July 17, 2022
For our second reading this morning we return to the prophet Amos. Now I guess I need to go ahead and confess up front… writing a sermon based on Amos is so easy… all I need to do is get out of the way and let Amos speak to you… because this prophet is straightforward… his words cut to the quick today as much as they did back in his time. So much of this sermon is just going to be putting his words before you.
So… to quickly give some important context… Amos… who by his own words… is not a prophet or a prophet’s son… but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees… Amos receives the call from God to go north into Israel to take God’s words to the leaders there. Israel, at this time, is prospering. Its military is strong and the borders are secure. As Israel’s king, Jeroboam is popular and successful. He is doing everything we would expect of the king to make the country strong and prosperous. In matters of religion, the festivals are popular and well attended. The people like the messages they are receiving about themselves from their religious leaders… messages that are likely pointing towards all the good things around them being a sign of God’s blessings and their special place as God’s beloved. These are good times.
And then Amos shows up with a different message from God. At first Amos levels his words at the atrocities and sins of Israel’s neighbors. That’s alright. We don’t mind that. God’s wrath aimed at others helps to support our special place in the world. Hearing all those bad things about them… only gets us more ready to hear the good things about us. But then Amos turns the focus toward Israel and Israel’s sins…
“Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.”
Saint’s… that’s just the beginning…
“And I raised up some of your children to be prophets and some of your youths to be nazirites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel? But you made the nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying ‘You shall not prophesy’”
Amos took aim at those who thought themselves above such matters… those who believed wealth and station gave them a free pass from having to follow God’s ways… blessings from God surely brings certain privileges.
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring us something to drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. Through breaches in the wall you shall leave, each one straight ahead; and you shall be flung out into Harmon, says the Lord. Come to Bethel- and transgress; to Gilgal – and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel! says the Lord God.”
Shallow, meaningless piety wasn’t going to save them. All the festivals and offerings were just empty performative noise before God. The people had missed the mark they weren’t paying attention to what God truly desired. How they sought the Lord… with all their performative sacrifices and acts of piety… were not what God had commanded. God was not some entity to be appeased. To know God was to be transformed by God… to have the covenant written on the heart… to love as God loved.
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos was clear about the cost of injustice…
“Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”
The plumb line from last week’s reading was just that… seek good and not evil. Those words… though… those words can be defined… or maybe I should say… be redefined in so many different ways… good and evil. Remember that in Israel, these were good times… but they were the good times that comes from evil works… from human ways and not from God’s ways. King Jeroboam was a good king by earthly standards… but King Jeroboam was put into power by God to be a godly king… and as a godly king Jeroboam was a failure… a failure though everything idolatrous said he was a success.
We have people once again… with their talk and their actions… speaking of their desire for some form of theocracy here in America. Let me tell you straight out… the wall between church and state works for our times. I don’t need or want the state’s help in being the church. I don’t want the state to define what Christianity is… what every church ought to want most in society… or ought to believe. A law based on a certain religious belief makes that belief orthodox in the eyes of the state. And then there’s the other side of the coin… the state should be afraid of the church because our ways are not their ways… our plumb line is not their plumb line. Notice how the current dabblings in theocracy don’t reflect the message Amos brings. That theocracy is based on fear… fear of changing demographics… fear of losing power… fear that sets the heart on the path of control. So… the current prevailing vision is a theocracy that comes about with victory in the culture wars. It is a vision that Amos would eviscerate… cutting through the Sunday stage productions where worship is a fog machine enhanced performance… a show that stirs the heart but does not move the people towards God’s justice. Faith has never been measured by a shallow belief litmus test… by some oath written down signed to make sure you believe in the right things and in the right way. Faith is active love of God with the whole self… love of God that is poured out in love of neighbor. James in the New Testament says it plainly for all who have ears to hear…
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”
Theocracy isn’t something to play around with. Amos speaks to Israel at a time when it was a very successful state. Prosperous. Militarily strong. Performatively pious. The state had succeeded in the works of the state. But they had failed at the works of God. They had failed to make God’s justice the first thing… instead of making it an afterthought funded with the sweepings of wheat.
Which finally gets us to today’s lectionary reading from Amos 8:1-12…
“This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. 2He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then the Lord said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,’ says the Lord God; ‘the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!’
4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, ‘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, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ 7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
What a great contrast… a basket of summer fruit and a famine of God’s word. A basket of summer fruit… sweet… tasty… the juices running down your chin… full of colors pleasing to the eyes… a delight to all the senses… desired over other choices. Ripe and ready to eat. But already starting to go bad… rotting… the gnats beginning to gather and lay eggs. A basket of summer fruit… fleeting… temporary and soon out of season. A basket of summer fruit comes for a season and then is gone for three. The words of God… steadfast… eternal… never changing though we seek to twist them and use them to our own purposes at our own times. Today, Saints, we have feasted on the word… but oh how our eye and our appetites still longs for the summer fruit.
Israel was a failed success. Good business practices were judged by profit and not justice. Good government was judged by strength and not mercy for the least. Good religion was judged by spectacle and popularity and not by discipleship filled with righteous works. There are those now who believe they are working to make our country into a Christian nation… but they are the children of Amaziah who are not interested in hearing the words of the prophet. Amos has been clear what constitutes a godly nation… what is first and has primacy… a godly nation is known by how well the poor are treated.
”…because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way…”
“…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…”
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
“Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain…”
“…you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
“Hate evil love good, and establish justice…”
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin 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.”
A famine of the word is like any other famine… we likely have a hand in causing it… but we can also find a way to bring the necessary relief… if we have the will to act… and to act collectively for the godly good. Amen.