Fr Paul’s Sermon, 15th July 2018

“Amos and John the Baptist: Compare and contrast.” That would make a good examination question in Scripture. The most obvious comparison is that both of them confronted a wicked King. Amos, seven centuries before John, warned King Jeroboam that his country would be made desolate, the King would die, and the people would be sent into exile. John was in prison for daring to tell King Herod that he was an adulterer.

But there are contrasts. Amos was simply told to clear off home, while John paid for his criticism with his life. Amos claimed not to be a prophet or a prophet’s son (at the time, at least some prophets had official status), while John was certainly a priest’s son, and would have been entitled to exercise a priestly ministry if he had wished to do so – it was hereditary.

Most of all, the burden of Amos’s message was a warning that Israel faced devastation and exile, and the end of its monarchy. Bad news! The fundamental message of John, who identified himself with “a voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” an allusion to the words of Isaiah, was that the Exile was over, the true King was coming back, and it was time for Israel to get ready. Good news, in fact, as Mark put it at the start of his Gospel, the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

The implication of this proclamation was that the existing worldly powers, Herod and Caesar in particular, were usurpers. Caesar, on his coinage, described himself as “son of a god (i.e. his deceased predecessor)” and “saviour”.  These titles, in a much fuller and truer sense, belong to Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah.

What are the implications of this for us, today? At one level, the examples of Amos and John remind us of the need, and the duty, to rebuke the powers of this world when they deviate from the laws of God. They remind us that there are such things as the laws of God, higher than any earthly law. They invite us to ponder what these laws may be, how we are to discover and recognise them, how they are to be applied. They remind us of the price that may be paid by those who boldly rebuke vice and denounce injustice.

This price is paid today, for example, by journalists in some countries who may find themselves in prison for criticising their government – or even killed, by some convenient “accident”, or by murder by some undiscoverable assassin. Political demonstration, however peaceful, may be put down by brutal force. It becomes difficult for ordinary citizens even to find out what is going on, when there is no access to unbiased sources, or when such sources are denounced as “fake”.

We are lucky in this country: journalists are not locked up for exposing wrongdoing in public office, comedians are free to satirise and make fun of politicians. We are free to demonstrate peacefully, we are free to vote out unsatisfactory governments. We even pay a Member of Parliament to lead the official opposition to the government of the day. With all the faults of our society, let us be thankful that we have these privileges and this power. But that puts the greater responsibility on us to use it responsibly; to speak out (because we can), to question public policy (because we can); to use our vote in an informed way (because we can). Theoretically and constitutionally we have a monarchy that symbolises the ultimate authority of God. Our Queen understands this and herself reminds us of it. But real power and sovereignty (of which we hear a lot) comes from the people. We are a democracy. Therefore it is WE who have to remember that we are answerable to God for the way we use our power, to speak out and to vote.

Jesus is our King. Not a constitutional monarch who can act only on the advice of ministers elected from below, but a real sovereign and the source of all earthly sovereignty. God showed Amos a plumb line, a standard by which to demonstrate the accurate alignment of the building. We have such a standard in the Gospel, in the example and teaching of our Lord. We are called to hold this standard up against the behaviour of the world, and to uphold it by our own lives and behaviour.