Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inside are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits: they do not gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles, do they? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree is not able to produce bad fruit, nor a bad tree to produce good fruit. Every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As a result, you will recognize them by their fruits. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many miracles in your name?’ And then I will say to them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!’ [Matthew 7:15-23]
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen. Jesus warns them to, “Beware false prophets,” but do we know what He means? Do we today even recognize the words of a true prophet? We are Twenty-first Century Americans after all. We are members of the modern Church, in which the gifts of the prophets are nearly extinguished.
Do we have the ears to hear the prophet Jeremiah, who rails against prophets whose lips God did not open, whose mouths give expression to dreams woven out of the deceit of their own dishonest hearts. With their reckless sermons they lead the Lord’s people astray, so that the Lord is not remembered as the God that He is. Rather than awakening faith which is bold to call upon the name of the Lord, these preachers lull their hearers into complacency with unauthorized promises of well-being. No disaster will come upon you. They cannot preach the God who trespasses all our boundaries. This wild God of the Old Testament. The Lord who is jealous to have a people exclusively for Himself. So they advertise a domesticated deity who will put His blessing, His benediction on the desires, the plans, and the programs of the heart whatever they may be. Jeremiah declares this to be idolatry. It is no different in substance from the way that Israel’s fathers had been seduced into the worship of Baal. God’s ears are not closed to these lying words. From His sight nothing is concealed and no word is so quietly or softly spoken that it is beyond His ears.
Truth and falsehood have no more in common than wheat does with straw. In fact, the lie is the death of men, their earthly and their eternal death. The lie kills nations. Through their lies, the most powerful empires of the world have been laid waste. History knows of no more unsettling spectacle than the judgment which comes to pass when the men of a supposedly advanced culture, such as our own, have rejected the truth, and are now swallowed up in a sea of lies.
God then comes, and His coming is in judgment. The fire of His Word ignites the stubble of falsehood and unbelief. The hammer of His law pulverizes hearts that have become granite monuments of unrighteousness. The Lord sets His face against them. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! Not a very good place for them or you to be. There is plenty of dire warning in Jeremiah for preachers lest your pastor also find himself numbered with those who preach peace when there is no peace, who proclaim that all is well when disaster is imminent. There is much here to remind us that God’s preachers are sent to, “afflict the comfortable if we are ever to comfort the afflicted.” But what about the comfort and consolation of the Gospel? Will a prophet like Jeremiah be sent to preach the Gospel, to point you to Christ too?
There are no longer any prophets in the old sense of the word. Not since God’s eternal Word became man in Jesus Christ. Not since the witness of the apostles pointed us to Him. However, there is a prophecy that is promised to the Church of Christ, by which it is always served in each generation. Were it living among us now our church today would not be so devastated by false prophets. We could listen to the words of God’s greatest prophet and hear the truth for ourselves and distinguish between truth and falsehood.
In the days of John the Baptizer people did not come out to hear an enthusiastic speaker, a religious guru, or a popular evangelist. No one goes to a prophet for those reasons. Pretty religious speeches are heard in warm auditoriums. An evangelist is expected to get his message out to the masses. He does not wait for the masses to come to him. That is why John the Baptizer searched for the right meeting place for his hearers to come: “You brood of vipers.” That is why he does not consider their feelings, their wishes, or their values. He does not proclaim the wrath of God, the end of their nation, or the end of the world. He does not preach one-sidedly about Jesus, about God’s boundless love for all people, whom He desires to see happy and satisfied. No, John was not an evangelist. The people did not go to him for this reason. What drove them to him then? It was their hunger and thirst for that which the prophet Amos had once spoken. A hunger and thirst that is not natural to man but sent by God Himself, “Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water but for the Word of the Lord.” [Amos 8:11]
Do we Twenty-first Century Americans still know this hunger and thirst like the German people once knew it during the Reformation or Gentile sinners in the days of the Early Church? Do we still know something of what it means to waste away from hunger for the Bread of Life, for the Water of Life? Do we have any regard for the time when men literally lived on the Word of God? In the days of John the Baptizer this hunger and this thirst made the people travel to the Jordan, because this bread was there.
At the River Jordan the Word of God happened. At the Jordan God’s Word presented itself. There, at the Jordan, was a man who served God with His Word. John didn’t discuss his wisdom, his thoughts, his feelings and experience, because he was only a vessel for the living God. He proclaimed the eternal will and counsel of God. Nothing else. No additions. He proclaimed God’s justice and God’s mercy. He did not elevate his own desires, and did not lust after wealth. He didn’t elevate his claim on life. He was only a voice, by whom a violent sound was poured out, and God gathered an enormous congregation around him. John had a circle of disciples, and had given his disciples a prayer, just as Jesus gave us the “Our Father.” He had given them the Sacrament of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, which Jesus took over from him and gave again to His Church.
But John only desired to be a path-maker for the coming One. “He must increase but I must decrease,” remained written upon the life of this great and humble man. The greatest of all prophets. “Truly I say to you, he is more than a prophet.” Jesus said about him. A great compliment. The greatest that He said about any man. “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptizer.” John was the greatest of all men before the beginning of the kingdom of God. John, who was eventually arrested by King Herod, who had him executed. How this judgment violates our idea of what it means to be a great man!
Through John, a true prophet, the greatest of all men, we are pointed to the First Commandment, which says that we should trust in God alone and call upon Him alone. This is how you listen for and learn to distinguish truth from falsehood. A false prophet is lawless, who wants nothing else for you than to lead you to trust in your own works, and to command you to call upon God apart from His only begotten Son. This is the way of false prophets. You must be on your guard therefore, because there are many of them in our churches today. They try to erase the commandment which God has given: You will have no other gods before Me.
Thus, when men asked John, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” he points away from himself to Christ. So that while they are still speaking to him, John begins to speak. Then, through his preaching they understand the mystery of faith in Christ Jesus which we learn from our catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” This is the confession of John and all men who have heard and believed Jesus’ word that, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” We have not asked Him. He asked us. He does not need to be justified by us. We need to be justified by Him. We are not His judge. He is our judge. You have not forgiven Him. He forgives you. You do not decide to make Him your Lord and King. He chooses to be your Lord. Amen.