Amos 9:1-6 I saw the Lord standing by the altar, and he said: “Strike the tops of the pillars so that the thresholds shake. Bring them down on the heads of all the people; those who are left I will kill with the sword. Not one will get away, none will escape. 2 Though they dig down to the depths below, from there my hand will take them. Though they climb up to the heavens above, from there I will bring them down. 3 Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, there I will hunt them down and seize them. Though they hide from my eyes at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent to bite them. 4 Though they are driven into exile by their enemies, there I will command the sword to slay them. “I will keep my eye on them for harm and not for good.” 5 The Lord, the Lord Almighty— he touches the earth and it melts, and all who live in it mourn; the whole land rises like the Nile, then sinks like the river of Egypt; 6 he builds his lofty palace in the heavens and sets its foundation on the earth; he calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land— the Lord is his name.
An old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show was about a woman in prison who became good friends with the prison caretaker. When a prisoner died, the caretaker would ring the bell, get the body, put it in a casket, and nail it shut. Then, placing the casket on a wagon, he would take it to the graveyard outside the prison walls and bury the corpse.
Knowing this routine, the woman prisoner devised an escape plan and shared it with the caretaker. “The next time the bell rings,” she said, “I’ll leave my prison cell and sneak into the coffin with the dead body. Nail the lid shut and take the coffin outside the prison with me in it. Bury the coffin,” she continued, “and because there will be enough air for me to breathe for some time, you can come back to the graveyard that night, dig up the coffin, and set me free.”
The caretaker agreed to the plan.
One day the woman prisoner heard the ringing of the death bell. She arose, walked down the hallway, found the coffin containing the dead body, and climbed in. Soon she heard the pounding of hammer and nails. The coffin was lifted onto the wagon and taken outside to the graveyard. After the dirt was poured on the coffin, she began to giggle out loud, “I’m free, free!”
Feeling curious she lit a match to identify the prisoner beside her. In the glimmer of light she discovered that she was lying next to the dead caretaker! In classic Alfred Hitchcock fashion this final scene fades as we hear the woman screaming, screaming, screaming, then silence.
Have you ever been buried like that before? Sure you have, and so have I. We’ve been buried in questions. “If God is so good, why do I hurt so bad?” “If Jesus is the light, why am I in the dark?” “Will my life ever be the same again?”
We’ve been buried in disappointment. “You’re fired!” “I don’t love you anymore!” “Mom, I’m moving in with my boyfriend.”
We’ve been buried in the past — the minute we lost our temper, the hour we lost our purity, the day we lost control, the years we lost our priorities.
Buried. Boxed in. Six feet under. It’s dark, tight, and claustrophobic. And if there isn’t screaming, there are still plenty of heavy sighs, lifeless looks, and broken hearts.
The prophet Amos envisions a day when Israel’s temple will be judged and the people will be dead and buried. The nation of Israel had been among God’s chosen people. But they neglected that grace and despised their God. They became disobedient, not caring about God’s commands or desires. They stopped worshiping the true God and worshiped any number of false gods among the heathen people around them. As a result of their unbelief, they also stopped caring about their Israelites neighbors.
The Israelites deserved God’s wrath when they turned from Him in unbelief and despised His gifts of grace. They rejected God’s promises of blessing upon their obedience and instead chose to receive His curses upon their disobedience. God’s people were completely ungrateful toward the God that had given them everything, so they would now receive the judgment of the God who would take everything away from them.
Amos recounts His vision of the Lord standing by the altar where the Israelites worshiped their idols in the temple in Bethel. Amos heard the Lord saying: “Strike the tops of the pillars so that the thresholds shake. Bring them down on the heads of all the people; those who are left I will kill with the sword. Not one will get away, none will escape.” God will send an earthquake (Amos 1:1) with such destructive power that it will completely destroy the temple and people’s homes. Anyone surviving the earthquake will be killed by the sword of the invading Assyrians.
Then the Lord pictures fugitives scrambling to the farthest corners of creation to escape the judgment. But there is no escape from the avenging hand of the Lord. “Though they dig down to the depths below, from there my hand will take them. Though they climb up to the heavens above, from there I will bring them down. Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, there I will hunt them down and seize them. Though they hide from my eyes at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent to bite them.” God will find them in the grave or skies, on Mt. Carmel or on the bottom of the Mediterranean. God will even command giant sea serpents to destroy Israel.
Then comes perhaps the most terrifying judgment of all! “I will keep my eye on them for harm and not for good.”
When the Lord sets His eyes upon someone, that phrase usually conveys comfort and assurance. But here Amos again uses a Gospel phrase to emphasize the Law. The all-seeing and all-knowing God is watching you. You cannot escape Him. His powerful and destructive gaze follows you in your sin and unbelief.
For far too long you have been just like those Old Testament Israelites. You deserve to be dead and buried. You are God’s chosen people by your Baptism. But you neglect this grace when you don’t live like a baptized child of God. You despise your God. You don’t worship in God’s chosen temple at Epiphany. Instead, you set up idols to the gods of club soccer or NFL football or closets full of clothing. You are disobedient children and adults. You could care less whether you keep God’s commands or fulfill His desires. You are completely ungrateful toward the God who has given you everything. That ungratefulness displays itself in your worship attendance, your reading of God’s Word, and the amount of your offerings. Then you have the audacity to complain when God removes His grace from you.
A God who sees all, hears all, and knows all is terrifying. Especially when we realize that this is the same God who holds all power in His hands. There is no way and nowhere to escape His righteous judgment.
We are left with screaming.
Except for today. Today is the day that God prepared a way out of the graves we have dug for ourselves. God silences the screams with His Son’s cries from the Good Friday cross. A God who knows everything and is present everywhere is terrifying … until we realize that Jesus has made that same God our Friend and Father!
As Christians there are plenty of places we where we go that we shouldn’t. There are things we say that make ears burn. There is ugliness that takes place in our minds. God is able to search our hearts, minds, and lives, but because of our connection to Jesus Christ and His cross, He sees those sins being on Jesus, and no longer on us. Through faith in the crucified Christ we can hear words of Gospel comfort when we hear God say, “I will keep my eye on them.” These words are no longer a threat, but it is a beautiful and comforting promise of God.
We, like the Israelites of Amos’ time have foolishly created our own heathen temples for our false gods. But we find refuge in another temple. This is a temple that was also toppled and torn apart by God. Good Friday helps us remember that this temple’s name is Jesus. Jesus once promised, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). The temple He was speaking of was His own body.
And destroy it they did. Judas, Pilate, Herod. Pharisees, Sadducees, Roman soldiers. They used fists, thorns, and nails. They used your sins, my sins, and the sins of humanity to destroy the temple of Christ’s divinely human body.
There was no escape for Jesus, so we hear His screaming in agony on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46)? Screaming. …. And then silence.
Jesus was dead. His body placed in a grave. The tomb sealed with a stone.
But this temple was rebuilt. In Amos 9:11 the Lord promises, “I will raise up the falling tabernacle of David. I will repair their breaches, and his ruins I will raise up, and I will rebuild it as in days of old.” Jesus Christ is the everlasting King who will restore David’s fallen house to glory. Jesus rose from the dead. The grave could not hold Him.
But how will that help us? We are still cramped by the chaos, suffocating in the stillness, trapped in transgressions, and overwhelmed with our silent screams. What shall we do?
I’ve got an idea.
Let’s light a match and see who we’re buried with. Paul writes in Romans 6:4, “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life!” Again in Colossians 2:12 the apostle announces: “Having been buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
There is an escape from the grave, through the grave of Jesus.
We are not alone when life caves in and our many sins and transgressions trap us in despair. In baptismal promises Jesus still comes to raise us out of the ruins. And so our silent scream is forever changed into a baptized and blood-bought shout of, “Thanks be to God!” We are not hopelessly buried, for we are buried with Christ. Amen.