Kids are great. You know? They’re cute, they’re energetic… and they say the darndest things!
Kids don’t usually have a filter on what they say. For any of you who are parents out there – I’m guessing that your kids have been outspoken and caused you a little embarrassment at least once or twice.
As we get a little older, we start to filter what we say. We become much more diplomatic in our speech, and we avoid saying things that are politically incorrect. We try not to offend anyone.
Sometimes we get so good at talking around the point instead of getting straight to it, that it almost seems like we’re not saying anything at all!
We sometimes start to sound like politicians, who have mastered the art of using lots of words to describe the scenery around a particular point, but they never actually get to the point itself.
The two men in our readings today, Amos and John the Baptist, would have made crummy politicians. They talked a lot more like un-self-conscious kids than like adults who are trying not to offend anyone.
Amos and John the Baptist don’t beat around the bush. They get right to the point.
Our rulers are being unethical, and God will punish them.
That’s the basic gist of both men’s messages. Well, those are the messages that get them in trouble, anyway. Of course, a prophet always has a deeper, spiritual, theological message to convey. But Amos and John the Baptist don’t stick to theology. These men jump right in to the public arena, they name names, and they make public accusations.
Sometimes that sounds like our politicians, too.
It’s important for us as Christians in America to understand that this whole idea of separation of church and state would have been completely foreign to Amos or John the Baptist, or to pretty much anyone before the time of Jesus. In ancient cultures, the assumption was that rulers had been specially picked by God to have the power that they did, and God gave them special blessings and wisdom to rule wisely. A ruler was judged based on his adherence to God’s law.
Actually, Jesus was one of the first people to buck this trend. Jesus was a strong religious leader who had basically no political influence. The people wanted him to have political influence, but his ministry didn’t go that route. As soon as the political authorities heard about Jesus, or course, they thought he was after their positions. They thought that, since he was a spiritual guy, he must also want political power. That’s what got Jesus crucified.
In the ancient world, political and religious power went together almost all the time. So it would have been perfectly normal for a prophet – basically a minister or a religious leader – to criticize someone in power who has broken God’s law.
Everyone who heard Amos or John the Baptist preaching would have believed that political and religious power should go hand-in-hand.
Yet these two men criticized the people in power because they were not following God’s will.
Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Amos starts today’s first reading by telling us that God has measured the nation of Israel and has found it wanting. A plumb line, a device that was used to see whether walls were built straight, shows that the people of Israel are crooked.
Amos was a common citizen from the southern kingdom pronouncing judgment against king of the north. Now, this is kind of strange. It would be sort of like a resident of Kentucky denouncing the governor of Illinois, based on the campaign promises he made and isn’t fulfilling. Or maybe like someone from Scotland criticizing the Queen of England for doing a bad job as royalty. Sure, the regions and the people are connected – but why should the leader listen to that particular person’s opinion? Amos could have gone around critiquing his own king – why bother with Jeroboam?
And perhaps more importantly, why should King Jeroboam listen to Amos?
Jeroboam was king over Israel during the most prosperous time in its history. And here comes a prophet, telling the king that he needs to renounce his materialistic ways and re-focus his reign on God.
Why should King Jeroboam care what this prophet had to say?
Well, I can tell you one reason why Jeroboam had to listen to Amos, whether he wanted to or not. Amos was declaring his message in public, and he wants as many people to hear it as possible. Verse 10 tells us that Amos’ message had reached “the very center of the house of Israel” – people heard what he was saying, and they were upset at the king because of it.
Amos announced that the king wasn’t leading the people of Israel to be the best that they could be. He wasn’t following the laws of God, who put him in power. As a result, according to Amos, God will stop supporting Jeroboam’s reign.
This message is pretty similar to the one that Herod gets from John the Baptist.
Just to provide some context here, from the very first word of this passage, Mark is setting us up for a story filled with irony and exaggerations.
You see, Herod wasn’t actually a king. He was a ruler called a “tetrarch,” meaning he was in charge of a quarter of the territory in Israel. Herod was more like a governor than a king. He was Jewish, but his family had converted only a few generations before. His family hadn’t gone through the turmoil of slavery in Egypt, trekking to the Promised Land, and then being conquered and sent into exile. Herod was kind of like someone who has lived in a small town for only about 20 years – he was still a newcomer.
So, right from the get-go, Mark tells this story in an ironic tone, setting the scene for something extreme, like Herod overstepping the bounds of his authority.
Then we find out about Herod’s marriage to Herodias. If you do a little historical research, you’ll learn that Herodias was not only the wife of Herod’s brother, but she was also his niece. They had gotten together while Herodias was still married to Phillip, Herod’s brother – and then she had left Phillip and the two of them had been married.
Their marriage was based on questionable ethics in so many ways.
Here’s where John the Baptist comes in.
John specifically told Herod that his marriage was unlawful.
How could Herod be faithful to God’s law as a leader while being unfaithful to God’s law in his marriage?
And remember, John was a popular prophet at the time. People were coming out from the cities in droves to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. Many, many people heard the message that John proclaimed against Herod.
So Herod had John arrested.
And in another show of exaggeration, Herod loses control at a party and agrees to cut off John’s head and offer it to his step-daughter as a reward for her dancing ability.
It would seem that John was right about Herod’s misplaced priorities and inability to lead effectively according to God’s law.
OK, let me interrupt myself for just a minute here.
In seminary, we have to take preaching classes. We get to listen to other people preach, and then those people listen to us and offer feedback.
Will was one of my preaching classmates. He was like the prophet in our class, keeping us all accountable to the Gospel. Sometimes my classmates and I could deliver very good sermons, with clear points and transitions, with good biblical analysis, with good application to our everyday lives… but Will wasn’t satisfied with that. Will’s question was, where is the good news?
We’re supposed to be preaching the Gospel, the Good News, that God has for humanity.
So, where is the good news?
So far today I’ve told you about the way that prophets communicate bluntly and how they got involved with political situations. I’ve given you some background information on Amos and on John the Baptist so that you can understand them a little bit better.
But where is the good news?
I’ll tell you what I think.
I think that the good news in today’s readings is justice.
God wants a just society!
You and I can get off-track in our lives sometimes, just like King Jeroboam and Herod. Hopefully we don’t stray as far as they do – but the lessons that they get today can be lessons for us also.
And just like King Jeroboam and Herod, we have prophets to tell us when we are getting away from God’s law.
We don’t have Amos or John the Baptist, and that’s probably a good thing. Hopefully we don’t get called out in public like those guys did to their kings. We can find God’s prophets in other places.
We have church communities, we have the written word, we have family and friends – God speaks to us through these people and writings to help hold us accountable to God’s will. And God’s will is for justice for all people.
That’s the good news.
When our lives are following so close to God’s will that the plumb line shows us to be a straight wall – when that happens, the poor will have food and shelter. The sick will be cared for and the dying will not be alone. People will treat others as they want to be treated.
Ancient rulers had to go through the embarrassment of being reminded of God’s laws of justice in public, by noisy prophets.
You and I can learn from their example and start following God’s laws right now. Let’s work together to bring justice to all God’s people.
From a sermon first preached on July 12, 2012, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost