We easily grow accustomed to our environments. Sometimes it requires a different set of eyes to see things as they really are, to start asking the important question, “Why?” Two centuries ago that was true of William Wiberforce in England and a generation later of John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe in this country. They dared to question the rightness of something that many people either assumed to be acceptable or at least were willing to tolerate: the ownership of other people as slaves.
This morning in our Old Testament reading we also meet with an individual who dared to question the status quo. His name was Amos. Challenging the status quo was something that Amos had in common with all the prophets. After all, that is what being a prophet is about. Yet there were ways in which Amos was different. For one thing, Amos prophesied for only a very short period of his life—two years at most, perhaps only for a matter of weeks. For another, Amos never saw himself as a prophet. When Amaziah the priest addressed him as a seer, Amos flatly denied the title. “I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet. I am a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees.”
Elsewhere Amos tells us that he was from Tekoa, an area of the southern kingdom of Judah on the edge of the dry and barren slopes that led downwards to the Dead Sea. On these marginal lands Amos was able to engage in mixed farming and at some point—perhaps to sell his produce—Amos found himself in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Now Judah and Israel were sister states. They had gone their separate ways two centuries before, but they still shared a common language and culture. Yet what Amos saw when he journeyed through Israel stunned him. On the surface the northern kingdom appeared to be a nation that was prospering. But Amos did not have his eyes on the surface, and beneath he saw a nation that was seriously ill. The poor were being victimized by the rich and powerful; there was no regard for sexual mores; religious vows were scorned and those who spoke the truth were silenced.
None of this apparently caused any consternation among the people of Israel. What did concern them, however, was a growing threat from outside. The neighboring Assyrian empire, which had been in decline for some time, was beginning to flex its muscles again. Annual military campaigns were bringing its armies closer and closer to the borders of Israel. How was this tiny kingdom going to withstand this military tidal wave that was approaching?
There were some in Israel who took comfort in their belief that God himself would mightily intervene on their behalf and rescue them from their powerful enemies. They placed their hopes the day of the Lord. They believed that God would scatter their foes, just as he had overthrown other powerful nations before them.
Amos, however, saw what was developing from an entirely opposite perspective. The threat of the Assyrian armies was not something that God opposed. Quite the contrary, it was a sign of God’s judgment on a nation that had given itself over to evil and had become rotten from within. Consequently, the day of the Lord was something that the Israelites should anticipate not with hope but with dread. It would be a day not of vindication but of condemnation. “It is darkness,” he warned them, “not light.”
In verse 19 Amos gives us a picture that might easily be comical if the situation were not so serious. Many translations of this verse, including the one in our pew Bibles, miss some of the irony contained in this verse, when they translate the Hebrew word for “and” right in the middle of the verse as “or”. Amos is not offering two alternative pictures. Rather, it is a single scene that goes from bad to worse to even worse. Here is a more colloquial rendering based on New Living Bible: “In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion— only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he goes into his house and leans his hand against a wall— and he’s bitten by a snake.” The point was that for the nation of Israel their doom was sealed. Run where they might, there was no escaping the judgment that was about to fall upon them.
There were others in Israel who thought that they could buy God off. When the northern kingdom of Israel separated itself from Judah, it needed an alternative place of worship from the Temple in Jerusalem. So King Jeroboam had two new temples constructed, one in Bethel and one in Dan. He also had a golden calf placed in front of each and proclaimed, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:27-29)—words eerily reminiscent of those of Aaron at the foot of Mount Sinai centuries before.
I have no doubt that the worship that took place in those two temples, and around the many other high altars that were set up across the land, was lavish, magnificent. The sight of the smoke billowing into the sky from the animal sacrifices, the fragrance of the incense, and the melodious sounds of the musical instruments and choirs, would have combined to overwhelm even the most hard-bitten with awe. Yet it was all false worship offered out of false motives to a false god. To the true and living God they were an offense.
As we read all of this, we must realize that Amos spoke as he did, not with any sense of pride or glee, but as a man who could barely hold back his tears. What he witnessed before him in Israel was a tragedy and its people were rushing headlong into it.
We have seen so far what the people of Israel were doing wrong: placing their hope in the day of the Lord and thinking they could win God’s favor through their extravagant worship. Yet all the while the poor were being trodden under foot and people were living lives of moral abandon. Amos had identified the problem for them. And in the last verse of this morning’s reading he also identifies the solution: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
What Amos was saying is that there needs to be a connection between our spiritual lives and our social realities. The two cannot be compartmentalized—or, if they are, it will be to our peril. As Old Testament scholar David Hubbard has written, “Our worship must motivate and inform our acts of righteousness and justice towards all humanity, especially the poor, afflicted and oppressed.”
Let us pause for a moment to ask ourselves, what if a modern-day Amos were to come into our midst today? What would he see? I think it is quite possible to recognize the counterparts of ancient Israel in the church and nation of our own day. The people of Israel were spending their time awaiting the day of the Lord, and there are many in the church who do the same today. It is easy for us in the mainline Protestant tradition to wag an accusing finger at those who debate over exactly when Jesus will come again or whether we are pre-mil, post-mil or a-mil, because that is just not a part of our heritage. Yet I believe that for us who count ourselves as conservative or evangelical there is still the danger of using up our energies arguing the fine points of doctrine to the point where we fail to see the people and the needs around us.
A greater concern, however, lies in Amos’ second criticism of Israel, which had to do with their worship. Their services were lavish. They spared no resources on their music and their sacrifices. Yet it had no impact on their lives outside their temples. Today too we run into the danger of separating our what happens here on Sunday morning from who we are and what we do through the rest of the week. We are uplifted by the music, nourished in the sacrament, upheld in the prayers, instructed through the word. More than once I have said that some of the most important words in the liturgy are the last ones, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” Yet so easily worship that is intended to strengthen and equip us to be Christ’s servants in the world can become an escape from the world, an esoteric experience unconnected with reality.
I remember chatting before the last presidential election with a Christian friend whose wisdom I greatly respect. When I asked him which party he was favoring, he answered, “I always want to think about who might most benefit the poor.” I think his advice was profoundly biblical and his words have stuck with me ever since. So often I am inclined to vote on the basis of what would be of the greatest benefit to me, to lower my taxes or offer me greater services. Yet again and again the focus of the Scriptures is on the poor. Think of verses like these:
• When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22)
• Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:11)
• [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap… (1 Samuel 2:8)
• The needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever. (Psalm 9:18)
• Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. (Psalm 41:1)
• I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)
• Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him. (Proverbs 14:31)
• Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full. (Proverbs 19:17)
• If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13)
And we haven’t even reached the prophets yet! By far the most arresting call, however, comes to us from our Lord himself, in the Gospel that we will be reading two weeks from today. There Jesus commends those who seemingly without even being aware of it have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, cared for the sick and visited the prisoners. Then he tells them, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”Like the Israelites of old who felt so threatened by the advances of the Assyrian army, we see the church threatened today by so many things—whether it is secularism, declining morality, Islam, or whatever. If Amos were here, might he be warning us that this is a judgment call—that you and I need to heed the challenge to make that vital connection between theology and justice, worship and action, to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”?