Speaking Truth to Power

“The Beheading of John the Baptist” by Rembrandt

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Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to My people Israel’” (Amos 7:14-15).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The phrase “speaking truth to power” means to confront those who hold important positions, whether in government, business, or religious institutions. Speaking truth to power means to demand a moral response to a problem, rather than an expedient, easy, or selfish response. The phrase speaking truth to power carries a connotation of bravery, of risking either the status quo, one’s reputation, livelihood, or the wrath of the person one is confronting.

Martin Luther and the reformers were speaking truth to power as they challenged the abuses that had crept into the Church of their day. So firmly did they believe in the truth of their confession, they wrote: “By God’s grace, with intrepid hearts, we are willing to appear before the judgment seat of Christ with this Confession and give an account of it.”[i] Our nation’s founding fathers were speaking truth to power as they declared independence from Britain, pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of liberty.

In our Old Testament lesson, we have another example of speaking truth to power. Amos is called by God to be His spokesman. The Lord shows him two visions. The first is a plague of locusts ready to carry out God’s judgment, stripping bear the grass, vineyards, olive trees, and orchards. In the second vision, the Lord appears as consuming fire, demanding punishment for Israel’s disobedience, ready to devour the land of Canaan. In both cases, the prophet intercedes for his people and the Lord relents of His threatened judgment.

Amos’ third vision is recorded in our Old Testament lesson for today. The Lord Himself appears, standing next to a wall with a plumb line in His hand. The lead weight that the Lord is holding on a cord shows that the wall, once vertical, is now leaning out of plumb. A careful stonemason would tear if down and start over.

The meaning of the vision is clear. The Lord is picturing Himself as a mason laying brick or stone. The wall represents Israel, the people He created to receive His covenant. The plumb line is His Law, the standard laid down at Mount Sinai. The people are like a sagging, crooked wall, ready to be torn down before it falls down on itself and causes even greater damage.

The Lord has measured Israel, found His people wanting, and announced His decision: “I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be waste” (Amos 7:8-9). On their high places throughout the land and in the temples at Bethel and Dan, the people of Israel have been flaunting their unfaithfulness to the Lord. These shrines will be destroyed by the invading Assyrians. Amos is not allowed to protest or intercede.

The prophet’s prediction of judgment against the royal house sounds like treason to Amaziah, the high priest at Bethel. When he contacts Jeroboam II, Amaziah twists Amos’ words: “Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword.’” But the prophet had spoken against the house of Jeroboam, not the king personally. Jeroboam’s royal line will come to a bloody end.

Without waiting for a response from the king, Amaziah proceeds on his own authority to expel this foreign prophet. Amaziah has nothing against a man earning a living by prophesying, but Amos, he says, should do his work among his own countrymen in the South. A Judean prophet, the priest thinks, should not be preaching his message of judgment against Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom.

By forbidding Amos to prophesy, Amaziah has set himself directly against the Lord. Amos did not make his own decision to preach against the people of Israel. If it were left to his personal choice, Amos would still be tending his flocks at Tekoa or caring for a grove of sycamore-fig trees at some oasis near the sea. It was the Lord who said to Amos, “Go, prophesy to My people Israel” (Amos 7:15). Therefore Amos will not be silent, even if his words offend the king of Israel or if the king’s high priest commands him to stop preaching. He will continue speaking truth to power no matter how it is received, no matter what may happen to him.

In our Gospel for today we have another example of speaking truth to power

The story of Herod, Herodias, and John the Baptist has all the earmarks of a TV soap opera, but it was real life. A brief review of history will help us understand Herodias’ hatred for John. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod Antipas, ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. His first wife was the daughter of Aretas IV, ruler of Nabataea, an Arab kingdom southeast of Palestine.

In A.D. 27 Herod Antipas visited Rome and there met the beautiful and ambitious Herodias, daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus (thus his niece) who was then married to another of his half-brothers, Herod Philip. They deserted their spouses and married, though related in a degree forbidden for marriage in Leviticus (18:16 and 20:21). John was compelled to censure this scandalous relationship. Talk about speaking truth to power!

An enraged Herodias called for John’s imprisonment, so Herod had the prophet locked up at the fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea. At first Herod wanted to kill John but once he got to know the prophet, he feared to do so because he found John to be a righteous and holy man. Strange as it may seem, Herod liked to listen to John, although he was “greatly puzzled” by what he had to say.

Finally, Herodias’ chance for revenge came. At the banquet marking Herod’s birthday, Salome, the daughter of Herodias by her first marriage, danced for Herod and his guests. That they enjoyed it doesn’t say much for the morals of the leading men of Galilee. Herod’s oath—an oath in uncertain things—should also have offended them, for it was anything but proper and God-pleasing. But no one spoke up. Not everyone is courageous enough to speak truth to power—especially to a family so ruthless as the Herodians.

After her dance and Herod’s oath, Salome consulted her mother who told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist “right now” and “on a platter.” Like mother, like daughter—no conscience whatsoever.

So Herod has a prophet beheaded, not because of what the prophet says to him but because of what his 12 to 14-year-old niece (and stepdaughter!) does for him when she dances. She pleases him. As we’ve already heard, sex within the family system has not been a problem for Herod. The drinks, the dancing, the desire, the need to avoid losing face in front of his rowdy friends, all swirl together until suddenly they bring John the Baptist’s head on a platter and give it to the girl. It’s shocking and I understand if you are a bit offended, perhaps even nauseated. This looks more like Game of Thrones than the Kingdom of God. But then, all sin is ugly—including yours and mine!

Speaking truth to power is still challenging. We can expect some of the same rejection by the unbelieving world around us. Jesus told His disciples: “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

The “hate” you face for speaking truth to power may just be a cold shoulder like Amaziah’s toward Amos, or as violent as Herodias’ for John the Baptist. You could find some nasty anonymous notes in your mailbox or snarky comments on your social media posts and timeline. You might find yourself taken to court like Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakes for refusing to use your artistic talents to celebrate an occasion that goes against your conscience.

It takes a backbone made of steel to speak truth to power. Don’t believe me? Just try. I’m not telling you to go look for a fight. You don’t need to be obnoxious. Just speak up when the opportunity arises. Go to the local school board meeting and express your concerns about the mandated teaching of Critical Race Theory. Try to explain to your progressive friend why church officials should be able to exclude from communion politicians who publicly hold positions on things such as abortion and same-sex marriage that are contrary to the teaching of the church and Scripture. Try talking to a family member about what Scripture says about co-habitation or any sexual activity outside of marriage.    

Some say we should not speak of such things, but rather focus on the Gospel, to speak about the main thing. But where will that leave us (and them)? If we preach Christ has laid down His life for His bride, isn’t that nonsense to people who don’t understand God’s plan for marriage? If we invite people to Baptism and into the family of our heavenly Father, won’t that seem like nonsense to a people who disregard fathers, and who don’t even know the difference between a male and female? Can we expect anyone who does not understand that in the Lord’s Supper repentant sinners receive Christ’s very body blood for the forgiveness of their sins, while unrepentant sinners receive the same to their judgment, to possibly understand why the Church would have a legitimate say about who comes or does not come to the Table for Holy Communion. For that matter, if we do not care to speak up about the pitfalls of rainbow pride, aren’t we, in effect, telling our people that the Lord’s words don’t matter? Aren’t we telling them to trust the Lord only as long as the Lord says the kind of things they like to have Him say?

Scripture is very clear that there is a special judgment for false teachers, those who are tasked with knowing better, who fail to speak the whole truth, leaving their flock vulnerable. We don’t get to decide what is the major issue of our day, or what is the greatest heresy. We don’t get to decide what sins we should ignore for the sake of expediency. It is our job to denounce sin, to warn of its consequences, and to let the chips fall where they may.

So, we speak the full counsel of God. The Law that like a plumb line shows us our sin, the places where our lives are out of line with God’s holy standards. We speak the Gospel, the good news of our Savior Jesus who fully measured up to His Father’s holy standard and lived that life in our place. We tell them the story of the God-man who gave Himself up to death on the cross to pay for the sins of the world and who rose from the dead on the third day giving us the certain hope of our own bodily resurrection. We speak of the risen and ascended Lord who comes to us in the bread and wine with His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. The Righteous One who will return on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead, and take you, me, and all His people to live with Him forever in the new heaven and new earth.   

Though disgusted with the moral decay and spiritual carelessness we see around us, we first repent of our own grievous sins. Then we intercede for the Church and the nation. We pray for the Lord’s forgiveness and a further time of grace. And we ask the Lord for the courage to speak truth to power. Such words and prayers reflect the heart of God and go to His heart, because He says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked… rather that he should turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 18:22).

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 618). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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