Texts: Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Everyone has an opinion on the beginning point of a disaster, and in the case of Amos the disaster of exile in Assyria began with Israel forgetting the covenant with God. Specifically, their God-given responsibility to care for the poor. And so the covenant with God was broken.
God’s nation was always meant to look different from other nations. It was common to see great disparities in the fortunes of people everywhere. But from the beginning God directed Israel to faithfully care for its most indigent citizens, along with strangers and orphans.
Israel was to be the place of God’s reign of justice. But the very people who should have been protectors of the poor, instituted economic practices that consistently benefitted themselves while placing a disproportionate burden on the ones who had the least. Failing to care for the poor wasn’t only a moral failure, it was a colossal spiritual failure too.
Amos was an oddball prophet for the job of delivering the bad news that God was exceedingly disappointed in Israel. He was from Judah, which was by that time a separate kingdom to the south of Israel. He had no prophetic credentials whatsoever. He made his living as a shepherd and pruner of date-bearing trees.
It’s not like Amos wanted to see Israel punished. After all, these northerners were still his kin. All children of God, and of the covenant. So Amos argued for Israel and convinced God not to carry out two earlier forms of judgment; by invasive locusts and by catastrophic fire.
But the third judgement could not be averted. The very foundation of the nation had become so unjust, so skewed from God’s original specifications that it could not be repaired. Israel was going down in a most degrading and painful way. Even the well-to-do of Israel would find that their wealth could not protect them.
Amos brought five visions of judgement to Israel. He incurred the scorn of the royal priest Amaziah who told him to go home and take his predictions of doom with him. But the words of the priest showed how completely warped things had become. Bethel was the spiritual center of Israel, comparable to Jerusalem in the south. It even predated Jerusalem. How strange then, for Amaziah to say “…it is the king’s sanctuary, and a temple of the kingdom.” Surely the sanctuary city and the temple there belonged properly to God, not the king.
If we consider that we too are God’s children, faithful to God’s covenant, we should be haunted by this story in more ways than one. We have our paths to disaster too. It’s not only our failure to honor and care for the poor. It’s also the tale of how we honor and entrust leaders with civil authority and then resist turning around (which if you recall, is the very definition of repentance) when there is ample evidence that the direction we are headed is destructive and hurtful.
Because, certainly Amaziah the priest of Bethel knew that King Jeroboam was fostering practices and attitudes that defied God’s covenant. Why then did he belittle Amos and refuse to listen to the prophecy? Meanwhile Israel became further destabilized and dispirited even as it faced a very severe national threat at its border.
And why did Jeroboam prefer a priest who did his bidding instead of calling him to moral and spiritual responsibility as God’s anointed ruler? Neither priest nor king were honorable before God. But it’s hard to admit that we have placed our trust and honor poorly.
There are things that we won’t speak of, don’t want to see even when our situation becomes dire. The story of the boy who cried wolf doesn’t actually play out in real life. False prophets are not necessarily discredited when their prophecy fails. Instead some people double down on their commitment to the false prophet, believing all the more that their prophet will soon prove honorable and the people’s trust will be vindicated. In much the same way abusers are protected.
The tragic tale of John the Baptist’s death is a story of misplaced honor and the cost of speaking God’s word. As the story says, King Herod liked to listen to the fiery prophet even if he was unable to entirely take in what John was saying. He even acknowledged that John was God’s holy one, who acted rightly before God and humankind.
Meanwhile Herod’s wife Herodias understood all too well that their reputation was being impugned. She wanted John silenced. King Herod did an honorable thing placing John in protective custody to keep him safe from Herodias. Then came the birthday party and the fateful dance of the dear daughter, also confusingly named Herodias. This verisimilitude of names is perhaps more a commentary on a tight web of power and relationship than historical fact.
It was inappropriate for this man of power and influence to ask his daughter to dance at a party in the presence of unrelated men. Someone should have been embarrassed. Someone might have made an excuse and left the spectacle as a matter of honor. Others might have been influenced to a good decision in the moment. But no one was made a move. It was all for Herod’s honor.
When, out of delight Herod told the girl to choose her reward, it’s a sign of just how young she was, that she went to her mother first. And that she did her mother’s bidding to have John killed.
You wish that she had asked for something, anything else. A pony (an Arabian horse perhaps), a bag of gold, or a great big house all her own. What’s worse is that the girl was so eager to please her mother that she added to the demand, “I want you to give me at once, the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And no first century Dr. Phil to turn this this thing around.
Herod at least had the wherewithal to grieve John’s death. But his honor was more important than the life of a man who fearlessly spoke God’s word. He couldn’t be seen to be under his wife’s control. What would all the guys think of him?
What is there to say about our failures before God? What hope do we have to do better? Perhaps today it’s Ephesians that tells us where to find hope. It is a recitation of what Christ came to say, do, and be for us. The text is taken from early Christian hymns and creeds. When we commit such things to our memories, they will guide us, and Christ be in us always.
So we can find the means to admit failure, reverse course, and execute justice. To God’s honor.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.