Sunday ~ July 10, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Early in my years of ministry I identified rather closely with Amos’ self- assessment. I still do, even some 35 years after I sensed that initial call to ministry.
“Who am I, Lord? I’m just a harvester of trees, a caretaker of the forest. You know I get along much easier with swamps and hills and trees than I do people. Trees are much more predictable. And they don’t talk back! What would I have to say?” And the Lord kept on saying to me, “But, I am calling you. Go!”
Because I identified with Amos and this passage, I have spent some time wrestling with it over the years. And as I have come to understand this prophet, his message and his historical context, I have discovered that Amos is not an easy book of prophecy to draw on for sermons! And I do not believe I would have wanted Amos as a mentor on my journey toward ordained ministry! Unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha, Amos by-in-large is pretty heavy on judgement and light on any hope for reconciliation and restoration!
And apparently it wasn’t easy for Amos either. The opening words of this section “This is what he (the Lord) showed me. . .” is literally “this is what God mademe see.” As if to say, Amos didn’t really want to see or hear it either.
What Amos saw was an image of the Lord holding a plumb line up in the midst of the people, Israel. And as you know with a plumb line it is obvious when you are not in line and apparently they were quite a bit “off plumb”!
Now Amos lived and prophesied at a time of relative peace and prosperity in the northern kingdom of Israel. To quote the logo of a popular clothing line, “Life is good.” Or, that is, for a few anyway! And this is what the Lord made Amos to see.
The kingdom of Jeroboam in its prosperity had become corrupt and this corruption was felt, as in most cases, most severely by the poor and needy of the kingdom. More critically, the court priests like Amaziah, who should be advocating for the needy and poor, had bought into the political scene of the day and were just as corrupt.
Speaking to both political and religious leaders Amos says:
“Here this, you who trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying,” When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
This is the way The Message translates this passage:
Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak,
you who treat poor people as less than nothing,
Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up?
How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?”
Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work.
You exploit the poor, using them—
and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.
With the metaphor of the plumb line Amos points out a fatal flaw in the community’s structure, it has come out of “true” with God’s will for it. The plumb line shows that the ways of God and the harmony of social relations should be aligned. Things are not lining up in Jeroboam’s kingdom and Amaziah’s religious realm!
Because of this, Amos proclaims, there will be no escaping God’s judgement!
Then the Lord said, “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.” (v. 9)
Therefore this is what the Lord says:
“‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.’” (v. 17)
All this is proclaimed without one word of hope.
Amos makes religious audiences uneasy still today, for his message seems to shake the certainty that God’s “loving kindness” will always overcome even the worse judgements we deserve. Even Isaiah and Jeremiah who were quick to condemn the sins of the priests, kings and people always held out a word of comfort that God would always welcome back the repentant. Amos however, is uncompromising. God has finally turned away from his people. End of story!
The chilling part of all this is that history proves Amos right. Approximately 40 years later Israel was overrun by the Assyrians and taken away into exile and the images of destruction that Amos saw and proclaimed were very real to the people of Israel.
Okay! So now preacher, what do you do with this depressing word?
Well, I’m not sure! There are at least a couple of ways to think about this:
First a point I would like to make: The word of judgment in question here is God’s. It isn’t Amos’ and in fact we can sense that Amos was a bit uncomfortable with sharing it! It isn’t the pastor’s or the church council’s or the church hierarchy, it’s a word from the LORD!
So having said this one approach to this is to say that sometimes God’s only word to us can be one of judgement!
Sometimes regardless of our attempts at justifying, rationalizing, compromising, God says NO MORE! Because there can be no compromising, there is no rationalizing.
No means no! Like parents with young children who do not yet understand for their own safety and their ultimate wellbeing, certain behaviors are not acceptable, period! This is one way to hear the words of Amos.
Then as Christians (remembering our faith ancestors were the Jews who first followed in the way of Jesus!) we can hear this word of judgement as no less the word of the God who intends, ultimately to save us in Jesus Christ, which is, who is, the ultimate blessing.
But much of contemporary Christian theology in North America, while it attempts to be gracious, sentimentally portrays us as hapless victims. Thus we “would be” victims are offered therapy.
On the other hand, orthodox Christian theology, especially in the Protestant Reformed tradition (of which we hail), depicts humanity, despite any injustices we may have suffered along life’s way, not just victims but also as perpetrators who, while deserving God’s wrath, in the end will receive God’s mercy.
And like the children who don’t understand why Mom or Dad simply said “No”, sometimes God’s mercy has a way of feeling like God’s judgement!
So as parent might say “I’m doing this for your own good.” when God says it we probably better believe it. For God sees what we cannot!
Old Testament prophets “word from the Lord” have ways of transcending history and cultures and peoples to speak to every new generation. It can require (or demand) us to consider the current way of ordering ourselves as church, whether as congregations or individuals, and see how we might stand under such a word from the Lord.
One of the questions Amos requires us to consider is: Are there ways we being complicit either in our commission or omission of words and actions that trample the poor and needy?
How far has the religious scene of our day, bought into the ways of the world, and therefore unable to stand above the corruption and politics of business as usual and speak a word of correction to places of power?
These are just a couple of thoughts for us to consider. Amos’ message is things have gone too far. Next week perhaps we’ll take another look at Amos as he says more about why.
I started out by saying that I could identify with Amos, being a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.
Also, on occasion, I can identify with Amos when it comes to sharing a difficult word with a congregation.
And so like Amos I can say, “Don’t shoot me! I’m only the messenger.
God is the one who sent the text. And believe me, sometimes I wished I was out of range!”