(Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14)
14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
There’s a funny story about a trial that took place in a small town. The local prosecuting attorney called his first witness to the stand. The witness was a proper well-dressed elderly lady, the Grandmother type, well spoken, and poised. She was sworn in, asked if she would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, on the Bible, so help her God. The prosecuting attorney approached the woman and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?’” She responded, “Why, yes I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, cheat on your wife, manipulate people and talk badly about them behind their backs. You think you’re a rising big shot when you haven’t the sense to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper-pushing shyster. Yes, I know you quite well.”
The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” She again replied, “Why, yes, I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, has a bad drinking problem. The man can’t build or keep a normal relationship with anyone and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. Yes, I know him.” The defense attorney almost fainted. Laughter mixed with gasps, thundered throughout the courtroom and the audience was on the verge of chaos. At this point, the judge brought the courtroom to silence, called both counselors to the bench, and in a very quiet voice said, “If either of you morons asks her if she knows me, you’re going to jail.”
Though the story illustrates that sometimes it’s wise to ask only certain questions at certain times, it also illustrates the power of truth—pure, raw, nonfiltered truth. Mrs. Jones was simply adhering to her oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. The rules of the courtroom demanded that she testified to pure, raw, nonfiltered truth and her integrity kept her obeying the rules. We can’t help but wonder what truths Mrs. Jones might have testified to if the story was allowed to continue. But the story ended with an anxious judge not eager to have ugly personal truths exposed for all to hear. The story ended by indirectly exposing the power of truth. There is great power in truth. Truth can build great trust while tearing down great distrust. Truth can establish the necessary foundation for relationships to flourish. Truth can eliminate the stronghold that sin can have over our lives. Sin thrives in lies and deception. But truth doesn’t allow sin to take hold of our lives. Truth frees us from our bondage to sin and death. As the expression goes, truth does set us free in unimaginable ways unlike anything else. There is great power in truth indeed!
Mrs. Jones’ testimony gave witness to the power of truth. But her witness is unique to her. Scripture also gives us a variety of witnesses to power of truth as illustrated by our assigned readings for this week. In our first reading, we heard of Amos’ calling into prophecy for the people of Israel. God came to Amos and entrusted him with the responsibility of bringing Israel back into right relationship with God. And as is the case with many prophetic callings, bringing people back into right relationship with God often entails bringing words of condemnation and judgment. Amos’ prophetic calling was no different. God demanded that Amos stir up His people with difficult words of truth. The Israelites didn’t want to hear words of truth in their time of broken relationship with God. The Israelites didn’t want to answer for their sins, let alone acknowledge them as such! What people ever wants to acknowledge their sins?! Few people eagerly testify to their sins. Sins are shameful. Sins invoke personal guilt. Few people like feeling guilty! So what God entrusted Amos with was a difficult task.
To compound his difficult task of prophesying to the sinful people of Israel, Amos had to deal with angry, jealous priests like the priest of Bethel, Amaziah. Amaziah ran off to the king of Israel and forewarned him of Amos’ prophetic words of judgment. Like the judge in the earlier story, Amaziah was afraid of Amos’ words of truth and worked to instill fear in the king as well. Amos felt his prophecies needed to be heard, not because of his calling to be a prophet but rather because words of truth demand to be heard…especially God’s words of truth! Amos wasn’t a self-declared prophet. He had training in speaking prophecies. But he did value God’s words of truth. He did know that God’s words of truth would be heard eventually whether through him or someone else God called. Words of truth need to be heard…words of truth must be heard! They are too powerful not to be heard. Amos’ calling was a witness to this.
In our gospel reading, we heard the tragic end to another of God’s prophets, John the Baptist. John had built quite a reputation of speaking harsh words of truth to the people of Israel. For years, he had demanded that the Israelites repent of their sins and prepare the way of the Lord. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of shining a light on Herod’s sin of marrying his sister-in-law. Herod’s daughter, Herodias, was shamed by her father’s exposed sin and had developed spite for John. Again, like the attorneys in the earlier story, John failed to respect that exposing certain truths in certain situations might get him into trouble. Yes, the truth of Herod’s sinful marriage needed to be exposed but perhaps not by John. Herodias’ spite eventually got John beheaded, indirectly illustrating the often tragic power of truth. Truth, when allowed to ring forth, can have unexpected consequences. We live in a world that is saturated with lies and deception and sometimes truth can cause a ripple effect in the vast sea of untruth. Poor John lost his life by speaking difficult words of truth. There is great power in truth to unleash great, often tragic, forces in this world.
The witnesses of Amos and John the Baptist help prepare us for the ultimate witness of Jesus. Jesus built his entire ministry on speaking words of truth into situations that were overrun with lies and deception. And like John, he eventually paid the ultimate sacrifice for speaking those words. As we continue on our journey through the Pentecost season, forming our identities as disciples of Christ, it is important to recognize the power of truth…the power of God’s truth. As Christians, we, too, are entrusted with the responsibility of testifying to the power of God’s truth. What is God’s truth? LOVE! We are called to testify to the truth of God’s love. God loves us! God has always loved us. God will always love us. Truth and love and God are deeply intertwined and we are called to give witness to this. Speaking words of truth can be difficult at times and in certain situations. Speaking words of truth can have unexpected consequences. We are all called to speak words of truth, whether we’re formally trained prophets or not. If Amos and Mrs. Jones can do it, then so can we. Let us go out boldly into the world, speaking the sometimes difficult but, oh, so important words of truth that God loves us!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.