Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the rather pithy bit of scripture from the seventh chapter of Amos before us this morning, Amos demonstrates nearly unbelievable courage. This shepherd, who had to moonlight as a tender of trees to make ends meet, confronts a king and a cultic priest in a foreign land without seeming to flinch. What motivates a man to behave in this way—this common man, a man of the field and flock, a man of common origins and common occupation?
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."
Israel was prosperous during the reign of Jeroboam. Political events to the north had created a fortunate situation in which they controlled the trade routes to the south; and they were, at least for a time, reaping the considerable benefits. In this time, a couple of decades prior to the defeat of Israel by Assyria, the nation was taken in by its prosperity. They were able to think of themselves as secure, even though the threat from the north was inevitable once Assyria's short-term instabilities were remedied. Israel lulled itself into complacency and eased into the routines of productive business and relative prosperity.
Onto this scene comes a foreigner, Amos, a man of no apparent account, from the nation of Judah, then located to the south. He insinuates himself into the religious scene and threatens the priests who control a cult that is increasingly manipulative and idolatrous—taking an inappropriate pride in the accomplishments of the nation. This shepherd brings oracles of divine judgment, sermons of doom and destruction, and indictments of the injustice that flourishes in the northern realm—especially among those who don't share in the economic windfalls.
Amos confronts the people and the priests and the king who live for themselves, for personal pleasure and satisfaction. He defies those who have little concern for righteousness and justice. He upholds the position that in God there is something more to life—that the God who has created this world, loves it, and seeks the welfare of all its people, inspires a willingness to order life according to a vision of justice and love.
A more contemporary story may serve to emphasize Amos's message: A very old woman came to Jacob the baker to ask his advice. Jacob was renowned for his great wisdom. "Listen, young man!" she said sharply. "I want to ask you something. I heard you talk about dying, and I'm going to die soon. I have a great deal of money. If you're so smart, why not tell me how I can take it with me?" The old woman released a wicked little gurgle of greed. Jacob just looked at her. "Well? Well? What can be carried to the other side?" she asked.
"Everything of value," answered Jacob. Her greed excited, the old woman shouted, "How? How?" Jacob drew calmer. "In your memory," he answered. "Memory!" said the woman, dumbstruck. "Memory can't carry wealth!" Jacob replied, "That is only because you have already forgotten what is of value." (Noah Ben Shea, "Jacob the Baker," p. 54.)
Jacob speaks with the wisdom of Amos. What are important are not outward signs of prosperity and riches. Those often lead people and nations into idolatry, self-reliance, and forgetfulness of God. What abides does not consist of things. It concerns, rather, mercy, works of love, justice, peace, devotion to God, and steadfast commitment to the Lord. Through Amos, God calls people to lay down their lives in faithfulness to God, knowing the difference between the temporal and the eternal.
For thus Amos has said, 'Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'"
Seeing things as they were, his vision unclouded by the lure of wealth, Amos declares what should have been obvious. Assyria will eventually shatter Israel's complacency. Their false sense of security brought about by economic boon will crumble into the dust of disobedience that such idolatry betrays. The people have already brought judgment upon themselves; they only need to open their eyes and see what they've become and how far from their God they have drifted.
Amos speaks what may be obvious truth, and he does so boldly and with conviction. But the local prophets will have nothing to do with such truth-telling. Their lives are far too comfortable to let such language filter through the screens of rite and self-righteousness they have so carefully erected. The comforts of their cult, they have convinced themselves, are more compelling than the demands of the covenant.
And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
The bold proclamation of the prophet Amos galls the "official" bearer of God's word, Amaziah. As dangerous as it is for a minister to say, the official priest was too involved in maintaining his position and placating the king he served to hear the true word of the Lord. Amaziah's outrage has more to do with the trouble Amos was causing than with a righteous response to his message. It was a matter of appearances, not substance. Amos' words are not given any level of credence; they are merely turned against him. Or, at least, the attempt is made.
Then Amos answered Amaziah, "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.'"
Courageous and clear of purpose, Amos perseveres in the face of Amaziah's attack. Amos knows who he is. He knows the nature of his authority, and he knows how important his words are. And so, he simply refuses to be thwarted in his purpose by the shallow appeals of Amaziah. His good sense, perhaps developed from his simple life tending his sheep, serves him well in recognizing the superficiality of this city-boy's affront. His sense of God's calling, of the clear demand to speak the word of truth and justice, seals his resolve.
I find such confidence inspiring. The quiet strength of a shepherd, bolstered by the word of God, totally levels the playing field, where power games are being played. It is a depiction of a prophet at his best—standing over against the establishment priest and his cronies.
It is a beautiful picture of the holy role of the prophet.
Overstating the case, The Interpreter's Bible claims a pre-eminent place for the prophetic aspect of religion: "There are those who hold that the primary office of religion is to afford consolation. No sensitive person denies the ministry of comfort and solace which high religion affords to the soul that is bruised. But it cannot be gainsaid that a religion which sets that ministry as its chief aim becomes little more than a comfortable religion. There are others who maintain that the primary office of religion is to provide a bulwark for the existing order of [a person's] life and so to make [their] immediate lot tolerable. Again no intelligent person will hold that religion does not bear a salutary and necessary part in the preservation of those social relationships and ethical distinctions that are essential to all human progress. Yet it cannot be denied that a religion which is first of all the handmaid of the state and the servant of society soon passes from being of service to being servile. Rather it is the first duty of religion to disturb; its primary function is that of protest. The person who is truly religious is one who has come to be less and less at home in the world of sense, less and less moved by the things that do appear, less and less confident in the weight and power of sheer material force, and more and more assured of those eternal verities that are hid from the wise and prudent but revealed unto babes; more and more aware of those things which "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard" (I Cor. 3:9), more and more at home in that greater and that better part of life which is out of sight. Of all such, Amos is an early spokesman in his conscientious defiance of priest and king at Bethel."
Although perhaps overstated, this description applies pretty well to Martin Luther, whose witness at Worms turned the word protest into a category of Christian belief—Protestant.
As Roland Bainton records his words, Luther makes his protest squarely on the foundation of scripture: "Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen." (Here I Stand, p. 185)
God offers to us this morning the courage and the clarity of purpose portrayed in the prophet. While today we would likely not claim that protest is the kernel of the gospel, we are invited to pay serious attention to its importance for our discipleship. Certainly much of what Jesus was and did reflected an attitude of protest. Indeed, recent scholarship by those (e.g., John Dominic Crossan) who seek to reconstruct who Jesus was in first century Palestine tend towards seeing him as a wandering Jewish cynic. Much of his ministry challenged the structures, institutions, and presuppositions of the people—as they do our own.
We don't have to look long or hard to see the same kinds of injustice in our own day. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Prosperity easily blinds people to the poverty of others. The overall economic success of our nation, even in our currently difficult times, still becomes a veil over the face of God—as it did long ago.
My own rising sense of the earth's peril due to our destructive and over-consumptive habits sparks a bit of Amos in me. I suspect that my protests are not always easily heard nor welcome; but they are motivated by a desire to speak the truth in order to change hearts and mend God's good creation.
Each of you likely has a righteous passion of your own. The penchant of the prophet for protest is readily satisfied in our day; there is much that has gone wrong and that needs the word of truth and the hand of action. Amos can help us to see in ourselves what the people of Israel so tragically failed to see—the courage and the clarity of faith that calls into question all that would lead us away from God.
May God grant us all a prophet's courage. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.