Sermon given at Evensong on the Third Sunday before Lent 2023
Scripture is full of strange phrases.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 5th February 2023 at 3.00 PM
Scripture is full of strange phrases. A repeated trope we hear throughout the Prophet Amos is this peculiar line, ‘for three transgressions and for four.’ As Amos writes, the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah are enjoying a period of prosperity. For now, the dreaded Assyria was weakened. But towards the end of the 8th Century BC, Assyria would regain its military strength, Israel would no longer exist as a kingdom, and the Israelites would be scattered by the might of its polytheistic neighbour. Amos comes to bring the people an uncomfortable message—they live with the straightforward assumption that their enemies will be judged (Damascus, Tyre, Edom, Ammon). But what they have not realised is that they, too, will be held accountable by the Lord. Much has been given to Israel. From Israel, much will be demanded.
‘For three transgressions and for four.’ The basic message is that the Lord’s patience has reached its tipping point. Three transgressions represent, as it were, the fullness of sin. Four, is the overflow mark. It is at that point that their sin becomes intolerable. In the unfolding narrative of Amos, the prophet recounts how the Lord himself seems to wrestle with this. Israel is the chosen people, the children of the covenant, brought up out of slavery in Egypt; but because of their faithlessness, the Lord’s justice must hold them to account, just as he has held the surrounding nations to account. Israel may be the chosen people, but there is no exceptionalism for them on this front. Amos tells us that there is human trafficking going on here, a persecution of the poor and afflicted, the temple has been desecrated by malpractice, or perhaps just a strong sense of apathy. Their priorities have collapsed. For all this, they will be pressed down in their place, the strong shall no longer be strong, and they will not be able to rely on their horses to escape this judgement.
It’s not exactly a cheerful picture. Towards the end of his prophecy, Amos recounts the Lord’s promise that after all this, the destroyed cities, gardens and vineyards will be restored. But for now, the only fruit which the people will reap, will be the bitter fruit of ‘for three transgressions and for four.’
Amos’s vision is almost certainly first written down after the events it describes. There is a sense of hindsight at work here, a processing of just how such destruction and captivity can possibly relate to the children of Israel’s status as the children of the Covenant. The ethical mathematics, if you like, is on one level quite a straightforward formula. As expressed elsewhere in the prophets, the Lord recalls his people to himself through this logical corollary of their unfaithfulness. Here, Yahweh does not luxuriate in this disciplining of his people, rather the Prophet shows the Lord feeling almost desperate about the situation, “Yet, I destroyed the Amorite before them,” he says, “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you for forty years in the wilderness.” And this is how you behave, even commanding the prophets not to prophesy. So, ‘for three transgressions and for four, I will not revoke the punishment’—why should you be held to a uniquely low bar? You will not be exempt.
One of quieter theological revolutions of the last century or so has been a strong sense that one can never straightforwardly read divine favour (or a lack of it) into the victories or defeats of warfare. In 1588, the English believed that their victory over the Spanish Armada was a sure sign of God’s favour, just as the Holy League was sure that at Lepanto their victory over the Muslim Turk some decade and a half earlier was a decisive judgement against Islam. The twentieth century has cleared our heads on that one if on nothing else: Hiroshima was not God’s judgement on the people of Japan, anymore than the Shoah was God’s judgement on the Jewish people. That would be grotesque and would leave us with an image of God no better than that of a petulant vindictive parent always waiting for the scales to tip and wrath to be unleashed. No. The events of the world’s life cannot be read like that. And God is not bound by a perpetual game of cause-and-effect, not least because if God were, God would not be God. The philosophers will explore for us theories of providence and chance, but the basic fact is, we can’t haul God into our corner, or persuade him to back our plans over and against others.
So, in making sense of the ebb and flow of particular nations, or groups of people, it is not sufficient to use blunt metrics to establish divine favour, or otherwise. When we speak of ‘election’, or the children of the Covenant as somehow ‘chosen’, whether that is the Jewish people or the Church, that ‘election’ is always election for blessing, and for the blessing of those around us. It is responsibility not reification. And that responsibility cashes out in how we structure our societies and in how we seek to promote the common good. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously said, ‘When people say that religion and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible it is they are reading.’ The challenge is to live out the ramifications of that Covenant; we shall not be insulated from the violence and greed which characterises so much of the world, but we may help shelter others from its worst effects.
The writer of Amos doesn’t quite get that far. But the equalising tendency which his vision reveals, a sense that all are under judgement, a refusal to put his own people into some magical, bullet proof category, perhaps starts the journey. Amos’s final vision at the end of his prophecy is of restored fortunes for Israel, with rebuilt cities, newly planted vineyards, and plenteous fields, and there can be no doubt that this tradition shapes, and is itself shaped by, wider Hebrew prophecy about a renewal of the whole of creation, and the gathering in of the nations. For us Christians, this takes shape in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God by Jesus, and by the promise of a new heaven and a new earth at the end of time. But first, Christ himself will suffer betrayal, abandonment, bitter death, to show just how far God will go for us, as he reweaves the potential for all human life.
For now, amidst global strife, searing inequalities, vast human rights abuses, including by countries so fundamentally shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition, we should perhaps remain a little while with the sense that we shall all be equal under the Lord’s judgement. We may now be clear that the old mathematics of ‘for three transgressions and for four’ is not helpful, but we should also remember the gravity of the responsibility we have for one another’s flourishing, and for the responsibility to live in the light of the Gospel we proclaim. There is nothing we can do to wrestle God into our own corners. The reality is far more stunning than that. The creator of all things and the judge of all has come to us in the God-Man Jesus Christ, to bind up our wounds, and to bid us love, and live.