I’ve thought a lot about my final two sermons here. I feel I’m leaving with so much left in scripture to explore with you all. In my preaching, my goal has been to demonstrate how Christian faith is deeply enriched when you ask tough questions, that—far from hurting it—difficult questions strengthen faith… if you but look for answers. I tried to share the wonder of seeking truth that led me into ministry. I once was on the verge of abandoning my faith because I was no longer at peace with the simplistic answers I learned in childhood Sunday school, and the too-easy answers of talking heads and televangelists felt flimsy and fake. But then I started reading—not the Christian bestseller lists but the old greats whose books endure because they have something timeless to teach—and I realized Christianity is far more complex—and far more beautiful for that complexity—than we really appreciate in our day to day lives.
Certainly, some things in faith—the most essential things, the things everyone affirms in their baptism—some things truly are simple and easy to understand. Pretty much every Christian agrees about loving and trusting Jesus, reading the Bible to learn about Jesus, Jesus revealing truth and life to us. Those core essentials are all you need for a saving, living faith, and they truly are simple. But that is the starting point of faith, not the end of your Christian learning and growth. In my tenure here, we’ve thoroughly explored the core beliefs of Christianity, the traits that make Presbyterians unique, and at least one book from every genre of scripture. But focusing on this central task meant I had little time for secondary questions, leaving an army of topics I want to explore with you but simply am unable to. Therefore… since I know I can’t be there as you wrestle with such questions of faith… I want to spend this second to last sermon arming you to do on your own what I cannot do alongside you.
Jesus Christ in Matthew’s gospel talks a lot about false prophets. Matthew’s gospel was written for a mostly Jewish audience, so the topic of false prophets was well-known, because Old Testament heroes constantly battled religious leaders who claimed to speak for God but only served themselves. Jesus in Matthew 7 calls such false prophets “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” meaning false prophets look legitimate, know the right words, say what you—not those other guys—but what you want to hear. Jesus says some will even “prophesy in [his] name, cast out demons in [his] name, and do many deeds of power in [his] name… [And yet Jesus] will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you evildoers.” This means false prophets can have what looks like tremendous religious success—driving out demons, prophesying, healing—yet still be false. They may even lead aside good, upstanding believers, Jesus warns. Today you might say a false prophet can have an enormous church, a hit TV show, or bestselling books… and still be utterly self-serving and deceitful. That is terrifying, no? It means we cannot trust success—not even success as a preacher—to figure out whether or not a religious leader is worth listening to. And if you look at the Old Testament stories Jesus riffs on here, false prophets were often incredibly popular. Which means your danger is not the wacko you easily dismiss: your danger as Christians is the preacher who says exactly what you want to hear, who says it’s always other people who need to repent instead of himself and you, who only comforts and never challenges. False prophets are so hard to spot because we want to believe them!
So how do we Christians know who to listen to and what to believe? How do we sort fact from fiction? Jesus gives our best answer, Matthew 7:16: “You will know them by their fruits.” Which is to say, look at that religious leader’s life. Do they embody and nurture within you the fruits of the Holy Spirit Paul describes: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Or do they display and promote hate, guilt, division, easy answers, cruelty to enemies, and selfishness? As an easy test, watch how a religious leader treats those who have nothing to offer them, whom they have nothing to gain by impressing. From the Old Testament, we can add: to see if a prophet is true, wait and see if their prophesies prove true. Today you might say, see if folks still read their books thirty years after their death. Or take 1 John 4: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God… Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him.” John gives you two tests for evaluating spirits but I’d also add pastors: do they keep the focus on Jesus… and does this faith in Jesus overflow into a grace-filled, loving life? From all this, we find two standards for seeing whether a religious leader is worth hearing: orthodoxy—right belief—and orthopraxy—right action—are both required. And when in doubt, as Jesus says in Matthew 10:16: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” So when you’re not sure who is a sheep and who’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, be wise like a serpent yet innocent as a dove. Which is to say be loving, welcoming, and gracious—innocent—to that person, treating them kindly. But long-term… make sure they are worth trusting, see if their love of God overflows into genuine love of others, double-check that their Bible quotes mean what they claim… so that you know what to believe and what to discard.
Speaking of trust, the school district phoned me last week and said, “You son has been telling lies.” I replied, “Well tell him he’s darn good. I ain’t got any kids!” Indeed, one day a teacher saw two children arguing. When asked why, one boy explained, “We found a ten-dollar bill and decided to give it to whoever tells the biggest lie.” “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” said the teacher. “When I was your age, I didn’t even know what a lie was.” So the boys gave the ten dollars to the teacher.
Now to clarify, I am not saying anyone who disagrees with me is a false prophet. There are plenty of things on which Christians of good faith can disagree, and I myself am often wrong. This sermon isn’t about disagreeing with me. But these passages provide a decent framework for deciding how much to trust a religious leader—whether a preacher here in town, a Christian writer in a book or magazine, or a pundit on TV—and can help you figure out what you yourself believe. Moreover, these scriptures demonstrate that we Christians have a heritage of questioning and double-checking our religious leaders: John did it, Jesus encouraged it, the Old Testament prophets did it. We preachers are really good at pretending we know what we’re talking about. So Jesus, John, and the rest… want you to not take my words for granted, want you to test if what you hear makes sense with the rest of your faith, want you to not uncritically accept what you are told but see how those words are lived out in a daily life of faith. Because too often American Christians—and this is my main worry for the Church today—too often American Christians blindly go with what famous people, pundits, and pastors say is Christianity… without double-checking if it’s actually Biblical, actually reasonable, actually common, actually true.
I’ll give two examples of things that may or may not be true… but which most folks never test. The Rapture has been large in American Christian minds for a long time now, especially after the Left Behind novels came out. But the Rapture is not a mainstream Christian belief. The idea arose less than 200 years ago, and most Christian traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian—most Christian traditions officially teach something else about the End Times. But for a long time in America, it just so happened the only study Bible with reference notes was published by a Rapture-believing guy, so most Americans just assumed that was what all Christians believe. Now, that is not to say the Rapture IS indeed wrong. Perhaps it’s right. But it is to say you should not let others just tell you, “This is what Christianity is” without testing the spirits, searching your Bible, seeing what other trustworthy Christian leaders have to say, and so on. Or take a saying I’ve often heard: “All religions are basically the same: just love people.” Now I personally think that is misleading: I think the differences not only make each religion special but also more or less true. But maybe it is true. You shouldn’t take my word for it. If that question matters to you, investigate it! Read books, study your scriptures, listen to folks who do and do not agree with you, and see where the spirits lead. I could repeat this process with pretty much every hot-button topic or common slogan: who should Christians vote for, young earth creationism or theistic evolution, when does human life begin, when if ever is violence permissible, and so much more.
I am not trying to tell you which answer is right on these topics. I will only know for sure which is right when I at last stand before my Maker. But in that moment, my chief concern will be whether I trust in Jesus, not whether I had this or that minute doctrine correct. Those things are secondary, which is why I put off preaching them. I merely point them out as easy, widespread examples… to say that even on things that seem commonly held, do not take a religious leader’s word on its own. Test the spirits. Watch that person’s own walk of faith and way of living. See whether their words build up your faith or isolate it. Compare their words to scripture, and if they claim scripture means X, Y, or Z, read it yourself to see if there’s a better explanation. Honestly, the most trustworthy Christian leaders… are those who are already dead, because they have nothing to gain by deceiving you, and if people are still reading their books or listening to their sermons decades or centuries later… they probably weren’t all bad. It’s us living preachers you really have to beware. That’s why as a Presbyterian, I love our Book of Confessions, because its statements of faith and belief have stood the test of time, have guided well generations of Christians. But my point is this: do not let other human beings define your relationship with your heavenly God for you. Do not just accept what pastors claim: you are Protestants. Protest-ing church claims is your religious heritage! Own it!
So my second to last lesson for you is a strange one, but I mean it. I especially mean it for the three men I’ll be baptizing later in our service today and for the woman joining our church today by reaffirmation of faith. Bad religious teaching has plagued our faith since the days of Moses smashing the Golden Calf. Jesus Christ himself warned about it. The Apostles battled it. So whenever you assume something is “obviously what Christians believe,” investigate that. Test it. Poke it. Prod it. Does it truly line up with scripture, with what you know of Jesus Christ, with everything else you believe? In the years ahead, I pray you live up to Christ’s words today. Be “as innocent as doves:” love others when in doubt, err on the side of mercy, pray for those who persecute you. But I also pray you are “wise as serpents,” that even as you do good you stay on guard, you test all things you hear—especially the things you want to hear—to ensure they are from God. And above all, keep your eyes fixed on Christ, who in the end is himself the simple essence of faith, the Person anyone can know without worry or test, the God among us who is easy to love and easy to find if you but call on him. To Christ be the glory. Amen.