Text: Mark 6:14-29, Amos 7:7-15 W 6th Sunday after Pentecost
Straight from the Top
In the name of him whose Spirit spoke through the prophets of old – and is still speaking today, dear friends in Christ: I wonder if you detected the common theme that appears in this morning’s Old Testament and Gospel readings. Did you pick up on it? It’s this: in both texts there are certain people – in particular people holding positions of great authority – who are attempting to silence the Word of God.
In the reading from Amos it’s the false prophet and priest Amaziah who’s doing it. He was the head man at Bethel, which was one of the two sites of worship that had been set up – against the Lord’s instructions – in the northern Kingdom of Israel. I’d better explain. After the reign of King Solomon, David’s son, the northern ten tribes of Israel rebelled against the line of Davidic kings and they became a politically independent nation. They had their own king and their own capital up north, while only the tribe of Judah in the south continued to recognize the legitimacy of David’s line. Anyway, it happened that the first of these northern kings feared that all of his people would still see the city of Jerusalem in the south as their spiritual center. After all, that’s where the Lord’s temple was. It was the only spot on earth that the Lord had authorized for his worship and sacrifices to take place. The king figured that if all of his people kept going back to Jerusalem to worship the Lord – if that’s what they saw as their spiritual capital – it would only be a matter of time before they saw it again as their political capital too and switched their allegiance back to the house of David.
To prevent that from happening, he ordered the construction of two alternate worship sites in his own kingdom. He told everyone, “You don’t need to go back to Jerusalem to worship. We can do that right here. See? We’ve got our own temples, and they’re just dandy; not to mention a whole lot closer and more convenient.” And because there was only one Ark of the Covenant that served as the locus of God’s presence with his people, and it sat in the original temple in Jerusalem, the king had a pair of golden calves made to represent the Lord at the two temples he built. He probably remembered hearing something from history about Israelites once worshipping a golden calf and thought they’d go for it again. Sadly, he was right. And since no self respecting genuine priest of the Lord who, according to God’s command, had to be a Levite would agree to serve in these temples, the king appointed his own non-divinely sanctioned priests to serve. He even went so far as to make up his own religious holidays for his people to celebrate – saying all along that was all okay; it was just another very legitimate way to worship the one true and only God.
I probably don’t need to tell you that the Lord did not look with favor on all of this. And unfortunately it got worse. When you start by bending or breaking a lot of rules, it’s a whole lot easier to bend or break the rest of them. It wasn’t long before they started introducing other idols – the gods of the fertility cults of the Canaanites – into these alternate temples. So their whole religion very rapidly became a mishmash: a smattering of God’s Word sprinkled sparingly atop of a pile of purely pagan manure. But if you had asked anyone there what they were doing, they would have told you that they were indeed worshipping the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And this went on for several generations. So children grew up thinking this was indeed they way to worship the Lord. And each generation too strayed farther and farther from the truth – but they still thought they were properly worshipping the Lord God no matter how pagan they became.
Well, in response to all this, the Lord sent a number of prophets to the northern Kingdom of Israel to try to get them back on the right path and the genuine worship of the one true God. Elijah and Elisha were some of the early ones; but they only met with limited success. Later prophets almost struck out completely – and so it went for the two hundred or so years that the northern ten tribes were independent. Then at last came the day that the Lord decided to tell them that he had had enough. The period of grace in which he had been patiently calling them to repentance was coming to a close. He chose a young farmer named Amos from the southern kingdom of Judah to deliver the news – presumably because he could find no one faithful, prophet, priest, or otherwise in the northern kingdom to do it for him. Everyone there whose job it was to proclaim God’s Word was completely messed up. They might have thought they had it right; but they were as wrong as they could be. And since they were the religious leaders – the people doing the teaching – it’s certain that everyone else was led astray.
When I was in the service there were always all kinds of rumors floating around about upcoming missions and assignments. Most of it was pure speculation and barracks scuttlebutt. Still, you’d have people swear up and down that it was the “gospel truth”. “After all”, they’d say, “I have it on the highest authority. I know a guy who’s a friend of guy who was out drinking last night with a guy whose bunk is next to the General’s jeep driver; and he said the driver overheard the General say so himself.” Despite the sincerity of the person relaying such information, you really couldn’t put a lot of stock in it. No, if you really wanted to know what was going on, you had to hear it from the commanding officer himself—usually in the form of written orders. Then you could be sure you had it right. Then we’d say, “Here it is, straight from the top.”
And that’s why I think it’s especially fitting that the Lord gives Amos a vision of a plumb line to illustrate the message he wants the prophet to deliver to the people of the northern kingdom. Why? Because it’s exactly like God’s Word. It comes down straight from the top and it hangs true. Even if you attempt to disturb it, it always comes back to true vertical – driven as it is by the universal and unchanging law of gravity. And so a plumb line illustrates the Lord’s perfect standard of truth and his universal and unchanging nature and law. And by holding it up beside the so-called truths that men have constructed for themselves from the bottom up, it can be seen immediately what’s true and what’s false, what will stand and what must fall. The message Amos had for Amaziah and the rest of the priests and worshippers at the false temple at Bethel was, “You’re not being judged by the crooked truths you have built, nor by what everyone else is doing or thinks is okay; but rather by the perfectly straight Word and Law of God – and here’s the verdict: thus says the Lord: you’re done. I’ve given up on you. I’m not coming your way again. Your temples will be laid waste, the land will be desolate, and I’m bringing the sword of a mighty enemy against you and the house of your king.”
Well, I don’t suppose anyone likes to hear bad news – but the real question is: what do you do with it? When the Lord passes judgment and says, “You’re wrong”, the proper course of action is to admit it and repent. Unfortunately, Amaziah chose rather to entrench himself in his untenable position. He sent a message to the king bringing up Amos on charges of conspiracy against the king, treason against the nation, and blasphemy against God. And then he told Amos, “You’d better run for it, because they’re coming after you. Get out. Go peddle your ‘prophecies’ someplace else. How dare you come in here and speak like that to us? This is the king’s sanctuary, it’s a royal temple. A pipsqueak, nobody like you has no business here.” Amos replied, “It wasn’t my idea to come here. Heck, I wasn’t even a prophet. I was just working on a farm herding sheep and pruning trees; but the Lord sent me here to deliver his message to the people of Israel.”
And two things jump out at us here: first, how the Lord is so gracious that he’ll continue to speak to those whom he knows have long refused to listen – that’s how eager he is, how much he longs for sinners to repent and return to his truth. And second, how sad and grievous it is when the leaders, the authorities and public figures, and the religious leaders that want to please them and be popular with the people – when they go astray from the truths of the Lord; because they’re the ones who set the trends and establish what people think is right and wrong.
Jumping to the Gospel reading for today, this is why it was so necessary for John to confront King Herod Antipas about his adultery. Herod was about as public a figure as he could be, and he professed outwardly at least to be a faithful Jew. It happened that while he was visiting his brother, Philip, that he fell for Philip’s wife, Herodias – who was younger and prettier than his present wife, and who just happened also to be his niece, the daughter of another brother who had been executed by their father, Herod the Great, because he was suspected of being involved in a plot to take the throne. Confusing, isn’t it? So, anyway the two of them ran off together; and Herodias, who was first his niece and then his sister-in-law, became Herod’s wife. (And you probably thought that such complicated and overlapping relationships only happen in places like Arkansas and Missouri.) Now, for Herodias, this marriage was a substantial step up. Herod was a real king with a real kingdom. Her former husband, Philip, had been disinherited because he too had been suspected of plotting against his father. So by marrying Herod Antipas, she went from having merely the title of a princess with next to nothing to the status of a real queen. And that’s no doubt why she wasn’t about to let a crazy hellfire and brimstone wilderness preacher like John rain on her parade. “Forget the sanctity of marriage. Forget God’s design and his clear commands. Forget the vow ‘till death do us part’. She was moving up – but to really enjoy it, she’d have to get John to shut up—permanently.
I don’t imagine she had much trouble getting her new husband, who was so eager to please her, to arrest John. Herod didn’t like the bad publicity either; but he wasn’t willing to go so far as to have John executed like she wanted. He respected John because he knew him to be a true man of God – one who told it like it is, straight from the top. And here we can see how Herod’s conscience was conflicted. Adultery he was willing to live with – after all, there were tangible benefits for a lecherous old guy like him. Ah, but killing a prophet of God, that, he decided, would be stepping over the line. The Lord just might take a dim view of it. So we’ll just keep John in prison. That way no one will hear his accusations against me and my wife and I won’t have to worry about having a dead prophet on my conscience. We’re even told that Herod brought John out of prison from time to time to hear him preach. He liked listening to John because he spoke the truth. And you can almost see John wagging his finger at him about his adulterous relationship like on the bulletin jacket, and Herod telling him, “Yeah, I know what God says about it; but it’s complicated, you know? Besides, this is the first century. Times are changing. People aren’t nearly so uptight about such things anymore. And did I tell you? We’re in love. Surely God doesn’t want us to deny it. And he wants us to be happy, doesn’t he? So, John, I see what you’re saying and in way you’re probably right; but I just can’t bring myself to let her go.” And so he’d send John back to his cell.
And the trouble is that once you start suppressing the Word of God in part of your life, it’s so much easier to suppress it in all the other places you once told yourself you’d never bend. Certainly Herodias saw that. She knew very well that her husband was willing to cross the line for someone younger and prettier. So, to get him to cross the next line, it would only take someone even younger and prettier than she was. She knew just the girl too: her daughter Salome who had only recently blossomed into a very attractive and shapely young lady. And so it is that we find the girl dancing rather provocatively before Herod and his guests – which is just plain creepy when you consider that this girl is his niece and the daughter of his niece and now his stepdaughter. Yuck. No matter. Just as Herodias had planned, it has the desired effect. It causes Herod’s judgment to be cancelled by his libido so that he makes a foolish vow. But isn’t it interesting that he takes this ridiculous vow taken in front of drunken party guests seriously; but not the sacred vow he made before God to his first wife? So, Herodias got her way. John got killed. And Herod, who had tried only to lean a little out of plumb, ended up falling over – completely compromised morally. Small wonder that a couple years later when Jesus stood before him as a prisoner, he refused even to speak to the man. If you go on silencing the Word of God long enough, eventually he stops speaking to you altogether.
We’ve seen that it happens to whole groups of people, like the northern Kingdom of Israel, and it happens to individuals like King Herod. If you don’t take the Word of God as it is straight from the top – if you don’t align yourself according to its perfect standard, you’re in for a fall. This is as true today as it’s ever been. Examples? Sure. A little later this summer the largest Lutheran church body in the US, the ELCA, will meet in convention. Their church was formed only about twenty five years ago, a conglomeration of several smaller church bodies, some fairly conservative, some quite liberal – but all of them rather soft on the idea of the absolute authority of God’s Word. They’ve already strayed a long way from the truth on some issues; but this summer they will be deciding officially whether to allow openly gay pastors to serve their congregations, and whether to bless same sex marriages as a holy rite within their churches. The outcome, I’m sorry to say, is a forgone conclusion. Their leaders have been pushing for these things for a long time. They’ll get what they want.
And this is important to us for two reasons. First, because they share our Lutheran identity (at least in name) it will fall to us to play the role of Amos: to hold up the plumb line and say, “No. You’ve got it wrong. Thus says the Lord.” We’ll need to do this collectively as a church body – as I’m sure we will; but even more importantly, we’ll need to do this on an individual level. Many of you have friends and relatives in ELCA congregations. They aren’t going to hear the truth from the Amaziahs they look up to. If they’re going to hear it straight from the top, they’re going to hear it from you. The other reason this is important to us is that it serves as a contemporary warning. Our own church and church body are always being tempted to bend and lean – to align more with the times and popular opinions on such issues as close communion, cohabitating couples, the sanctity of marriage, and other items of doctrine and practice. Friends, you can’t fall up. Once you start to lean out of plumb, you can only fall down. And the farther you lean, the faster you fall – unless some outside force, and in this case we’re talking about the power of God’s Word, sets you back upright again. As a group, we can’t forget this. We always need to be holding the plumb line against ourselves – checking the doctrine and practice of our church by the Word of God.
And it’s also true in our personal lives, as we saw with our friend Herod – how easy it is to slip from one “little” compromise into others that we once considered to be far worse. If you allow yourself to be content to live with one sin – if you imagine that you can force the voice of your conscience to be silent and you try keeping it locked away as if in a dark prison cell, you will eventually end up killing it altogether. At that point the Lord will have nothing else to say to you. Ever. We have to receive God’s Word as it comes to us straight from the top or not at all.
And when we do that we discover that the same Word of God that condemns our sin has also the power to kill our sin nature – to bring us to repentance – and to give us new and holy life – setting us standing perfectly upright through faith in him who also hung down straight and true from the cross when he suffered and died for our sakes. Holding the standard of God’s Law true and plumb makes us see how desperately we need Jesus the Savior on the cross to be the standard and object of our faith. Friends let’s keep God’s Word that way: as it is, straight from the top; for in that way we’ll ensure that we are also strait and as we should be with the Top. In Jesus’ name.
Soli Deo Gloria!