt is hard.  It feels like a never-ending valley that breeds cynicism and critique and joylessness.  I say this because I was once the guy who went around trying to pop everyone’s faith balloon.  I realized I had a lot to say against what people believed, but I didn’t have much to say about what I believed.  It was easier to critique other people’s beliefs than to have the courage to muster a faith of my own.

You cannot detour deconstruction—where you tear what you inherited down, right?  You cannot detour deconstruction if you want to grow.  But you cannot live in it forever if you want to flourish.  Deconstruction is kind of like Las Vegas… should drive through it, but you don’t want to make a life there.  Deconstruction without eventual reconstruction will lead to a life of demolition.  It will impact the lives and the relationships of the people around you.

Three quick things:  1) If we’re to become proficient and skilled at discerning what is true and what’s false with the voices that are coming toward us in life, the prophets, I think the first thing is Abide in Jesus.  Figure out what that means for you.  What does John 15 mean?  It seems to me this was Jesus’s famous last words before his death.  If you miss everything in the ministry and life and teaching of Jesus…..ABIDE with me, he says, and then you will bear good fruit.  So go figure out what John 15 means in your life.  May that become the central pursuit of your existence.

Number two, know the Scriptures.  Tether yourself to the words of God so that you can discern truth from pop philosophy, truth from false prophets.  Tether yourself to the Scriptures, know them, have them in your heart.  This Sermon on the Mount, we memorized it when I was in ministry fifteen years ago.  A friend of mine was here yesterday at the enneagram event…..we got tattoos about it (the Sermon on the Mount).  All these guys across the country have these matching tattoos about becoming the teaching…..what does it mean to live the Sermon on the Mount, right?

The third thing is this:  walk in community.  These are all basic.  These are not rocket science.  Do you have a few people that really know you, that walk with you?  That can laugh when you laugh and mourn when you mourn?  That you can share the highs and lows and know that they’re going to stick with you, they’re going to walk with you, and they’re going to be with you on your journey.  I have found that fewer and fewer people in the church can say yes to that question.  That’s a hard moment, but it’s an opportunity.

I think if the church can figure out these three things, she’ll have an incredible witness for the world of what it means to name this transcendence and to move into God.

Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them.  Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.   The Gospel of Jesus Christ.