Sunday, July 13, 2003

Fifth Sunday of Pentecost
Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Lavenham is a delightful little English town, with picturesque buildings and an interesting history. It is known as the crookedest town in England, and it lives up to its reputation. It was at the height of its importance during Tudor England as a place that produced wool. The buildings were built quickly to house the workers necessary to produce the cloth. They were built in the typical half-timber style that was popular during Tudor England. The walls were made of large timber beams that stood vertically with small horizontal crosspieces that were covered in a plaster made with horsehair. It is funny to look at modern American examples of "Tudor" houses, because they are built with solid walls and then pretty boards are nailed to the outside as a decorative enhancement - nothing like a real Tudor building.

Lavenham was built so quickly, with little care taken for foundations or building codes and over the years the homes have settled into something almost too silly to believe they are real. They are crooked and misshapen, though still standing strong. While wandering through this quaint village, I wondered how the residents could live in those buildings. There was one whose main floor beam was at a very steep incline. Though I could not see the inside, I could not help but imagine the furniture sliding to the lower side of the room.

After reading today's Old Testament lesson, I can almost imagine God as a building inspector standing in the middle of Lavenham with his plumb line, shaking His head at how topsy-turvy the buildings have become. That is what had happened with Israel. They were no longer the nation He had built, they had settled into live in the world, worshipping the gods of their neighbors and bowing down to the wrong ruler. Bethel was a high holy place, the place of the royal cults. Elijah and Elisha had both tried to turn God's people toward the LORD, but had failed. Amos was also given the word of the LORD to take to the people of Israel.

The response to Amos's prophecy is typical. "Don't rock our boat, don't say such horrible things about the king's haven." Amaziah told the king about the things Amos was saying and warned him that it wouldn't be very good for the people to hear their king is going to die and that they will be sent into exile. Then he told Amos to go prophesy somewhere else.

You can almost hear Amos laughing at the words of Amaziah. He answered, "I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet's son; but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore-trees: and Jehovah took me from following the flock, and Jehovah said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel." Amos didn't have a choice about his audience; he wasn't like the other prophets of his age. He was a shepherd who had a message for Israel. He couldn't run off to Judah just because the priest told him to go.

It is so easy to get confused when there are so many conflicting ideas. Who should the king listen to - Amaziah or Amos? Amaziah made the king feel good and Amos threatened his life.

Herod also had trouble with confusion. When he heard the stories of Jesus, he wondered who He could be. He really couldn't deal with another nutso prophet like John the Baptist. It wasn't that Herod refused to listen. As a matter of fact, Herod enjoyed listening to John even though he really did not understand the things he was saying. But, John preached against Herod's relationship with his wife, the wife of his brother who was still alive. This marriage arrangement was against God's Law and John told them so. Herod's wife didn't like what John had to say and forced Herod to have him arrested and put in prison.

Jesus began his ministry after John was put in prison. As His name became renowned, Herod wondered who He might be. Some claimed he was a resurrected John the Baptist. Others thought He Elijah. Still others thought He was a prophet. Herod was a silly superstitious man and was worried that it was John. He really didn't want to kill John, but the women in his life convinced him to do so. Now there was another prophet out there causing trouble. He was frightened by the prospect that it might be John back from the dead.

As we read these stories, we really have to wonder, "Where is God's grace?" Amos's message has no promise of forgiveness or salvation. They don't listen to him and try to send him away. John is imprisoned and beheaded for speaking God's Word. It really is not a pleasant thing to be a prophet for God. The only mention of Jesus in the Gospel is an assumption by Herod that He's someone else.

The Psalmist has an answer to the question. "Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, that glory may dwell in our land." Israel had no fear of God. Jeroboam had more concern about his false gods and his special city. Amaziah had more fear of Jeroboam and the people who had no interest in hearing things weren't going to go very well for them. Herod had more fear of his wife, her daughter, the opinion of his guests and his superstitions. They did not care what the prophets had to say.

John came to point toward Jesus, and once John was in prison Jesus began to preach the kingdom of God to all who would hear. The Psalm offers hope in the midst of these disturbing stories. God's grace is there for those who will listen, "For he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: But let them not turn again to folly."

"Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springeth out of the earth; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven." I love the image we get from these two verses and how they describe our Lord Jesus. The fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth - mercy, truth, righteousness and peace - come together in Him. Some translations use the phrase "love and faithfulness meet together". This is what Paul means in Ephesians 1:10 when he says, "to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth." Jesus is where heaven and earth meet, come together for the sake of those who listen to what He has to say about God. Jesus is God's glory come to earth, to minister to the people - to save them from themselves and give them peace.

Paul tells us that through Jesus we are adopted as sons in that kingdom He preached, so that we are seen as holy and blameless in the eyes of God. Through Jesus we are given with every spiritual blessing so that our lives will glorify God. We are saved, forgiven by the blood of Christ when we hear the words of those who speak the Word of God into our lives. Paul writes, "in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation, - in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise…"

Lavenham is a crooked little village with buildings that do not seem as though they should stand. A modern building inspector with a plumb line would find many faults with those five hundred year old dwellings, perhaps even order them removed. Yet, I can't imagine the people of Lavenham ever tearing them down, for it is those very buildings that give the village its unique charm.

We may be a little crooked ourselves. If God held his plumb line against each of us this day He could easily find fault. The fate of the Israelites that refused to listen seemed hopeless; God offered no forgiveness through Amos. The fate of Herod seemed hopeless; he could not imagine forgiveness from John after beheading him. God still has a plumb line - His name is Jesus. When we are in Christ God does not see our crooked walls but rather conforms the lives of those who hear His Word to His will and purpose. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and guaranteed the inheritance He has promised. In Christ we know God's mercy and truth, for it has been revealed in the One who brought heaven and earth together, redeemed us by His blood and made us sons and heirs to the Kingdom of God. Thanks be to God.

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