Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 85:(1-7) 8-13
I will hear what God, Yahweh, will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, his saints; but let them not turn again to folly.
I have a friend who is interested in attending a Bible study. Sheís looked into the options, but she has a problem. She doesnít think that a lay person can properly teach the Bible. Unfortunately, our pastors do not always have the time to teach. We have a number of highly gifted teachers in our congregation, several diverse classes so that she could find something that would be interesting and beneficial. She is concerned, however, because none of those teachers are ordained. ďHow can they teach the Bible when they havenít been trained?Ē she asks.
I agree that we need to be very careful about who we accept as our mentors and teachers of the faith. We need to make sure the words that the teacher is speaking lines up with the Word of God. The problem is that we need to be familiar enough with the scriptures so that we can discern between truth and the twist. The twist is what got us into the trouble in the first place. The serpent questioned Adam and Eveís understanding of Godís words. ďDid God really say...?Ē he asked. Eve then answered with her own thoughts on the matter, not with Godís true word. She was fooled into believing what the serpent wanted her to believe. False teachers can do the same. Satan even tested Jesus with that kind of twist during His wilderness wandering. ďIf you are the Son of God...Ē he said and then twisted the scriptures to meet the temptation. Jesus answered with the truth.
My friend is right to be concerned; she is not familiar enough with the Bible to be certain that sheíll avoid falling for the twists. However, she is foolish for thinking that only the ordained can be her teacher, because even among ministers there are those willing to twist Godís Word to make it fit their own agenda or ideology.
Take the story of Amos, for instance. The king was surrounded by teachers and prophets that were well educated and highly respected in their positions, particularly by the king. Amos, however, was a nobody. Amos had words for the king that the king and the people did not want to hear. Their time was short. Theyíd disobeyed the Lord and He was about to take matters into His own hands. They were not in line with His Word. The Lord promised to send a plumb line to measure His people, to see how well they stood. The Lord could have chosen a powerful man, an educated man, a gifted man. Instead, He chose Amos, who tells us that he takes care of sheep and sycamore trees. What did he know about politics? What did he know about religion? What did he know about the future?
How did Amos have the authority to say these things? He was just a simple shepherd. But thatís exactly why he was chosen to take this message, a message he really didnít want to take. As a matter of fact, Amos argued with God about this calling, convincing God to relent from two previous visions. Finally, the Lord showed Amos a plumb line; it symbolized how Israel was out of whack. A leaning wall must be destroyed and rebuilt. Amos was that plumb line, the one being sent to the people to warn them of what is to come.
A plumb line is a very simple tool, used for millennia, to find the vertical line. It is especially helpful for building walls because it helps to keep the walls straight. A plumb line is simply a weight tied to the end of a string. The string is held at the top of the vertical and the weight is allowed to swing free until it stops. At that point, the line points directly to the center of the earth. All lines established from the plumb line will be parallel and the wall will be straight. If a builder tries to line up a stack of bricks using only his own eyes, it is likely that some of the levels will be slightly askew, making the whole wall lean. It only takes a minute fraction of an inch on each level of brick for the wall to eventually topple. Every wall is dependent on every other wall. Everything inside is dependent on the walls being straight. The windows and doors will not fit properly if the walls lean. A leaning wall will not stand very long. Isnít it amazing that a cheap, simple tool can be so important?
One of my favorite villages in England was a place called Lavenham. Lavenham is a delightful little 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 that time. 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 ďTudorĒ 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 and with so little care taken for foundations that over the years the homes have settled into something almost too silly to be real. They are crooked and misshapen, though somehow still standing. While wandering through this quaint village, I wondered how the residents could even live in some of those buildings. There was one whose main floor beam was at a very steep incline. Though I could not see the inside, I wondered if the furniture constantly slid to the lower side of the room.
After reading todayís 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 lives in and of the world; they were 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 Godís people toward the LORD, but had failed. Amos was also given the word of the LORD to take to the people of Israel.
Amos lived in the age of Jeroboam. His ideas were firmly ensconced in Israel. The high places were the altars to other gods and were a part of the daily life of the people in Beth-el. The king supported the other gods and the priest served them. Amaziah was not a prophet after Godís own heart but after his own power and position. He claimed that Amos was raising a conspiracy, but when the king did not do anything, he accused Amos of being a charlatan. Amosís words were not easy to hear. His words threatened the end of their cozy regime.
Amos answered the exaggeration, the accusation and the condemnation with the truth. He did not go for the money or for the power as the other prophets would do. He went to Beth-el, the kingís sanctuary, to tell Godís people the truth. The message seems graceless; it was a message of destruction. Yet, the skewed wall had to go, it was separating God from His people. The plumb line would bring destruction, but the thing that would be destroyed would be the wall that was in His way, the hard hearts of the people. God was about to destroy the chasm between He and His people.
The response to Amosís prophecy is typical. ďDonít rock our boat, donít say such horrible things about the kingís haven.Ē Amaziah told the king about the things Amos was saying and warned him that it wouldnít be helpful 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, ďI was no prophet, neither was I a prophetís son; but I was a herdsman, and a farmer of sycamore figs; and Yahweh took me from following the flock, and Yahweh said to me, ĎGo, prophesy to my people Israel.íĒ Amos didnít have a choice about his audience or his message; God sent him to say these things to these people. He couldnít run off or say whatever sounded good. Unfortunately, many of the false prophets gave the king warm fuzzies so that heíd feel good and the people would feel secure. Amos had to tell them all that they were wrong. Amos was the plumb line showing Godís people that they were not lining up to Godís Word.
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. We would rather hear the warm fuzzies any day, but we all need to hear the truth.
Herod was also confused. It wasnít that Herod refused to listen, he was torn. He liked to listen to John and he was certain that John was someone special. Herod was even a little afraid of John; he protected John because he knew John was a righteous and holy man. Perhaps Johnís words were having an impact on him, causing him to think twice about his relationship with Herodias. The marriage arrangement between Herod and Herodius was wrong because she was married to Herodís brother who was still alive. This went against Godís Law and John told them so. Herodís wife didnít like what John had to say and forced Herod to have him arrested and put in prison. He continued to listen, however. Herodias knew that she had to deal with the problem.
At Herodís birthday party with his high officials and military commanders, Herodiasí daughter Salome danced for him and his friends. Herod was a man who enjoyed celebrity wanted to make a huge impression on the powerful people in his presence. He made an outlandish offer to give Salome anything she wanted, ďUp to half my kingdom!Ē This was a boast to amaze his guests. Can you imagine what a girl like Salome would want? She was of marriageable age; she could have asked for enough land or money to assure herself an excellent life. She could have been dripping with jewels and silks, hosted a lavish event for her friends. She probably had a million ideas running through her head, but she went to her mother to ask for advice.
Herodias took advantage of the situation, telling her daughter to ask for John the Baptistís head on a platter. Herodias must have had a pretty tight hold on her daughter, too, because what young woman would ask for such a thing? They left Herod without a choice; he had to give them Johnís head on a platter because of the vows he made at his party. He could not go back on his word in front of those who rely on him for leadership, even if the request was horrific.
Thatís the way the world thinks, they think that their own reputation is more important than life. Herod could have told Salome that it is ridiculous to think that he would kill a righteous and holy man because she danced. But doing so would risk his reputation. How could he turn so easily from a vow, even a vow made without thought or purpose? We know we need to stand up against those who would twist the situation to their own benefit, using us for their own selfish desires. However, we would rather not rock the boat.
Jesus began his ministry after John was put in prison. As His name became renowned, Herod wondered who He might be. He really couldnít deal with another nutso prophet like John the Baptist. 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 raised from the dead. He hadnít really meant to kill John, but the women in his life and his own selfishness caused him to do so. Now there was another prophet out there causing trouble and he was frightened by the prospect that it might be John back from the dead.
Johnís 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 Amosís 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 donít think I would want to be either Amos or John.
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 Godís people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time Godís people remembered and returned to Him. Johnís words might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for Godís 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.
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 Godís people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time Godís people remembered and returned to Him. Johnís baptism might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for Godís 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, ďSurely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, That glory may dwell in our land.Ē 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, ďMercy and truth meet together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springs out of the earth. Righteousness has looked down from heaven.Ē 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 ďlove and faithfulness meet together.Ē Paul references this when he tells us that everything God planned, every beautiful thing, is summed up in Christ, ďthe things in the heavens, and the things on the earth.Ē 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 Godís 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 plumb line to our lives, He would find us crooked. Unfortunately, the bricks of our life our not always placed along the plumb line of Godís Word. We make decisions based on our own agenda or opinion. We follow our hearts rather than the reality of Godís Word. We ignore the ugly truth and seek after the warm fuzzies that make us feel good. Sometimes we simply do what we think we have to do for our own selfish reasons. There are times when we do whatever we can to get our way, even if we have to sacrifice something or someone along the way. We throw tantrums, tell little white lies, manipulate the circumstances, and flaunt emotion. We make people feel guilty or try to convince them that our way is the only way and that if they disagree then there must be something wrong. We even hang salvation on our own human desires.
But God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. He is able to use even us. We might be crooked, but in His kingdom it doesnít matter. Christian faith is not about us. It isnít about our desires. It isnít even about our needs. It is about Godís faithfulness. He has made promises that He will keep. The stories of Amos and John remind us that life in Godís 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.
If we are honest with ourselves we know that there are things we are willing to do to get what we want from the world. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we should not sacrifice others for our own sake. Instead of acting like Herod, giving in to a promise that he knew was not right to save face in front of his guests, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the King, given everything we need to do His work in the world. It wonít be easy; the plumb line demands perfection that none of us can meet. But we can trust in Him, doing all things for His glory as best we can because we know that God is faithful. And when we fail, we can trust His promises of forgiveness. So, let us always live in line with Godís Word, plumbed by the truth, repenting when we fail and standing with God even when it seems we must stand against the rest of the world.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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