A Sermon About How Flawed Disciples Are Still Disciples
St. Philip Lutheran Church
11 July 2021 + Lectionary 15B (Pent. 7)
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Let’s talk about Amos.
By the time the book that bears his name opens, the status of the monarchy of ancient Israel isn’t great. The once unified kingdom has split into two, with Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Soon, Israel would be conquered by Assyria, and not long after, Judah would be conquered by Babylon.
Enter Amos. Amos came from Judah in the south, but his prophetic calling took him north to Israel - to King Jeroboam and the priest Amaziah. Early in the book, Amos’s judgment is clear: Economic injustice and social inequality are the sins of Israel, who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals...who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2.6-7).
God then shows Amos five visions. In the first, God prepares to send a plague of locusts, and in the second, a shower of fire. In both of these, Amos is able to successfully intercede on behalf of the people, and God backs down.
Enter the plumb line. It doesn’t really matter if you know what a plumb line is because, according to one of my seminary professors whose Hebrew is far better than mine, the word for “plumb line” is better translated as “tin.” Tin - as in, one of the metals that makes bronze, which in turn is used to make weapons. God is stockpiling weapons to declare war on Israel. Intense, right?
In the next vision, God shows Amos a basket of “summer fruit.” That sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Except, in Hebrew, it’s a pun: The word for “summer fruit” sounds a lot like the word for “end.” The destruction of Israel is inevitable.
Now let’s talk about Amaziah.
When it comes to talking about the prophets of Israel, like Amos, it’s easy to fall into the trap of binary thinking: good vs. bad, “righteous” prophet vs. “corrupt” rulers, social justice vs. political oppression. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple.
There’s no reason to suspect that Amaziah was “inherently devious or evil.” (DWP) Maybe, Amaziah actually found Amos’s message intriguing. Maybe, he listened and wondered, with curiosity, perplexity, longing. But Amaziah doesn’t have the luxury of the same kind of freedom that Amos has.
After all, Amos is not your traditional prophet like the “professional” prophets that advised kings and rulers, often telling them what they wanted to hear in the interest of job security. But Amos doesn’t need any of that. Amos is already a person of means. He doesn’t need to be a prophet for the money.
Amaziah, on the other hand, has a job to do. He has an institution to uphold and a sanctuary to care for. His livelihood depends on the status quo. And he lets the status quo and the concerns of institutional preservation overtake the concerns of God and the welfare of God’s people.
It actually sounds a little bit like Herod. The details can be easy to overlook in such a gruesome story, but I don’t think Herod is exactly the villain he often gets portrayed as - at least not in this story. Instead: “Herod feared John… and he protected him … and he liked to listen to him.” What’s up with that? We might even imagine Herod sitting for hours on end by John’s prison cell: listening, learning, wondering. (DT)
But when the rubber hits the road, Herod fails the test. Like Amaziah, he lets his concern for the status quo, his concern for institutional preservation, his concern for self-preservation, overtake the risk of discipleship and the concerns of the kingdom of God.
Amaziah and Herod start in the right place, but, ultimately, their attention shifts and their faithfulness falters. They fall back into the familiar and trust in the status quo they know. They stand in the way of God’s prophetic word when it gets too uncomfortable and challenging.
At this point, it’s easy to vilify Amaziah and Herod as scapegoats of “who not to be” and “what not to do” - but, again, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. In more subtle ways, Amaziah and Herod are us. Maybe we don’t enable a corrupt monarchy in the interest of job security, or have someone beheaded to hang onto political power…
But: I wonder about the ways we do let our insecurities and doubts and worries get the better of us: Do I care too much about what other people think of me? Do I value comfort and complacency and “the way things have always been” more than taking risks for what can be? Do I privilege the status quo over the possibility of transformation? (DT)
With Herod and Amaziah, we grapple with these questions. Not because we’re not faithful and curious followers of Jesus - but, I think, precisely because we are.
Herod and Amaziah give us a fuller picture of discipleship - as disciples who sometimes are afraid, hesitant, and even get it wrong.
But God’s good news is too powerful and too strong to cave to our human shortcomings and failures.
Immediately after the five devastating visions of judgment, Amos ends with a word of hope and promise of restoration. As my Old Testament seminary professor often reminded us: God’s final answer to God’s people is always yes.
God’s yes will not be stopped by our no, and resurrection will not be stopped by death. Even in the midst of flawed disciples like Herod and Amaziah - and yes, even us - God’s good news of love and justice still prevail.
Because God’s love for God’s people is too strong and too fierce to give up on us. God’s love will sustain us in our risk-taking for the sake of the gospel, in our journey from “the way things have always been” to “the way things can be,” from stale complacency and comfort to vibrant renewal and transformation.
Listen. God is calling.