Bringing the Text to Life
Sunday, July 14, 2019
How can we turn a bad year into a good one?
AT A GLANCE:
The question is: What year was the worst year ever to be alive? Historians have an answer to this question. The prophet Amos also has some ideas. This leads to a discussion of what we can do to ensure that our lives are full of goodness and meaning.
For material based on today’s epistle text, see “Cut Flower Church,” July 15, 2001.
For an alternative idea pertaining to Luke 10:25-37, see “The Kindness Contagion.”
“A foreboding cloud of black ash blocks out the sun from Europe to Asia. An outbreak of bubonic plague coincides with a piercing cold snap. Crops fail. Starvation, darkness and squalor abound.”
That’s the opening paragraph of an article last year declaring that in the history of humankind, the year 536 was the worst year to be alive in the Northern Hemisphere, according to research by a group of history and climate specialists.
Or as Harvard history professor Michael McCormick put it, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.”
The black cloud was the result of a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland that triggered 18 months of darkness; “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. And this was compounded by two more eruptions in the years 540 and 547. This cloud of ash blocked the sun, which caused frigid temperatures that blighted crops, resulting in starvation. This was followed by an outbreak of bubonic plague that wiped out somewhere between a third and a half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and led to an economic downturn that lasted 30 years.
So if you could be a time traveler, the year 536 probably should not be on your itinerary. And don’t forget that historians settled on 536 as the worst year to be alive despite some other significantly dark contenders, including 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, and 1918 when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people around the world, mostly young adults.
722 B.C.: A very bad year
On a smaller geographic scale, 722 B.C. could be a candidate for the worst year to be alive. We get an ahead-of-time look at that in the text for today.
The timeframe is the post-Davidic period of the divided kingdom. The capital and worship center of the southern kingdom of Judah was Jerusalem, whereas in the northern kingdom of Israel, the capital was Samaria and the worship center was Bethel.
But there were some unholy things going on in Israel —dishonest merchants, abuse of the poor, court decisions being bought and sold, corruption in the priesthood, and, of course, idolatry.
At this point, God called Amos, a herdsman from the southern kingdom, to travel to Bethel in the northern kingdom to confront the people there about their sins. Amos did that, and he talked about God holding a plumb line in the midst of Israel and the people being far “out of plumb” spiritually — that is, far from where God wanted them to be. Amos warned that unless the people repented, they would suffer God’s wrath.
Not surprisingly, these words did not please Amos’ audience. And Amaziah, the chief priest of Bethel, stepped forward to remind Amos that he was a foreigner, essentially telling him that if he wanted to prophesy, he should go home to Judah and tell his fellow Judahites about their sins, but to leave Israel alone.
Amos responded by informing Amaziah what was going to happen to Israel. Earlier in this chapter, Amos said that the Lord had showed him a coming locust plague (vv. 1-3) and a shower of fire (vv. 4-5), both of which God called off at Amos’ intervention on behalf of Israel.
But now, with Israel’s refusal to repent, Amos said that in just a few years, Israel’s King Jeroboam II would die by the sword, the nation would be destroyed and the people of Israel would go into exile (all of which happened when the capital fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. — making it a bad year indeed for the Israelites).
Amaziah didn’t believe it, however, and ordered Amos to go home. Amos answered by prophesying that the coming year of exile for Israel would also be the worst time to be alive for Amaziah personally. Specifically, his wife would become a prostitute in the city, his sons and daughters would fall by the sword, his land would be parceled out to others and Amaziah himself would die in exile.
That’s harsh. Not good.
2019: A good year?
In any given year, there’s always enough bad news to convince us that things overall are terrible and that at least for some people, it’s the worst of years. (There’s also always enough bad news to convince some people that we are living in the end times — even though Mark 13:32 plainly says that not even Jesus, but only God the Father knows when that end will be!)
Amos mentioned a locust attack, and it was common in his day to use the phrase “the years that the locusts have eaten” (see, for example, Joel 2:25) to refer to wasted years and a wasted life. By this standard, the people in the town ironically named Paradise whose homes last year were reduced to ashes by the horrific Camp wildfire in northern California, experienced 2018 as a year the locust had eaten. In that community alone, 38 people died from the fire. According to Paradise’s mayor, about 90 percent of the housing and about 50 percent of the business-service sector of the town was consumed by the fire.
What makes for a good year or a bad one?
For most of us, whether we’re in the midst of a good year or a locust-eaten one is likely related not to national or global events but to matters which have an impact on our own lives and those of our family members.
Recently, a questioner on Quora asked how life was different for Americans under President Donald Trump. One responder replied by describing how his life had been under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump. In each case, that man’s description of his life was almost identical, his point apparently being that in terms of his lifestyle and pursuit of happiness, who was in the White House made very little difference.
That response might not have been true had that man been an illegal immigrant or someone living in a certain Muslim country who wanted to visit family in the United States.
But for many of us, it’s not the national-headline-type events that most affect our lives. No, it’s more likely job losses, illnesses, accidents, marriage failures, deaths of loved ones, localized natural disasters, missing sense of purpose — or absence of such things — that determine how we would differentiate one year in our lives from another.
So, how can we adjust our attitudes and/or change behaviors to create “good years,” that is, profitable and productive years, not “years that the locust has eaten”?
The following assumes we all know it is foundational that we not make bad choices placing our lives and the lives of others at risk. You’re probably headed for disaster if you’re caught in some nasty, bad stuff. It’s going to come back to bite you — you know where. Life is not going to be good.
That said, here are some suggestions that may help your congregation understand how to create a good life:
Remember, it’s not about you. Even in years when all things material go well for us, we can have a sudden feeling of life flattening on us. Such feelings can come upon us anytime, but we are especially susceptible when some event happens that changes our routine, such as our last child leaving home, some huge goal finally accomplished or our arrival at retirement. When things of that nature happen, we may feel as though our life purpose has been yanked out from under us. We may find ourselves at loose ends, feeling aimless and wondering what the meaning of life really is, if, in fact, there is any meaning at all. It may seem like a bad year.
We know that God has a purpose for our lives — to give glory to God — and that by doing that, daily meaning comes to our lives as well.
Several years ago, a psychologist named Henry Link was led through his study of human behavior and psychology to give up Christianity as an outdated superstition. In working with his patients, however, he found that often, as he tried to help them unsnarl tangled lives and bad years, he needed to be able to give them something to love outside of themselves. The only permanent thing he could give them was God, and Dr. Link soon found that he had talked himself back into being a Christian.
In the long term, we need the satisfaction only God can give, and reaching out beyond ourselves remains a way God has provided for us to make our years be good ones.
It’s not about you. It’s about God. And it is about others.
Remember, it’s not about the money. A feverish quest to fatten one’s bank account is not going to make anyone happy.
Sears, Roebuck and Company once used a marketing slogan that went something like this: “The Good Life at a Great Price. Guaranteed.” Washing machines, big-screen TVs and lawn furniture — as attractive as such items may be — do not constitute the good life as described in the Scriptures. Such objects are quite beside the point.
More than being beside the point, the single-minded pursuit of pleasure through consumer spending is a significant distraction — a detour — away from the life of the Spirit. Just remember the sad tale of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.” That young man “went away sorrowful” — the only recorded example in Scripture of anyone offered a blessing by Jesus who subsequently turned it down.
That rich young man simply had no idea what the good life really was.
It’s a well-established truth that money does not provide ultimate meaning to life. It’s foolish to pursue it as an end in itself. This is Happiness 101. Money is the wrong path.
Remember to shift the focus to others. It’s hard to be bullish on a larger view of life when we focus too much on ourselves. We are likely to be happier and feel closer to God and have a good year when we reach beyond ourselves to help others — to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, as Jesus put it. And when the motive for helping others grows out of a commitment to Christ, the meaning of life becomes clearer.
There’s an old saying: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Remember, it’s about living for Christ. These are the apostle Paul’s very words. He wrote them while in prison: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
That sounds like a meaningless platitude.
It wasn’t for the apostle Paul.
Why would we say such a thing?
Is it possible that very few of us understand what “living is Christ” is all about? We’ve never signed on for that sort of commitment. We have never really put it all on the line.
As a pastor, you’ve no doubt encountered individuals who have committed to a project to which their faith has led them. Perhaps this project led them to the inner city, or to the streets of Mumbai.
In any case, have you ever met an unhappy, unfulfilled and restless person who at some point went “all in” for Christ?
Do you think the apostle Paul, in spite of shipwrecks, floggings and disease, ever felt he was going through a period of his “worst” years?
Here’s the secret to avoiding the worst of years and experiencing the best of years: When Christ calls us, go all in.
Frank Norris, Stan Purdum, Melanie Silva and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
Possible Preaching Themes:
Secure some visual tools like a carpenter’s plumb line or a level to use during the sermon.
Blum, Sam. “Researchers identify 536 A.D. as the absolute worst year ever.” Popular Mechanics, November 20, 2018, popularmechanics.com. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
Link, Henry C. The Return to Religion (Amazon Digital Services, 2015).
Click here to download a ZIP file of the July-August 2019 issue as Word Docs.
O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee
I Surrender All
Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling
Worship and Praise†
You Have Shown Us (Park)
Micah 6:8 (Hall)
WFor licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to ccli.com. The worship and praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.
on Amos 7:7-17
from Jul 14, 2019
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24 and its context of verses 21-24 comprise the best-known passage of the biblical prophet Amos. This and similar passages (see below) provide the causal background for Amos’ prophetic, severe divine word of judgment in 7:7-17. Amos is one of the 12 “Minor Prophets” whic... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)
Like an Old Testament prophet, Jesus of Nazareth held his own plumb line up against the corrupt society of his day. But he didn’t just hold up a plumb line, as Amos had. Jesus was himself the plumb line.
Remember that bold statement of his: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” I am the truth, Jesus says. I am the one against which you are to measure what it means to be loving and kind and just. I do not enforce this standard with the power of armies. I invite you into accepting it not through power at all, but through weakness. Do not measure your life against the triumphal arch of the emperor. Measure it, instead, against the bloodstained wood of the cross!
When construction workers unroll a plumb line, they generally don’t touch the line. They don’t move it or manipulate it in any way. They let it hang free, right next to the wall they’re constructing. Looking at it is all they need to do.
In the same way, we look to Jesus. He is the way — the road we are meant to follow. He is the truth — the standard by which we are to measure our efforts to be faithful. He is the life — yes, his way is life itself!
On Wall Street, they know what a good year is. The people who write the full-color, glossy shareholders’ annual reports are very clear on that point. It’s all about profits. Did the company end up in the black? Was there a generous shareholders’ dividend?
There’s a question that’s seldom addressed in such documents: “Besides money, what did the company actually produce?” Did it manufacture anything that’s useful? Did it offer services that made customers’ lives better? Did it contribute anything to the improvement of the human condition?
During the Holocaust, a man asked Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, who was later murdered by the Nazis, why God allowed such suffering.
Rabbi Wasserman replied with a parable: Imagine a city dweller visits a farm and marvels over the green pastures. The farmer walks in with his shovel and turns over the soil. The city dweller is aghast. These were beautiful green pastures, and now it’s all mud. The farmer proceeds to take perfectly clean seeds and sprinkle them all over the mud. The city dweller is again aghast.
With time, the seeds sprout and a golden field of grain waves in the wind. Finally, the city dweller understands that what appeared to be destructive was in fact constructive. To grow a golden field of grain, you have to kill the beautiful grass, turn over the soil and plant the seeds.
Today, concluded Rabbi Wasserman, all we see is death and destruction. However, when Moshiach comes, we will see how much our suffering has achieved. Not only will we appreciate our suffering at that point, we will even yearn for those days, thinking that if only we had suffered a little more, we would have achieved so much more.
—Lazer Gurkow, “A mother’s comfort,” Chabad.org. chabad.org. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
I have had cancer, on and off, for more than 20 years. Right now, my cancer is in remission. I am feeling strong, healthy and happy. Cancer has been both a source of suffering and a harsh teacher of wisdom. It has been unwelcome, and it has been a blessing. It comes banging on the door of my soul like a hostile stranger — an unwelcome guest. I have tried to redeem its malignant presence by walking with, and writing about, this stranger. Perhaps you, or someone you love, are walking a similar path with this shadow-stranger. Perhaps, we can walk together.
Welcome to the Via Negativa. Welcome to the Camino de Cancer. ...
“I’d like you to go back down to Princess Margaret hospital in Toronto. See the oncologist and the surgeon again. Check it out. Just to be sure.” Just to be sure, but he knows already. So do I.
We sat on my deck silently, breathing in the scent of strawberries, cedar and spruce trees. The pungent smell of compost lifted on a warm huff of air. In the distance, a lawn mower barked to life. ...
That’s how it begins. One moment, it’s breakfast, sunshine and strawberries, and the next, the Via Negativa comes knocking on the door of your soul. No need to go looking for it; it finds us.
Embarking on this involuntary pilgrimage requires tying up our boots and slinging on a backpack containing only the bare essentials. We can’t bring all of the puny concerns that weigh down our normal day. We have to leave behind the shame of weakness and the fear of disability in a world that idolizes strength, certainty and independence. Our voice might shake, but we need to share the bad news with those we trust to walk beside us. Break open to grace and blessing, to all of the beauty we’ve been overlooking. Cry joy over the miracle of being alive — the way we would every day, if we were paying attention.
—David Giuliano, “Involuntary pilgrim,” United Church of Canada Observer, November 2017. ucobserver.org. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
I think that there are a lot of broken hearts these days, broken on the left and on the right over the conditions of modern life. I think “the politics of rage” is really about heartbreak, and that if we could explore what breaks our hearts, we might find common ground.
There are at least two ways for the heart to break. There’s the heart that’s been shattered, usually by some external event, and we’re left to pick up the pieces on the way to recovery.
But there’s another way to think of a broken heart, as suggested by the words of a Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan, who said, “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.”
In Christian tradition we talk about the way a “hardened heart” is broken open so that new life can enter in, so that the heart’s capacity can be increased — its capacity for joy, for real sorrow for compassion.
—Parker J. Palmer, interviewed in the Bearings magazine of the Collegeville Institute, Autumn/Winter 2010.
collegevilleinstitute.org. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
Share this story with the children: A wise, old farmer was considered rich by the villagers because he owned a horse. One day the horse ran away and the villagers said to the farmer, “How unfortunate that your horse ran away.” He responded, “How do you know it’s unfortunate?” The next day the horse returned, bringing with it a wild horse, thereby increasing the farmer’s wealth. The villagers exclaimed, “How fortunate,” to which the farmer again responded, “How do you know it’s fortunate?” The following day the farmer’s son, while trying to break the wild horse, was thrown, breaking his leg. The villagers again commented, “How unfortunate.” Once again the farmer responded, “How do you know it’s unfortunate?” The following day, the king’s men rode through the village conscripting all the young men for the army. They didn’t take the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. What does the story teach us? It teaches us that what we might think is bad luck at the time might really, in the end, be a good thing. Ask the children how they felt going to a new classroom or moving from one city to another, for example. Perhaps they were a little afraid and thought they would never find a friend. But what happened? They had a very good teacher and made lots of friends or found a new very best friend. Sometimes, when things happen that we don’t like, we are surprised by how well everything turns out later. It is good to remember this when changes happen that we didn’t plan on or like at the time.