Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pentecost 6 Sermon -- Mark 6:14-29 (LSB Proper 10B)

July 12, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

“It was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her.”

Speaking truth to power is a dangerous enterprise. At times, it can bring great glory: the Founding Fathers who listed their grievances against George III are enshrined in the hearts and minds of Americans, as well as having a secular temple in honor of them. But for every individual or group which is successful doing the same, there many more who suffer great negative consequence for their actions. History is littered with records of protests which failed and were crushed by those in authority.

The speaking of truth to power is dangerous within the secular realm. But it can be even more dangerous within the spiritual realm or where the secular intersects with the spiritual. That is clearly shown in the readings for this Sunday: the accounts of Amos the Prophet and John the Baptizer. Both were charged with the task of speaking the Lord God’s word of judgment—a message of truth—to monarchs of Israel. And both of these divine spokesmen suffered the consequences of doing so.

The Lord God had chosen Amos to tell of the destructive fate of Israel and its king, Jeroboam: “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of My people Israel; I will never again pass by them; 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.” Compared to the plumb line of the Divine Law, the house of Israel was crooked, leaving the straight and narrow. For their abandonment of the Law and the Covenant that the Lord God had made with them, Israel would go into exile, losing its place as the protected people of God.

But what does Amos get in return for his trouble, for speaking the truth to power? He is attacked by the leaders of the spiritual community, as well as the political elites. Amaziah, the court chaplain who led Israel in idolatry, tells Amos: “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos is accused of seditious talk against Jeroboam. And in the records of Church Tradition, it is said that Amos was given a mortal blow from Hosiah, the son of Amaziah. Instead of repenting of their sins, the house of Israel kills the prophet who brings that true message of divine judgment.

In a very similar way, John the Baptizer was chosen by the Lord God to speak the same message of repentance. From the annunciation of John’s conception, his mission was foretold: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before Him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The Baptizer would speak a message of indictment against those who had broken the Divine Law, so they could repent and return to the Lord God’s will.

So when the news of Herod marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother, came to John, he was quick to speak truth to power: “John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” The Baptizer points out Herod’s sin: his marriage was not right. But what does John receive for his trouble? “Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.” And when the opportunity presented itself through the foibles and faults of Herod’s character, John was beheaded.

For Amos and John, like many of the Lord God’s prophets, death came when they dropped the hammer of the Divine Law against the targets who needed to receive it. But their actions were meant to be: they were given the charge to do so not by any ordinary man, but from the Lord God Himself. Regardless of their fate, Amos and John were bound to fulfill the command they were given. Such a task was part of their divinely-given identity.

As part of your identity as Christians, you also have a similar task to speak the Lord God’s will to people, even people of power. It isn’t a general task, but one that applies within your particular vocations. When your civic leaders enact unjust—not simply unwise, but unjust—policies, you are to speak out. This includes policies which deny the divine institution of marriage or which lead to the destruction of human life. It also includes when the government unjustly takes people’s property or liberties, and when courts render unjust or biased verdicts and decisions. These are times to speak publicly the Divine Law to leaders.

But speaking divine truth to power is not limited to government as a target. It is also applicable to capitalists and industrialists in the private sector when they act unjustly against employees and customers. And lest one thinks that the Church gets a pass, bishops also must hear the Divine Law when they make unjust decisions. Congregations which wrongfully remove ministers must also be indicted by that same law. When false teaching is heard from the pulpit, preachers must also be corrected. There may be negative consequences, but like Amos and John, you must speak.

However, the only way that this is possible for you as Christians is when you have heard the same Divine Law with your own ears. One must know what the Lord God’s will is before daring to speak it to others. Recall what happened to Amos and John: both received the Holy Spirit when they were called to be the Lord God’s spokesmen. Amos spoke about his calling: “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” The angel Gabriel spoke about John before his birth: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb.” By this, Amos and John were given knowledge of the Lord God’s will.

You also have been given the same knowledge. From the proclamation of the Scriptures, you have heard the decrees of the Lord. From youth—either physical or spiritual—Christ’s followers are taught the Ten Commandments. You heard the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” from the Lord God’s mouth. These aren’t simply moral teachings; they are indictments against your behavior. The Lord God tells you: “It is unlawful for you to trust in other gods, to misuse My Name and truth, to ignore My Word, to disobey those I place in authority, to harm your neighbor, to abuse your sexuality, to take possessions of others, to lie and slander others.” Each time that you do so, the Lord God points out your sin as His Law is replanted in your heart and mind.

But like the judgment which Amos and John spoke, the Lord God’s conviction of you is meant to bring you to repentance. The Lord God shows you your error, convincing you that your thoughts, words, and deeds were faulty. But He also intends to have you turn to Christ for forgiveness and to lead to a correction in life. There is to be a change in hear and mind, as well as a change in the direction of life. The Lord God does not desire to condemn people and leave them without hope; rather, He wants them to seek Him alone for a remedy. And He provides that remedy: He grants salvation by the application of Christ’s merits through the spoken and visible Word. As this is done by the Holy Spirit working through that Word, the change in people takes place: the sinner is made righteous, sinful lives are abandoned for holy living.

As this Spirit-driven change has taken place in you, knowledge of the Lord God’s will has been given. Not only do you know it, you want to follow it. And it is also your desire that others would follow it, too. So as you understand the Lord God’s morality and His desire to turn people to repentance, you can speak that truth to power and weakness, to the elite and commoner. For they all need to hear how they have acted unjustly, so that they can be led to adjust their thoughts, words, and deeds through the work of the Holy Spirit in them. You can speak the words of Divine Law, regardless of the consequence, boldly speaking as the Lord God has called you to do so.

But even greater than the act of speaking the truth of the Divine Law is something that only you as Christians can do. The unbeliever may be able to grasp the Lord God’s morality, but only those who have been called by the Holy Spirit to believe in Jesus Christ can speak of salvation. Those who hear you speak judgment can also hear you tell of forgiveness, just as St. Paul spoke to the Ephesians: “In [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Just as much as the world needs to hear you speak the truth of God’s Law, even more it needs to hear you speak “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” For it is only that which brings pardon for all the unjust things which you and every sinner does. May you be emboldened by the Holy Spirit to believe and to speak both truths to power until the day when you receive the promised inheritance with Amos, John, and all whom the Lord God has called.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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