Sermon 9-10-17, Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24
When we last left the people of God, Elijah had been called as a prophet to declare God’s disappointment with King Ahab. The Kingdom of Israel had split in two, and both kingdoms were having trouble abiding by God’s commands for living life with integrity. The Kings were amassing wealth and building temples to other gods, failing to participate in the ancient covenant that their ancestors had made with the Lord. Elijah warned King Ahab and the people that God was not pleased and that God had plans to bring a drought upon the whole land. You know the story – the drought came, Elijah fled, after three years, Elijah returned to prove God’s power, the drought ended and the people once again professed their fidelity and faith in the Lord.
But, as you might imagine, that fidelity and faith doesn’t last forever.
This week, we’re soaring through the centuries to catch up with another prophet: Amos. Amos is one of what are called the “twelve minor prophets.” His book is fairly short, sweet, and to the point. His prophecies are not long like Isaiah’s or uber-historically specific like Jeremiah’s. Amos was the first prophetic book to be written, and it was meant to be read over and over. His prophecies came at a particular time in the history of the people of Israel, but they are so relevant even today that it is actually sort of…terrifying.
Amos starts out by reeling the Israelites in. He names all of Israel’s neighbors and pronounces God’s judgement upon them all, one at a time: Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab: one after another, Amos lists the injustices of these nations, and one after another, reports that God is planning to bring down fire on each of them. You can imagine the way those first hearers of this book were feeling:
“Yes, yes, that’s right: those guys are AWFUL. Haven’t we been saying it all along what animals those Ammonites are? Didn’t my grandfather warn me years ago about the infidels of Gaza? Thank goodness this prophet is finally speaking so clearly and honestly. So well put! Such a sad state of affairs. Thank GOD that those people will finally be done away with! Just getting what they deserve, aren’t they? Finally encountering their comeuppance. You know what they say about karma…”
But Amos is wily. After two chapters full of denouncing all the other kingdoms for their transgressions – which are, we should probably point out, injustices of the dehumanizing kind: Gaza sent entire communities into exile, Edom pursued his brother with the sword and couldn’t stop being angry, Moab refused to give even their enemies a proper burial –
After this laundry list of judgement to come upon every other people in the land, Amos, who has reeled his hearers in on the line of their deep self-righteousness, makes a sudden turn.
“And Judah,” he says, and you can almost hear the audible gasp among the crowd:
“WHAT? I thought we were here to hear about how God was going to smite all our awful enemies! Moab and Damascus and Gaza are AWFUL. God is right to bring down fire on them! Just listen to what they’ve done! This isn’t about…us…is it?”
And Judah, Amos says, has rejected the law of the Lord.
And Israel, Amos says, and you can hear the crowd start grumbling with impatience. A few of them are probably turning around and leaving in a huff.
And Israel, Amos says, has decided to sacrifice the poor on the altar of extravagance. They’ve broken my commandments, ignored my law, and decided to live only to please themselves.
Amos prophesied during the first half of the 8th century BCE. The kingdom of Israel had split in two, the kings were getting pretty rich, and even though Elijah and others had persistently been calling the people back to a life of fidelity and justice with God, the people were not full participants in this covenant. They kept getting seduced into systems of earthly power and wealth.
It seems, in Amos’ day, that the elite of the land – both Israel and Judah – were engaged in some serious economic exploitation. They “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way.” Apparently, they have both winter and summer houses, while the poor around them have no place to live. They are “hoarding violence and oppression for themselves.”
Amos has, it’s true, listed the failings of every one of Israel’s neighbors, and they are not pretty. But the downfall of the Israelites (which includes both Israel and Judah, remember) is not that they’re perpetrating human rights violations. The downfall of the people of God is that they have failed to live up to the covenant of faithfulness and justice. Israel hasn’t necessarily sent entire nations into exile or dishonored the dead of their enemies or done what the Ammonites are apparently being punished for and killed and dismembered pregnant women in order to gain more land for themselves…but they are, nonetheless, in deep, deep trouble with God.
It turns out, being selfish and unjust to the poor and needy is an even bigger violation than sending a whole people into exile – if, that is – you are a part of the people that God has chosen to be his living example of mercy and justice in the world.
God will deal harshly with all those other peoples, because God is a God of justice and in charge of the entire earth. But this infidelity of God’s own people to God’s own way of mercy and justice for all…well, this makes God particularly upset.
Later on, another of God’s prophets will pick up on this theme of self-righteousness. In Matthew’s gospel, when John the Baptist comes to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, to prepare the way for Christ himself, the Pharisees and Sadducees flocked to his preaching point and asked to be baptized. But when he saw them, John screamed at them: “You brood of vipers! Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘oh, that judgement isn’t for us…WE have ABRAHAM as OUR ancestor! EVERY tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Amos’ warnings of the wrath of God, about to descend upon the unjust and self-righteous elite, is not the last time that God will have to send a prophet to remind her people not to be so sure of themselves, so certain of their own goodness, so comfortable in their morally superior perches of plenty.
The rest of the book of Amos is a description of God’s pronouncement of punishment upon Israel.
“I gave you warning after warning,” God tells them.
I sent famine on the land, and drought, too
…and yet you did not return to me.
I sent blight and mildew, destroyed your gardens and your vineyards, had locusts devour your fig trees and your olive trees
…and yet you did not return to me.
I sent a pestilence on you like I did to the Egyptians, I killed your young men and carried away your horses
…and yet you did not return to me.
You’ve had so many opportunities to change your ways. I’ve tried and tried to convince you to return to me, to repent, to live lives of mercy and justice. But you did not repent. You refused to return. You were seduced by the power and wealth of the world.
This sounds a little like that nursery rhyme – Little Bunny Foo Foo. Do you know it?
Little bunny Foo Foo
Hopping through the forest
Scooping up the field mice
And boppin’ ’em on the head!
Down came the good fairy
And the good fairy said:
“Little bunny Foo Foo, I don’t wanna see you
Scooping up the field mice and boppin’ ’em on the head!
I’ll give give you three chances,
Then I’ll turn you into a goon!”
This is what God says to the Israelites. “Seek me and live. And, by the way, seeking me doesn’t stop at worship. I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Stop singing your noisy songs to me! No, seeking me looks like letting justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In fact, Amos prophesied in the early 8th century, BCE and by the second half of that century, the Israelites had in fact been defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians. Later on, the Babylonians would send the entire people into exile – the temple would be completely destroyed, and the people would be sent far away from home, monarchy, sacred spaces.
Amos is the first of the prophets, and given that there are 11 more “minor” prophets and four “major” prophets still to come, plus the resurgence of this message all the way through John the Baptist, it’s probably safe to assume that Amos’ warnings were not the final word in this conversation between God and God’s people.
The conversation continues today. God is always reminding us that the covenant we share includes not only worship and prayer but also and always the practices of mercy and justice. To live a life of faithfulness and fidelity to this God who calls us his own, we are invited to live our whole lives in the light of God’s new kingdom on earth.
Sometimes, we Christians get caught up in naming the sins of others. This feels good. Really good. I am happy to point out the ways that Russia is colluding with our government for their own gain, eager to name the inhumanity of Boko Haram in Nigeria, delighted to point out the hypocrisy of our president and other powerful men claiming the name of Jesus but failing to practice self-giving love.
It feels GOOD to call others out. When I name the sins of others – even rightly so, even sins that need to be named, hate that needs to be countered, actions that need to be stopped – I feel powerful, and superior, and…exempt. If THEY are the ones doing wrong, then surely WE are over here, in the column of RIGHT.
Amos smirks at this kind of projection. “Yes, those other people are doing horrendous things. Yes, these injustices are maddening to God, and God is angry about them and promises to right them. But what ought to be concerning you, dearly beloved children of this God of justice, are the ways that you yourselves have forsaken your creator and your covenant. Don’t you know that you, too, are trampling the heads of the poor in the dirt, that YOU are hoarding up violence and oppression for yourselves, that YOU are part of the problem?
This is hard to hear. It is harder still to heed.
Here’s this week’s challenge, straight from the ancient prophet Amos:
The next time you find yourself raging at the news, screaming about the injustice of the President rescinding DACA or the General Assembly drawing racist district lines or the local celebrity mega-church pastor exiling LGBTQ folks from grace or the KKK planning to put their horrific racism on display here in Durham, or your rich neighbor dropping a few cool millions on a summer home when you know people who can’t afford their rent…
The next time you find yourself ranting and raving about the how badly all those other people are behaving, read a little bit from the prophet Amos, or Isaiah, or John the Baptist. Offer a prayer of personal repentance for the ways that you, yourself, have participated in these evils. Ask God to clear out some of the self-righteousness in your own heart in order to make way for those mighty streams of justice that are on the way.
Because God is coming, roaring like an angry lion, to bring justice throughout the land. God is coming, bringing fire down on those who refuse to live in the light of divine justice – no matter which ones of us are standing in the way.