Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 14, 2019
Amos 7:7-17 Commentary
Your average preacher will not choose this testy passage from Amos to preach on today. Amos is not a book to read if you are in need of easy encouragement. I cannot imagine the perpetually smiling Joel Osteen preaching on this text. Maybe you cannot imagine yourself doing that either. I mean, what can this ancient prophecy of judgment upon Israel possibly say to the contemporary church? Let me suggest some angles that might make this bristling text a real blessing for the contemporary church.
For one thing, though the compilers of the Lectionary were undoubtedly not thinking of this, our reading for today just happens to fall a week after the Fourth of July in the United States and a little more than two weeks after Dominion or Canada Day in Canada. In other words, this is a time when much of North American culture is focusing on country. Our text gives us opportunity to talk about God and country.
Can you preach a patriotic sermon on Amos 7? Yes, but not in the traditional way, not in the God-is-on-our-side sense. Indeed, Amos was accused of near treason for preaching his message of doom on his country. His hard patriotism was seen as conspiracy and he was asked to leave the country. “The land cannot bear [Amos’] words.”
But his message came from God, who addressed these hard words to “my people.” A truly patriotic sermon can take a country to task for the way it has strayed from the right way God has revealed. True love of country must always be subservient to true love of God, though your people might not be able to hear such a message in these politically charged times, especially if you are perceived as representing either the red or the blue side (in the US). But I encourage you to preach on this text, because it gives us a much-needed word from God for times like these.
There are three things in this text that must be emphasized if people are to hear the Word of the Lord about God and country: a plumb line measuring God’s people, a prophet who speaks for God, and a prophecy that will come true.
First, God measured his people with a plumb line. Amos, the seer, sees God standing beside a wall that is straight and true because it has been built with a plumb line. Two words of caution. If you are an American, you may be tempted to focus on the idea of a wall, but don’t go there. The text has nothing to do with a wall; it’s about the plumb line. In addition, many folks, especially children, won’t know what a plumb line is. So, show them one and explain how builders use one.
This picture of God standing in the midst of his people holding a plumb line is something you want your people to see. Now, you should know that the word translated “plumb line” is a rare one and scholars aren’t sure what it means. Originally, it had the sense of “tin,” which makes no sense. So over the year the rabbis developed this idea of a plumb line, which is used to insure that a wall is straight up and down, rather than bowed and crooked. Whatever the word meant originally, the text is clearly about the fact that God’s nation is out of true, bowed and bent, crooked and about to fall over, because they haven’t governed their lives by God’s right standard, the Law, the Torah.
In our multi-cultural world, there are as many standards for behavior as there are people. People do what is right in their own eyes, according to their fundamental beliefs. Democracies allow us to do that, in fact, encourage us to do that. So, the idea that there is one standard, one measurement of right and wrong, is hard to sell. That’s why Amos is so important, and so difficult. It reminds us that God has given us enough revelation of his will to enable us to build strong, straight, true lives. And God judges us by his standard.
By God’s standard, we have not built well. According to Amos, God has had enough. That’s one of the stern warnings in this text. It is part of a series of visions. In the first two God relents from the punishment he is sending on his sinful people. He sends a plague of locusts (verses 1-3) and a fiery conflagration (verses 4-6), but the prophet pleads with God not to destroy his people entirely. In each case, God “repents” of his intended punishment.
But in our text, God’s famous patience (Exodus 34:6,7) has run out; “I will spare them no longer.” In a nation that has no fear of God, this is an important, albeit unpopular message. God’s patience is long, centuries long, millennia long, but it has limits. There will come a time when God will spare us no longer, and even if our nation doesn’t believe that, it is crucial that the church does. We need to bear prophetic witness, not only to the unrighteousness and injustice that ruin a nation, but also to the very real judgment that God will finally visit on such a nation. God will relent and repent countless times, but when a people finally will not repent, God will act in judgment. That is not what God really wants, but in the end it is what must happen if God’s cause in the world is to succeed.
Amos is very clear and fearless. “The high places of Isaac shall be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.” Amos is talking about the alliance of religion and government, about an ancient form of civil religion in which religion serves the national interest and the nation relies on religion to shape the morals of the nation. God hates that, because both church and country must serve God and God alone. When religion and nation become idols, God will intervene and destroy idolatrous worship and government.
Amos had gone too far with his bold prophecy (and your people might think you have, too). So, Amaziah, one of the priests of those “high places and sanctuaries,” particularly the main sanctuary at Bethel, reports the words of Amos to King Jeroboam. Amaziah hears the prophecy as a conspiracy against Jeroboam and as a message that will kill the national spirit. That’s understandable. Over the course of my long ministry, I have often heard cultural and national leaders heavily criticize the prophetic voice of the church as unpatriotic, even treasonous. Think of the anti-war messages of the 60’s and the civil rights sermons of the last 30 years. Such an understanding of prophetic preaching led to threats of removing the church’s tax exempt status or seizing the sermons of firebrand preachers.
Amaziah took it a step further, telling Amos to not only shut up, but even to get out. “Go back to Judah—earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.” Amaziah exerts all his priestly authority (and presumably Jeroboam’s royal authority) to expel Amos from Israel, silence his treasonous words, and save the country from collapse under the weight of his words.
Then Amaziah exposes the crookedness at the core of Israel’s tottering walls. “Do not prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the King’s sanctuary and the temple of the Kingdom.” What a mouthful of blasphemy! “Bethel,” literally, “the house of God” has become the King’s chapel in the service of the kingdom of Israel. God’s house has become Jeroboam’s private little house of worship.
What this implies, of course, is that Jeroboam is in charge, not Yahweh. Religion is in service of the Kingdom, and that is why the Kingdom is rotten, filled with injustice and unrighteousness. As Solzhenitsyn said of atheistic communism, “Where there is no God, everything is permissible.” The same is true of a nation that uses God for its own purposes, that makes God a servant rather than the Master. Amaziah demonstrates how easy it is to mix up our agenda with God’s.
But Amos resists the effort to dismiss him and his words from the nation. He protests that he is not a prophet for hire, as Amaziah not so subtly suggests. Indeed, he is a prophet not because he was part of a prophetic school or because his father was a prophet, but because God snatched him from a farming life and commanded him to go to Israel with a hard word from God. You tell me to “shut up and get out,” but God told me to go and prophesy. Don’t try to silence a prophet. It will not go well with you.
Indeed, Amos turns Amaziah’s words back on him. Amaziah has claimed the authority of Jeroboam to expel Amos from Israel, but now Amos claims the authority of Yahweh to expel Amaziah from the blessing of Israel. Amaziah will die in a pagan land, his children will die by the sword of invaders, his property will be given to others, and his wife will be left with no way to support herself except prostitution. And although Israel will not be completely destroyed (as by locusts and fire earlier in the chapter), it will be sent into exile, away from their native, God given land. That’s exactly what happened some years later.
What good news!? Well, actually it was, if you were one of the poor in the land who had been victimized by the powerful. And it was, if you were a true believer like Amos who bemoaned what had happened to religion in his time. And it was, if you were a faithful Israelite who saw the crookedness everywhere and wondered when (or if) God would ever do anything about it. If you had completely bought into the corruption of a nation that had turned away from the true God, this prophecy is unalloyed bad news. But if you longed for the reign of God to make your nation pure and right again, it is good news to hear that God will act to redeem his people from their sins.
In the end, this message of judgment is part of the Good News. There is a God who has given us a standard for behavior that will make life right and true. That same God holds humans accountable for their crookedness. That God speaks into our human condition with warnings and promises that will come true. Further, that God acts in human history to make a people for himself who will be light for the world. What’s more, the God who sends his people into Exile will finally bring them back (cf. Amos 9:15). And from that returned remnant, God will raise up a Redeemer who will save his people from their sins by taking those sins on himself and by being exiled from the presence of God on a cross. Through it all, even a sinful people are “my people (verse 8).”
In Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, the section entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” is “the classic depiction of an institution (the church) that has things so well under control that it does not even need Christ anymore.” (The New Interpreter’s Bible)
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