Doesn’t a nice summer basket of fruit sound refreshing and delicious? It conjures up a warm summer day with lots of sunshine and red, orange, green, black, purple and blue juicy fruit waiting to be eaten and enjoyed. The prophet Amos, in the Old Testament book of the very same name, starts with that exact image. But… I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Last week Rev. Rodger talked about another chapter in the book of Amos. First, he reminded us that a key phrase defining the prophets is “Thus says the Lord:” the prophets bring a message to the people and through the Bible to us, from God. “Thus says the Lord” trumpets something very important is about to be said and probably won’t be all that comfortable to hear. Amos was, like all of the Old Testament prophets, not well liked. When the Lord speaks through the prophets, God is bringing divine wisdom to bear on a difficult issue in the lives of the ancient Israelites and on down to us as inherited due to our faith in God through Jesus Christ. Prophetic teachings are rarely easy to hear or to act on. Yet, the prophets brought messages vital to the survival of the Israelites, compelling them to live changed lives following God’s will for them. They explained that actions taken by God’s people would impact the lives of many. Their messages often referred to the poor, the voiceless, and the outcast as being most adversely affected by the way God’s people lived.
As Rodger explained last week, we have things in common with the people of ancient prophetic times and, gathering for worship is one such example. You heard that we gather together each week to worship and we also have special worship services such as Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday. We found out that the Lord likely despises the worship and special religious festivals of the people because: they didn’t put much effort into it; they didn’t focus on God but were looking around to see what everyone was wearing, or they were turning worship into special secular days like honoring mothers and fathers and the 4th of July instead of having their main focus on God and the Lord’s demanding lessons; they forgot to match their daily living with the words they mouthed in worship and went out into their society doing that which hurt the poor and disenfranchised; and their attitudes and motivations for worship were often questionable. They forgot the true meaning of worship. We learned that it happens to us too. Yes, through the prophets, God seeks to get us to listen. Be silent! And listen…
Folks, you know how it is, if we don’t take a determined look at our lives, even though we may not want to put the energy into it, we live pretty much the same as we always have and extremely little, if anything, changes. Even Jesus’ death on a cross often doesn’t seem to motivate us to examine our words and actions as often as we could, even though that gracious act is meant to make us new, changed. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be comfortable and continue doing the things I always do. It’s satisfactory; it’s routine and I have energy for that. It is too comfortable for all of us to become complacent, satisfied, content and maybe even smug about the way we live. The prophets’ teachings tell us that way of living isn’t the way the Almighty wants us to live. Through God’s Word we are challenged. If you don’t believe me, read the Old Testament prophets, the words of the apostle Paul and of Jesus Christ. This is challenging. Jesus is who the author of the book of Colossians talks about as the firstborn of creation. He was there at the beginning. This is the Jesus Christ who holds all created things together, who is the head of the church and is to be first in all things. This is the Christ who died so that God would be reconciled with us because humanity broke and breaks that relationship over and over again. This is the Lord who challenges us in order to stretch us to be improving ourselves all throughout our lives, until our last breath. We are to live in this Christ’s image which means acting and speaking as he would.
As Jesus was prophetic, so was Amos. His teaching this week isn’t unlike the lesson Rodger preached last week, so far as encouraging us to live better lives. As I started with at the beginning of my sermon, Amos does start with this very nice, lovely, calm image of a summer fruit basket but then proclaims, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” The listener or reader is to be silent so to listen for God’s word even in the chaos of the world. We know that the words Amos spoke on behalf of God were a warning, then and now, that oppressive systems are not tolerated by the Lord, God.
There is a very disturbing denunciation of economic oppression with violent images of divine retribution in this prophecy. You may wonder what in the world this has to do with the lovely image of a summer fruit basket which for ancient Israel would likely be full of pomegranates, figs and grapes. It is connected with a Hebrew play on of words, a pun. As you’ve heard me say before this, we lose much in the translations of Hebrew into English. The term for summer fruit is qayits and the term for end is qets. In the northern kingdom of Israel, in Amos’ time, the two words would have sounded even more similar. The New International Bible translation tries to get closer to this pun by translating the first verse of our passage as, “The time is ripe for my people Israel.” The time is ripe for the end of Israel because the people were dishonest in their dealings with others and disloyal to God. This juxtaposition of such a calm and pleasant image with an image of utter chaos, agony and crying out in abject grief is exceedingly jarring.
Sadly, we certainly are very familiar with jarring images today, aren’t we. Jarring images are utilized in many prophecies. Amos himself was very good at getting the people’s attention. The shock of the contrasting images intensifies the foreboding. I struggled studying for this sermon as I felt it pointed an accusing finger at me as much as anyone else. It was arduous to read about.
As in many prophetic judgements, the guilty are pointed out and the result of their guilt is spoken in seemingly unyielding terms. The guilty party, in this instance, is merchants selling grain while fleecing the poor and outcast. They also complain about their business being shut down in order to celebrate the Sabbath and special festival days, those days that were to honor and praise the Lord, because they lost profit on such days. Their practices are dishonest, lowly and very much go against Moses’ Law as stated in Leviticus [19:35-36] and Deuteronomy [25:13-16.] This image produces a parody of a dishonest businessperson. The divine retribution, as thought to be by the ancient Israelites, includes references to violent earthquakes and floods and foreboding darkness during the day. Another result is famine; I will address that later. All the people will suffer for the dishonesty of the guilty party. Why? Because their guilt is merely symptomatic of a society that allows for and feeds into economic disparity.
Blake Couey, in his commentary on this passage, explains that we also notice there seems to be a “connection between economic (disparity) and environmental exploitation.” He continues to explain: Corporate fraud, exploitation of the poor and ecological disruption are all consequences of the drive to maximize profit at any costs… People who live on the margins often suffer disproportionately from environmental abuse.” His words, like Amos’, are prophetic in nature and we would probable rather not hear them. Blake Couey goes on to point out that verse 7 underscores the seriousness of God’s accusations that this type of behavior will lead to punishment. The punishment is the downfall of northern Israel’s ancient society. We can recognize that down through the ages empires and powers who have exploited others and oppress certain groups of people have eventually crumbled.
When we acknowledge that God doesn’t owe us anything, then we remember that we can’t take the gift of God’s prophetic Word and the gift of grace in Jesus Christ for granted. We are told we will all be judged for what we have said and done. I imagine that we certainly don’t want the Lord to withhold information about what is wanted from us as is threatened in Amos’ prophecy. The famine spoken of in our passage is not about a lack of food but the famine of the scarcity of God’s Word. That word will no longer be available to the people because they don’t listen and fall away from righteousness.
Without God’s Word, where would we be? We need God’s Word so that we discover the Lord’s will and purpose for our lives which can only lead to goodness when we follow. Our Psalm 15 encourages us to walk with God while walking in integrity, the meaning of the word “blamelessly” in the Psalm, and to do what is right in God’s eyes. How dry our souls and our lives would be without the Bible, God’s Word, to inform and guide us on our walk with Jesus Christ.
In our heart of hearts, we know these prophetic words speak to us today. We are too complicit in a market economy that exploits or denigrates the poor and disenfranchised and, teaches that we can always have it our way. It is up to us, as Christians, to note this problem and concern, first of all, and then to speak out against exploitation of the voiceless and those who can’t stand up for themselves because of our societal structure. It is actually this that the former candidate for President, Bernie Sanders, was trying to point out- we could say prophetically- even if we didn’t agree with his way of stating or methods of dealing with economic problems. That is the issue that Amos was raising in his day: the very one we are to deal with today. Out of our own wealth, we are to examine the disparities of wealth in our society. We may come up with some dissimilar points and diverse conclusions but at least we will have struggled with this very real issue and sought to do something about it. Prophecy confronts our complacency.
Simply put, a prophet’s words are meant to make one uncomfortable. They ought not be easily dismissed because we don’t want to deal with what they have to say or they don’t go along with our economic, political or theological points of view. The ancient Israelites tried that ignoring tactic, but it didn’t work. I’ll draw your attention to the fact that in Jesus’ day, the religious authorities didn’t want to deal with his teachings, most especially where they didn’t align with their own. When we honestly and thoroughly study Jesus’ prophetic word we are often made uncomfortable by what he teaches. As faithful people, uncomfortable teachings are to lead to a change in one’s behavior. This is what the Lord through Amos wanted for God’s people, Israel, and this continues to be the same challenge today. Likely, an even greater challenge may be to simply acknowledge that we need to change our behavior in a hurting, dark and desperate world. Taking care of the poor and loving our neighbors both near and far, friend and enemy, studying God’s Word while it likely will make us uncomfortable, and walking with God in our daily lives starts with our commitment to lead better lives, people of God. Individually you, and we corporately, must honestly and faithfully decide how you, and we, will respond to prophetic teaching, including Amos’ message this morning, living that witness out in this community and beyond into the world. Amen.