16 October 2012

Chapel Homily by Dr. Lehenbauer

Shared with his permission. Read and be blessed!

More than a Maybe
Amos 5: 6-7. 10-15
(IC Chapel:  10/16/12)

Imagine being privy to the following conversation between a pastor and his troubled parishioner:

Pastor:  Good morning, Frank.  What’s on your mind this morning?
Frank:    For some reason, pastor, my conscience has really been bothering me lately.  All I can think about is what a rotten, selfish person I’ve been for most of my life.  If I tell God  I’m really, really sorry, do you think he will forgive me? 
Pastor:  Hmmm, maybe.
Frank:    I just look at myself in the mirror these days and pretty much hate myself for the person I’ve become.  Do you really think that God could love and use a miserable sinner like me?
Pastor:  Hmmm, maybe.
Frank:    Frankly, pastor, I’ve never spent too much time thinking about heaven and hell—I’ve been obsessed with making money, getting ahead, moving up the corporate ladder.  But I’ve been going to a lot of funerals lately, and I don’t like to think about what’s going to happen to me when I die.  Do you think there’s any hope that I might make it to heaven, in spite of everything I’ve done?
Pastor:  Hmmm, maybe.
Frank:   Pastor, I know you must be very busy and have lots of important things to do—but do you think I could come back next week and talk to you again?
Pastor:  Hmmm, maybe.  Check with my secretary—I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. 
Frank:   Um, OK, thanks, pastor.  See you next week—maybe?

On a scale of zero to ten, how would you rate this pastor’s ability to proclaim and apply the comforting, saving, healing Gospel of Jesus Christ?

At first glance (or maybe even at second or third glance), you might be tempted to rate the Prophet Amos about the same way.  The first words out of the mouth of this shepherd-turned-preacher are these:  “The Lord roars from Zion… the pastures of the shepherds mourn, and the top of Mount Carmel withers.”   Amos begins by all of Israel’s neighbors one by one, pronouncing God’s unsparing judgment on them all.  And just when Judah and Israel start smirking self-righteously, look out!  The Lion of Judah thunders against his own people:  “For three transgressions and for four,” says the Lord through Amos, “I will not revoke the punishment, because my own people have rejected the law of the Lord.  They have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray.”

Martin Luther called Amos a “violent” prophet.  No prophet, says Luther, “has so little in the way of promises and so much in the way of denunciations and threats.”   Amos, says Luther, is aptly named, since “Amos” means “burden,” and this prophet does almost nothing but burden people with the guilt of their sin and the threat of God’s sure and certain punishment. 

There is, to be sure, a little Gospel in Amos, but so scarce and guarded is that Gospel that it almost comes across as Law.  The first real hint of the Gospel in Amos comes at the end of today’s Scripture reading, where Amos says:  “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; then the Lord God of hosts will be with you, as you have said…It may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” 

The word “maybe,” as our poor, troubled parishioner knows, is not exactly a powerful, calming, soothing Gospel word.  But, frankly, it’s the best Amos has to offer after five straight chapters of fire and brimstone:  “Maybe, just maybe, God will have mercy on you if you repent.  Maybe, just maybe, God will stay his fearsome hand of judgment and spare you, for the sake of his grace alone. “

What I’m about to say probably borders on heresy, but as the Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton liked to say, every real and radical truth of the Christian faith borders on heresy.  What we learn from Amos, perhaps, is that even a little Gospel is better than no Gospel.  If you’re drowning in the ocean and the icy waves are engulfing you, even the faintest sound of the rescue helicopter’s wings is better than no sound at all.  If you’re lost in the woods in the black of the night with the mercury falling and the wild creatures howling, even the tiniest flicker of a search party’s flashlight is better than no flicker at all.  If you’re dying of inoperable cancer, even a whisper of a rumor of a possible new treatment is better than no whisper at all.  And when you’re knocking desperately, almost hopelessly, on heaven’s door, even the slightest crack, however narrow, is better than having the door slammed in your face and hearing it bolted shut from the other side. 

Maybe, says Amos, just maybe there is some hope even now for you miserable, proud, smug, self-righteous, hypocritical sinners who oppress the poor and stomp on the needy and disregard God’s law and commands.  That’s how patient and merciful your God is; as rotten as you are, he may not have written you off completely yet.  Seek good, not evil; repent and seek the living God.  He has shown mercy in the past, when no mercy was deserved.  Cast yourselves and your sins on Him, and hope against all hope, that He will be merciful yet again. 

What Amos teaches us, it seems to me, is the true and Biblical meaning of faith.  Faith is hoping against all hope, trusting in a God who should by all rights damn us to hell, clinging to a God who sometimes looks to us like the devil, hanging on to God’s “maybe” as if it were the surest word we have ever heard—because in Jesus Christ, it is the surest Word we have ever heard. 

The Gospel itself, of course, is never a “maybe.”  As Paul says, all God’s promises find their sure and certain “Yes!” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).  But God, in his wisdom, knowing our human condition, knowing the way our twisted hearts and minds work, sometimes delivers those promises to us in ways that test and challenge our faith precisely in order to elicit a cry of faith and a confession of faith.  If you think about it, Jesus himself says some pretty strange-sounding things to seeker-sinners in the Gospels:  to the Syro-Phoenician woman, to the rich young man, to the woman at the well.  He sometimes preaches a strange-sounding Gospel.  But even a strange-sounding Gospel, as long as it is true Gospel, is better than no Gospel at all.  And if you’re desperate enough to keep on listening, even to someone like Amos, that Gospel gets louder and clearer the more you listen. 

Amos begins with God roaring like a lion out of Zion.  This is how Amos ends:  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,…when the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with it.  I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.  I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the Land that I have given them, says the Lord your God.”  No maybe’s there.  No maybe’s anywhere when we put our trust only and completely in Jesus Christ.  Jesus turns this roaring Lion into a Lamb.  Jesus is the Lion who became a Lamb, the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the whole world, and that includes all of your sins, every single one.  To Him be the glory forever and ever.  Amen. 

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