I’m no prophet…

Amos was neither a prophet, nor a prophet’s son; just a shepherd and part-time tree farmer.  He would not ordinarily draw the attention of the powerful…except that he insists on speaking out.  He can’t help himself.  Amos is more than just another concerned citizen – he is an interested, engaged person who takes seriously God’s invitation to be in relationship… and who finds himself compelled to challenge the way things are in his time.

Trouble is coming – and Amos thinks he knows why.  God’s people and their neighbours have neglected justice and mercy for their own reasons.  These are empires built as testimony to human triumph – God’s part in all this has been disguised by human pride, and God will have no more of it; so says Amos, whose every speech ends with “says the Lord”(‘amar ‘adonai)

On six of Israel’s nearest neighbours, Amos pronounces doom (in the name of the Lord, of course).  Exile – disaster – destruction – fire (especially fire); the wrath of God will be unleashed (for these are wicked people, beyond God’s covenant protection).  And since Amos is a subject of Israel’s king, there was expected to be an omen against Judah as well – so that Israel might finally say; “See, I told you we were the favourite.”

Sure enough, Judah is treated like all the others – and so God will send fire, to devour the strongholds – Israel must have rejoiced…but only briefly.  The worst, it seems is saved for them.  It will be like escaping a lion and running into a bear, Amos says – try as they might, there is no escaping what will come.

Chapters 2 through 6 outline Israel’s failures – – the nation has  claimed God’s gifts as their own creation; they have acted as though the Lord depended on them, rather than the other way around.  They have ignored what the writer and Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman calls “the perfect freedom of God”  –

freedom to act (or not act) in an infinite variety of ways towards an infinite variety of people.  There is trouble coming, for Israel; for her leaders; for her people.

When we encounter Amos in this morning’s reading, he is at the point of bargaining on behalf of this wayward people.  Once again, he can’t help himself.  No one who is interested in the way the world works and who, like Amos, desires to honour God by their living and their engagement with current events, can stand apart from the consequences of judgement.  Amos’ plea for change, (or repentance in this case) is moved by his sense of justice – and his hope that God is also just – so Amos is a compassionate prophet.  Having experienced the visions God gives him, Amos responds in horror, and out of love for his people, begs God to forgive.  Twice, God relents.  The third time, however, seems to be the end of God’s mercy.

‘See, I am setting a plumb-line

in the midst of my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by;

9 the 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 the sword.’

Desolation and exile is their lot, and the king (along with his whole house) shall die.

Now this is not an unusual path for a prophet to take; indeed, this is the prophets meat and drink – but Amos doesn’t want the job (doesn’t that sound familiar…).  Instead, he claims that he had no choice but to condemn (in the name of the Lord); he can connect the dots – he has seen the powerful take their power to dangerous extremes. And as a person of integrity, as one of God’s covenant people, he cannot remain silent when confronted by the events of the day.  Amos is assured that God cares enough to warn – and to threaten – those whom God claims under the covenant.

This is a much different picture of a prophet.  Too often, we equate prophecy with wild-eyed pessimism, or violent fanaticism – though neither of these is an accurate description of the prophets we know from Scripture.

Sure, some of them carried on a little – Jeremiah was prone to dramatic public demonstrations (lying half naked at the city gates – smashing pottery); Isaiah and Ezekiel recorded graphic hallucinations (that we charitably call ‘visions’); in later years there was John the Baptizer – eating bugs, dressed in rags, preaching repentance and goading the powerful (that cost him his head…).  But we need a more broad-minded picture, for we are called – even now – to call the world’s attention to the justice and mercy and yes, even judgement of God.

In a world that is flying apart – over developed in the name of commerce, and under-achieving where equity and justice are concerned, God’s people cannot help but notice; God’s people are compelled to speak out and speak up; those who claim to follow Christ must plead and warn and beg and weep for this world ravaged by the work of our own hands.  God has promised good to all – abundant life is at the core of the gospel.  yet we have taken a world that has the ability to feed and house every person, and created a place of such inequality (economically, socially) that justice has become a foreign idea.  We must, without fear for ourselves, speak the truth to those in power.  We must speak – though we are neither prophets nor the children of prophets – because God is free to act, and God has acted in grace through Jesus – and we recognize that there are consequences to this great act of grace.

Ours should be a call to repent, but not just because we believe that ‘we are right and they are wrong’.  Amos had no training, no credentials, no standing in the circles of influence – he had only his faith, which told him that God was being ignored (or mocked, or made subservient to human desires) and his faith compelled him to speak.  The doom he proclaimed was no more than the logical outcome of having broken covenant with God.

The conclusion of Amos indicates that God is determined to maintain covenant.  Israel will be restored, but not before the whole world recognizes God is free, both to tear down AND to build up.  That promise of restoration must be part of our message if we are going to be true to the gospel of Christ.

Yes, the world is free to ignore us – and yes, a little freedom goes a long way in this day and age.  But praise God that even in times of great distress and danger, the word of truth – the spirit of God’s righteous judgement – the gospel that is entrusted to us – will always be a word of grace and peace.  Amen

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