Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, "Bearing Hard Words," Mark 6:14-29, Amos 7:7-15
Mark 6:14-29, Amos 7:7-15
Bearing Hard Words
What first comes to mind when you hear the word “prophecy”? Often, people think immediately of predicting the future, a kind of fortune-telling. We seem to have a fascination with anything that suggests we could accurately predict the future. And what’s the appeal of trying to predict the future? Why are we fascinated by anything that appears to be a prediction of future events? I can only imagine that it is our general anxiety over things unknown, and our general dislike of things that we can’t control that makes us want to believe that something, someone, somewhere can predict the future with accuracy. Otherwise, we have to live with the unsettling reality that things outside of our control, like disaster and illness, can just come on by and bring upheaval to our lives with there being nothing we can do to stop it. The idea of predicting the future, I think, is about control and security.
That’s not, however, what the prophets in the Bible were all about. Prophets are truth-tellers. Prophets are truth-tellers, particularly when no one else wants to say how things really are. You know what I mean: Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes, when no one else is brave enough to say so. A prophet tells it like it is, says how bad things really are, talks about where the path we are on will lead if things don’t change. But a prophet doesn’t necessarily want what they speculate about to come true. Instead, a prophet wants people to stop and repent, wants them to get back on God’s path before things go too far the wrong way. In its simplest version, you might think of prophecy like this: a parent tells a child that if they don’t get their grades up, they will flunk out of college, live at home for all of their days, and never get a real job. The parent isn’t predicting the future, even though this might be exactly what happens. Instead, they’re truth-telling. If you don’t change, these are the probable future consequences of your current actions. Prophets are visionaries too – they don’t only tell the bad things that might happen if we don’t get our acts together, they also try to hold before us the truth of the potential good that might come if we do change our ways. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” King was a prophet: a truth-teller, calling us to account for our racism, and holding before us a vision of what could be, a world where his children no longer faced discrimination and prejudice. He certainly was not predicting the future. He was offering up a vision of the possible paths we might take as a nation. A truth-teller and prophet.
Our scripture texts for today bring us accounts of two prophets. First, we hear from the prophet Amos. Amos lived in the 8th century BC. He was a farmer, breeding cattle and tending fruit trees, positions that would have made him fairly prosperous.. And he lived in Israel during the time of King Jeroboam II. It was also a prosperous time for Israel as a whole, but “social and religious corruption were rife; many worshipped materialism and other gods.” (1) God calls Amos to speak out and warn that Israel will be held accountable for its corruption. Amos shares in our text today a vision from God - God sets a plumbline against a wall, a device that would show if the wall was straight and level or not. The implication here is that the plumbline will show that Israel is not level, not acting with justice and righteousness. And God won’t “pass them by” anymore - God won’t ignore their misdeeds.
Amos’ prophetic visions come to the attention of the king by way of Amaziah, a priest who is in the royal employ - he works for the king. He tells the king that Amos, through his prophecy, is committing treason, conspiring against the king. He says that the land is not able to “bear” Amos’s hard words. And Amaziah tells Amos he’s banished to Judah, and he should prophesy there instead of in Israel. But Amos counters that he’s not a prophet - at least not a professional prophet. Professional prophets, employed by the royalty of the day, would often feel beholden to their employers, telling them what they wanted to hear. Amos has no such qualms. “God said ‘Go and prophesy’” Amos tells Amaziah, and so he did. That’s where our passage ends for today, and we don’t know how his response was taken. We just know that Amos continues to share his prophetic visions of the consequences Israel will face for its injustice and oppression, for wandering from God’s path, and that his visions prove to be accurate.
Our other prophet today is John the baptizer, who we encounter in the gospel of Mark. John, cousin to Jesus, is counted in the scriptures as the forerunner to Jesus. He has a more assertive tone to his teaching than Jesus in some ways. His focus is on calling folks to repentance, and sometimes he does so with vivid imagery, calling the religious leaders vipers, telling people God’s judgment is like an ax at the root of the tree, or like a winnowing fork separating the usable from the unusable. There’s a sense of threat in his words, I think: “Get it right or else” that makes you want to spring to action. Our text today is a bit of a flashback. King Herod is hearing folks talk about Jesus, saying he’s like Elijah or John the Baptist back from the dead. Because, as Mark recounts, Herod has just had John beheaded. Herod had put John in prison because John called Herod out publicly for Herod’s behavior. Herod married Herodias, who had been the wife of his own brother, Philip. It was against the law of Moses. But since Herod was the king, few dared to confront him for his actions. Not John though. John simply called Herod out, and said out loud what others would only say in whispers: Herod, what you did was wrong.
John faced harsh consequences - he was imprisoned for his truth-telling. But Herod was apparently fascinated enough with John, and fearful enough because John actually seemed to be righteous, holy, from God, that Herod still didn’t enact a harsher punishment - until Herodias, Herod’s wife, intervened. No doubt she also wasn’t pleased to be the target of John’s blunt indictment. So, using her daughter (in Mark’s account, she’s confusingly also named Heroidias, but other gospels name her as Salome), and a pleasing dance the daughter performs for Herod and his guests, Herodias is able to manipulate the situation - and Herod’s foolishness - to get him to agree to behead John. Herod is grieved - but not enough to stand up to the situation. He doesn’t want to break an oath in front of guests, and John is put to death.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these two texts and what they mean for us, followers of Jesus. I think we’re called to speak prophetically, and to be truth-tellers, especially when there are truths that are hard to hear but need telling anyway in order for God’s hopes for the world to bear fruit, but what exactly does that mean? How do we go about being prophets? Can anyone be a prophet? And doesn’t everyone think they have the truth? How do we know what we have to say is “right”? I’m thinking of a person I know who considered it one of her spiritual gifts to tell people things they didn’t want to hear. She was pretty harsh and direct, and people were often hurt by her words. She sometimes made people feel pretty bad about themselves. Still, though, she felt like she was doing a public service, because she felt like she was telling people hard truths that they otherwise couldn’t see, or that they would ignore or suppress, or otherwise not deal with. She believed that confrontation, even or perhaps especially in unflinching, blunt, perhaps rude expressions was the way to go, to be a truth teller. Of course, the folks to whom she directed these truths didn’t always find them to be a spiritual gift. Instead, they found her words to be painful and hurtful, making them feel bad about themselves, and like she was damaging their relationships by being unkind. When are you being a prophet, and when are you being a bully? Or when should we speak up with the truth, but we’re just being too afraid to take a stand?
I think to answer those questions, we can ask ourselves some other questions for reflection. Most importantly, I think we need to figure out where the impulse to speak the sometimes-hard-to-hear truth is coming from. First, and most importantly, is it God who is prompting you to speak up? Or is the impulse really just from you? How can you tell the difference? I’ve always found some words of United Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton helpful on this subject. He says, “One path is easy and safe and doesn’t require a lot of risk taking. The other path is difficult. It feels riskier. It makes us a little sick to our stomach. When confronted with these two paths, it’s usually the path that makes us a little queasy that is the right path. It leads to the greatest reward and the greatest impact. I call this the principle of “discernment by nausea.”” (2) I find that when it is God prompting me to do something, instead of just my own will, my own desires, the thought of doing it makes me uncomfortable and nervous, a challenge I have to meet. Is God prompting us to speak up? Ask God! Pray for clarity. Listen carefully for God’s voice. In my experience, when God is nudging us, God keeps nudging until we respond, one way or another. Just read the book of Jonah if you need an example of how God keeps at a prophet until they respond to God’s call.
Another question to ask: What will the consequences of your truth-telling and prophetic voice be and who will bear those consequences? In other words, what will be the fall out of the truth telling you do, and who will be impacted? If you don’t have any consequences to face because of your truth-telling? Well, your message might actually be more self-serving than God-serving. God’s prophets in the Bible faced serious consequences. Amos was threatened with exile and charged with treason. John was imprisoned and beheaded. But the other prophets often faced similar fates. They told the truth, but there were often big consequences for them for their faithfulness to God’s message and task for them. If your message of truth only seems to have consequences for others? It might be time to reexamine your motivations.
I also think we can ask about the source of joy in the work of prophecy. As I said, being one of God’s prophets came with a lot of serious consequences, but that doesn’t mean being a prophetic voice for justice is joyless work. I don’t think God wants us to engage in a life of joyless work, even for God, because God loves us and God is full of joy, and God is always inviting us to share in that joy. The question to ponder is where the joy of prophecy comes from. The person I mentioned who loved being so harsh and direct with others? I think what worried me is that it seemed like their joy in truth-telling came from catching others off guard, making them squirm, making them have to deal with unwanted conversations and confrontations. Instead, I think the joy of the prophetic voice comes in seeing the work of God’s justice for the most vulnerable accomplished. When the biblical prophets speak, for example, one of their biggest areas of truth-telling is in calling God’s people out for a failure to care for the poor, the orphaned, the widow, and the stranger. They call God’s people to account for failing to care for and in fact actively oppressing the most at-risk people in society. And for prophets, then, I think the joy of their work comes when those most-vulnerable are cared for again as a result of their truth-telling work. When things are set right, when people return to God, when God is honored instead of false Gods - idols or wealth or whatever we sometimes make more important than God - when the people turn back to God - I think that is the source of a prophet’s joy.
Sometimes, we’re the recipients of prophetic words from someone who is acting on God’s behalf. Truth-telling is rarely easy to hear, but when it comes our way, I pray that we will be able to listen to the message God is sharing with us, and repent and turn back on a path toward God. And sometimes, friends, we’re tasked with the sacred work of being truth-tellers, prophets for God. I hope we engage in that hard work whenever we see injustice and oppression hurting the most vulnerable. But when we speak God’s truths, inspired by the courage and faithfulness of voices like Amos and John, let us make sure it is God who is guiding us and God who is speaking through us in all we do. Amen.
Chris Haslam, “Comments,”
Adam Hamilton, “Leading Unafraid,”