So we get to read from the prophet Amos today, which is not all that common. Or to make an awful joke Amos is not all that famous. When I was in fourth grade our dear Sunday School teacher Mrs. McConnell (may she rest in peace) decided this would be a good book to study and I have to say that it scared me to death, because there was a whole lot of smiting and wrath. I am guessing that Amos even scared those who put the lectionary together because they skipped over verses 8 and 9, possibly because they found them too hot to handle. Those verses say among other things that, “The Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.” I guess perhaps the lectionary compilers were worried about alienating the fortress owning subculture in the crowd. But before I move on with my theme for today I should tell you a little about Amos – I mean he only has seven Sundays in the entire three-year cycle of the lectionary so let us at least give him a little Walt Whitman treatment and sing a stanza or two of him. Amos was one of the twelve Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. If you are wondering why he is minor and not major it is not a value judgment, but is rather because the book he wrote is relatively short, coming in at 9 chapters. Compare this to the Major Prophets like the loquacious Isaiah and Jeremiah whose books come in at 66 and 52 chapters respectively. Or to summarize: long book equals Major Prophet, short book equals Minor Prophet. Amos was active in the prophet business from around 760 and 755 BC. By profession he was a fig farmer and did not come from a family who specialized in the prophesying business (which I guess was a thing at the time). He was from the southern kingdom of Judah but did his prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel. His message dealt with among other things the ignoring of Yahweh’s law, religious hypocrisy and the neglect of the poor, which shows up in today’s lesson. In Amos’ telling these indiscretions are to be dealt with in the context of God’s divine judgment, which we also see today with lines like, “He will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.” So the quick overview of Amos is that God does not like those who do bad things, we should not put up with people who do bad things and God will eventually punish those who do bad things in rather nasty ways. So this raises the question, who are the people doing the bad things and what are those bad things?
And while this certainly may sound like an easy question to answer I am not sure that it is at least in our day and time. And the reason I say this is not because God has suddenly gone wobbly and changed up his views on right and wrong I say this because of our inability to see what is right and wrong. And the reason for this inability to see is because we are all sinful and fall short of the glory of God. That is we sometimes conflate our will and the will of God, believing the things that we put ahead of God are actually the things of God.
I generally do not bring politics into sermons largely because of this problem: I am not always sure that my view is always God’s view. But, having said that, I do want to use an illustration from the recent controversy over Brett Kavanagh’s elevation to the Supreme Court. I am not on The Facebook, but I do occasionally look at my wife’s account. On Facebook she is friends with two women who both graduated from Nashotah House and who incidentally came down on opposite sides of the debate over his confirmation. One was more vicious in her rhetoric but the underlying theme was the same, those on the opposite side of the debate were, to use my very technical term from earlier, doing bad things and were thwarting the will of God. And I am not exaggerating both had religious overtones built into their opinion. So again the question is how do we know who are the baddies? Here we have two Christian women of similar backgrounds convinced that two incompatible positions are the will of God?
Before I move on I want to clarify what I am discussing here a little more or at least clarify what I am not discussing. The conclusion to draw from people having two opposite views is not that there are no correct or right views; rather it is to show the difficulty and danger in explaining your view as also being God’s view. Because either God is schizophrenic or someone or perhaps both people are wrong. Meaning that we need to be very careful when we claim to speak for God.
So what is the solution or put more pithily what would Amos do? That is how, when we are offering a view that we claim comes from God, be sure that we are actually being like Amos and not simply trying to make our own view seem more important and righteous. I wish I had a foolproof method and am happy to offer suggestions like praying and conferring with other Christians, but there is one other thing that I have found useful that I would like to suggest. I wish it had a epigrammatic way of expressing it or at least a cute acronym but I am not that clever. Basically the suggestion is that if we find God constantly agreeing with us and never challenging anything we do or say, we are very probably not following his will.
Here is what I mean by that or at least an example of it. Some of you may be familiar with the sordid story of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster. It happened between February of 1534 and ended in June of 1535. It is a very fascinating story and is worth more attention then my brief synopsis. The quick version is that a group of Anabaptists (this was a group who among other things were opposed to infant baptism and whose descendants include the Mennonites) decided that Munster in northwest Germany was the site of the New Jerusalem and like Belinda Carlisle set out to make heaven a place on earth. It all started off well enough with some Godly things taking place like the poor being looked after but soon the leadership started having visions with God telling them very specific things and rather unorthodox things. For example God told the leadership of this New Jerusalem that every woman of marrying age needed to be married and since there were more women than men that meant that some men had to take on a few extra wives. The main leader of this group, Jan van Leiden, really went overboard in his magnanimity and took 16 wives. Incidentally, he had one beheaded because she criticized his God-sanctioned opulent lifestyle. But, of course, in Jan’s telling God disapproved of such criticism and to show just how much God approved of Jan he had this wife beheaded and then danced around her beheaded corpse singing and praising God. The city would ultimately fall to forces of the Bishop and Jan and his companions were executed and hung in cages in the tower of St Lambert’s Church (the cages are still there if you are interested in seeing them). What I always found amazing in this story was not only the ridiculousness of the prophecies but also that so many people went along with it. At some point Jan convinced himself that his will and God’s will were the same and that there was no need for outside consultation. But in retrospect we can all tell that Jan was being an idiot at best. And so to use some theological terminology we should not be idiots and pretend that God approves. Now for a little positive reinforcement let’s look at another event in Germany. In 1939 a young German theologian by the name of Dietrich Bonheoffer came to New York to teach. He had been very active in Germany in his opposition to the Nazi regime up to this time, doing things such as establishing underground seminaries that went against the collaborative version of Protestantism that was going on at the time. From the safety of New York he began to regret his decision and ultimately decided to return to Germany saying, "I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people... Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security." Bonheoffer would ultimately be hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945. Doing the will of God cost him his life, but his life also served and does serve as a light to the faithful to do God’s will even in the most difficult of circumstances. He is remembered because he truly proclaimed God’s will. Jan van Leiden is only remembered because the empty cages that still hang in St Lambert’s Munster as a testimony to the vanity of man. May we strive to truly do God’s will and not our own both now and forevermore.