A DARK thread runs through these readings, but we must not equate darkness with evil (Isaiah 45.3). Amos sets the tone with his reference to wormwood. Most readers are probably unfamiliar with this plant, a type of artemisia. But we know what it means because of the way in which it is used in the text, always with reference to bitterness, causing illness. The great star Wormwood, in Revelation (8.11), makes water poisonous. It is no great leap from there to draw a contrast with Christ, who provides us with living water (John 4.14, 7.38). Perhaps all this was in C. S. Lewis’s mind when he had Screwtape address his letters to the “junior tempter” Wormwood.
Bitter justice is an oxymoron; for justice goes with waters that are sweet and life-giving (Isaiah 45.8). It is administered by the elders of the city at the gate (Deuteronomy 22.15), where justice can be seen to be done, and where all have access to it. Amos prophesies that those who hear him should establish justice “in the gate”, so that — “perhaps” (NIV: “it may be that” in NRSV) — God will relent from punishing. “Perhaps” is one of those words that children learn not to trust on the lips of adults. Have we got a deal here, or haven’t we? We want justice, we think, not perhapses.
There is an element of the same contest in Jesus’s Gospel where it warns that many of those who are first shall be last, and the last first. Perhaps(!) it is a way of expressing factual truth: that those who have borne the burden and heat of the day, or taken years to feel ready to commit themselves to God, will come to the Kingdom later in their own lifetime than those who find faith quickly (Matthew 20.12, 16). It could also be that, in both Gospels, Jesus is acknowledging the truth that infuriates children, and which, even as adults, we find it tough to accept: that life is not always fair. Many people find it difficult to see the point of worshipping a God who apparently does not reward their loyalty.
Hebrews is a letter that causes trouble for many readers, because of its interwoven theology of the old and new covenants. This reading, though, is not directly theological, but has more the character of a spontaneous outpouring of adoration — an exclamation of wonderment at the divine Word. It falls naturally into two sections, both of them equally precious, both of them sure to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up whenever I read them. They are so full of poetry. In saying this, I do not mean that they are said in flowery, elaborate language: I mean that they are singing words, words to stir the soul and make the living flame burn bright.
At first, this passage from Hebrews does not look like a text to turn the heart of a non-believer to Christ. There is no inspiring example of goodness in action, no straightforward answer to those problems of darkness and injustice. The passage starts with a “treasure of darkness”, which is made explicit later, at 10.31: “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
In Greek, the impact of the passage is still greater because of the word order. The author has written, “Living is the Word of God, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. . .” If you doubt the power of word order to affect readers, think of Tolkien’s description of the battle at Gondor: “In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. . .” It would not have had the same impact if Tolkein (a master wordsmith) had written “The Lord of the Nazgûl rode in.” The words of Hebrews are darkly terrifying: who does not quail at the idea of being pierced by the cleaving blade of divine judgement? Who does not fear the laying bare to scrutiny of their body — and, still more, the innermost thoughts of their heart?
And yet — and yet — with the terror comes the promise. Jesus sympathises with our weakness because he shared it. We are to approach the throne of grace not with trembling, but with boldness. We have nothing to fear from “nakedness or peril or sword” (Romans 8.35); for these things can never separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.