SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
While cleaning out one of the many closets in our sanctuary in anticipation of renovation work, I came across an old German Bible dated 1874. It was so very old and decrepit that it nearly came apart in my hands. Stuck in between the pages was the text of a sermon. Unlike the Bible, the sermon was written in English and was typed on yellowed paper with written interlineations, now barely legible. The text was the 10th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” dissertation. The preacher spoke about the love of a shepherd for his sheep, the shepherd’s intimate knowledge of the sheep and the shepherd’s commitment to protect the sheep even at the cost of his own life. That, said the preacher, is how Jesus leads, feeds, cherishes and protects his church. The preacher did not sign his work. He probably felt no need for that. Sermons, after all, are like news articles. They are timely and helpful the day they roll off the press. The next day somebody is wrapping fish in them. But the odd thing about this sermon was its timelessness. There was nothing in the sermon, no illustration, no example, nothing to give me a single clue about what was going on in the world at the time. This sermon could be preached as easily next Sunday as when it was originally delivered-however many years ago that might have been.
This anonymous sermon from the past lacked a prophetic dimension. Prophecy is not content simply to tell the “Old, Old Story of Jesus and his love.” Prophetic speech names the demons of our time that possess us, illuminates the shape sin takes within the power structures that enslave, impoverish and dehumanize us. Prophetic speech cracks open our imaginations so that our eyes can see the coming of God’s reign in the world around us. The objective of prophetic preaching is to introduce into our lives the crucified and resurrected Lord who calls us to follow him.
Prophetic speech is risky. John the Baptist lost his head over prophesy. Though our lesson tells us that King Herod heard John gladly, he was not prepared to risk his kingdom or the respect of his party guests to venture deeper into the mysteries John proclaimed. He had too much to lose. As theologian and teacher, Gerald O. West once said, “Sometimes the good news has to be heard as bad news before it can be received as good.” For those of us deeply invested in the way things are and comfortable with the status quo, the announcement “behold, I make all things new” sounds threatening. I hear alarm bells going off causing me to wonder: what am I about to lose? As long as I cannot see beyond all that I might lose, I will remain blind to what God is trying to give me. It is the task of prophetic speech to tell the Old, Old Story in ways that both show up the shallowness of our ways of living and, more importantly, give us a vision of the better hope God has for us in Jesus.
Amos is a cranky prophet with several strikes against him. For one thing, it doesn’t help that he is a foreigner. Though a resident of Tekoa in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Amos was called and sent to preach to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Furthermore, he was not connected with any recognized prophetic school or movement. He was, in his own words, “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” vs. 14. This is could be taken to mean that Amos was a laborer in the vineyards and herder of animals for a land owning farmer. It might also mean that Amos was a land owning farmer himself. But whether his origins were humble or privileged, Amos identified unequivocally with the poor in the land.
In the days of Amos, Israel was experiencing a period of military might, economic prosperity and religious revival under its powerful and successful King, Jeroboam II. II Kings 14:23-29. Happy days were here again and the people were convinced that the prosperity they enjoyed was proof of God’s favor. God was blessing Israel. The nation’s mood is aptly expressed by Professor John Bright:
“…one senses that Israel’s mood, rotten though she was, was one of optimism. This was evoked partly by pride in the nation’s strength and by the momentarily unclouded international horizon, but partly be confidence in the promises of Yahweh. The truth is that an inner perversion of Israel’s faith had taken place. The gracious acts of Yahweh toward Israel were doubtless assiduously recited in the cult, and her covenant with him periodically reaffirmed; but it appears (Amos 3:1 f; 9:7) that this was taken as earnest of Yahweh’s protection of the nation for all time to come, the obligation imposed by Yahewh’s favor (Amos 2:9-12), and by the covenant stipulations having been largely forgotten. Indeed, it seems that a perverted recollection of the patriarchal covenant, which consisted in Yahweh’s unconditional promises for the future, had virtually overlaied the Sinaitic covenant in the popular mind. Covenant obligation, in so far as it had not lost meaning altogether, was conceived as a purely cultic matter, the demands of which could be met-and in Israel’s view were met-by elaborate ritual and lavish support of the national shrines.” Bright, John, A History of Israel, (c. Westminster Press) p. 243.
Amos had a difficult message for Israel: God was not happy with Israel. Specifically, God was angry at Israel’s upper class.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practise deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Moreover, God was about to bring the reign of Jeroboam and Israel’s era of prosperity and success to a devastating end. Do you remember Rev. Jeremiah Wright? His sermons were publicized in connection with the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Particular attention was given to a sermon in which Wright said: “No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America.” If you can recall some of the rabid and vitriolic public response to these words, you can well imagine how Israel responded to Amos when he stood up in the national sanctuary at Bethel to announce that “the high places of Israel shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and [God] will raise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Amos 7:9. Small wonder that Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, removed Amos from the clergy roster. It is hardly surprising that Amos was banished to the much smaller “Judah Synod.” As Amaziah observed, “the land is not able to bear [Amos’] words.” Vs. 10.
Listen closely, to Amaziah’s words in reply to Amos: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom”. Vs. 13. Seriously? Is the sanctuary really the property of the Kingdom and is God nothing more than the king’s humble tenant? It seems that Amaziah’s only concern is with the honor of the King and respect for the kingdom. He is fiercely patriotic, but not one wit faithful. Amaziah is deeply concerned with the political ramifications of Amos’ preaching, but it never occurs to him to ask whether that preaching might actually be true. True or not, it is unpatriotic, dangerous, offensive and upsetting. That is reason enough for snuffing it out. As far as Amaziah is concerned, Amos is a national security risk and the best way to get rid of him is to strip him of his official clergy status and send him into exile. But Amos will not so easily fade away. He is not the least bit ruffled by his removal from the clergy roster. “I am no prophet,” he says. Vs. 14. He needs no official credentials. Unlike Amaziah, Amos is not the king’s patsy. He belongs to the God who sent him to preach-and preach he will!
I have thought about these words often as we at Trinity begin renovation of our own sanctuary. The first question we need to begin asking ourselves is whether it really is our sanctuary. I suppose that from Amaziah’s point of view, Trinity’s sanctuary belongs to Trinity’s members. We built it. Our offerings support it. We should have the final say in what it looks like, how it is used and what goes on there. From a worldly standpoint, it is hard to argue with this logic. But as Paul would remind us, we don’t view matters from a worldly perspective. We view all things from the standpoint of our call to follow Jesus. No, the sanctuary is not ours to do with as we please to meet our own personal needs. It is a tool given us to serve Jesus in this neighborhood in which we are placed. So the questions we always need to be asking are: 1) How can we transform our sanctuary in ways that will reflect to the rest of the neighborhood the welcome extended to all people in Christ Jesus? 2) How can we make our sanctuary a tool for reconciling conflict, overcoming injustice and building peace in our community? 3) What is God calling us to in this community and how can we use our sanctuary to answer that call? We cannot afford to forget who belongs to whom.
This is a psalm of lament. For my general comments on psalms of this kind, see my post of April 19, 2015. If you read this prayer from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. This is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. See vss. 1-3. The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. Vss. 8-13. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.
Remarkable about this prayer is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken out of a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him/her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one myself and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust in someone develops over years and many experiences of discovering that the someone you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also through the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
A word or two about Ephesians. According to the opening verses, the book is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus. Although the piece certainly contains many images and concepts that can be traced to Paul, it is the consensus of most New Testament Scholars that Paul did not author the letter. See, e.g., Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, (c. 1990 by Word, Incorporated) p. lx-lxxiii. It should be noted that some very prominent modern scholars are calling into question the majority opinion with solid arguments for Pauline authorship. Nevertheless, I remain persuaded that the Letter to the Ephesians is most likely the work of a disciple or associate of Paul composed decades after the apostle’s death. Still, I will continue to refer to the author as “Paul.” This is partly a matter of grammatical ease. It is much easier to say “Paul writes” than to say repeatedly “the author of the Letter to the Ephesians writes.” I also feel that, whether or not authored by Paul, the Letter to the Ephesians contains enough of Paul’s thought and influence to merit its attribution to him.
The book of Ephesians was most likely composed somewhere between 85 and 90 A.D. toward the end of the first Christian Century. The apostles had all died, but the world kept right on turning without missing a beat. The second generation of believers faced ever changing circumstances, increased opposition and challenges by religious claims and concepts from outside Judaism. How would this new generation deal with these matters without the guidance of the apostles? That is, in large part, what the letter to the Ephesians seeks to address. Using the “Body of Christ” image so central to Paul’s teaching, the author admonishes his audience to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Ephesians 4:1. Followers of Jesus are to live a life of love for one another in the unity of the Spirit. Ephesians 4:3. As they make their long journey through time, they must bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ by lives lived in striking contrast to the surrounding culture governed by rulers, authorities, “principalities and powers, hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12-13. They must support themselves with honest work, speak truthfully to one another and conduct themselves in a manner that glorifies the God by whom they have been called. Ephesians 4:17-32. The Church is a people called to “be imitators of God,” “to walk in love” as Christ loved them and gave Himself for them. Ephesians 5:1-2.
The opening verses of Ephesians that make up our lesson take the form of an extended Hebrew blessing typically beginning with the words, “Blessed are you, O Lord…” We can hear echoes of Solomon’s prayer in I Kings 8:14-61 and also of Zechariah’s prayer in Luke 1:67-79. The likeness of these verses to Hebrew prayers of blessing has led some scholars to believe that they were taken from an ancient liturgy employed in the early church’s worship. In the original Greek, our reading consists of one long sentence stretching itself out “by means of clauses, participial constructions, and the piling up of prepositional phrases and synonyms.” Lincoln, supra, at 11. This, too, suggests some liturgical connection. This language that requires several re-readings to grasp might well fly easily into the heart and mind on the wings of music. Numerous attempts have been made by New Testament scholars to isolate a particular hymn or liturgy within these verses. See Lincoln, supra, at 13-19. While fascinating, I find these efforts highly dependent on the speculative assumptions of their proponents. Whatever liturgical material may have been employed in crafting the Letter to the Ephesians and however the letter might have been employed liturgically in its present form, it is not likely a cut and paste collogue of separate liturgical pieces. It is, rather, a unified, hymn like tribute to the good news about Jesus that breaks down the dividing walls of national/cultural/racial loyalties uniting all people as one Body in Christ.
Paul articulates here an unmistakable belief in predestination. It is critical, however, to understand this teaching within the total context of the letter. “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Vss. 8-10. Consequently, the church is not the select few that God has graciously decided to snatch from the deck of a sinking ship. Rather, the church is the first fruits and a testimony to God’s plan to “gather up all things in heaven and on earth.” To be chosen is therefore not a position of special privilege, but a commission to witness and embody the plan God has for all people.
John got himself in trouble for criticizing Herod Antipas (not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great who ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Christ child). There were plenty of reasons for criticizing Herod whose ruthlessness matched that of his father. Perhaps John addressed these misdeeds also, but the issue that got him into hot water was a family matter. Herod divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea in favor of Herodias, who had formerly been married to his brother, Philip.
In this day and age, one might remark, “So who cares?” Granted, the Monica Lewinski affair reflected poorly on then President Bill Clinton. But when all is said and done, was it a matter that merited a congressional investigation, an impeachment vote and so much prime time TV? Evidently, most Americans think not. Clinton is still enormously popular with a broad section of the populous. But Herod is not the president of the United States. He has laid claim to the title of “king” over God’s chosen people, a claim based on the authority of Rome. The politics here is hard to miss. By giving Israel (or Galilee at any rate) her own king, Rome appears to be affording her a measure of independence and autonomy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Herod was neither a true Jew nor was he acclaimed king by the Jewish people. He was a stooge appointed by the Roman government to extract tax revenue and keep anti-Roman sentiment under control. The king of Israel, as David learned the hard way, is not only subject to the Torah but responsible for implementing Torah justice.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
Obviously, Herod’s marital infraction, similar in some respects to David’s, demonstrates a contempt for Torah. Though in our own minds it might not seem to rise to the level of importance we would place on justice for the poor and needy, a wanton violation of Torah in one point is a violation of the whole Torah. John’s condemnation therefore touches not merely the king’s character, but his lack of royal legitimacy. He is no king in the line of David and John has made that perfectly clear.
As it turns out, this illicit marriage played a huge role in the escalating conflict between Herod and his former father-in-law, Aretas. That dispute finally blew up into a military confrontation that went badly for Herod and the people he ruled. The sordid affair was not a strictly personal matter and, truth be told, no marriage is. While marriages today are typically not part and parcel of international treaties, they do involve families, friends, and frequently produce children. That is why who sleeps with whom is never a purely private matter, despite the insistence of many folks to the contrary. Marriage has ripple effects among large circles of people. So also does divorce. John understood that very well. There is no such thing as “purely individual and private.”
Note that when Herod hears about Jesus, his conclusion is that John the Baptist has been raised. Vs. 14. In a sense, he is right. The same God that spoke through John is now speaking again through God’s Son. Herod’s attempt to silence John’s voice, first through imprisonment and then through execution, has failed. With the advent of Jesus, John is back in spades. Herod is rightfully fearful. Herod was always fearful of John. Vs. 20. Having him in jail was like holding a hot potato. Herod knew John to be a righteous man and was afraid to kill him. Yet at the same time he was afraid to let him go, knowing that John’s words were as dangerous to his kingdom as those of Amos to the kingdom of Jeroboam II. Finally, the king’s pride trumps his fear and he has John executed to save face in front of his guests.
It is also interesting to note that John’s disciples came forward to give their master a proper burial. Vs. 29. Jesus’ twelve disciples will do no such thing. Only the women will visit Jesus’ tomb and then only after his burial.