Amos is tough and blunt. He says things no one wishes to hear today any more than they did almost 3,000 years ago. He’s enough to make even the boldest 21st century preachers and teachers shy away from both his message and him.
In the text the Lectionary appoints for this particular Sunday, God shows Amos a vision of God standing near a wall that had been built straight. There God holds what most modern translations call a “plumb line” (8). While Amos 7’s preachers and teachers may be tempted to go to great length to describe a plumb line, it’s probably enough to simply say it helps to measure a wall’s straightness.
Of course, the Lord is more concerned with moral than physical “straightness.” So God speaks of setting “a plumb line among” God’s “people Israel.” God’s conclusion? Israel is “out of plumb;” she’s morally crooked. She deserves to be knocked down because she has failed to keep her part of God’s covenant with her.
Yet Israel assumes God is still on her side. God even seems to reinforce that by referring to her in verse 8 as “my people.” Yet that relationship between God and God’s people is strained, not by God but by Israel’s actions. God hasn’t rejected Israel. Israel has rejected the Lord.
Amos 7 doesn’t explicitly describe how Israel has proven to be God’s unfaithful covenant partner. For that preachers and teachers need to turn to other parts of the prophecy. They might refer to Amos 5:10-12’s: “You hate the one that reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain … you oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”
Yet Amos 7:13 also at least hints at some of Israel’s crookedness. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, one of the northern kingdom’s major shrines, speaks it. Yet while he’s a priest, he makes it clear that he derives his authority not from the living God, but from his king. Amaziah is more interested in Jeroboam’s security than the truth of God’s Word. In fact, the first person to whom the priest speaks in this text is not Amos with whom he so sharply disagrees, but his boss, King Jereboam.
Amaziah claims Amos is trying to undermine both the monarchy and Israel. He lies by claiming the prophet is raising a “conspiracy” against Jereboam. On top of that, Bethel’s priest enigmatically warns his king, “the land cannot bear all his words” (10). It’s not clear whether he means Amos’ words may lead Israel to repentance, destruction or something else. It is clear, however, that Bethel’s priest’s first priority is not the living God or God’s Word. So while Amaziah recognizes Amos as a “seer” (12), he does his best to silence the prophet or at least redirect his criticism to other people.
What’s more, Bethel’s priest calls Bethel, one of the northern kingdom’s major shrines, “the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom” (italics added). So to one of Israel’s religious leaders, Bethel is not God’s sanctuary or temple. It’s Jereboam and Israel’s. Amaziah claims what actually belongs to God for his king and country.
This offers bold preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on modern temptations to confuse civil and genuine religion. While that danger seems to be fading in many western countries, it seems alive and well in the United States. What does it mean that citizens of both their country and God’s kingdom owe their primary allegiance to God? How does the state try to claim for itself what properly belongs to God? How do Christians sometimes willingly surrender to our countries’ claims on us?
If our hearers don’t think these are important issues, invite them to hear Amaziah, Bethel’s “priest” whose name sounds similar to God’s prophet’s. Their messages couldn’t be less similar. Amaziah basically tells Amos to “Shut up! Pack your bags and message and crawl back under whatever southern rock you crawled out from under!”
In verse 9 God prompts Amos to tell crooked Israel that God will destroy her religious and political “high places.” But with verses 16 and 17 Amos’ warnings become far more personal and, arguably, more ominous. When Amaziah demands that Amos stop prophesying against Israel, Amos responds by warning that God will punish Israel’s wives, sons and daughters. What’s more, he warns Amaziah that he’ll suffer the humiliating fate of dying in a pagan land. And to top it all off, God’s prophet warns God will send Israel, whose priest tried to chase Amos out of the land, out of the land God had promised to give Israel into exile.
While we sometimes think of much of verses 16-17 as God’s punishment, we might also think of Israel’s fate as one she chooses for herself. When religion no longer speaks to issues of sexuality, what’s to stop anyone from being as sexually promiscuous as a prostitute? And if religion no longer speaks to issues of violence, does anything restrain our sons and daughters from going to and dying in war the way Amos promises Israel’s will? What’s more, God’s prophet warns Bethel’s priest he’ll die in a pagan land. Yet might we not argue Israel has already become a pagan land? Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Amaziah dying in pagan Israel?
Is there anything God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters can learn from this ancient prophecy? Those who discover those truths may need to be bold in order to proclaim it. After all, God’s Word today is no less unsettling than it was in Amos’ day. Those who try to proclaim that Word may feel pressure to “tone it down” or preach and teach it somewhere else.
Among other things, like so much of the Old Testament, Amos 8 reminds God’s people that God is very much present with and to them. That presence is one of grace. However, it’s also of an expectation of the appropriate faithful response to God’s amazing grace. God is still holding a “plumb line” to the walls that our lives. God is, in other words, paying very close attention to what God’s people say, do and even think.
Amaziah’s response to God’s Word delivered by Amos also warns those who claim to preach and teach that Word. Some of us play similar roles to those played by priests like Amaziah. Yet we’re also tempted, like Bethel’s priest, to try to silence or redirect God’s Word, especially when it hits too close to home. People also still long to hear our own desires instead of God’s will affirmed by preaching and teaching. Only people who, like Amos, seem willing to give up nearly everything should even contemplate preaching and teaching God’s sometimes judging Word.
Finally, however, when we read, preach and teach Amos 8 in the light of God’s work in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we’re amazed to see how much we escape through Jesus Christ. He experiences in his own person the destruction and exile God promises Israel. Jesus Christ, in a sense, falls by the Roman sword for our sakes, for our forgiveness. We escape Old Testament Israel’s fate only because of God’s amazing grace manifested to us in Jesus Christ and received by us through faith.
Bethel’s priest Amaziah essentially tries to shift the blame for Israel’s problems onto God’s prophet Amos. It’s reminiscent of Elif Shafak’s book, The Architect’s Apprentice’s description of the reaction to a plague that struck 13th century Istanbul.
When that plague struck, people initially accepted the blame. “We trespassed,’ said the imam. “Sin entered the world,” said the priests. “Repent we must,” said the rabbis. And the people did, thousands of them.
“Then, as if in unison, people stopped saying it was because of them. It was others who had brought this upon the city; others with their impiety and debauchers. Fear turned into resentment; resentment into rage. And rage was a ball of flame you could not hold in your hands too long; it had to be thrown at someone.”
So in late July a mob entered Istanbul’s Jewish neighborhood looking to throw the ball of flame that was its rage at its Jews. However, the Jewish residents heaved the ball of flame that was their rage at Istanbul’s Christians.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 10, 2016
Amos 7:7-17 Commentary