22 September 2019 Vicar Philip Bartelt
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The texts before us today are the Gospel and the Old Testament lessons heard read just moments ago and these texts have been to me a thorn in my flesh all week long because of how dark and obscure they are, especially the Gospel. I’ve been somewhat at a loss for what to say. In Luther’s study of Psalm 119 he derives three rules from Scripture about how one should study the Scriptures. The first rule is to pray and specifically to pray that the Holy Spirit would enlighten you. The second rule is to meditate on the written word. Chew the proverbial cud or “inwardly digest” as our post communion collect says. Rule three is to suffer with the Scriptures. For Luther a true theologian is made under the attacks of Satan and the persecution of devils. I began my studies on Monday reading through commentaries, reading through the Greek and Hebrew, chatting with some trusted confidants over beers and cigars (which is the best way to do theology). I continued this study with our esteemed Tuesday morning Bible study group which Pastor praised so highly as a beacon of light into the Scriptures and I read these same readings during evening prayer Wednesday night and meditated on them then. After evening prayer a member came up to me not knowing that I was to preach the text and said, “Oof! That is an interesting Gospel text! That’ll make for a difficult sermon!” and I said, “I know! I’m the one that has to preach it too!” Nothing makes a wound feel better than a little lemon juice right? Thursday morning I woke up, lit some incense, and prayed through Matins, reading through the texts again and praying that some light would shine on the text. Friday morning I sat down to write and it dawned on me. The reason there is so little light in the text, the reason why this text has befuddled so many theologians, is that this text is about darkness.
Amos is an entirely dark book. It is filled with thick clouds of darkness that bring with them thunder, lighting, and fire from heaven because it is a book entirely of judgment. Amos, a shepherd from the Southern kingdom, is declared a prophet and sent to the Northern kingdom to preach against their false worship and idolatry. Being from the South yourselves you can imagine how well that went over among the Yankee Israelites for Amos. Needless to say, the Yankees were not happy to hear God’s message because they had fashioned for themselves a new god, a better one. His name is Mammon and unlike Yahweh, Mammon gets a man all the desires of his heart. Mammon gives them glory, fame, and power. Mammon gives them status and prestige. Mammon gives them security and happiness. Mammon is himself a glorious god. Shiny and rare, printed with the faces of glorious and powerful men. Mammon takes on many forms, but as Luther says in his Large Catechism on the first commandment no god is more common among men than Mammon. Even the Israelites were not immune to his charms and neither are Christians today.
This is the reason why Amos, our Southern Gentleman Prophet, prophecies the way he does. The depravity of the Northern kingdom is so great that they don’t even try to hide their contempt for Yahweh and his laws. “When will this new moon be over? When will Sabbath be done? So that we can go back to serving the true god, Mammon! Yahweh cared for the needy and the poor, but Mammon sees who is really important: me, myself, and I.” There is a tragic irony in their words here. The Israelites themselves were a people not their own. They were all once slaves in Egypt and they were all once bought by Yahweh himself from their bondage into freedom. God purchased them to be his own and in their freedom they chose to buy and sell each other back into slavery. Furthermore, Israel was the people who were supposed to confess boldly the great Shema, “Hear O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one”, but instead they only confess Mammon and the other gods of this world. So, God now becomes the one who confesses boldly a Shema against them, “Hear this O Israel, you who swallow up the needy and make the poor of the land fail…. I will never forget any of your works! Prepare to meet your God.” And this is the confession Yahweh makes concerning all idolaters and worshippers of Mammon. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Unfortunately Israel’s disobedience is not one we can look on dispassionately and from afar. We ourselves are naturally inclined to serve Mammon and other gods. We are naturally pharisees who love money and will grumble and deride anyone who says otherwise. And this is a primary point that Luther makes his Heidelberg Disputation, his Resolutions of 1518, and later The Bondage of the Will. In Heidelberg Luther says free will exists in name only and at the end of the year he doubles down. I said once that free will “exists” in name only and what I should have said is that it’s a fiction! It is what today we call “fake news”! Because our so called free will is completely bound to sin. Whenever we seek to exercise free will we will only ever freely choose to do the evil thing. We will only ever choose Mammon. We won’t choose God. And this puts God in a conundrum. “I want to save these people, but the only thing I can count on them to do is only evil all the time! They are a people of darkness.” This very sentiment is expressed in John 3. The Son of man came into the world to save, but the people loved darkness rather than light.
It’s almost like a rich man who has a wicked steward who really ought to be fired for all his wickedness, but instead the rich man wants to redeem this wicked steward. So the rich man makes a bet and he’s betting on the wicked steward to do exactly what he’s always done: wickedness. If I threaten to fire this guy I know that he will be selfish and look out only for his own interests and what other people think of him, but at the end of the day forgiveness of debts is my goal. Unjust steward deals unjustly and it is precisely through this injustice that the will of the rich man is done and at the end he can say, “well done good and faithful steward.” Or is it servant?
To use another good story, it’s almost like a Father who has children who are wicked beyond belief (stealing apples and murdering brothers) and asks himself, “How can I have mercy on an entire generation that just wants to kill me? I know! I’ll send my Son to take on their sin and be their Savior. They’ll crucify him for it out of selfish wickedness, but this will be how I do it. I’ll hide myself under the form of a man becoming a servant. I’ll hide under the form of weakness and humility because the only way to give life to these people is through death. The only way to give them heaven is for me to take on hell. All men have to offer freely is their sin, resistance, wickedness, death and darkness and all God has to offer freely is his favor, love, holiness, blessedness, righteousness, innocence, and light. It’s not a fair trade, but fortunately God doesn’t like playing by the rules and this is why it’s possible for good things to happen to bad people. Because at the right time God sent his Son born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that they might receive the adoption of sons. And so we find that neither heights, nor depth, the present, nor the past, angels, nor demons, nor all the darkness we bring to the table will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Thinking about it now, this is probably why the text remained so dark for me all week long. It’s because God isn’t in the glorious lights of this world where we’d expect him. God hides himself intentionally in the dark. He sneaks up on us in the darkness of death, in the folly of the cross, and in the works of unjust men in order to bring men into the light of salvation and the peace of God which passes all understanding which will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.