By popular request, here is my sermon from this morning, given at the 8:30 chapel service at Trinity School for Ministry. You’ll have to forgive the conversational style; this also served as my notes.
The readings from this morning were Amos 9:1-10 and Matthew 23:13-26.
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We’re going to be focusing on the passage in Amos this morning, so if you’d like to take a moment to open your Bibles to Amos 9:1-10, go ahead and do that.
Like many of you here this morning, I am in Don’s Prophets class. (Don’t worry; I know not all of you are.) Partly out of a desire to be a good little student, and partly because I’ve had time, I’ve been reading through the prophets a little every day through our course. As I’ve read through these books, a few chapters at a time, as often as not I’ve been stopped in my tracks by … what I can’t describe as anything but God’s consistent grace through judgment. God has this pattern with the people of Israel: he offers a choice to respond with either faith or rejection, with wisdom or folly, with righteousness or with something else. Any hint of a good choice he seems willing to reward, and so we get stories of the many mixed-bag “heroes” of the Old Testament. But the overall trajectory through the prophets is not a good one. Chance after chance is given to the kings to choose to see God glorify himself through their weakness, through Israel’s weakness. And time after time, kings choose to rely on their own strength, on alliances with neighboring nations, on other gods that they can see and touch and understand. Along this downward trajectory God offers chance after chance to repent, even to the half-exiled Judah, even to the remnant. In the end, complete exile is the only way that God breaks the back of Israel’s pride, whence he will woo her back to him.
Our reading from toward the end of Amos is one of the apex points of this judgment. It comes nearly at the end of the book, and is the last of five speeches. But this one is different from the previous four. The previous four had a dialogue with the prophet, and increasing symbolism of judgment; this is a monologue from God and emphasizes the complete inescapability of God’s judgment. God has had it. Especially in Chapter 9, vv. 2-4. You would hope that God would just be done with you, but oh no. God is going to hunt them down, from the depths of the earth to the top of Carmel, even into exile.
And why? Because there is something they are NOT GETTING. v. 7 ‘“Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the Lord. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”’ All through their history, Israel has been getting a message that they are special. God chose them, for a purpose, but they kept thinking, well that means we’re special! Hey, we’ve got the God of creation on our side, isn’t that great? We see that in verse 10: “‘Disaster will not overtake or meet us.’” It’s unclear from the Hebrew whether they might actually be saying, “Never shall the Lord allow disaster to overtake or come near to us.” That seems to be the implicit challenge either way: they think that their status with the Lord protects them.
God is saying, no, you’re not special like that. Yeah, you had an exodus out of Egypt, but the Philistines and Arameans and Cushites (Ethiopians), they had exodus stories too. Guess who was behind those? ME. And just as they didn’t escape judgment, neither will you. Yes, you were different, but you were different for a purpose, to show ME to all those people. You have resisted that mission to the point that, in order for that mission of witnessing my glory to the world to succeed, I have to break you. Because I am NOT glorified by a nation that claims my name but does not follow me.
And so we get the conclusion in verse 8: ‘“Surely the eyes of the Sovereign Lord are on the sinful kingdom. I will destroy it from the face of the earth.”’ And that’s what happened. The kingdom of Israel was never completely re-established. The sovereign nation-state was done. But there would still be grace for the people, v. 8 continues. ‘“Yet I will not totally destroy the descendants of Jacob,”
declares the Lord. “For I will give the command, and I will shake the people of Israel among all the nations as grain is shaken in a sieve, and not a pebble will reach the ground.”’
Now, this is a great metaphor. Have you ever tried cleaning grain by hand? I have some idea of what this is like, because when I lived in Mexico, we had beans almost every day, and one of our regular chores was to “clean the beans”: you make an enormous pile of pinto beans in the middle of the table, and everyone sits around and goes through the pile, pulling out all the rocks, dirt clumps, straw, bad beans, etc. It took forever, and was a pain. But if you skip it – and I’ve skipped it a couple times, back here in the states, thinking there’s no way beans from Giant Eagle would have rocks – and ended up with an unpleasant crunch in my refried beans. You gotta clean the beans!
Can you imagine doing that with rice, or flour? You wouldn’t do that by hand, but with a sieve. You put all the grain in the top, and shake it ’till all the grain falls through, and all the junk stays in the sieve. You would normally do this indoors, or on a calm day, because if you do it outside on a windy day, then all your grain gets scattered and blown away in the wind! But this is the image God is using. He’s saying, “I’m tired of having crunch in my beans!” Instead of throwing out the polluted bag of grain, he says, I am going to sift you, and I’m going to do it outside in the wind. The junk will stay in the sieve and get judged, and the rest, by virtue of being shaken and scattered among the nations, will be cleaned.
Let’s shift gears a little bit and look at how our New Testament passage continues this theme. In the passage from Matthew, we get a similar image. That repeated refrain, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharasees, hypocrites!” makes it pretty clear that this is also a passage about judgment. They think they are righteous, trying to interpret the law down to the tiniest petty detail, but they’ve missed the heart of it. Jesus said, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” A very hyperbolic image, but similar to what we get in Amos.
In the Old Testament, God’s sieve was the exile. The northern exile, that Amos was preaching about, scattered the Northern kingdom among the nations. Meanwhile, the southern exile took Judah to Babylon for 70 years. It worked to a point; the Pharasees are an example of Jews who are completely devoted to God and the law, unlike their pre-exilic predecessors. Idolatry isn’t as much of a problem in the same way, and the residents of Israel weren’t so much going to foreign powers for help when they shouldn’t, as they are trapped in hegemonic relationships with powers like Greece and Rome. So those problems are better; those pebbles have been sifted out. But the Pharasees are still missing the point. Another sieve has to be applied.
And I think you can guess which one. The only way we can further be broken is to actually die. But dying doesn’t give us much of a chance to be wooed back to God again, does it? We’ll have to rise too. So Jesus died for us. That’s the once-for-all sacrifice that broke the back of sin, and his rising to life is the victory that defeated it forever. And by being baptized into his name, we join in his death and rising, claiming the death and resurrection he went through for us.
That is done, and we do not need to be afraid. But this is Advent, and we’re looking forward to Jesus’ return – the one final sieve. Just because Jesus paid for sin doesn’t mean he doesn’t care if we sin anymore. When we worship other gods that we can see, touch, and understand; when we make alliances with other powers instead of trusting in God; when we miss the point of God’s guidance and become legalists; those sins are still just as damaging as they were before Jesus paid for them. We don’t have to worry about final condemnation in the same way, but the question to ask is, when God sifts you, what will be left? So ask yourself today, what is the sin that still entangles? What are the pebbles still mixed in? And pray, with sober courage, for the grace of God to shake those pebbles out of you. This is no Pharasaic call to tithe your dill and cumin and leave your insides unwashed. This is no call to trust in your own strength. This is to throw yourself again into the waters of baptism and ask the grace of God to preserve you and wash you clean. That you might fulfill your purpose of bringing God glory among the nations.