Today we begin the third subsection of our 2017-2018 journey through the Narrative Lectionary. The overall theme, you remember, is “Called by God, Blessed to Serve.” The first subsection was “God Provides Blessings,” and the second was “Called by God.” Today we begin a subsection entitled “Promises of Hope,” which will be a three week section leading up to Advent. We will be looking at the messages of three Old Testament prophets: Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. We will also be looking at the prophets during Advent.
This is as good a time as any to give you some background on the prophets of the Old Testament. Last week we looked at stories about the prophet Elijah from I Kings, and those are followed by stories about the prophet Elisha from II Kings. These are stories about particular prophets which are woven into the larger story of the history and kings of Israel and Judah. The prophets we look at today and in coming weeks each have a book of the Bible named for them, and the book is specifically written to tell the life, events, and prophecies of that particular prophet.
Four of the prophets are called major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Twelve of the prophets are called minor prophets – Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Being called major or minor has nothing to do with how important they are, but with how long they are. The major prophets are long enough to fill up a scroll on their own. The twelve minor prophets all fit onto one scroll.
Old Testament prophets were not primarily people who predicted things that would happen in the distant future. They were people who looked around at the way things were and saw that they were greatly at odds with God’s will and purpose for people and were called by God to speak out and warn people to change or there would be dire consequences. These are not things that people want to hear, so the prophets were not popular. Frederick Buechner writes, “There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 73)
Amos, who we are studying today, is generally regarded as the first of the writing prophets with sort of autobiographical books. He lived about a hundred years after Elijah and a generation before the northern Kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrians. His message was for the northern Kingdom even though he himself lived in the south, in Judah. This fact makes him unusual among the prophets, who usually spoke to their own country and people.
Amos tells us that he was from a small town called Tekoa, and by trade he was a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees. He did not go to school to be a prophet and did not apply for the job. God called him to go do this. He sent him into the northern Kingdom of Israel to the city of Bethel. You remember Bethel – it is the place where Jacob stopped for the night when fleeing his brother Esau and had the dream about the ladder to heaven. He called the place Bethel, which means “house of God,” and it became an important worship center for Israel.
The first things to note about Amos, then, are that he was a shepherd and he was an outsider. And one of the most important things to know is that he prophesied during an unusual time of peace, stability, and prosperity in Israel. When things are falling apart you are more likely to be able to get an audience and call people back to reliance upon God. The introduction to Amos in my Bible says Amos was called “to the difficult mission of preaching harsh words in a smooth season.” (p. 1107, New Oxford Annotated RSV)
Jereboam II was king and ruled for 40 years of peace and territorial expansion and national prosperity which was never again reached in Israel. Rather than believing God could be angry with them people naturally took all of this to be a sign of God’s blessing and pleasure with them. In this context the words of Amos would have been grating, dissonant, and unwelcome. Plus he had no status or religious qualifications when compared with the official priests at Bethel and elsewhere in the country.
Nevertheless, having been called by God, one day Amos shows up at the royal sanctuary in Bethel and begins proclaiming the Word. He probably got a few “Amens” as he started by proclaiming God’s judgment on all the countries around Israel, calling them out for specific sins and shortcomings. He called out Syria, Gaza, Sidon, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. Then the “Amens” probably ramped up as he called out the southern kingdom of Judah with God’s judgment. But then he gets to Israel, and it becomes clear he has gotten to the heart of the matter.
On the list of God’s complaints against Israel are: trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth; drunkenness in the sanctuary; sexual immorality; silencing the prophets; over reliance on military might; taking bribes and ignoring the cause of the poor. Amos seals his fate by insulting the women, calling them “cows of Bashan” who oppress the poor and crush the needy and tell their husbands to bring them something to drink.
Here is the heart of the judgment, from chapter 6: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria. Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” He declares that exile will be the result if there is no change.
The picture he paints is one we are not unfamiliar with. Complacency. Self-centeredness. Lying on the couch, isolated from the problems and needs “out there,” and unconcerned about that. With Jimmy Buffett we’ve got “a license to chill, and we believe we will.” As long as we show up at church occasionally and go through the right motions, what we do “on our own time” isn’t God’s business. Life is good, and surely that means God is pleased and is on our side.
Au contraire, says Amos. Because of corruption, violence, injustice, and feelings of entitlement, God is preparing to bring judgment. Amos is where this saying comes from: “Because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”
What does God want to see from his people? The answer is very consistent throughout the prophets, and the way Amos phrases it is: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Justice is a community based word and righteousness is an individual based word. Justice means that everyone in a community or nation is treated equally or fairly, that judicial decisions are made on the merits of the case not the wealth of the parties involved, that rules are enforced evenly and the rights of all are respected. Righteousness exhibited in individuals is the basis for justice happening in societies. At the most basic level righteousness means right actions based on societal standards. On a religious level righteousness means attempting to live one’s life “right with God,” in harmony with the guidelines God has given for how to live and how to treat others.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. In places like Israel people pay a lot more attention to water than those of us who have so much of it that we take it for granted, so it is not surprising that it shows up so often in metaphors and analogies in the Bible.
In Israel a river is called a “wadi,” and it is called a wadi whether or not it has any water in it. You can imagine my bewilderment in an early trip over there when visiting the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found when our guide pointed up into the surrounding mountains and said, “You can see the wadi coming down between those two mountains.” I squinted as hard as I could but could see no water in the distance. I asked him to help me see it and he said, “Oh, there’s not any water now. But last week there was a surprise storm that popped up and three teenagers drowned right down there from the torrent of water in that wadi.” That’s what it means for justice to roll down like waters, washing away injustice in its path.
And of course an “everflowing stream” is the Israeli’s ideal vision of what all those wadis would be like. Not dry creek beds. Not torrents of destructive water. Streams that are always there, always flowing and fresh and providing a reliable water source. God is not interested in righteousness which we just exhibit once in a while, but an ever flowing stream of righteousness 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
I think it is ironic that perhaps our biggest water analogy in America is a vision of “draining the swamp.” A swamp, of course, is viewed as a stagnant place, a not very appealing place where the water is not fresh or clear, there are lots of mosquitoes and gnats and snakes and maybe even an alligator. Of course, as with a wadi, if you drain the water out of a swamp it is still a swamp or it will be when it rains enough to fill it up again. It may have different politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, constituencies, but the circle of life and death remains the same. The way to clean up a swamp is for justice to thunder down like Niagara Falls to wash it and sweep away the greed and corruption and injustice and violence, followed by an ever flowing stream of righteousness, of healthy, moving water that does not stagnate.
The questions being asked move from: Which decision will help me get re-elected? Which decision will ensure that money will keep coming in from my lobbyists? Which decision will further the cause of my party and my socio-economic class? To: Which decision will be in the best interests of the country as a whole, not just now but in ten years? Which decision will best ensure justice for all the citizens of our country? Which decision will do most for sustaining our country, our economy, our healthcare, our climate, for my great grandchildren?
The Psalmist wrote, “As a deer looks as those dried up wadis and longs for a flowing stream, so longs my soul for you, O God.” “Time like an ever flowing stream bears all its sons away.” “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.” “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
I started out by telling you that the new subsection of our theme is called “Promises of Hope.” Perhaps you are wondering now exactly where the hope comes from in Amos, and that is a very valid question. If we are content lying on the couch complaining on Facebook if the new tax bill is not going to benefit us, or complaining about the people who are complaining, then there may not be much hope to be found. But if you have a deep yearning for a more just society, a less violent and oppressive society, a society based on righteousness and humility and grace, then I think the hope comes in knowing that this is what God desires as well. With that knowledge comes the strength to continue to work for that kind of society, even knowing that prophets are in the minority and not very popular.
What does God desire from us? Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” When we attempt to live in this manner and to make a difference in these ways, we are partners with God who makes his way through the sea even where there is no way.
A hymn from the 1955 hymnal said, “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year; God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near. Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” This is the promise of hope.
Jesus is Lord. He has been Lord from the beginning. He will be Lord at the end. Even now he is Lord. Blessed be the Lord. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 12, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church