STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                            NOVEMBER 1, 2020

Rev. Sabrina Ingram                                                                                                                             

WORSHIPPING TOGETHER

 

Call to Worship: Romans 3: 21 – 26

The God-setting-things-right has become Jesus-setting-things-right

 for everyone who believes in him.

Since we’ve all compiled this long and sorry record as sinners

and proven that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us,

God did it for us.

Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. 

A pure gift.

He got us out of the mess we’re in an

d restored us to where he always wanted us to be.

And he did it all through Jesus Christ.

 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

 

Hymn   A mighty fortress is our God

 

Prayer of Adoration and Confession:

Great God, you are perfect in every way, there is nothing deceitful in you, nothing two-faced, nothing false.

You know that we were lost, like sheep without a shepherd, ready to follow any voice we heard.  So, you sent to us the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  He is the one who leads us.  We know his voice and follow him.  What is wonderful is that we can put our trust in him knowing he’ll never harm us or betray us.  He always looks out for our best interests, even to the point of laying down his life for us. 

 

We confess that like sheep we go astray.  Our hearts are corrupt and so we quickly follow whoever tells us what we want to hear.  We raise up those who promise us an easy life with riches.  We are not drawn to self-sacrifice.  We are drawn to those who tell us how wonderful we are and never ask us to change.  We are not drawn to repentance.   We are drawn to people who have charisma and charm.  We are not drawn to the foot of the cross.  Forgive us. 

 

As we worship today, let us confirm our allegiance to Christ who is the only King, and Head of the Church.  Let us turn from our own will, to follow him.  May we worship you with all our heart, soul and strength.  Be exalted Lord, for you are good.  Amen. 

 

Assurance of Pardon: based on Lamentations 5: 19 – 21

God is still sovereign,

   His throne is intact and eternal.

God will not forget us.

God will not desert his people.

Bring us back to you, God

We’re ready to come back.  Give us a fresh start.

 

Prayer for Illumination:

Holy God, open our eyes to your will revealed in scripture, so that, with faith in Christ, we may be your faithful people. Amen.

 

Scripture Readings

Zephaniah 3: 1 – 7

Acts 20: 27 – 32

Matthew 7: 15 – 23

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?  In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, you will know them by their fruits.  Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’  NRSV

 

“Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say.  A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook.  These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.  Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills.  I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’  The Message

 

Message:  Follow the Leader

Today we’re observing Reformation Sunday.  We’re a week late but today is closer to October 31, the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517.  Back then, this was the typical way to start a “conversation”.  His theses challenged the beliefs and practices of the historical Roman Catholic Church, starting a conflict known as “The Protestant Reformation”.  Luther believed the sin that had taken root in the leadership of the Church needed to be addressed.  The Church needed to repent and reform by returning to a Biblically based Christianity.  His protests were met with hostility rather than change.  Luther never intended to leave the RCC but the Church ex-communicated him.  He went on to establish a new denomination.  Many theologians followed in his footsteps desiring to become a more faithful and more holy witness to Christ.  This was a time  of mutual accusation as the RCC tried to maintain authority and the reformers pushed for something new.  Each charged the other with leading people astray with “false teachings”.  Each accused the other of being “false prophets”.

 

In today’s scripture, Jesus warns his followers to beware of “false prophets”.  The word prophet would include spiritual teachers and leaders who claim to speak God’s Word.   With this warning, Jesus acknowledged the existence of false spiritual leaders.  He described them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” because they are both deceitful and dangerous.  They pretend to be something they’re not in order to infiltrate and exploit the trust of unsuspecting people.  Once in, they inflict no end of spiritual, emotional and sometimes physical damage (e.g. sexual exploitation, self mutilation or death).  They create division within the group.  In order to beware of “false” or “pseudo” prophets (i.e. those who lie or pretend), we have to identify them.  Jesus says  just as we identify the type and health of a tree by the fruit it bears, so we need to look at the fruit or the outcome of every teacher’s ministry to see if it aligns with Christ’s teaching.  This sounds easy, but it’s not.  Many false prophets talk a good line.  They’re charismatic and charming.  They speak in half truths.  They’re master manipulators.  They draw people in with emotional pleas and intelligent arguments.  Listen to this quote:   “Self proclamation of authoritative titles is a common phenomenon among religious and/or occult sect leaders.  A cursory survey of this primarily 20th century phenomenon will instantly reveal a multitude of self-declared Masters, High Priests, gurus, Bhaghwani, etc.  I am pleased that I cannot count myself among such types.  A genuine spiritual leader is one whose calling is first noticed by others based on certain qualities, abilities, and actions and then must be accepted by the individual in question as his or her destiny. This contrasts with those whose will to lead is born simply out of the mundane wish to be a leader.  In such cases, the goal is to reap the rewards a title brings, without the hard-work and the innate, manifest qualities which validate the position; in short: a ‘false prophet’.”

  
I can’t argue with that.  It’s very much in keeping with the PCC when it comes to a call for ministry.  In order to discern a religious vocation, the person must have an inner sense of God’s call.  This must also be validated by other Christians.  So, what the writer says is fine.  But here’s the thing.  This statement was written by a woman who was raised in the Church of Satan and was a defender of that faith for many years.  After which she left that group and became an adherent of the Temple of Seth (a cult based on ancient Egyptian Religion).  She rose to be a high priestess, but due to division in the ranks, left that group and is now promoting a “practice” which is said to be a hybrid of Buddhism and tantric sexual teaching.  Furthermore, they promote a musical genre called “Dark Organ Gothic Deathrock”.  They argue:  why should heavy metal music be the only genre to claim Satanic influence.  The most insidious part of this is if you want to listen to Dark Organ music, they advice you turn to classical composers such as Bach.  Bach who was a professing Christian within the Lutheran Church and wrote much of his music to the glory of God!   Now, I don’t know this woman except for what I’ve read on the internet.  I can’t condemn her soul, nor should I.   Some of the work she does in counselling sounds helpful.  Yet as a discerning Christian this does not sound like a spiritual leader filled with the Holy Spirit and, despite the fact that she nailed it with self-declared prophets and a helpful course, looking at her resume, I would not become her follower.  I’d beware of her.

 

When we’re trying to discern between a false prophet and one called by God, we need to consider their motivation.   The urge to save humanity often masks the urge to rule it.  Power, not service, is what all false teachers really seek.  The desire for power leaks out in many ways.  Is the person self-sacrificing?  Do they care about their own life more than the lives of those they serve?  Do they promote a prosperity gospel and live excessively, or do they have a moderate lifestyle and care for others?    Affluence is seductive and many people want to hear that “gospel”, but it isn’t the gospel Jesus preached.  God is more concerned with the kingdom of heaven and peoples’ souls.  Many TV evangelists bring their authority into question by promoting affluence as God’s main objective.  I once heard a preacher say, “if you’re driving a Volkswagen your faith is too small, God wants to give you a Cadillac”.   The abuse of authority is a sign of misused power.  Are they sexually exploitative of minors or vulnerable adults?  The Church has been discredited by the sexual abuse of boys by priests and women by ministers.   Do they seek the praise and adulation of others, seeking titles, honours and a large following?  Do they promote violence or questionable sexual practices?  All those traits are often seen in cult leaders like David Koresh who demanded loyalty, had children with the wives of other men while demanding abstinence of them and had a stash of automatic weapons for a rainy day.   Do they promote their own ideas?  To discern this, we need to look at their teaching in light of scripture.  When scripture is twisted, we may need to read a variety of respected, Christian scholars to clarify our understanding.  Do they tell people what they want to hear?  Do they speak only of God’s grace and love but deny human sin, responsibility, and the need for repentance?  Do they teach about boosting one’s self-esteem or do they call people to deny themselves and take up their cross?   Are they purposely leading people astray or confusing them?  False prophets move people away from Christ and off the narrow path.

 

To discern between a false prophet and one called by God, we need to consider the fruit they bear.  A true prophet encourages faith, a relationship with Christ and living in tune with the Holy Spirit.  They do not substitute empty outward rituals for a living, personal faith.  They know that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car.  They also know that (in normal circumstances and good health) not going to church stunts our growth as disciples, and leads to withered faith and a lost soul.

 

A true prophet says “yes” to life.  As Paul puts it, “For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason, it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20)  That doesn’t mean they give license to sin, hurt others or indulge our self.  It means they are not bound by  regulations and don’t lay heavy burdens on others.  They know that following prohibitions and rules, do not produce salvation or even joy.  To paraphrase Jesus, the know the Law was made for people, people weren’t made for the Law.  Instead they teach that life is hopeful and joyful because of God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  They know Jesus came so we may have “life in abundance” (John 10:10).  Our faith in Christ doesn’t make life smaller, it sets us free.

 

False prophets encourage engagement with the world.  Like Christ, we all need to withdraw from time to time to listen to God and be restored, but we do not shun the world God so loved.  A soldier doesn’t desert his unit.  Leaven is useless unless it’s in a lump of dough.  Our witness is worthless without someone to hear it.  True prophets do not promote passivity.  On April 16, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an open letter from the Birmingham jail, where he was imprisoned after participating in non-violent demonstrations against segregation. The letter was his response to a public statement of caution issued by seven white Christian ministers and one Jewish rabbi, who agreed that there were injustices, but argued that the battle against segregation should be fought patiently in the courts, and not in the streets however peacefully.  King’s response shows his courage, determination and his motivation which was not for self-glory but for the good of all, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

 

False prophets are not arrogant or condescending.  They do not promote one group as righteous and the rest as sinners.  We see this happening between denominations and sometimes within them.  For instance, in some circles those who do not speak in tongues are said to not be Christian.  A true prophet makes room for others and for everyone.  “We are God’s chosen few, all others will be damned.  There is no room in heaven for you; we can’t have heaven crammed” is not the refrain of a true prophet.

 

This passage closes with a clear message.  Not everyone who recites the name of Jesus, calling him Lord or Master will get through the pearly gates.  On the day of judgement, false prophets may have a long resume of things they’ve done in Jesus’ name, but all the miracles and healings in the world do not make up for a lack of submission and obedience to God.   Jesus won’t be fooled by those who used him for their own glory or gain.  He is clear he will turn them away.  But this passage speaks not only to false prophets, preachers, exorcists, and do-gooders, it speaks to all of us.  Simply mouthing “Jesus is Lord” or doing “churchy” things, however good our actions may be, will not impress Jesus.  He sees right through our falseness.  Our words and our motives, our actions and our hearts, our proclamations and our faith need to be congruent and inseparable.  If our faith is all display designed to promote ourselves, we can look forward to a grim outcome when we stand before God’s judgement throne.   Unless we seek and do the will of God, unless we are self-denying, unless we follow Christ and live for God’s glory, we too are “false prophets”.   Wolves in sheep’s clothing.   Bad trees with rotten fruit.  Prickle bushes with lovely looking poison berries.    We each need to beware of these tendencies within ourselves.   We each need to reform within ourselves what is not of God.

 

Prior to 1517, if the church had not used it’s influence to gain power, exploit people, bend scripture to their own gain, and indulge in immorality, Luther wouldn’t have been needed and Christendom would not have been divided.   The best way for us not to fall under the influence of a false leader, is to follow Christ who is our true leader.  When we do, we won’t be led astray, we won’t lead others astray and we will be greeted with open arms on the day of judgement.

 

Silent Prayer

 

Offertory Prayer:   God of Grace, you did not spare your only Son, but sacrificed him for the life of the world.  In faith we offer ourselves to you.  May we honour you and bring you glory, as your Church and as your people.  Amen. 

 

Hymn  Lead on, O King eternal

 

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession

God of above all, God over all,  

We thank you that you never leave us or abandon us.

We thank you that by your Holy Spirit, you guide each of our lives and lead your Church. 

We thank you for Jesus, who leads us to abundant and eternal life. 

We thank you for the comfort of your presence and the energy of your Spirit.

 

We thank you for the saints who have gone before us, who shaped your church and our faith.  We thank you that although they are with you, they are also still with us and that their legacy lives on.  We thank you that you surround us with people who care about our well-being, people we can trust.  And we thank you that you call each of us to be caring, trustworthy people, leading others to Christ. 

We thank you for the strength with which you infuse us

For the peace within us,

For the gift of discernment so we can go with you and towards you. 

 

We pray for those we love who have lost their desire for you.  We pray for our community that is unaware of that you are the way.  We pray for our world which has no use for real righteousness but seeks vengeance and power.  Lead us, Lord.  Give us all an awareness of our emptiness.  Disrupt our spirits so that we may know our need for you.  Bring us to the time when we will be filled.

 

We pray for those who find themselves on the margins of the economy, suffering the anxiety and restriction of low income and the insecurity it brings.  We pray for people and communities where people suffer from famine and drought.  For those who live on the streets and are facing the harshness of winter.  Challenge us in our stewardship so that this world will reflect your kingdom, where there is enough for all, and everyone can enjoy the blessings of your creation.

 

 We pray for all those affected by the pandemic.  For those who are ill; for those who mourn loved ones; for those who are anxious; for those who are tired and stressed.  Make us signs of hope in the face of death and despair.

 

We pray for the many places where conflict is a way of life.  We pray for Nigeria where several  Christians were murdered this week and churches are being burned.  We pray for Christians in the Middle East where the expulsion and massacre of Christians have reached genocidal levels.  We pray for the people of France where the freedoms of democracy are being challenged with the blood of harmless people.   We remember countries that are divided and civil war drags on.  We pray also for Palestine and Israel.    We pray also for the United States as they approach their presidential elections.  Divisions there seem to grow deeper all the time.  We pray for your will to be done, for a clear victory, for accepting hearts and for peace and unity.  Protect those who face violence, persecution and chaos in their homes, workplaces or communities. Transform the day-to-day struggles of those living in danger or discord.  Strengthen those who work for peace and reconciliation in a divided world. Move us to serve as mediators and models of forgiveness in our relationships.

 

We pray also for those we love, giving thanks to you that you are our healer and our hope.  We pray for Grace and Grace, Kathleen and 

 

We name before you those on our hearts this day,

 

Lord Jesus, with your followers in every generation, we pray the words you taught us:

 

The Lord’s Prayer

 

 

Invitation to Mission

We go from here

in the grace of God.

We go

In renewed faith.

We go

 to live and die for Christ, alone.

We go

to be led through our scripture, the Holy Bible.

We go

to glorify the Triune God. 

 

Benediction