July 11, 2021
Our second reading also finds a prophet coming into conflict with those in authority and power. But things go a bit worse for John the Baptist than they did for the prophet Amos. Listen for God’s Word speaking to you from Mark chapter 6 starting with verse 14.
READ Mark 6:14-29
A theme has been developing over these last few Sundays from our scripture readings. I suppose it all started with Job when God shows up to answer Job’s complaint… when God tells Job pretty straight out that I’m God and you’re not… my ways are not your ways. Saints, God’s ways are not our ways. That bears repeating. On the one hand… yeah… yeah that’s an important reminder that God is above and beyond our theological knowledge… God is God and God is free to be God. As followers… I think… if we’re being honest with ourselves… we have to know that we have no control over God. We can’t make God behave like we want God to behave. Our demands that God meet our expectations are a waste of our time and energy… and always sets us up for failure because we will ultimately end up remaking God in our own image. We will make God less than what God is. But God will be God. Our responsibility as disciples is to seek out God’s Word and God’s ways and then work to incorporate that into our thoughts and into our lives. To use familiar scriptural language… we, as disciples, are constantly trying to improve the soil… right… the dust that we are… so that the seeds God plants can take root and grow and we can bear the fruit worthy of repentance… we can see the fruits of the Spirit at work within us individually and communally. And again… we have to be careful that in our seeking we don’t become so rigid and locked into a certain system or a place of privilege that we end up boxing up God and reducing God to a product that we can easily buy and sell.
As Presbyterians we try to guard against this tendency by clearly stating our principles again and again in writing. Read our Book of Order and you will find that everything we hope to be as a church is grounded in foundational principles. So there are statements such as these… “The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world. The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life. (Talk about being countercultural… you don’t hear talk like that in the world where self-preservation and self-promotion are deigned to be high virtues). The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation. The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down. The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.” Those are the high standards by which we measure ourselves. Those are the high standards we strive to embody.
When we read from Lamentations a few weeks ago… we heard an impossible declaration of principles considering the time… a time where everything sure and tangible had been destroyed and burned. Standing there among the ashes… in all the uncertainty of an unknown tomorrow… that’s where the line was drawn and the bedrock on which they stood was “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Great is God’s faithfulness. The journey began with taking that one idea into the unknown of the next day. In Lament, they declared that God is behind all that has happened to them. “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” And in the very next breath, they grab hold to God’s faithfulness with all their might. There’s a lot of talk in church circles these days about people deconstructing their faith… a faith that doesn’t serve them… a faith that is not bringing them closer to God. Those who created and led and perpetuated the faith that is being deconstructed… of course, they are wringing hands and gnashing teeth. But God is God… and ours is always a flawed response to God being God… and so yes, let’s deconstruct… let’s tear down the walls and get back to the studs… let’s go back to the sure foundation and start again. Great is God’s faithfulness. Now what’s the next step from there?
Amos, in his time, holds up the same plumb line. The plumb line is God’s prophetic truth. The plumb line measures how square we are with that truth. Amos says, “Seek the Lord and live.” Seek the Lord and live. “Repent and believe in the good news,” said Jesus from Mark’s gospel last week. Different words… same direction. Deconstruct and let go… so you can seek God afresh. Rediscover those words of God that have gotten obscured along the way.
Amos comes with the Word of the Lord… measuring… revealing… “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.” Amos… like prophets do… come reminding the people of God’s standards… of these everlasting principles that are to define who they are… who we are. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate…” These are the principles that reveal the Kingdom of God. When the people forget these everlasting principles… they become lost. They turn away from God’s ways and turn inward to their own interests. So the message comes… repent, turn away from yourself and focus back towards God. Prepare the soil again. Run that plow through… break up the hardness and the clumps… get ready to receive the seed God is sowing.
Amos is confronted by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel… but Amaziah’s concern isn’t for repentance. These words don’t move him… don’t shake him out of his concern for his own self-interests… that he maintains his position by keeping the king, Jeroboam, happy with the words that Amaziah brings. He is not going to shake the system that benefits him as it does. To suggest that they are not measuring up. Who is this upstart prophet from the south… not even one of them! Run away home prophet and peddle your words there… cause we’re not buying. I can easily imagine Amaziah reminding Amos that he, Amaziah, is the priest at Bethel… the king’s sanctuary… and when the king seeks out the word of God… he, Amaziah, will be the one who gives that word. He, Amaziah, sets the standards and will tell the king what the king the message the king ought to hear. That’s how you stay the priest at Bethel.
Otherwise you’ll lose your head. Like John did… holding Herod to standards and principles… “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” The principle for Herod is the same principle for all. Privilege and power do not buy him and Herodias a different set of principles. Not when it comes to God’s prophetic word. God is not ours to buy and sell for our own purposes… one word for these… another word for those. John does not speak much in Mark’s gospel, but in Luke he makes the clear prophetic call… “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John holds up the same plumb line Amos held out before him. Equality under the Word of God. Seek good and not evil. The crowds on the shoreline ask him about this repentance… “’What then should we do?’ In reply John said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not exhort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” All these answers… all these answers are seek good and not evil. Herod asked John, “And what should I do?” John told him to seek good and not evil… and Herod threw him in prison. Herodias then found the way to separate John’s head from his body. But the words are everlasting. She could kill the prophet, but the truth of the words still live on. It doesn’t matter how many heads get lopped off. It doesn’t matter how many priests are replaced at Bethel. It doesn’t even matter how many prophets get ignored again and again. The Word of God, like the love of God, is everlasting and steadfast because the two cannot be separated one from the other.
So they keep finding new life… new expressions. The same plumb line is there if you seek it out. I want to finish this morning by holding up a plumb line that is found in the first part of our constitution as Presbyterians… since I’ve already read from the second part, the Book of Order… here’s the plumb as it comes to us from the Confession of 1967 in the Book of Confessions… and I’m going to use the original language.
“In each time and place there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations.
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.
God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding.
The reconciliation of man through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls every man to use his abilities, his possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to him by God for the maintenance of his family and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise men’s hopes for better conditions and provide them with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.
God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of man’s life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes man’s natural environment as exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.
With an urgency born of this hope, the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.”
The plumb line remains constant. Amen.