I’m afraid it’s all bad news today. If you’ve been searching for that scripture passage that speaks of hellfire and damnation, Amos hands it to you in the seventh chapter! “Thus saith the Lord…” rolls off the tongue of the prophet and we brace for the charges levied our way. The prophet Amos calls out to us from the 8th century BCE, catching us in the net he set for the wayward Israelites. It’s an uncomfortable text that forces us to reflect on the chasm between judgement and grace. Is God all merciful, abounding in steadfast love for us? Or is God angry at our sinfulness and ready to smite us for our transgressions? We squirm in our seats and wonder how much of his harsh message from chapter seven is meant for us:
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. 8 And 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;
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.
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. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but 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[a] no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am[b] a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and 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.’
17 Therefore 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 land.’”
We are a vindictive society. Law suits are levied for exaggerated infractions. There’s always someone else to blame and we don’t hesitate to do so! But we’re very slippery when accusations fly our way. We dodge bullets and defend ourselves against blame. “Who are you to judge me?”, we yell at the office mate who criticizes our business ethics. We have bought into the myth that we are answerable to no one. We operate with no one daring to critique our choices. We feel particularly deserving of immunity from God’s judgement. Why have younger generations left the church? “It’s too judgemental” they proclaim as they head to Founder’s Brewery to badmouth their lousy boss or ex-girlfriend. Many of us grew up in an age when Mrs. Johnson down the block had just as much right to correct our bad behavior as our own moms. Those days are long gone and today’s Ms. Johnson is likely to find herself a defendant in a lawsuit if she dares to discipline even a neighborhood bully!
In the 8th century BCE Israel lived in relative peace and prosperity. The Assyrians were the super power that was crushing nations to expand their turf. But the Israelites were a tiny group who were sure that they would be overlooked as insignificant. It’s easy to be seduced by the status quo when you’re able to enjoy lemonade on your front porch. Who needs God when your paycheck covers your expenses and your children are thriving?
In plucking Amos from obscurity and sending him out as a prophet, God was stirring up the placid waters of Israelite daily life and calling for reform. He used the image of the plumb line which relies on the natural force of gravity to determine uprightness. Gravity is a non-negotiable, God-given force that aids us in building homes that do not lean like the Tower of Pisa. Amos used this image to inform the self-satisfied Hebrews that they had come “out of true” as a nation. Like the Prodigal Son who spent his father’s money on all forms of debauchery, the Jews had no understanding of what deep and murky waters they were treading.
We have four characters in this historical narrative. Amos was the prophet chosen by God to be the Divine mouthpiece to a wayward people. Amaziah was the priest hired by the King to take care of sacred duties at the palace. He was, therefore, a powerful priest who admirably ingratiated himself with the royal court. He was more politician than priest and knew the provenance of his paycheck. If God and the King called out to him at the same time, guess whose summons he would most likely obey? We have King Jereboam, a King to the Israelites who was understood to be the monarch of God’s choosing. The expectation is that he would lead the people in a practice of daily piety through his own personal example. He was only in the shadows in this story but we can tell that he had power and wasn’t afraid to use it. Finally we have the nation of the Israelites whose spiritual life had slacked off to a point of being judges of their own lives, accountable to no one. The story takes place in Bethel which was akin to the National Cathedral for the Northern tribes. It was a place of intricate collusion between the religious and political aspects to the Jewish nation.
A prophet is someone who sees what others cannot or will not see. A prophet names reality no matter the cost to him or herself. Amos was that person and he told the Royal Priest, Amaziah, that bad things were about to happen. The good times were about to end, starting with the King down to the lowliest peasant. Amos announced that God’s patience had come to an end. If the people had been so spectacular in their ability to ignore God for years, then God was going to hand them the reins to direct their own destiny. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” right?!? Prophets are the plumb line who determine the extent to which the community has gone spiritually off course. It would be as if an insider on Capitol Hill proclaimed into the microphone, “God curse America.” Yikes! No matter how messed up the nation, that’s not going to get you re-elected! Remember how quickly presidential candidate Barack Obama separated himself from his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Video footage of the U.C.C. pastor surfaced in which he gave precisely that message but with stronger language. The context for the proclamation was never probed. It was preached in an African American church where the Chicago parishioners knew all too well the discriminatory tendencies of the police force and politicians. This was long before Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the singing of the National Anthem to bring attention to unequal treatment of the races in our country. Our nation has been broken for a long time with factions who try to yell over each other.
Will Willimon spoke of a time his congregations brought in an expert to better understand the membership decline in their parish. His summary evaluation was along the lines that every organization is full of fear and leaders must face the fear and tell the truth. He writes, “A leader must put an organization in pain that it has been avoiding at all costs. The leader tells the truth out of faith that the organization already has the needed resources to face facts.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 224.)
Amos’ message was wildly unpopular with Amaziah who went to the King to tell him that Amos needed to be banished from the kingdom. He was making terrible predictions about the future of the king and the country. Amaziah told Amos to go to another town to do his little prophetic dog and pony show because they didn’t want to hear it in Bethel. Unintimidated, Amos reminded powerful Amaziah that he was not getting a paycheck for delivering this bad news. In fact, he was, by profession, a shepherd and arborist. God had plucked him up from work he loved and commissioned him for the holy task of telling unpopular news to those who didn’t want to hear it. He ended his speech by mapping out in horrifically graphic detail how Amaziah’s family was going to fall apart, lose their land and all of Israel would be overtaken. They would be marched off as prisoners to a foreign land. While this may not have worked well to earn Amos the Toastmaster’s top award, they must have remembered his words when all of this came true within a matter of years.
Our own national prophet, Martin Luther King, claimed Amos as a colleague. In Amos 5:24 the unwanted prophet told the people what God wanted from them: “…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This became Rev. King’s challenge to our nation. When you’re out of alignment the solution is to right the wrongs faced by people in much more dire straits than your own. Take on a cause that is bigger than your personal comfort. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages (such as Tekoa) and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns…I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” [Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 77-100.]
True prophets are hand-picked by God, not self-appointed. It has nothing to do with pedigree or power, alma mater or beauty. What matters to servants like Amos and Dr. King is that the call originates with God. Few of us in the ministry yearn to pronounce unpopular messages to folks sitting happily in their Tommy Bahama chaise by the pool, sipping umbrella drinks. There is angst that comes with the territory of being a prophet because people want grace extended always and at all cost! But how far should grace stretch? We wrestle with that when our teenaged children rebel and insist on their own path that is not aligned with ours. Some of us know the agony of ending a marriage because we’ve reached the limit of how far grace can and should extend. Is it unloving of God to judge against a wayward nation who doesn’t give a thought toward their Creator? Should God always excuse those who are so inwardly focused that they refuse to notice the needs of those around them? The Apostle Paul probed the elasticity of grace in his letter to the Romans: “What then are we to say? Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”
For many of us we assume that ours is a God of grace. No matter our sin, God is always quick to forgive. The bad news from Amos is that God’s patience runs out. Or is that bad news? Do we correct our children so that they will find deeper joy by following rules that work toward their well-being? What happens when a spoiled child goes to kindergarten assuming that everyone’s effort and attention should revolve around her? She’s eaten alive by kids who, at the very least, begin to avoid her and probably take delight in knocking her off her pedestal.
A loving God corrects us, points out where our foundation no longer supports us, calls us to leave our sin behind for an ordered life. Few of us want our faults to be named. Fewer still want to do the hard work of changing. But the good news is that God sends folks with their “Thus saith the Lord” messages. Their words land in our hearts as if custom-tailored to our needs. They call us, correct us, encourage us if we’ll listen. And when God shows up with answers, we, like Amos, are sent out with our own proclamations about God’s will. God holds a plumb line up to our lives. We hold a plumb line up to our communities and do the hard work of naming realities so that wrongs can be righted. When we are called from our mundane tasks to effect holy change, we partner with God so as to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It doesn’t sound like such bad news after all!