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“Streams in the Desert”

Date: November 16, 2021/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
multnomah falls

Amos 5:14-15, 21-24

Occasionally we preachers get requests from church members for a specific kind of preaching.  (We do get other requests, but this style and topic crop up more than others, for some of us, at least.)  “We want to hear more hellfire and brimstone from the pulpit.”

But most of us in mainline churches nowadays are just not that kind of preacher.  We preach God’s love, the absolute, utterly reliable, eternal faithfulness to the covenant God has made with God’s people; and we would rather not talk about God’s wrath.

The cynics among my colleagues would say they’ve found that most of the time when people say they want more fire and brimstone, what they mean is they want to hear about God’s wrath and condemnation addressed to somebody else.  They want to sit comfortably in their pew and say, “God, I thank you that I am not like that horrible sinner over there.[1]

Let’s face it:  Other people’s sins are a great deal more interesting than our own.  That’s especially true with sins relating to what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms.

The book of Amos is a hellfire-and-brimstone book.  It’s probably the earliest of the prophetic books, and unlike later books, there’s very little good news in it.  Nine whole chapters of condemnation, and at the very end a few verses about restoration—which many scholars think may have been tacked on much later by someone other than the actual prophet, perhaps at a time when it was more common for prophets to pair words of judgment with words of grace.

Amos gets off to a good start, in the eyes of the Israelite congregation he was speaking to.  Perhaps they, like some modern believers, had asked for more fire and brimstone in sermons, but, like some modern believers, they most likely wanted to hear about the condemnation of other people.

The first two chapters of Amos are what’s called the “oracles against the nations.”  He begins with neighbors, sometimes enemies, of Israel:  Damascus, Gaza, Ashdod, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab.  Then he turns to Judah—the southern kingdom, with its capital in Jerusalem, that remained under the rule of David’s descendants when Israel rebelled and formed their own nation after King Solomon’s death.

Even though Israel and Judah were essentially the same people, there was quite a bit of tension between them; so when Amos, preaching in Israel, pronounced judgment against Judah, the Israelites may well have been pleased.  So Amos, who was from Judah, preached against his own nation to a congregation of Israelites, where he was a guest preacher, not the regular settled priest or teacher or temple prophet.  And those Israelites were cheering the promised destruction of their enemies.  “Finally,” they may have thought, “all those people will get what’s coming to them.”

The only thing is, Amos didn’t stop with Judah.  Once he had the congregation fired up, he turned to the real subject of his message:

“The Lord proclaims:

For three crimes of Israel,

     and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment…”[2]

Wait, what?  Amos just quit preaching and started meddling.

The rest of the book is addressed to Israel, calling them out for their sins and announcing God’s judgment against them.  But before we thank God that we’re not like those Israelites back yonder, consider one thing.  The book of Amos didn’t go into the Bible because it only spoke to the Israelites of 740 bce.

When you think of sin, what comes to your mind first?  The Ten Commandments?  Sexual immorality?  Cussing?  Taking the Lord’s name in vain?

I would argue that none of these was foremost in Amos’ mind.  And Amos wasn’t inclined to couch his message of judgment in friendly terms.  No “praise sandwich” for this guy.

That’s a technique used in many businesses and organizations in conversations with people whose performance needs to improve.  You start with a compliment:  “You’re really good at ‘x.’”  Then you move on to the criticism:  “But we have noticed you’re slacking off on ‘y,’ and we need you to do better.”  And then another compliment:  “We know you can do better, because when you first started here you weren’t so great at ‘x,’ but you’ve improved a lot over the years.”

Amos has no interest in that.  None.

Amos was more like that “Honest Preacher” in the little YouTube clip, but maybe a little more articulate.[3]  Have you seen that guy?  He comes up to the pulpit, looking all pious, solemnly announces his text from Proverbs, and then loses it.

After a fair amount of incoherent sputtering, he finally says, “You guys are bad.”  He even calls out one member by name:  “Dan, you are the worst.”  He thumbs through his Bible and comes up with something he says are the words of Jesus:  “Stop it!!!”  Then a deep breath, and he regains his composure, concluding with, “The word of the Lord.”

Amos, however, doesn’t really say, “Stop it!”  He seems to think it’s too late.  It’s all destruction and doom and wrath, hellfire and brimstone, violence and exile.  Probably no wonder that we preachers, preferring messages of God’s love, sort of leave Amos aside whenever we have the chance.

We don’t want to talk about God’s wrath.  We want to hear about God’s love; the angry, wrathful God who is just itching to punish somebody is a God we’d rather place on the ash-heap of theology.  But here is Amos, announcing God’s wrath about to be unleashed upon God’s own people.

Many people have argued, and I tend to agree with them, that God is a God of justice as well as love; and without God’s wrath, God’s justice means nothing.  It’s just words.  It’s Honest Preacher up there gritting his teeth and flapping his arms and saying, “You guys are bad!” but not actually doing anything about it.

When there are some people being mistreated, or oppressed, their faces ground into the dirt and a boot on their neck every time they try to get up, there are some people who are going to find God’s wrath to be very good news indeed.

So Amos goes up to Israel, perhaps to its religious center, Bethel, and announces God’s wrath.

Today’s reading is just a small part of the book, but it’s the part where Amos really gets to the heart of the matter.  Just before it, Amos has told Israel that their end, their death as a nation and as a people, is near.  The people must have been eagerly anticipating “the day of the Lord,” but Amos says, it’s not what you think.  He says, do you remember how God passed through the midst of the people when we were slaves in Egypt?  God’s about to do it again—but this time, you’re not going to be spared by painting your doorposts with blood.  That is the day of the Lord.  Be careful what you ask for.

Amos is very clear for what sins Israel will face God’s wrath.  Not for saying bad words.  Not for what they’re doing in their bedrooms.  (Other prophets may have something to say about that, but Amos is not interested in it.)  Nope.

“These are your sins,” Amos says.

The written Torah wasn’t completed until over 200 years after Amos, but I’m sure the principles that are in it were well known even in his day.  So it’s not out of line to search the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—and see what specifically Amos might have been talking about when he told the people that God’s wrath was coming on them because, in a time of peace and prosperity for Israel, there was quite a gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and the system had been rigged to benefit the “haves.”

A lot of times we think of the book of Leviticus as a really dull book about what animals to offer as sacrifices at specific times.  There is a lot of that in Leviticus, to be sure; and that stuff has not been really relevant to Christians or Jews since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 ce.  The only other time we really give Leviticus much thought is when we want to clobber people with verses about tattoos or sex.  (Like I said, sins that have to do with what other people do with their bodies are a whole lot more interesting than other kinds of sin.)

But consider these passages, all from the 19th chapter of Leviticus.

“When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bity of your harvest.  Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there.  Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant:  I am the Lord your God” (verses 9-10).[4]

“You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them.  Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight” (v. 13).

“You must not act unjustly in a legal case.  Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly.  Do not go around slandering your people.  Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed:  I am the Lord” (vv. 15-16).

“When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them.  Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.  You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.  You must not act unjustly in a legal case involving measures of length, weight, or volume.  You must have accurate scales and accurate weights, an accurate ephah and an accurate hin” (vv. 33-36).

Amos actually makes direct reference to this in chapter 8 of his book: 

“Hear this, you who trample on the needy

     and destroy the poor of the land,

saying, ‘When will the new moon be over

     so that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath,

     so that we may offer wheat for sale,

make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel,

     and deceive with false balances,

in order to buy the needy for silver

     and the helpless for sandals,

     and sell garbage as grain?’”[5]

In Leviticus 25 we find the rules about the Year of Jubilee, when all debts were to be cancelled, all slaves were to be freed, all land that had been sold was to be returned to its original owners.  The purpose was to keep the nation’s wealth from all ending up in a few people’s hands—it was, to use a phrase very unpopular in our political discourse, redistribution of wealth.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is no evidence Israel or Judah ever actually observed the year of Jubilee, even though God had commanded it.

We find a great many similar provisions in Deuteronomy and Exodus.  It would seem that social and economic justice are primary concerns of God’s, and through the prophet Amos, God was telling Israel they had become an unjust people.  The poor were being exploited and mistreated, their plight compounded and made permanent; wealthy people were growing wealthier on the backs of people who were less fortunate. And, Amos said, God’s wrath was coming.

From what Amos says, it appears that Israel’s upper classes were scrupulously keeping all the commandments concerning worship, what sacrifices they were to make when, what festivals they celebrated and in what way.  They gathered for worship and sang loudly and played their instruments with great skill.

And God had no use for it, because once they left the sanctuary, they were breaking all the commandments about making sure the needy were properly cared for and the justice system wasn’t set up to make their lives that much harder.  When poor people suffered, these folks folded their hands and said, piously, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” but it never occurred to them to open their hands in generosity or lift a finger to change the system that kept them suffering.

And God said, “Enough!”  I don’t want your sacrifices, or your songs, or your careful observance of the holy days.  Those things mean absolutely squat when there is no justice, no righteousness, in your land.

Perhaps you don’t care about the poor and oppressed people in your midst, says Amos, but God does; and if there’s anything you should have learned from your history, especially from the story of how you were freed from Egypt, it is that God sees when people are mistreated, and God hears when people cry out their suffering from injustice and oppression.  Your nation has become like a dry and parched desert with no relief for people who suffer from a thirst for justice.

So get out of this sanctuary and make your land one in which justice is as abundant as the waters of a flooded river, and righteousness as ever-present as mountain spring water; and then you can come back and worship.

Otherwise, God says through Amos, you’re going to feel my wrath—bad news for you who are wealthy and have rigged the whole structure of your country against the poor; but awfully good news for them.[6]

Hmm.  Well, thank God we’re not like those Israelites back yonder, right?

Right?


[1] Fred Craddock liked to bring this up in messages; the allusion is, of course, to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14.

[2] Amos 2:6; this formula is the same as that in all the previous oracles.  Note:  all Scriptures quoted in this message are from the Common English Bible.

[3] Honest Preacher:  https://youtu.be/6mcXtontujA. Other videos on the Friend Dog Studio channel tend to be quite a bit more political, so be forewarned.

[4] This commandment is repeated in Leviticus 23:22, and again in Deuteronomy 24:19-21.  The Law mandates making free food available to those who are unable to grow their own or who cannot afford to buy it.  This commandment is the reason why Ruth was able to gather food for herself and Naomi when they first returned to Bethlehem (Ruth 2:1-13).

[5] Amos 8:4-6.  It might seem odd that the commandment about treating immigrants well and the commandment about honest weights and measures are juxtaposed…until you have occasion to learn about the way fruit and vegetable growers in the Willamette Valley of Oregon have sometimes covered the ends of their scales so the pickers, mostly migrant workers whose immigration status is uncertain, could not be sure they were being paid the proper amount (by the pound, not by the hour).  I couch this in past tense, because it has been a long time since I observed this, and things may have changed somewhat now that some growers have negotiated with their workers through the local farmworkers’ union, PCUN (Piñeros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste).

[6] …maybe eventually; both Scripture and history show us that when a nation like Israel is overthrown by an aggressive empire like Assyria, it is the poor of the land who suffer the most.

Sunday morning worship, November 14, 2021. CCLI streaming license#20546947.