Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 10, 2022
Amos 7:7-17 Commentary
It just doesn’t pay to tell a prophet to shut up. Things tend to get worse. Or at least that is so with a true prophet of God. Hucksters, fakes, charlatans can be intimidated. They will flee when threatened. They will say nicer things for a price.
But not so the true prophets of God and not so of the once-timid, simple Shepherd of Tekoa known as Amos. When Amaziah tells him to clam up and/or say bad things only about some other people, Amos pits Amaziah’s command against the Lord’s command and finds Amaziah to be the loser in that scenario and so his words sharpen. Now instead of predicting dire things for the land of Israel generally, Amos’ words go after people’s wives, sons, daughters.
Amaziah should have left well enough alone!
But, of course, he could not do that because like most of the people of Israel in that day, he was so thoroughly self-deluded as to be insulated from the truth. There was little chance that Amos’ words could penetrate the barriers the people had erected to hold the truth about themselves at bay. The art of self-deception is, alas, one we each know well, though few would care to admit that. In fact, the better you are at self-deception, the less you are aware of it. First we deceive ourselves and then we further deceive ourselves that we have not, after all, deceived ourselves. Mind and memory can play such fanciful tricks on us, resulting in sometimes silly consequences and sometimes dire ones. In any event, we are good at doubly duping our very own selves.
On the silly side is something that happened to Ronald Reagan. During a 1980 campaign stop Reagan, with trembling lips and obvious conviction, told a World War II story about a pilot and his bombardier. Their plane had been hit but while the pilot could have ejected, the bombardier was too wounded–and his ejection seat too damaged–to get out of the spiraling plane. So the pilot reached over, took the man’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” It was a very moving story, until one reporter realized that if both men had died in the crash, there would have been no one to report these final words. When this was pointed out to Reagan, he was serenely unmoved. (Turns out it was a scene from a movie!)
On the more dire side of the ledger is the defense Nazi Adolf Eichmann offered at Nuremberg. Eichmann had been in charge of the massive transportation system that efficiently moved Europe’s Jews from one destination to another, ultimately landing most of them at one of the Third Reich’s many death camps. But Eichmann claimed his innocence in it all, saying that he was in charge of only transport and had no knowledge of where the Jews were going or what might happen to them once they got there. (And he seemed curiously uninterested in why no Jews ever needed a ride back from their various destinations.)
But these examples have to do with self-induced forgetfulness about specific incidents. The larger self-deception in which we are involved has to do with issues of who we are. Most people are loathe to admit that they are just generally bent toward the bad, inclined to do it wrong. So when the Christian tradition declares to any and all, “You are a sinner,” most people these days reply, “What did I do?” If sin exists at all, it is merely episodic, an occasional (and inexplicable) “lapse” from our better nature, which is at bottom “pretty good.”
How foreign is the notion articulated by theologian Emil Brunner. Brunner once noted that we can, in principle, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any people give in to every dark impulse. The average person, whether or not he is particularly religious, resists many temptations that come his way on the average day. He does not slip the Snickers bar into his coat instead of paying for it, does not exceed the speed limit, does not shove the person ahead of him in line for the subway, does not grab and grope a coworker or say sexually inappropriate things.
In principle the sinner can, and often does, avoid any particular sin, Brunner noted. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we have never done it wrong. We cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing, speak another cross word, or think another angry thought in the future. Even if the alcoholic promises never to take another drink or the adulterer vows never again to wake up in the wrong bed–and even if they keep those promises–what they cannot promise is that in addition to staying sober or chaste they will also remain just overall sinless.
We resist this, of course, as did the people in Amos’ day. They had quite neatly and thoroughly convinced themselves that their plundering of the poor was business as usual. The early bird gets the worm (and without apology to the late birds whose hunger is their own fault). The industrious make their own luck, the lazy get what they deserve. And if there was now and again some dim memory of God’s laws regarding the poor and how they were to be given extra help in order to survive, this was chalked up to pious sentimentality.
So God shows Amos a plumb line. Or some think that Amos may himself be, in essence, God’s straight line against which everyone else was to be measured. Either way God is saying that there is a right way to live in this creation (and most especially within the covenant people of God) and only those who have thoroughly obscured their view of that straight plumb line can persist in the self-deception and the delusion of doing it right all the time. For people such as this, the worst possible response to being told they are not living correctly is to tell the one bearing the news to hush up. God does not take kindly to being squelched!
For preachers today, a harsh text of judgment like Amos 7 is a challenge, at least if we are interested in preserving in our every sermon some sense of the gospel as Good News. But as Frederick Buechner has written, good news is only finally good to those who are first willing to face up to the bad news that precedes it. The sheltering word of the gospel is embraced best by those who first let the truth of their sin blow the roof off their houses of self-deception in which they convince themselves they do not require any help or salvation.
But a text like this reminds us, too, that God does take sin and evil and corruption and injustice powerfully seriously. But then, as New Testament Christians, we know that much already. Every symbol of the cross that we can see in our sanctuaries cries out the message that God takes sin with deadly seriousness—so much so that he sent no less than his only beloved Son to die in order to get this creation back into plumb once and for all.
The gospel is a gorgeous message of grace and hope. It’s a bright light shining in a dark world. But as Amos 7 sadly reminds us, it is possible to insulate one’s self from that beauty. It is possible to not be drawn to the light. We’ve all seen this in people. Maybe we’ve detected hints and whispers of it within our own selves. The challenge is to continue to be in love with the plumb line of God that shows us the real path to flourishing in this creation that God set up for us.
We need to swoon over all that is right, to love it passionately, and to repent of all those ways we and those around us rage against God’s good creation patterns. Because then the gospel still can get through to us, can still call us back to our better selves as re-created in Christ. And then we are not tempted to tell the prophets who speak the truth to shut up. Instead it is we who shut up so that we can hear the more hopeful message God is always trying to speak to us.
In an article some years back, a psychologist from Britain’s penal system described the startlingly loopy ways by which criminals attempt to sneak out from under their own crimes. He opened his article by reminding us that in his pseudo-suicide note years ago, O.J. Simpson had the audacity to write, “Sometimes I feel like a battered husband.” Whether or not O.J. killed his former wife, one fact that was nowhere in dispute was that while they were married, he beat the living daylights out of her on more than one occasion.
But, according to this British doctor, O.J.’s reversal of who was the battered one is typical. He recounts a time when a man who had just been sentenced to life in prison for murder emerged from the courtroom red-faced with rage. “That wasn’t justice, it was a kangaroo court,” he fumed. “They didn’t even call no medical evidence!” “Oh,” the psychologist replied, “what kind of evidence should they have mentioned?” “What she died of,” the man snapped. “And what did she die of?” “Hemorrhage.” “How did she get the hemorrhage?” the doctor asked. “They pulled the knife out,” was the murderer’s reply.
Denial becomes amnesia, amnesia transmutes into innocence. Yet another man, convicted of raping a woman, complained that a combination of whiskey and marijuana had reduced the night in question to a fog in his mind. “How can I defend myself when I can’t remember nothing?” he complained. “But if you cannot remember anything, you can’t deny the charges either, can you?” the doctor shot back. The rapist was wholly unmoved by that line of logic. This psychologist concludes, “In amnesia’s house there are many mansions, one of which is distortion of memory in the service of self-esteem.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!