July 15, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, 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. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted him put to death.”
Two voices speak against those in positions of power. So you heard in this morning’s Old Testament and Gospel Readings. The two voices have similar messages for the royal house of Israel: “You have been judged. You stand under divine condemnation.” That is what both Amos and John the Baptist speak in the hearing of the nobility.
Amos’ message to Israel is the making known of the vision he had seen from the Lord. Amos tells what he saw: “This is what the Lord God showed me: behold the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in His hand.” The prophet sees a vision of the Lord’s building a wall, straight and true. But then the Lord speaks to Amos: “Then the Lord said, ‘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.”
The vision is made clear to the prophet. The Lord had measured the people of Israel with His plumb line. His standard of righteousness had been applied to them. And what does the Lord find? Not a straight wall anymore, but a tilted one. Israel’s following the Lord’s way had gone from faithfulness to disloyalty. The high places and sanctuaries dedicated to any deity other than the Lord had been set up and used. Instead of having no other gods, Israel had plenty of idolatry. And the royal house of Israel had been more than complicit in this; they had led the people on their crooked way. So the Lord pronounces judgment against them through the mouth of the prophet, as Amos describes: “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.’”
Then there was John the Baptist. Just three weeks past, the Church celebrated John’s nativity. He had been given a task from before birth, the destiny of being the Messiah’s Forerunner. John was to prepare the people. So he preached about making straight the crooked paths, leveling the hills, filling the valleys—all the ancient, poetic, Scriptural ways of proclaiming repentance that leads to forgiveness of sins. And John showed no favor based on class: the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak all received the same message: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance…. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John applied the divine standard of righteousness to the people. The same way that John spoke to the crowds was how he spoke to the royal house of Israel. Herod receives the message of judgment, just as the ancient Israelite kings had. His adulterous sin is pointed out, as the Gospel Writer tells us: “John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” Divine judgment was leveled against Herod and Herodias.
So how were Amos’ and John’s words received? What was their effect? The nobility would have none of it. They would not heed it. Instead, their desire was to rid themselves of these meddling prophets. You heard how the Royal Chaplain of Israel responded to Amos: “Then Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’” Amaziah gives Amos the bum’s rush: “Down to Judah with you. Don’t dare bring that prophecy of judgment back here in Israel. Jeroboam and his family will not have it said in their hearing.” And John receives the same treatment: “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.” Herod says to the Baptist: “No more of that talk about sanctity of marriage. To the prison you go. The public speech against my sin and my wife’s sin will no longer be heard.”
But that is the reaction that mankind has to the judgment of God. The Lord’s words of condemnation are unpleasant to hear. They are hurtful. They sting. Those divine words expose what all desire to keep hidden. Who wants to hear how unrighteous they are? Who wants to be shown all their flaws, all their blemishes, all their faults? Anything that can be done to keep those words from being heard and received is tried. Cover the ears. Shout over the voice that speaks the indictment and judgment against you. Repeat over and over that it’s not actually so, it’s not true, it’s not how I am. That is how humanity acts.
And yet, what happens even if the prophet is exiled to Judah, the forerunner is beheaded, or the preacher is tuned out? The voice of judgment still speaks. It is put in another mouth and another mouth and another mouth. Over and over again, the Lord’s rightful condemnation is leveled against you and all who have fallen short of His standard of holiness: “You are guilty. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”
But another call is issued to you, just as the prophets of old had spoken to their audiences. It is the same call that Jesus and His apostles proclaimed: “Repent and be saved. Turn from your wicked ways and live. Acknowledge the sin and receive the remedy.”
That is what you also heard this morning. The sound of divine judgment was placed in your ears, showing that you are a poor, miserable sinner, pointing out that you had sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. But there was also this spoken to you, if you would hear the sound of the Lord’s voice: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.”
Blessed be God? Blessed be the One who issued His judgment against you and your sinfulness? Yes, blessed be God, because of what He has done. His condemnation was not the only thing that He has spoken. No, He has blessed you. That is what the apostle explains: “In love He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved. In Him 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.”
The apostle proclaims the reconciling act that the Lord has done for you. Reconciliation has been accomplished for you who have transgressed and broken every aspect of the Divine Law. You have been weighed and found wanting. But you have also been provided what you lack. There is a hope for you, a new fate for you, a new reality for you. It is for you who have been shown your sin, your guilt, your imperfection and who acknowledge it to be true. It is for you who have heard the prophetic voice of judgment instead of shutting it out and refusing to listen. The word of Gospel is spoken to you: “Your sin is great. Your guilt is immense. But that has been atoned for. Your slate is wiped clean. You now stand under divine grace. You have been rebuilt, straight and true. That is My desire for you. That is what I, the Lord, do for you.”
That is the message heard in the apostolic words: “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory. In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.”
The word of truth is not only that you have sinned much and deserve nothing but punishment. It also is this: “Jesus’ accomplishments have overcome your failures. Jesus’ death has atoned for your guilt. Jesus’ resurrection has brought you life. Jesus lacks nothing and has bestowed His goodness to you. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have heard Jesus’ pardoning word. You have eaten of His life-giving body. You are not given half of an earthly kingdom, but have been made part of the divine household. That is your inheritance. That is the Lord’s gracious will for you.”
Both words—the word of judgment and the word of absolution—are necessary. This is what your ears must also hear. Do not tune out what the Lord speaks. Instead, receive it as true. When His voice exposes your guilt, acknowledge that it is so. Then when you hear His voice that discloses His salvific work done for you, you will also know just how great it is, covering every last bit of your sinfulness. Be not like Jeroboam and Amaziah or Herod and Herodias who used all their earthly power attempting to silence the Lord’s voice. Instead, let the psalmist’s words be your motto and creed: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people, to His saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.