Psalm 139:7–12; Amos 1,2; Revelation 7:9–17

Psalm 139:7–12: In these verses the psalmist marvels at God’s omnipresence, asking rhetorically, “Where can I go from Your spirit,/ and where from before You flee?” (7) He answers his question immediately in a verse of sweeping grandeur (and a reminder why the Psalms are truly the greatest poems ever written) that moves vertically across the universe: “If I soar to to the heavens, You are there,/ if I bed down in Sheol–there You are,” and then horizontally: “If I take wing with the dawn,/ if I dwell at the ends of the sea.”

No matter which direction he might go, the poet knows that “there, too, Your hand leads me.” And in a reference back to the potter image of verse 5, “and Your right hand seizes me.” (10) For the psalmist, God’s presence is palpable. God takes him by the hand and leads. God is not the mere abstraction that we so often make him out to be. And I think for us Christians, these verses are a direct indication of the Holy Spirit in our lives. No matter where we go or what we do or what straits we find ourselves in, we must allow the Spirit to lead us.

Even if we should will to escape, attempting to find a place free of God’s presence, and saying with the poet, “Yes, darkness will swathe me,/ and the night will be light for me,” (11) there is no escape from God because “Darkness itself will not darken for You,/ and the night will light up like the day,/ the dark and the light will be one.” (12) God is inescapable–nor should we want to escape.

Notice, too, that “the dark and the light are one.” Darkness still exists but it is somehow transformed. In even our darkest hours, God’s light–his omnipresence–brings comfort. The murders in San Bernardino this week are deepest darkness. Yet as we see people gather and hug each other and comfort those who have suffered incalculable loss, we see God’s presence bringing light into those darkest places.

Amos 1,2: We have only the briefest biographical sketch of Amos, who comes from “among the shepherds of Tekoa” and he prophesied “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel.” (1:1). What’s clear here is that Amos emerged out of the crowd as God’s anointed prophet. As usual, God does not choose from the powerful, but from the weak and seemingly ineffectual.

Amos’s prophecy begins with placing God squarely at Jerusalem and it appears that God is (surprise!) angry: “The Lord roars from Zion,/ and utters his voice from Jerusalem” as  judgement is pronounced first on Israel’s neighbors:
For three transgressions of Damascus,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment. (1:3)

Amos repeats this imprecation against Gaza (1:6), Tyre (1:9), the Ammonites (1:13) and Moab (2:1). These judgements are not pronounced because these nations have invaded Israel or Judah, but for the own awful sins against humanity. Amos explains the reason for punishment against each of these nations: Gaza has “carried into exile entire communities.” Tyre did the same thing and “did not remember the covenant of kinship.” Edom because “he maintained his anger perpetually,” and the Ammonites worst of all, because “they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory.” (13)  Moab is punished for the unique sin of cremating the king of Edom. (2:1)

Taken together, this list reminds us that sin and disorder are found wherever humans are found. The point here is that community sin is just as offensive to God as the sins of each individual, and and there are consequences for the entire community or nation. Something to reflect on as we seem to be flying apart as a country today.

Nor are Judah and Israel to be spared punishment for their sins. Judah is to be punished for breaking the Covenant
because they have rejected the law of the Lord,
    and have not kept his statutes,
but they have been led astray by the same lies
    after which their ancestors walked.” (2:4)

Israel’s punishment arises, among other things, because it oppresses the poor:
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
   they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;” (2:6,7)

Amos goes on to list other sins of Israel such as incest and making the nazerites drink wine.

So, what is the point of this seemingly endless catalog of sins? I think it demonstrates the enormous variety of sins that humanity is capable of committing–each sin illustrating how a Commandment has been broken. Be it sins against one’s relatives, against strangers or against God. We humans seems to be endlessly creative in how to separate ourselves from God.

Revelation 7:9–17: This magnificent section of John’s vision describes the universal worship of the Lamb. I think John is reminding his readers that they are not alone, but it is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (9) This helps us remember that in Bohoeffer’s words, “that under our paths are the deepest shafts of eternity.” We are not here alone. millions have gone before us and we forget that fact at our peril. And like the Jews of yore, we will stand before the walls of the New Jerusalem “with palm branches in our hands” (9) singing a reprise of the throne room hymn of chapter 5:12-14.

But then, something I’d not noticed before: “one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” (13) John replies, ““Sir, you are the one that knows.” (14a) and the elder then recognizes them as those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (14b). To me this is a clear indication that the 24 elders represent the perfected Israel (2 x 12 = 24), which now acknowledges that all who have been “washed in the blood” of Jesus Christ–and especially the martyrs– are equally worthy to come before God and worship him.  John’s vision encompasses Israel and the church coming together at the end of history and worshipping together as one as the chapter closes with a clear reference to Psalm 23:
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
        and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
     and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (17).

For John’s readers who lived in the midst of the turmoil of the Roman empire and for us, who are living in the chaos that seems to be overtaking western civilization, there is this great promise of eventual reconciliation where the Old and New Covenants come together and worship at the throne. And we of the New Covenant are there because we have been washed whiter than white by the blood of Jesus Christ. Not a terribly Lutheran image to be sure, but still a wonderful metaphor of what Jesus has done for each of us to bring us justified before God.

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