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A Meditation About Faithfulness and Power

July 12, 2015

A MEDITATION ABOUT FAITHFULNESS 

& POWERS

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

 

Amos 7:7-15


7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
   in the midst of my people Israel;
   I will never again pass them by; 
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
   and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
   and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’ 

10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
   and Israel must go into exile
   away from his land.” ’ 
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’

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Mark 6:14-29


14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’* name had become known. Some were* saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 15But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’16But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’

17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod* had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;* and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias* came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ 23And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’24She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s* head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. 

 

Today we ponder two dramatic lessons from the writings of Amos and Mark that address faithfulness and speaking truth to power.  

 

Amos was what some people might call “an outside agitator.”  He came from Tekoa, a town in the Southern Kingdom of Judah about six miles south of Bethlehem.  Amos wasn’t a priest, but was a herdsman and farmer.  Yet this non-priest foreigner was inspired by God to be a messenger of divine truth and justice to political, social, and religious leaders of the Northern Kingdom of Israel about the glaring inequality in that society during the first half of the eight century before Christ, during the long and peaceful reign of King Jeroboam II (788-747 BCE).  

 

Periods of peace from the threat of foreign aggression often coincide with financial prosperity.  That was true in Israel during the long and peaceful reign of Jeroboam II.  But the prosperity led to glaring inequality between the wealthy people who lived in urban areas and those who were poor.  

 

Wealthy landowners manipulated debt and credit to amass capital and use their wealth to oppress small farmers.  When the farmers were unable to pay their debts, the wealthy merchants used their social and political influence to force the farmers from their ancestral lands.  Sound familiar?

We get a sense for that social inequality at Amos 2:6-7(a) where the prophet pronounces divine judgment against Israel “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. …”

 

While the poor were being oppressed by the wealthy in Israel the institutionalized religious establishment in Israel was doing business as usual.  In fact, religion was booming also.  

 

The society was celebrating the customary religious festivals not only in Samaria, the capitol city, but also in Bethel (near the southern border of Israel) that was served by a priest named Amaziah.  Our lesson from Amos today involves a dramatic encounter between the Amaziah (the royal priest) and Amos (the prophetic outsider).  

 

Because of the pervasive and longstanding social inequality and immorality that defined life in Israel, Amos preached that Israel would suffer divine judgment through military defeat by a foreign power, followed by exile.  That kind of preaching didn’t go over well with Amaziah, who sent word to King Jeroboam II that “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to hear all his words.  For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’”  (Amos 7:10-11)  

 

So Amaziah banished Amos from preaching again at Bethel, saying “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”  Amos was banished for faithfully speaking truth that offended people in power.  

John the Baptist was beheaded.  John denounced Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, for eloping with Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother, Philip.  

Herod Antipas was first married to the daughter of Aretas, an Arabian king.  But while visiting his half-brother Philip, Herod had an affair with Herodias, Philip’s wife.  The two eloped while married to other spouses at the time.  

Their relationship was more than a private affair.  Herodias was a royal bride, given in marriage by her father, an Arabian king.  Those marriages had international significance.  When Herod Antipas and Herodias eloped their relationship defied Jewish laws regarding marriage and the international pact formed when her father agreed to her marriage to Philip.  Herodias and Philip had a daughter named Salome.  Herodias took Salome with her when she left Philip to elope with Herod Antipas.    John the Baptist denounced their relationship as a violation of Jewish law.

 

John the Baptist came from a priestly family (his father was named Zechariah and his mother was a descendant of Aaron, the first Hebrew priest, see Luke 1:5-17).  But unlike Amaziah, John did not cater to the whims of the politically powerful. In the same way that his forerunner Elijah confronted King Ahab and Queen Jezebel about their wickedness, John the Baptist confronted Herod Antipas about eloping with Herodias.  Antipas ordered John imprisoned, but respected his moral authority too much to have him killed.  

Herodias, on the other hand, had no such respect for John, but was determined to take revenge on the prophet for publicly condemning her relationship with Antipas.  Antipas had a birthday feast attended by some of the leading noblemen of his region.  Salome danced so well for the festival guests that Antipas offered to give her anything she desired as long as it didn’t exceed half his kingdom.  Salome consulted with Herodias, her mother, who seized that opportunity to act out her grudge against the prophet who condemned her relationship with Antipas and told Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist.

Herod Antipas honored his word and granted her cruel wish.  Yet our lesson shows he was haunted so much about John’s execution that when reached him about Jesus doing mighty works of healing Herod believed John the Baptist had returned from the dead.

Amos and John show us that faithfulness to the truth and justice of God will mean opposing powerful people and institutions.  Faithfulness to God always carries public policy implications!  Sooner or later faithful people will challenge and be challenged by powerful interests and individuals.  

 

Moses challenged the oppressiveness carried out by the Egyptian empire.  Samson, Deborah, Gideon, and the other leaders challenged oppressive regimes during their times.  Samuel challenged Saul.  Nathan challenged David.  Amos challenged Jeroboam II and Amaziah.  John the Baptist challenged Herod Antipas.  Martin King challenged segregationists during the Montgomery bus boycott and later challenged the reluctance of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to work to outlaw race discrimination.  If anyone tells you that the religion of Jesus does not get involved with questions of social policy please remember Amos and John.

 

Herod had John killed, but John’s death was not the end of prophetic condemnation against Herod.  Jesus showed up healing and preaching about the kingdom of heaven, and Herod was afraid John had returned.  Herod was wrong.  Someone higher than John had come on the scene.  A voice not from the wilderness, nor the grave, but from heaven itself had come on scene.  The Word that was in the beginning with God and was God had come on scene.  

Eventually Herod Antipas would meet Jesus on the night before Jesus was crucified.  But the ruler’s hopes for that meeting were totally crushed when Jesus (who had called Herod a “fox”) refused to even speak to him.   Herod wouldn’t listen to John the Baptist, but heeded the wish of a child instigated by her vengeful mother to have the prophet silenced by beheading.  Later, Herod sought to hear from Jesus, who refused to say a word to him. Jesus refused to dignify Herod’s wickedness toward John the Baptist, toward his brother Philip, and toward God. 

 

Faithful people not only have the responsibility to speak truth to power.  We have a duty to not cooperate with injustice.  There is a time to speak, and there is a time to refuse to speak.  

When the powerful want to use our presence and voices to validate wickedness, we must not only object.  We should also refuse to lend our presence and our voices.

When agents of Zionism seek to use Christians to validate genocide, racism, and ethnic cleansing against Palestinians by the government of Israel, we must refuse to lend our presence and our voices.  We should refuse to support giving tax dollars as well as our private business to a regime in Israel that chases Palestinians out of their homes and neighborhoods.  Yes, we have a moral obligation based on our faithfulness to God’s love, peace, truth, and justice to boycott, divest from, and support economic sanctions against the regime responsible for wholesale land theft, massacre of unarmed civilians, and blatant social inequality.

 

When agents of bigotry invite us under the guise of religion to validate discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, we must refuse to lend our presence and voices.  We should refuse to join their protests against anti-discrimination laws.  We should refuse to dignify their claims of religious persecution by our presence.  

     

And that’s the point, beloved. God calls us to confront powerful forces that may seek our cooperation or our complicity.  

God calls faithful people to expose the lies told to make injustice look palatable.

God calls us to confront powerful people like Amaziah and Jeroboam, and like Herod Antipas and Herodias.

God calls us to confront powerful people who uphold injustice by using religion.  We see that nowadays concerning discrimination against same-gender loving people in this country.  People claim that laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity infringe on freedom of religious expression and conduct.  

The United States is a secular democratic republic, not a theocracy.   Each person is free to hold and practice whatever religious view he or she may choose.  However, none of us is free to use our religious beliefs as justification for harming others.  I have the liberty to hold a religious view that your life isn’t worth as much as mine.  I can preach, pray, and otherwise assert that view as my religion if I choose. That doesn’t make me free to treat you unjustly.  Religious belief is no excuse for injustice! 

 

We live in the tradition of Amos, John the Baptist, and Jesus!  We are called to faithfully declare divine truth to powerful people and interests.  We are called to be the faces and voices of divine protest against societal injustice and other wickedness.  

That is why New Millennium Church is aligned with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.  

That is why members of our congregation work to address inequality and other injustices within in our public education system.

That is why we are in active dialogue with brothers and sisters from the LGBTQ community about how to be more inclusive and correct inequities in our society based on homophobic-inspired bigotry.  

That is why New Millennium Church is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.

That is why we are a partner to Bale Elementary School.

That is why we opposed efforts to build a technology park by uprooting residential neighborhoods where people of modest means live.

That is why we are studying To Serve This Present Age:  Social Justice Ministries in the Black Church, by Danielle Ayers and Reginald W. Williams Jr. every week.

 

We are God’s people. We have a prophetic obligation to speak truth to power.  

We are God’s people.  We have a prophetic obligation to challenge wickedness.  

We are God’s people!  We have a prophetic charge from God to keep.  We have the God of love, peace, truth, justice, and hope to serve.  We have powers to confront, confound, and convert to God’s love, truth, peace, justice, joy, and hope.

Amen. 

©Wendell Griffen, 2015