What was I thinking when I volunteered to do pulpit fill and write a sermon on Amos or even worse, the beheading of John the Baptist?
First I read the entire book of Amos to better understand the writings of the prophet Amos. Don’t be too impressed. The book is only nine chapters long. The book details the prophesies and dreams of Amos which God asked him to reveal to the religious leaders and the kings of Israel. Amos’ prophesies date from the early part of the eighth century before Christ. It is a pretty depressing book which details all of the transgressions of God’s people…there are a lot.
Amos wasn’t one of king’s sanctioned prophets. He described himself as a shepherd and someone who tended fig trees near Tekoa in the southern kingdom. God had chosen him to bring a message of judgement on the northern kingdom, many of which were given to him in dreams. He did most of his prophesying in Bethel, a royal sanctuary of King Jeroboam.
In today’s lesson Amos has a dream in which God is standing by a wall built with the aid of a plumb line. God shows Amos the plumb line and asks Amos what he sees. The plumb line is a symbol of God’s laws and expectations, the guide by which his people are to live. It never changes, it always stays straight. It doesn’t matter how you hold your hand or how long or short the line is, it always stays straight. Any wall built with a plumb line will be straight and strong. But according to God his people have not followed the line he has given them to guide them in their lives.
Some of the things God is upset about are found in Amos 5:
“Therefore because you trample on the poor
And take from them levies of grain,
You have built houses of hew stone,
But you shall not live in them;
You have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions
And how great are your sins___
You who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
And push aside the needy in the gate.”
And in Amos 6:
“Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,…
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory
And lounge on their couches
And eat lambs from the flock
And calves from the stall;
Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
And like David improvise on instruments of music;
Who drink wine from bowls,
And anoint themselves with the finest oils,
But are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!…”
Again and again Amos warns the leaders of Israel, both religious and political, that God is not happy with them. They have chosen to live lives of luxury, and excess at the expense of the poor and needy. They have engaged in shady business deals and exorbitant taxes on those who have little. They are greedy and falsely pious.
God warns that the kingdom will be destroyed, the King and his children will be killed by the sword and his wife will become a prostitute. The people will be exiled and the temple destroyed.
And that is what happened.
The book of Amos is a hard one to read. Again and again God’s people were warned about living lives that didn’t measure up to the plumb line God set…a line of justice, caring for the poor and the needy, against hoarding of land and resources, against selling those who were indebted as slaves, against cheating on measurements, shorting payments and mixing in chaff with the wheat.
Those who lay on couches and drank wine in their summer homes didn’t like what Amos had to say. They liked the status quo. Their lives are good. They didn’t want to hear his warnings, the warnings of an angry God.
Amos spoke the truth to the powerful as revealed to him by God and there were consequences. The priests and king told him to go back to where he came from, to leave Bethel and never come back.
The Gospel lesson tells a gruesome story of sex, lies and murder. It is kind of an odd tale in the middle of the book of Mark. Most of Mark is a condensed version of Jesus life. This seems a bit out of place since it barely mentions Jesus.
At the beginning of our Gospel story, King Her0d hears reports of Jesus teaching and miracles. Some of the reports suggest that Jesus is really John the Baptist, back from the dead. That made King Herod a little nervous because he was the one who had John beheaded.
Herod was king because he, and his father before him, was appointed by the Roman emperor, not because he was a descendant of David and therefore not a legitimate king of Israel. He may have felt his throne was not secure. King Herod was married to his brother’s wife, Herodias, after she had divorced his brother. This was against the law of Moses. John the Baptist very publicly criticized the king for this disregard for the law. John stirred people up and the leaders didn’t want anyone causing unrest, anything that might challenge their power and authority. Herod had John jailed. Herodias wanted him put to death. Herod listens to John and knows he is very popular with the people and doesn’t dare have him executed.
This is where the story gets really icky. Herod has a big birthday party for himself. He invites all the important people. At the banquet Herodias sends her young daughter to dance for those attending the banquet. Herod is so taken with the girl’s dance that he makes a speech and offers her anything she wants, even half his kingdom. She runs to her mother who says “Ask for the Baptist’s head on a platter.” Herod is pinned in a corner. He’s made a promise to his step daughter in front of all his guests. Even though he doesn’t want to, he chooses to save face and has John beheaded. Herod presents the head to his step daughter who hurries it off to her mother.
John spoke truth to power and it cost him his head. It was risky to speak the truth.
Jesus spoke the word of God and it took him to the cross. He overturned the money changers tables in the temple. He healed the sick, even on Sunday which was against the religious laws. He spoke out for the poor and disadvantaged. He ate with those who were unclean and outcast. Those in power felt threatened by this “king of the Jews”.
It is risky still to speak up and speak out. Those who spoke out for women’s suffrage were jailed, harassed and beaten. Some were put in mental institutions. Those who demonstrated for civil rights in the 1960’s were beaten, jailed, and killed. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the Birmingham jail where he had been detained for participating in a peaceful protest:
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. Left their villages and carried their “Thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns…so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…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…Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…Was not Jesus an extremest for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which spitefully use you and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther and extremist:”Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
Prophets aren’t lukewarm about the plumb line set by God. John the Baptist was an extremist for Christ.
What issue or event or person would inspire you to speak up or speak out? What is it, who is it that is so important that you would break some rules, or at least push some boundaries and suffer some consequences?
A friend once asked me where the Gospel was in something I wrote. The question has become a sort of plumb line for me, a measure of whether or not I’m getting the message right.
The Good News of Jesus is that there is another kind of power other than the world’s power which is often corrupted by self-service and greed. The good news is that although truth and justice may be a way off, there is another way of living. Even in the despair of the exiled Amos, the beheaded John, the excommunicated Martin Luther, the assassinated Dr. King, there is hope for the promise of the coming of God’s kingdom.