“Prophecy or Sales Pitch”

February 4, 2018
Jonathan Rumburg
Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Introduction

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, which means tonight we will be huddled around our televisions to watch… the commercials!  But of course we’ll also want to watch… the half time show!  And then maybe some of the game too—when we are not eating the indulgences the Super Bowl permits.

But the commercials are of the greatest interest—especially for us Browns fans—and advertisers will spend millions of dollars to attract our eye and get us to open our wallets.  Many of the ads will be creative and memorable, and more than a few will feature a celebrity to make a sales pitch.

William Shatner hung up his Captain Kirk uniform and started hawking for Priceline.com.

Michael Jordan donned his Hanes undergarments.

If you are of a certain age you probably remember Joe DiMaggio pitching Mr. Coffee and Joe Namath touting popcorn poppers.

And no young boy in 1992 will ever forget Cindy Crawford drinking Pepsi.

Celebrities add allure to a product, at least on the surface, and they become so connected to the product that we remember them even if the products have gone into retail obscurity.  If the greatest basketball player in history likes tag-less under garments, or a super model drinks a particular soda, well, then maybe we will too.

But as often as a celebrity spokesperson helps a product line, many of them have done more harm than good—namely, the celebrity who goes off the rails by doing or saying something dumb at best or criminal at worst.  Like for instance…

Jared Fogle, who was featured in nearly every Subway commercial for 15 years because he lost 250 pounds eating Subway sandwiches, but was convicted in 2015 for sexual misconduct with children.

Michael Phelps was pitching for Kelloggs when a video of him smoking marijuana got him bounced from the cereal aisle.  He has since regained new endorsements—Americans being more forgiving of winners, apparently.

Paula Deen was the darling of The Food Network until she was taken to court by former employees on allegations of racial and sexual discrimination.

Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong were both at the top of their respective sports until scandal took them down along with their sponsorships with Nike and Livestrong respectively.

These are just a few of the sad stories of spokespersons gone wild, which led to a bad image and bad press for the companies they endorsed.  They were people who presumed to speak on behalf of the companies they represented, but their behavior turned out to be an embarrassment instead.

Of course, such behavior isn’t limited to commercial endorsements.  The Church has had plenty of its own high-profile pitchmen get caught up in scandal and damage its reputation.

Those who presume to speak for God are watched even more carefully than celebrities to see if their conduct and character match the message they are preaching.

Which is good.  Discerning Christians, like discerning consumers, need to always be on the lookout for authenticity in those who stand before them with what they claim to be the word of God.

Moses knew this.  And Moses knew this was going to be a problem for Israel.  So he spends some time in Deuteronomy offering up criteria for the kind of people God calls to be spokesmen and spokeswomen for God, while warning them how to spot an alluring sales pitch.

The question for them is the same for those of us who preach and listen to preachers: How do we know the difference between a real prophet and a religious pitchperson?  How do we know the difference between real prophecy and an alluring sales pitch?

Move 1

In Deuteronomy 18, Moses offers two criteria for an authentic prophet.

First, the prophet will be like Moses.  And secondly, the prophet will be raised up from among God’s own people.

In other words, real prophets will speak and act in line with the law of God and whatever they prophesy will affect them as much as the people because they have been called out from among the people.

These are important distinctions because they ground the prophet’s words and work in the word of God and in the community to which, and out of which, God calls them.

Unlike a celebrity endorser, a prophet will be known by those in his or her community.  People will have had the opportunity to observe their public persona first hand, witness their character in action, and determine whether their message matches the Scriptures they have studied and discerned together in community.

The prophet will have a stake in the community to whom he or she preaches, thus whatever the prophet proclaims for the community will affect him or her as well.

To put it another way, the prophet’s word is less directed toward “you” and more toward “us.”

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          Moses’ warning is especially poignant today—an age when it’s possible for anyone to download, read, and hear messages from a host of celebrity preachers who are personally detached from our real-life communities, connected only by satellite signals.

Additionally, many people in our day assume that if someone is writing books or has a huge online following he or she must be worth “following”.

The thing is, however, a true prophet may not have a book contract or TV show, but the people who know them—“know them”—warts and all.

Add to that, their message is often difficult to hear, which means their audiences tend to be smaller.  After all, who is allured by that which is difficult to hear, yet still faithful?

Most of the time, real prophets are reluctant because they know that the message God has laid on them can sting them as much as it will the rest of the community.  Just look at the struggles of the prophets of Israel and you’ll see it was no picnic.

Move 2

So with those criteria in mind, it becomes easier to tell when someone is actually being “prophetic” versus making a “sales pitch”.  But here are a few telltale signs that you’re hearing a sales pitch instead of a prophet:
First…It’s all about them.
Someone who is faking it is in business for the benefit received from hawking a particular product or agenda, thus he or she is more likely to use their platform to manipulate others toward that end.

So when a person begins with an admonition like, “God told me to tell you …” it should put you on high alert.  History is full of those who have claimed a special hotline with God and have led people to destruction while lining their own pockets or feeding their hedonistic impulses.  Through Moses, God warns God’s people to watch out for those who “speak in my name a word I have not commanded the prophet to speak” because that word is usually their own.

A real prophet, on the other hand, is likely to suffer for the word he or she is bringing.  Witness the trials of Jeremiah and Isaiah, John the Baptist, or the disciples of Jesus for just a few examples.

Or for a more modern day example, witness the trials of those who are part of the #MeToo movement—sharing accounts of sexual abuse but then being told they are liars.

Bottom line… If God calls you to be a prophet—to speak truth to power— God is not doing you a favor.

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          Next…Sales pitches will hold up other gods.

God warns against prophets who are actually pitch-people for other gods.  In Moses’ day that meant the idols of the Canaanites, but there are still plenty of other gods today.

Therefore, if your “prophet” is making promises about your financial prosperity, for example, that should be a major red flag.  The biblical prophets were far more concerned about the poor than the rich, as was Jesus.

Any prophet who puts his, her and/or your financial wealth ahead of generosity is simply pitching a product and not the Gospel.  As Jesus put it, you can’t serve both God and wealth; you’re going to have to choose.  And you’ll have to choose because money is often part of an unholy trinity of other gods that includes sex and power.

It’s not that any of these are bad in and of themselves; it’s just that they make good servants but terrible masters.

When a prophet speaks a word that places wealth, sexual license or a political agenda over and above the word of God, then you’ve got yourself a sales pitch for another set of gods.

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          Another way to spot a sales pitch—Character doesn’t match the message.

This one seems pretty obvious.  If someone is preaching a gospel they’re not living out, then he or she is a religious peddler and not an authentic prophet.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus warned his disciples against false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing, but whose real character is revealed by their “fruits.”

The most authentic prophets are those who are vulnerable, whose weaknesses are known by the community, and who live in humility.

Real prophets may not be the most eloquent speakers, nor the best dressed, and they aren’t typically accomplished athletes or super models.  But their lives speak the message they proclaim.

Conclusion

Advertisers know we have a choice—which is why they work so hard and spend so much to influence those choices.

So may we be guided in our choices—not by alluring commercials and celebrity sales pitches.  But rather by the word of God, spoken in word and action by today’s prophets of God.

Yes, it will likely be a hard message to hear. But may we know the message of God will be more authentic than any celebrity, and it will be more memorable and alluring than any Super Bowl commercial.  Amen.

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