Sunday, July 15, 2012

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

Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, That glory may dwell in our land.

You are John the Baptist, teaching the king things he really does not want to hear. The king respects you because you are righteous and holy and he is protecting you. However, the king’s wife hates you because the things you are teaching make her out to be sinful. The king may even doubt his relationship with the queen. Do you feel peace?

Now, John the Baptist did what God sent him to do. He preached to the people and called them to repentance. He told them they are sinners. He baptized the people for forgiveness of their sin. He lived a most unusual life, not concerned about the normal cares of the world. He ate odd food, wore strange clothing, and lived in the desert. I can imagine that John was like the odd transient who wanders the streets of the city mumbling to himself, but engaging people who catch his eye with frightening images of doom. I don’t think he was the charismatic type, drawing people to himself because of the words he spoke or the impression he made. As I read the descriptions of John’s appearance and ministry I see a frightening image that would make me very uncomfortable.

People flocked to him, though. And they listened. And they were baptized. We know, however, that many were not being baptized because they believed what they heard. When John called the gathering crowds a brood of vipers, he knew that they were just following today’s trend. They were doing it because it was the in thing to do. After all, if the king is listening to John, he must have something to say. And if a little water will make everything alright, why not get wet?

Herodias, the villainess in this story, knows that John is far more dangerous than he appears. She knows that the word he is speaking is true, and she simply does not want them to be heard. She knows that Herod is listening, but the reality has not really had an impact. His heart hasn’t changed, but when it does it will mean her life will change. Changes in his heart could mean changes for all of Israel; after all, he was the king. Would John’s preaching bring the wrath of Rome on their heads? Would she be set aside because their marriage came from sin? It is no wonder that she hated John. She knew the truth of what he was saying.

John’s story is ugly. He was not what we would describe as a superstar. He was rough, wild and probably not beautiful. He preached wrath. He talked about sin. In his story, the truth is ugly. The truth is also ugly in Amos’s story. Amos had no desire to be a prophet. He was a shepherd and just wanted to shepherd his flock. But God spoke and Amos responded. The message he took to that king was not beautiful, either. It was ugly. He warned the people that their sacred places would be destroyed and that the king would die by the sword. He also warned that the people would be sent into exile.

I don’t think I would want to be either Amos or John. The messages they took to the people for God were harsh and ugly.

It seems so out of place, then, to hear the Psalm for today. The psalmist says, “…for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints…” The words of John and Amos didn’t sound like words of peace. Warnings and calls to repentance bring us to our knees in fear and panic. Herodias must have felt panic. Amaziah, too. They had the kings’ ears and knew the words had truth. They also knew that the truth would change their world, and not in a way that would be better for them. They had to stop the words from impacting the king. “Go away” they said. But God’s word does not go away.

Despite the ugliness of those words from John and Amos, however, there is peace in them. How much better is our life when we live within the grace of God? John and Amos called God’s people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time God’s people remembered and returned to Him. John’s baptism might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for God’s grace to truly change the world. There is peace on the other side of repentance, because there we stand once again in the presence of God.

The psalmist sings, “Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, That glory may dwell in our land.” The people to whom the prophets were sent feared so many things of this world. They feared the wrong things. If they feared the Lord, held Him in the proper awe, they would see that they would have no need to fear those other things. 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 truly listen to what the prophets had to say. They heard only what they wanted to hear. But the psalmist knows that peace will come to those who hear and believe the words of God, even if His word seems harsh and ugly at first.

Despite the ugly words of the prophets, the text this week includes beautiful words, too. The psalmist writes, “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.” Truth is beautiful, even if the words do not seem so, because truth leads us to a right relationship with God. It is in that relationship that we truly find peace.

These verses from the psalm 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.” Paul references this when he tells us that everything God planned, every beautiful thing, is summed up in Christ, “the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth.” Jesus is where heaven and earth meet; He is where it all comes together for the sake of those who listen to what He has to say. Jesus is God’s glory come to earth, to minister to the people, to save them from themselves and give them peace.

We deserve to hear the words of Amos and John because we are no different than the people in their days. If God held a plum line to our lives, He would find us crooked. A plum line is a string with a weight at the bottom. When held above the ground, the plumb line will show you if something is straight. It is often used when building a brick wall; the bricks are lined up along the line so that the wall will go up straight. Unfortunately, the bricks of our life our not always placed along the plum line of God’s Word. We make decisions based on our own agenda or opinion. We follow our hearts rather than the reality of God’s Word. We ignore the ugly truth and seek after the things that make us feel good.

But God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. We might be crooked, but in His kingdom it doesn’t matter. Christian faith is not about us. It isn’t about our desires. It isn’t even about our needs. It is about God’s faithfulness. He has made promises that He will keep. The stories of Amos and John remind us that life in God’s kingdom is hard. Yet, there is peace in that harshness, in the ugliness we experience. Despite the ugliness, we live in hope, knowing that God is faithful. We live in peace knowing that God can and will accomplish amazing things even when it does not seem possible to us.

We are part of something greater than ourselves. We have been chosen. As Paul writes, “…in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will…” We have received the mark of Christ which is a seal of promise to guarantee the salvation He has given for us. The plumb line will make our failure obvious. Our weakness will come to light. Yet, we will receive all we need to accomplish God’s purposes in this world. He will give us the words to speak, the truth. Whether those words are ugly or beautiful is not up to us.

We may not want to be like John the Baptist or Amos. We may not want to speak those words of repentance and prophecy death and destruction. We would rather sing with the psalmist about peace. But grace is found in the truth of God’s word, and whatever words He puts in our mouth will be filled with grace and hope and peace. In those words will be a promise of salvation to all who hear and respond in faith. And then God’s glory will shine throughout the land.

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