I completed last Sunday, in our church
in the park, a little "mini-series" on the prophet
Elijah. I've noted a couple times in the course of that little
mini-series that Elijah is particularly important for us to understand
because Elijah represents the beginning of the prophetic
tradition. In other words, the prophets that followed -- Isaiah,
Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and so forth, are in a real sense direct
descendents of that tradition, of Elijah.
And in that tradition, we clearly saw
Elijah was not a "fore-teller". He did not predict
events, but rather was a "forth-teller". He interpreted
events, he spoke the truth, God's truth, to power, represented by King
And so prophets are much more akin to
newscasters than forecasters. They tell us what is happening from
the perspective of God.
The great Abraham Heschel, in his epic
work on the prophets, says: "The prophet is a person who
feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden on the prophet's
soul. Prophesy is the voice that God has lent to silent
agony. A voice of the plundered poor to the profane riches of the
world. God is raging in the prophet's words".
And so I want to explore how that
tradition gets played out in the very first of the classical prophets --
the prophets for whom we now have books named in the Bible. Amos
is the very first of those classical prophets. So this morning I
want to focus on Amos, and two weeks from today I'll focus on Hosea, who
followed Amos in Northern Israel. [What about next Sunday?
Well, next Sunday I'm going to be engaged in a vision experience of a
different sort on the summit of South Sister (God willing).
Michael Kennedy will be bringing the message next Sunday]
With Amos, we see the beginning of a
new tradition within this prophetic tradition--that of written
oracles. Prior to Amos, all stories of the prophets are written by
third parties, someone else who tells the story after it has been passed
down from generation to generation by oral tradition, before it becomes
Amos, it appears quite probable, that
the prophet either wrote (or probably more likely -- dictated) his
oracles to a scribe to write down. Because Amos is a herdsman, not
likely he would have known how to read and write, but in any case, he is
directly responsible in one way or another for the text that we now have
And that alone makes Amos a very
special and unique prophet. The bulk of the book of Amos comes
from him. Before I read the text for this morning, I have to give
one more note about the historical context.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the
story of Elijah on the mountain. A wonderful story of the
still, small voice that speaks to Elijah in the quiet there on the
mountain. And in that story, Elijah receives a new commission from
God to go and to anoint three people: his successor (Elisha), and
then two Kings -- the King of Syria, Hazeal, and the King of Northern
Israel, Jehu. What's interesting is that he only performs 1 of
those 3 tasks -- I mean, if you're given something by God to do,
wouldn't you complete it?! But he leaves the other two, the
anointing of the two Kings, up to Elisha (he doesn't do it either, he
passes one of those anointments on to a servant of his, so it gets
passed from prophet to prophet).
At any rate, fast-forward 100
years. Jeroboam the Second is the great-grandson of Jehu, that
Elijah (and then Elisha) was to anoint as the new King of Northern
Israel. He ruled for 40 years. It was a period of great
expansion, stability, and prosperity. It truly was (as an article
this morning in our newspaper indicated about current times) the Gilded
Age of that period in the history of the nation. Enormous
That would lead one to think, according
to the theology typical of that day (and perhaps even today) that God
had therefore blessed the nation. That God's favor was upon the
nation for this wonderful prosperity and all the good things that were
happening. And that's precisely then what makes the message of
Amos so shocking. For precisely when the nation was at its
economic, political, and military apex of good fortune, along comes the
prophet and announces God is fed up. God has had enough, and they
As a result, Amos gets kicked out of
the country, goes back to his home in Southern Judah, and then he writes
his 'memoirs'. And that is the text that comes to us.
I invite you to put yourself in the
Royal Sanctuary, 750 years before the birth of Christ, in Northern
Israel, where you are used to hearing all about God's blessings bestowed
upon King and country. And along comes, then, this new preacher
and delivers this message:
This is what the Lord
God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth
began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings).
2When they had finished eating the grass of the land [all
the crops, in other words, had been devoured],
‘O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!’
3The Lord relented concerning this;
‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord.
[And all the congregation said?
Amen! God is on our side, right? Amos continues. . . . ]
4 This is what the
Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and
it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. 5Then I said,
‘O Lord God, cease, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!’
6The Lord relented concerning this;
‘This also shall not be,’ said the Lord God.
[Amen! Once again, Lord God is
on our side. Yes, preach it Amos, you're doing great! A
man of God! You can see right through it, can't you? He's
setting them up. . . .]
7 This is what he
showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a
plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. [This
is a little obscure, I think, for us as compared to the previous two
visions that are pretty clear -- locusts devouring the land, fire
devouring the land. What in the heck does a plumb-line
suggest? Think about a plumb-line -- a string with a weight on
the end of it. And what do you do? You use that plumb-line
to determine whether or not a wall is straight. Think of a stone
mason in particular, wanting to make the wall straight, because
everything else is going to depend on that. If the wall is not
straight, what do you do? You knock it down, start over again
until you get it right. That is the image Amos is using
8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said,
‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with
[Imagine stunned silence in the
10 Then Amaziah,
the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos
has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel;
the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land
of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again
prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a
temple of the kingdom.’
14 Then Amos
answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; [Not
a part of the professional guild of prophets, in other words]
but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the Lord
took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go,
prophesy to my people Israel.”
16‘Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.”
17Therefore, thus says the Lord:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its
Well, isn't that a wonderful, joyful,
uplifting message to hear on a Sunday morning!
It's pretty shocking. And it
prompts two questions: why, what could the the people
possibly have done to deserve this? And secondly, what can we
learn from it? Can their pain be our gain? Or do we too have
to be judged and sentenced in order to change in any way, to learn from
When Amos went back to his home in the
little village of Tekoa, just southeast of Bethlehem, he wrote (or
dictated) five oracles that are now in the book of Amos, in addition to
these visions. All of those oracles, with the exception of the
first, begin with the command "To hear". Hear, listen
up, people. Or as Jesus said, 'all those with two good ears,
The first oracle contains a series of
"thus says the Lord", to be found in the first two chapters of
Amos (I invite you to read that). It is a masterpiece of oratory
skill, that reads like a sermon in a black church with its rhythmic
cadence that opens each section with this refrain: "For three
transgressions and for four. . . ". And then Amos names some
nation, some neighbor of Israel as he systematically goes around the map
and pronounces judgment against all of their enemies. And you can
just hear the people cheering him on -- "Yeah, that's right!
Let's go get 'em!". As he denounces those foreigners in the
south, and those meddlers in the north, and those communists to the
east, and the yellow peril to the west, etc. Get 'em all, God is
on our side.
But once again, it's a trick.
He's drawing a noose around their neck. He comes then, finally, to
his point, where he pronounces the strongest judgment of all against
Israel herself. And here is what he says in that opening oracle of
his book as to the reason for this judgment:
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—
7they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
so that my holy name is profaned;
That theme -- the abuse of power of the
wealthy elites -- runs through the entire book. We see it in each
of the oracles. In the second oracle, it's found in the third
chapter -- a little obscure, but still there. He says:
They do not know how to
do right, says the Lord,
those who store up violence and robbery in their
From the position of power and
strength, they take advantage of those who are powerless.
The third oracle, more direct, and a
very unflattering portrayal of the wealthy women of the land, says:
Hear this word, you
cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to
Don't you feel sorry for those poor
The fourth oracle is contained in
chapters five and six, where we read:
For I know how many are
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
[Gate is a reference to the public square, the place where court is
Therefore the prudent
will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
This section ends with the
famous words Martin Luther King Jr. often cited -- "let justice
roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting
And just before that, Amos condemns the
worship practices of the people, saying:
I hate, I despise your
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Dominic Crossan says, in light of that
text, that God rejects worship for lack of justice, but nowhere, nowhere
in scripture does God ever reject justice for lack of worship.
The last oracle, then, is found in
chapters 8 and 9, and there we hear the reason for this judgment, once
again like the first:
Hear 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.’
In sum, then, the message of Amos is
about three things: economic justice, economic justice, and
He sounds like a broken record, it's
just over & over again. Sure, there are some other things
along the way, but the abuse of wealth by the powerful (or the abuse of
power by the wealthy, however you want to put it) is the central theme
of the book.
It's precisely in the time of the
nation's greatest economic prosperity that Amos comes to deliver a
message from God condemning them for the economic disparity.
And he reminds them that they were called out of slavery to put an end
to such disparity. That they were called not for special
privileges, but to a special responsibility -- to be a witness to God's
justice and liberation.
Hence, in the second oracle:
Hear this word that the
Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the
whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:
2You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities.
Because their values and standards were
so out of whack of God's intent for the nation, they would suffer the
And so the Chief Priest condemns
him: 'How dare you defame the almighty
mean, the almighty King'! Such things should not be spoken in the
royal sanctuary. And it's very clear -- to whom does this
sanctuary belong? Not to God. To the King. Does anyone
wonder why those who know their scripture insist that national flags of
this country or any other not be on the chancel of the Lord? We
worship God, and only God, and anything else is blasphemy.
It's no wonder, then, that Amos gets
thrown out. What King could tolerate such dissent?
I remember the case of the local woman,
some of you may recall, when President Bush came to town on the campaign
trail. I remember it so well because she was actually attending
here at the time, in the first service, and participated in the
discussion group. All of us were shocked to see her name in the
paper the next morning. The President came to town, and she wanted
to go hear the President -- just kind of a cool thing to do. She
said she had no desire to protest, that just wasn't her. But she
sat there in that crowd and when she heard the President's defense of
the war, she could not keep silent. Something inside of her just
made her speak out, shout out "No! No to the war! No to
And of course, the
priests, I mean the security folks, ushered her out, and she
was charged with being a nuisance. I don't know what else to say.
Prophetic voices are simply not welcome
in royal sanctuaries. Sometimes they are thrown out, sometimes
they are crucified. But rarely are they silent, because the voice
of God, the voice of truth, will not be silenced.
So what do we do with this
message? Are we supposed to become little Amos'? Proclaiming
the message of doom and gloom for whatever injustice we perceive to be
contrary to the will of God? Someone in the first service shouted
out "Yes!". But truthfully, that's not the way I read
Note that almost all of God's prophets
in scripture report a vision from God. It's their credentials,
they talk about their vision. And in the case of Amos it is a
vision so powerful it causes him to leave his home down south, to go up
north. It's not your everyday tug-on-the-heartstrings kind of
vision. This is a
grab-you-by-the-lapels-and-yank-you-out-of-your-seat kind of vision.
Martin Luther King, I think, meets the
biblical criteria of a prophet because he too had such a vision that he
articulated so eloquently from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963
of that dream. But truthfully, I could tell you that the number of
true prophets called in such a way with a vision by God, probably are no
more than a handful in our lifetimes. Now, having said that, I
also have to note that Joel (quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost)
said 'the spirit of God is poured out on you and all your maidservants,
your old men, your young men, shall dream dreams and shall
prophesy'. So, maybe not, but in any case, that's not the way I
read this text.
What, then, are we to do with it, if
we're not to be one of those? What is our role? What is our
response? Amos gives the answer, I'll take from the third oracle
in chapter 5, he says:
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.
15Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate; [the
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
And this is the purpose, the heart of
his message. To give people the opportunity to make a difference
by being agents of good, collectively working against the common evils
of social injustice and economic oppression.
Three facts that stand out for me that
stand out for me this morning:
Fact #1: the number one
provider of services to the mentally ill in our society in this country
is what? Prisons. The prison system.
Fact #2: 25% of all
children, nearly 50% of children of color, are without healthcare in our
Fact #3: (reported in that
article this morning about the new Gilded Age), the top 1/100th of 1%
own and control 5% of all wealth. The reverse I don't think is
true -- that is, that the bottom 5% don't even have 1/100th percent of
The greatest economic disparity since
the 1920's, and we know where that led us as a nation. What is in
store for us today? What might the prophet say to us? When
taxes for the wealthiest citizens, and services to the poorest citizens,
are simultaneously being cut?
This is what the Lord God showed me,
says Amos. So what would we say, chosen people of God, that the
Lord God has showed us?