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Amos 5:18-24

November 3, 2014

Amos is a fascinating prophet.  For one thing, he’s an amateur.  He does not belong to a recognized guild of prophets (7:14), nor is he a priest or government functionary–as most of the other prophets were.  Instead, he’s a mere shepherd; he has no credentials or status.  He can be taken seriously only if his words are convincing.  Also, Amos is an outsider.  Even though he preaches in–and against–the northern kingdom of Israel, he’s actually from the southern kingdom of Judah.  This must have made his criticisms and negative pronouncements all the harder for his listeners to accept.  He was an outside agitator!

And yet, somehow, the highly incendiary words of this obscure outsider were remembered, written down, and eventually included in scripture.  This passage represents the high point of those incendiary words.

The “day of the Lord” was probably a common term for the day of Israel’s salvation–when Israel’s enemies would be defeated by the power of God.  The day of the Lord would be like the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army.  The day of the Lord would be like the fall of the walls of Jericho.  The day of the Lord would be like Barak’s surprising victory over a vastly superior army of chariots. The day of the Lord would be like Gideon’s tiny army scaring off the much larger enemy army.  The day of the Lord is the day when the God of Israel proves his power by giving Israel overwhelming and surprising victory and liberation.  Tiny Israel, always vulnerable to neighboring kingdoms and farther afield empires, fervently hoped that a great “day of the Lord” would come that would give them peace and protection for many years.

Amos takes this hope and turns it on its head.  The “day of the Lord” will not be a day of Israel’s victory but of Israel’s total defeat, destruction, and deportation–and God will do it!  It takes a genuine prophet to see reality–accurately–in a completely different light.  Amos is that prophet.

This is a shocking theology.  The God of Israel will no longer fight for Israel?  The God of Israel is going to fight for the enemies of Israel?  Is God a treasonous subversive?  This is another sign of a genuine prophet:  God is liberated from our human constructions; God is understood in totally new–and terribly uncomfortable–ways.

God not only will fight against Israel, but God hates the very worship Israel offers to God!  God can’t stand Israel’s offerings and rituals and songs.  It has become common to interpret verses 21-24 to mean that Amos (and other OT prophets) rejected the sacrificial system of worship in favor of a more “spiritual” worship, or in favor of social justice.  No.  Amos (and other OT prophets) never rejected the sacrificial system as such.  They rejected worship that was not backed up by doing justice.  Acts of worship are valuable and needed, but they become obnoxious and hypocritical if not matched by carrying out the message of that faith.

Verse 24 is a powerful image that has become popular in our own culture through its use by Martin Luther King Jr.  Israel has dry seasons and wet seasons.  In its dry seasons, the gullies dry up.  But when the rains come, the gullies quickly fill with wild torrents of water.  This is the kind of justice God demands:  a powerful, unstoppable, beautiful justice that refreshes the land.

But what is justice?  In the U.S. we often use the word justice to mean punishment for those who break the law.  But this is not how Amos uses the word.  Look at the first indictment of Israel in 2:6-8.  The problem in Israel was not that lawbreakers weren’t going to jail in large enough numbers.  The problem was that the rich and powerful were trampling on the head of the poor and acting with selfish debauchery.  God’s dream for Israel was of a nation in which everyone would have enough, everyone would get their fair share, and the poor would be protected and lifted up.  That wasn’t happening, so God was through with Israel.

But even in destruction, something new emerges–sometimes much better than what came before.  The defeats and setbacks of humanity are also used by God to bring about a greater healing.  Amos does not spell this out; that will be for later prophets to articulate.

How would we feel if an outsider came into our church on Sunday morning and denounced our worship for lack of justice to the poor and oppressed?  How would we feel if a visiting speaker gave a sermon pronouncing God’s intent to destroy the United States?  What would happen if a Canadian taxi driver stood up in the balcony of Congress and shouted that the president would soon be killed by his enemies?  This, in effect, is what Amos was doing.  He went to the official sanctuary of Israel and pronounced that the king would die.  This was sedition and a threat of the highest order.  The priest reported Amos’s words to the king and told Amos he better run back to Judah before it was too late.

This does not mean that we today should honor or take seriously every crackpot who pronounces doom on us.  This does not mean that every extreme criticism is faithfully representing the spirit and insight of Amos.  Some people like to style themselves as Amos in order to get attention and boost their self-righteousness.  But we should listen carefully to other viewpoints, even uncomfortable viewpoints, even offensive viewpoints.  We don’t have a monopoly on God or the truth.  We should always ask ourselves:  Are we living out the ideals of our faith, or are we simply protecting a status quo that keeps us comfortable while others suffer?

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