I am somewhat tempted, this evening, to not give a sermon. I don’t know if you’re inwardly rejoicing at that, or not. Instead of me preaching, we could take 5 minutes of silence, to think, or to pray, or to maybe have a small nap?
My reasoning for this temptation is not – surprisingly enough – down to the fact that I haven’t come up with anything to say (though I did find this evening’s readings difficult to think about what to talk about), but actually because we’ve already had one sermon already. Or at least, we’ve already had the end of one sermon already.
Did you hear it? Don’t worry, you didn’t blink and miss an itinerant priest bound up to the pulpit and deliver a pithy and precise homily. No – it was, as you’ve probably guessed, one of our set readings for the evening – our piece from the book of Amos.
You wouldn’t know it from tonight’s reading – it was not the most uplifting of passages – but Amos is probably one of my favourite books from the Old Testament. It’s not a comforting book; most of it is a stinging, venomous, spat-out rebuke of God’s people; but it is powerful in its writing, and shows a writer who deeply cares about justice and righteousness; who hates hypocrisy and greed. The book is lightened at the end, by a vision of the final restoration of the people of God, of plenteous wine and bountiful harvests.
But not tonight.
Tonight, we heard only of punishment, and judgement.
As I said, this passage was most likely originally a sermon – the end of a sermon. And we didn’t get the full impact of it in what we heard this evening. I’ll try to give some context, and hopefully go some way to explaining what this sermon must have been like.
Amos starts his sermon a whole chapter earlier – right at the beginning of the book. He’d come up to Israel from their main rivalling nation, the southern kingdom of Judah and starts to preach his hellfire-and-brimstone sermon against Israel’s neighbours. If Israel had anything like the relationships they did with their neighbours, as we in the UK do with our neighbours in the EU, I think we could be confident in saying that his congregation must have lapped it up. In fact, Israel’s relationship with their neighbours was quite a lot worse than ours with the EU, if that can be imagined. They were often at war, and not at all on friendly terms.
Amos starts off by prophesying punishment on Damascus, and then Gaza, then Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab. Each time, using this phrase “for three transgressions… and for four”. It’s an odd phrase, isn’t it? It turns on the fact that the Jewish people placed importance in numbers. ‘Three’ is a number of completeness. We still have the concept in our culture – I'm sure you've heard the idea that bad luck comes in threes, or that the perfect sermon has three points (that writes this one off, then). The idea behind this phrase of Amos’ is that not only have Israel’s neighbours sinned completely – three transgressions – they’ve gone above and beyond that in their wickedness – a fourth as well. And boy – are they going to get it from God! I imagine Amos preaching – perhaps in the style of Mr Nigel Farage reeling off the sins of France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey and Belgium. You can imagine the glee in the audience as they listen to him preach.
|Amos, doing his best Nigel Farage, 'man in the pub' impression|
There’s another number at play here, too, though: Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab. That’s six neighbours. But anyone who was anyone back then knew that seven was a very significant number. Amos' sermon couldn’t stop there. There had to be a seventh neighbour, whose punishment must be more severe than the previous six. A neighbour to preach such punishment upon that the congregation would stand up, and whoop and cheer. That neighbour was, of course, Israel’s great rival, Judah. And so, Amos preached against his own land of Judah, and the crowd went wild. In my Brexit-inspired imaginings, Farage has ended his speech by blasting away at Germany (although in my example, Farage needs to come from Germany in the first place).
“Brilliant!”, shout the crowd. “What a great way to finish your sermon!”
And then Amos continues; “For three transgressions, and for four…”
“No! Wait-”, the crowd say. “You’ve done seven neighbours. You’ve ended with our great rival – you’ve finished! That was the perfect ending!”
“For three transgressions of you, Israel, and for four…”
The crowd must have instantly gone silent. The atmosphere must have turned completely.
This was not what they wanted to hear. Of course, they loved hearing of the sin of their neighbours, but not their own sin. They didn’t want to hear about God judging and punishing them.
But this is how Amos’ sermon continues – and for quite some time. He’s devoted a few verses to each of Israel’s neighbours, but now, he pronounces judgement on Israel themselves for several chapters – for much of the rest of the book. In my scenario, Farage has suddenly turned on the UK, blasting us for our treatment of the poor, our willingness to use and abuse people for our own means (for money, for sex, for power) and for the way we treat Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, and all people of faith in our land. Would that it were so! I think, though, in attributing this kind of speech to Nigel Farage, I have probably finally entered the realms of fantasy.
I have seen people attempt to rewrite Amos’ sermon, to apply it to us, here and now. To the US, or the UK. I didn’t want to do that. I’m not a hellfire-and-damnation preacher. But I do think it’s important that tonight we heed Amos’ message. Like Israel, we – and by that I mean separately and together, the UK, Christians, the Church of England, and each individual one of us – have all done wrong. The book of Romans reminds us that we ‘all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God’ and that ‘There is no-one who is righteous, not even one’.
Sometimes, we’re too quick to write off our wrongs with the knowledge that we are forgiven. It is true, of course, we are forgiven. But if we brush away that which we have done wrong too quickly, we are at risk not only of sweeping it under the carpet, but pretending it was of no importance – we are forgiven, and so we let ourselves forget.
The German anti-Nazi theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote about this. He talked about the dangers of preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance; of allowing the slate to be wiped clean without taking time to think about the weight of that which was written upon it. He called it Cheap Grace. Devaluing the wrong that was done makes our 'being forgiven' worthless. It is cheap and easy to forgive an offensive word, but harder and costlier to forgive that which has hurt us. It is harder and costlier yet to forgive injustices and abuses of power.
And this, despite our surface-viewing, is why our reading from Amos tonight is good news for us here today. When seen through the lens of the cross, through the work of Christ, we know that this heavy judgement proclaimed by Amos is one that has been overwritten by grace. Not the cheap grace that Bonheoffer warned us of, but one that includes recognition and repentance of our wrongs – in reading and hearing and thinking about this passage from Amos, we are able to contemplate our own wrongs. In doing so, we confront our own part in injustice, and, as we resolve to do what we can to dismantle injustice wherever we see it in our world today, we see the great price of the grace our God has bestowed upon us. Tonight’s readings help us to refocus on the amazing expense, and depth, height and width of our own forgiveness, and work towards that vision that Amos saw at the end of his book – for the restoration of all people, of plenteous wine and bountiful harvests; a world where justice rolls like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.