If Amos had been a good boy and known his place, he would never have become the first of the Old Testament prophets. You see, back in his native, 8th-century BC Judah, prophecy was a family business, and if you weren’t born into it, you were expected to keep your mouth shut. And true to form, it seems his own people weren’t that interested in what he had to say, because he ended up prophesying not in his native Judah, but heading up north to the wealthier Kingdom of Israel – which should, I hope, ring a bell, if we remember last week’s Gospel: a prophet is without honour in his homeland. Jesus made no headway in Galilee and so sent out his Apostles elsewhere. And it’s no coincidence, because this week’s texts continue with last week’s theme, which is mission.
Amos was a new kind of prophet, a missionary prophet, an outsider to the establishment and even to the nation he prophesied in, and that’s why his story was interesting enough to be recorded as the earliest prophetic book in the Old Testament. Israel at that time was wealthy and decadent, its rulers and priests paying the merest ritualistic lip service to their God. In fact, they saw their God as only their God, just one tribal god among the many others, who in the day of judgment would crush all the other gods and their followers. Their own faith or moral discipline had nothing to do with it. The world would be theirs simply by birthright, because they were the arbitrarily chosen people of a god who was better than the rest.
The reason Amos came was to repudiate all this, inspired, he claimed, by God himself: to tell the Israelites that their God was the only God, that He was not some capricious pet deity for their tribe but was fundamentally good and just, and that the Israelites therefore would be subjected to his justice as much as anyone else. Hence, the plumb line in the vision: that simple pendulum by which a builder judges the straightness of a wall. God told Amos that Israel was bent. So that’s what he told them, and they weren’t best pleased. Hence the priest Amaziah accuses him of being a professional prophet and tells him to go back to where he came from; but Amos retorts that he’s just a simple herdsman, following a direct vision from God.
If Amos was the first of this new, inspired, reforming prophetic line, then – as it is often said – John the Baptist was the last; he pointed to the final plumb line, Jesus the Messiah as the measure of all things; and his message was about as welcome as Amos’. But we mustn’t let the gory story of his beheading obscure the main point here: it’s just a flashback, Mark’s brief explanation of why Jesus might not be so popular in this Herod’s lands. I say ‘this Herod’ because there was at least one other Herod at the time, both ‘Tetrarchs,’ that is ruler over a quarter of their late father, Herod the Great’s, lands. This Herod was Herod Antipas, ruler over Galilee, and he was clearly anxious about Jesus and the recent missionary activity of the Apostles. So, I think, it’s no coincidence that the episodes which follow today’s passage take place outside Galilee, outside Herod Antipas’ dominion: in Bethsaida, Tyre, Decapolis, Caesarea Philippi, for instance. Not only was Jesus preaching to deaf ears in his homeland, there was considerable risk that he might be sending his Apostles to the same fate as John the Baptist. And of course, Jesus would one day meet him face-to-face.
Amos, John the Baptist and Jesus faced decadent societies that found their relationship with a just and loving God inconvenient. He got in the way of their material possessions, their power, their notions of national superiority, their lifestyle choices. So they replaced Him with an idol of their own making: a god the wealthy could always tip with enough little sacrifices to win his favour. They turned their eyes from the vision of the reality that he had so often shown them: the demanding reality of transcendent love that is at the heart of all being. For them, the rewards of the natural world were enough; now they were rich, they no longer worried about its supernatural origin. And hasn’t our society has done the same? People have come to believe that we can make decisions on love, commitment, commerce, all kinds of interpersonal relationship, without any reference to divine love, without any notion of the sacramental connection of our world and actions to the transcendent reality of the Heavenly Kingdom. Perhaps it is an understatement to say this has hardly been an unqualified success.
We have a job to do. We have a mission. Not to go out and moralise – because ultimately Christianity is not about values, it’s about relationship with God – but to show that there is a better, more fruitful way: a way moored firmly in transcendent love, a way lived in sacrificial self-giving, a way that others can see in us and will want to emulate. There’s an example to be set,, but more importantly, there’s love to be given. We don’t necessarily need to go into danger zones, like the land of Herod Antipas, to be witnesses to Christ. But like Amos, John and the Apostles, we do need to go out of our comfort zones, out of cosy ideas, convenient morality, assumptions of cheap grace. How we do that together as the church in Berkhamsted is the key concern of the PCC at the moment, and we will soon be inviting everyone here to have your say about where this church goes from here. But we can all start thinking about it now. What does this town need from us? What can we give? What might it cost us – where is our Cross? What, when we have received at this Mass, are we being sent (‘missa’) out to do?
How upright do we stand against the plumb line of divine love?