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A remnant of light

July 16th, 2007 by isaac · No Comments

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted a sermon. One of the reasons for the hiatus is that I preached a terrible sermon last time and couldn’t bear to post it. But I think I preached a decent sermon yesterday, so I guess I’ll post it. Despite the title of the sermon (“a remnant of light“), it’s a pretty dark message. I would apologize, but I couldn’t help it since the lectionary made me preach on Amos.
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Title: A remnant of light
Date: July 15, 2007
Texts: Psalm 82; Amos 7:7-17; Col. 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

The call to God in Psalm 82 is loud and clear. It ends with this line: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!” (v8). It’s a longing for the day of judgment, when God takes his throne and rules with justice. But what does justice mean? The Psalmist helps us figure that out: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (vv2-4). God’s justice is that much needed good news for the weak and needy and destitute.

But good news for some is bad news for others. Let’s think about rain, for instance. Some places need it really bad. The plants need it; crops depend on it. And it means I don’t have to water my garden. But rainstorms took on a different meaning after working on the construction crew for Steve. This past winter, I remember a few times when the evening rains began, my thankfulness at the water my plants received. But that moment of joy was quickly overtaken with anxiety as I tried to remember whether or not we secured a tarp over an addition to a house. The rain storms could be good news and bad news, depending on the situation. Good news for my garden; possibly bad news for the addition roof I might have left exposed.

And Amos makes us anxious when we think about the rains of justice coming down from heaven. The clouds of God’s justice will come, but that means trouble for the people of God. Amos prophesies,

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 a sword. (7:9)

Sure enough, the justice of God will come to Israel, but it will be like a sword of destruction. The places of worship will be leveled; and the king will loose his head.

Amos, this Southern (from Judah) shepherd and gardener, listens to the call of God—and God takes him on a dangerous trip to Bethel, a holy place in the Northern kingdom of Israel. And he gets there and prophesies terrible things. The stuff he says is so bad, so evil, so threatening, that the royal priest of Bethel calls Amos a qesher—and that’s bad. It means something along the lines of an insurrectionist, a revolutionary, a conspirator—maybe even a terrorist, if we pay attention to the things he says:

The Lord says, ‘I will crush you as a cart crushes when loaded with grain. The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life.’ (2:13-14)

And again in chapter 5:
Fallen is Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up. (5:2)

Amos is such a pessimist. A very bleak vision of the future. He prophesies unimaginable destruction. And he says all this when the times aren’t so bad, when, I’m sure, there are plenty of optimists out there who say good things. That’s probably the job of Amaziah, the priest at Bethel. He’s the royal priest at the royal temple—“the king’s sanctuary,” as it says in 7:13. Amaziah is the religious voice of the nation, and he’s in the back pocket of the king, probably speaking God’s blessings on all the affairs of the state.

I wonder if it’s his position of power, his place at the heart of the nation, that blinds him from what is about to befall Israel. How could anyone speak of a bleak future during a time of restoration, a golden age?

And along comes Amos, who doesn’t belong to any priestly or prophetic line, he has no legitimacy, no credentials—he’s a shepherd. But God has told him to prophecy destruction and desolation for the relatively good world established and sustained by Israel.

Why? Why the bad news for Israel? Is it just because Amos has a bad disposition, because he’s a pessimist? The earlier passages of Amos tell us why Israel needs to hear the bad news of the Day of the Lord. Let me read a smattering of passages—a sort of brief tour of Amos’ prophetic world.

‘I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed  and the mansions will be demolished,’  declares the Lord. (3:15)

You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice. (5:11-12)

Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says: ‘There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail. There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst. (5:16-17)

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion…. You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lamb and fattened calves… You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end. (6:1a, 4-7)

Going into exile. Because Israel has complacently harbored the evils of injustice, all that they have will be destroyed, and they will be taken away from their land. The golden age of feasting and wine by the bowlfuls rests upon the invisible oppression of the lowly. As it says in 2:7,
They sell righteousness for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.

I want to believe the best about Amaziah and his ministry at Bethel. And for that reason I can’t believe that he, as a servant of God and Israel, would knowingly and willingly participate in this golden civilization when it means so much misery for the lowly. I have to believe that he is that faithful leader who teaches the people of Israel how to pray the Psalms in the temple of Bethel. A Psalm like the one we read tonight: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

But the trouble for Amaziah, and all the rest of Israel, is that they are lulled to sleep. Their way of life clouds their eyes as they look at the world. They are sleepwalkers. Or, if we take seriously all the stuff Amos says about feasting and drinking and lounging on couches, then maybe it’s better to talk about a people who are high on life, drunk on possessions, people who get a buzz from their routine of work and play.

And, possibly worst of all, their religion simply aids their blindness. At least that’s what one of the more troubling passages from Amos says. What God says cuts like a sword, leveling the best of our holy and religious offerings, disturbing even this holy gathering, this worship service.

I hate, I despite your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream. (5:21-24.)

But let justice roll on like a river. It’s really hard to find some glimmer of hope in Amos, something to lead us somewhere besides the depressive nihilism of recognizing the evils of our way of life. Maybe learning how to see our lives differently is the first step toward the honesty that makes for faithfulness. At the very least, Amos calls us to the difficult work of repentance, of paying attention to all the ways our lives are bound up in invisible evils—unseen rays of darkness permeating our world and our lives.

But there is a glimmer of hope—at least enough to start us on a journey. 5:14, 15b: “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is… [And] perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”

Our hope is that we are that remnant living in exile. That’s also the hope offered in our passage from Colossians. Here’s the end of that passage we read:

Give thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (1:12-14)

The passage doesn’t deny that we live in the midst of darkness; it’s not dishonest. It doesn’t say that we have escaped exile. But it does say that, by the grace of God, we are part of the “saints of light” in the midst of that darkness. We are the remnant, in the midst of a world of darkness, bearing witness to God’s redemption. We are a people who God has called to be light, to shine the light of God’s justice, in a world darkened with evil.

We are the compassionate Samaritan who cares for the naked and beaten stranger on the dangerous road to Jericho. Or, at least, that’s who Jesus says shows us what it means to be a neighbor. The lawyer asks the question that all of us secretly ask: “So, who exactly is my neighbor?” It’s a good question. There are so many needy people we encounter along the way. There are so many hurt and hungry people we encounter in the news and on the way to work. How can we care for all of them? We have so few resources. We have so little time.

But Jesus isn’t interested in answering that question. Instead he tells the story of “a certain man,” Jesus says, on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s nondescript. Anonymous. We don’t know if he is a friend or an enemy. All we know is that he is barely alive after a severe beating. A priest sees him, and passes by. Then come a Levite, and he also passes him by. It’s not that they were evil people, without a conscience. It’s a dangerous road. Those same terrorists could be around the corner, waiting for another traveler.

And the priest and Levite, since they are holy people, might have remembered a verse from Wisdom ben Sirach, one of the holy texts of Israel, that says, “If you do good, know to whom you do it… Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner” (12:1f).

The point is that they can easily justify (even with scripture) why it’s not a good idea, why it’s not necessary, to stop and help. But it is a Samaritan, probably on a business trip, who stops and helps. I say that he might be on a business trip because Samaritans don’t really like going to Jerusalem, nor are they accepted as equals among the Jews. And it’s also not a good idea to be traveling with lots of valuable goods, like wine and oil, on that dangerous road to Jericho, unless you have to.

But he stops, not because he knows this man, but because, as the text says, “he was moved with compassion.”

Every once in a while, when we allow ourselves to feel the burden of the world, it is so easy to think that the solutions have to be grand. As soon as we think the all-encompassing darkness needs a systemic solution, we forget the story of the compassionate Samaritan. In that story, the setting is our daily lives of work, of travel, of going about our regular business. It takes stopping, for a moment. It takes being available for interruptions. It takes making ourselves vulnerable to risk.

This isn’t to rule out all the important large scale changes that need to take place for justice to roll down like a river. It is simply to notice that the compassionate Samaritan shows us how to start with our everyday lives—with where we are, with what we do, with what we see, or don’t see, because we don’t have the time.

I remember what Jen said last week, “We can so easily write a check, but it’s so much harder to get close enough to lift someone’s burden.” I think that’s exactly the message of this passage. The compassionate Samaritan carries this wounded stranger’s burden. But he did also write a very generous check, so to speak. He gave the innkeeper two denarii—which is about two days wages. And promised to pay whatever else it cost when he got back.

What does it mean to live in exile? What does it mean to live as that remnant of God’s redeeming light in the midst of so much darkness and evil? I think it means learning to live honestly, without illusions. It means waking up to the world Amos talks about, where our extravagant comforts and comforting extravagance depend on social and economic inequalities—Amos says it better, “You trample the poor and force him to give you grain.”

And the wonder of God’s grace is that, in the midst of all this, of all our evils and self-deception, we are invited into eternal life, we are invited to be part of the saints of light, participants in the kingdom of the beloved Son. And how do we do that? Well, that’s exactly the lawyer’s questions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And we know the story Jesus answers with. God’s eternal life poured out to the world happens as we give ourselves to our neighbor, all of them, everywhere, abandoned on street corners, the multitude of the nameless and wounded and disfigured, the half dead, barely alive.

The eternal life God offers has already begun. The kingdom has come near. There is redemption. There is forgiveness of sins. And we taste it and see it as we walk along the path, a risky path, that runs right through the darkness, with thieves and terrorists all around, and open our eyes and our lives to the people that others forget about. Eternal life begins when we “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus said, “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Tags: sermons