Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 12 July 2021.
• First Reading: Amos 7: 7-15 (‘Go prophesy to My people Israel’)
• Psalm 85: 8-13
• Epistle: Ephesians 1: 3-14 (God’s blessings for His people)
• Gospel: Mark 6: 14-29 (The execution of John the Baptist)
There is something profoundly uncomfortable about our lessons from the Old Testament and the Gospel. Both are about challenges to the current order of morality and practice among the rulers of ancient Samaria and of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.
In Amos, the direct rebuke and challenge was to the moral and social practices of the ruling elite. Israel was the northern kingdom and was close to the trading centres of Tyre, Sidon, Damascus and the trading routes of the land. It was wealthier than the southern kingdom of Judah, and definitely more cosmopolitan. If the customs of Israel’s trading partners demanded some compromise in the practice of the worship of God in Israel, then those compromises were made.
It was a matter of going along in order to get along, and of side-lining the more rigid attitudes of the conservative believers in the law and worship of the God of Abraham.
And so Amos came and shared his vision. God had set up a plumb line to measure the stability of the House of Israel – and it was found to be wanting. The plumb line evidently revealed a bulge or a lean in the wall which would eventually fall.
And then Amos directly criticized the corruption of the religion of the Israelites. They had compromised it by setting up alternative places of worship dedicated to foreign cults, and had forsaken the uniqueness of the God of Abraham who had delivered their forebears from slavery in Egypt. These cults had done nothing for them and in any case were false gods.
They may have statues, but no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and no mouths to speak forth. Not only were they false gods but they had diverted the people from the worship of the Lord and had undermined their faith and practice.
In allowing these practices the leaders of Israel had not only undermined the faith of the people, but they had undermined themselves and they would be overthrown. Amos was not trying to over dramatize the situation – he was only trying to speak forth as God had instructed him, and was expelled for his pains.
In the gospel, we have the execution of John the Baptist who had directly criticized the morals and practice of King Herod. What he had done in taking the wife of his still-living brother Philip was adultery and was contrary to the law of Israel.
John had been speaking out and baptizing people in the river Jordan, and had been open in his criticism of Herod. If the ruler of the people disregarded the religious law of the land then what kind of example or leadership was this?
John almost certainly knew that Herod’s line was not known for its mercy or kindness, and that he was taking a risk in speaking out like this, especially against King Herod.
Nevertheless Herod still liked to speak to John and kept him alive, even if still in prison. The resentment of Herodias was something else and she was looking for an opportunity to deal with John once and for all.
And so the opportunity came at Herod’s birthday party. It was a lavish banquet and the wine flowed freely. An enticing and stimulating dance by Salome – which was I suspect more at home in a strip club than the Royal Ballet. An enthusiastic, if drunken promise from Herod and then Salome’s utterly uncompromising demand on behalf of Herodias.
Kill John: no time to be wasted on a trial, the presenting or testing of evidence, or any kind of defence by John. Kill him. A sober soul might have considered that to drive such a juggernaut through the law was far more than the value of half of his kingdom but Herod was already on the defensive and was outmaneuvered. So the order was given.
Whatever the kingdom was founded on, law was evidently not that important, and had just been crushed.
In contrast to these lessons on the tension between the worship of God and the state, Paul writes to the church in Ephesus on their standing in the sight of God.
Ephesus also was a stronghold of the fertility cult of Diana and yet the church was blessed in the sight of the Lord. They were chosen to be blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. They were to be holy and blameless, adopted to the family and kinship of Jesus. They were redeemed and forgiven, endowed with wisdom and understanding, and given the revelation of what God truly desired for His people.
Their very existence was a rebuke and a counter-culture to those in power and to their corrupt religious and moral practices. In Jesus was their life and their identity, even when the rest of the town was devoted to the Diana cult.
For Jesus did not just desire for them just to survive: He wanted them to be blessed. He wanted them to be endowed with the fulness of the Holy Spirit and to live lives that were themselves statements of a new kind of reality, apart from conformity to the demands of the Diana cult.
Our days also are severely challenged and we have a society that is divided, weakened, and living beyond its means. At the moment our public finances are secured by near zero interest rates, but like the leaning wall of Amos’ vision, will be shaken by any movement in the rates of interest demanded of our public officials. Then we will see just how secure our institutions really are. It will also be a time for us to trust radically in the Lord.