Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
Today we make a shift in our story of the Bible, from stories about what prophets did to accounts of what the prophets said. And we start our journey with the prophets with a man named Amos. If you remember from last week, we heard a story of the prophet Elijah who went up against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of the northern kingdom of Israel. That would have been somewhere between the years 869 and 850 BC. Amos did his prophesying work during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah, perhaps somewhere in the 750s BC. So this would be many years after Elijah; remember that years count down when we’re talking about BC. But before we get deeper into Amos’ background and what he said, I want to take a step back and talk about what a prophet actually is.
Most of us, when we think about prophets, think about people who are able to foretell the future. And we think of that probably because, as Christians, we have been brought up to believe that many of the Old Testament prophets said particular things that point to the coming of Jesus as our Lord and Savior. But actually, that was only a small part of the prophet’s call from God. The word “prophet” in Hebrew means to be a spokesperson for God. And God had many more things to say to the people than to just tell them about the coming of Jesus. If we look back in our series several weeks ago, we will see that one of the first Old Testament figures we encountered along the way was Moses. Moses acted as a prophet, or a spokesperson, for God, when he went back down to Egypt and told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. Moses continued to act as God’s spokesperson when he went up onto Mount Sinai and came down again with God’s law for the people. Samuel acted as God’s spokesperson when he anointed David as king over Israel, to show that God had chosen David. And, as we saw last week, Elijah’s call as a prophet was to speak out for God against the prophets of Baal that Queen Jezebel had allowed to promote the worship of Baal in the kingdom of Israel. Just like these prophets, God had a particular message that God wanted Amos to speak to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel.
So now, let’s get a little background on the prophet Amos. We find out from a conversation that Amos has with a man named Amaziah in chapter 7 that Amos never expected to be called by God as a prophet. He says, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” We also find out from the first part of our reading today that Amos comes from a town named Tekoa, which was located somewhat south of Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah. In other words, God takes a no-name farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah and sends him up to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s words to the king and the people of the northern kingdom. The ways of the Lord are mysterious, indeed.
Now we can take a look at what God’s message to the king and the people of Israel through the prophet Amos was. The portions of Amos that we have today give a summary of what the main points of his message are. Seek good and not evil, Amos says. Okay, that’s pretty easy to follow; God’s been telling the people that since the beginning of the story. But then we get a surprising message: God is not happy with the people’s worship, but commands instead for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. When we just look at the snippet of Amos that we have for today, we can get confused, because we know that God wants us to come and worship. Is God giving a different message after all?
Well, not really, and this is where we have to look at some of what the rest of Amos says. The problem that God was calling Amos to address was an economic one. During the reign of Jeroboam II, the northern kingdom of Israel reached its peak of prosperity. Scholar Abraham Heschel writes, “When Amos appeared in the North there was pride, plenty, and splendor in the land, elegance in the cities, and might in the palaces. . . . At the same time there was no justice in the land, the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery, and the judges were corrupt” (27-28). And so Amos says this: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying ‘When will the new moon by 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 sweeping of the wheat.’” When we look at the rest of what Amos says, we find that worship of God itself is not the problem; rather, it is the hypocrisy of the people that is the problem. Amos is asking how the people can come and worship God, and then turn around and exploit the poor. The people think that God doesn’t care about what they do outside of worship, and Amos is saying that yes, God cares very much.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” So now we come to this idea of justice, and this is where things get sticky for us. We here in the church understand charity. We collect food for the hungry. We give money to the poor and we collect money to help those who have been hit by natural disasters, and we will soon be giving shelter to the homeless through Family Promise. And that is all good, and we need to keep doing these things. But there is a difference between charity and justice. Justice takes things a step further than charity. Justice asks why there are hungry people, poor people, and homeless people, and justice asks how we as a community are treating those people. Justice looks at the system that produces poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental destruction and asks how we can change that system for the better.
Changing the system is not an easy task. For example, every time I fill up my car with gas, I think about how I am part of the system that is polluting the earth and warming the climate. I want to do the right thing, but with the system that we have now, transportation is essential. I know and I confess to God that even though I try to care for the earth by reducing what I use and recycling all I can, I could still do more. And growing out of that confession of my sin is a call to work for change in the system: writing to legislators when they want to roll back emissions standards for cars and speaking out against reducing the size of national parks and monuments just so that oil companies can try to drill some more and pollute the earth even more, for example. In this way, and in other ways as well, I can do my part to work for justice for God’s creation, and to advocate for more respectful ways to coexist with other parts of that creation.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We think that church should not have anything to do with politics. And yet, here is the prophet Amos, criticizing the economic system of the northern kingdom of Israel that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He was told to go back to Judah and leave Israel alone, but in response, he said he could not, for the Lord had called him to this post. And here is the prophet Amos, still part of our Holy Scriptures today. Here he is, telling us centuries later that we as Christians have something to say to the injustices around us that make it seem like we are getting political. We have something to say to environmental injustice, because God has created this good earth that we live on. We have something to say about the economic system that creates poverty and homelessness, especially as we help those people who are reduced to poverty and homelessness. We have something to say about racial discrimination and injustice, because through the apostle Paul, God has told us that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos is just the beginning of the message of the prophets. From now until Christmas, our readings will take us through a sampling of the writings of the prophets, and we will hear what messages they have for us today. It may be helpful for us to remember that, as a good Jewish man, Jesus would have been immersed in the message of the prophets, and that he continued to bring their message to the people. As we go through Advent, the time when we await the coming of the Lord, it will be helpful for us to consider the stories that we have learned about Jesus and how they fit in with the message of the prophets, because Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of both the Law and the prophets—and not in a “predict-the-future” kind of way. We will continue to ask ourselves how we can hear the message of the prophets and use it in the 21st century. For now, let us go forth from here meditating on this most famous verse from Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amen.