It has been a little longer since my last post than I anticipated. I have been busy with other things but I pray this contribution will help us interact with the prophet, the Hebrew Bible and let God examine us a little more deeply.
In what follows is a slightly revised sermon that I preached on March 10, 1996 at Barton Avenue Church of Christ in Luling, LA (outside New Orleans). This is just one example of how to handle this text.
In our previous post we looked at 1.1-2.5 as Amos held Israel's neighbors accountable to God's Righteousness for their deeds committed in war. The rhetorical effect of these previous oracles, taken together, is to set Israel up. They are after all God's People and what can you expect from aliens? What can on expect from a Edomite? or a Moabite? or worse a Philistine!? After getting Israel to feel quite comfortable and smug in her righteousness he lowers the boom on them. Like a prophet that would come after him, Jesus of Nazareth, Amos saved his harshest rebukes for the ones that should have known better. That is the ones who received the gracious covenant at Sinai, the ones whom God had called out of bondage, the ones created to be his special people ... Israel. The Church!
Amos begins his speech in much the same way as he has for Damascus, Tyre and the rest. He says "for three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath, This is what the Lord says" (2.6). The noticeable difference immediately is that before Amos listed only one crime for each of Israel's neighbors. Yet for God's People he lists no less than seven. What makes Israel's crimes, her sin, so reprehensible is that unlike the pagans who perpetuated their crimes against other nations, Israel foments these crimes against its own. It is Israel's brothers and sisters that are abused, mistreated and scorned. Israel sells its own poor for cheap silver and her own needy for sandals. Israel is so heartless and cold that these crimes are done while "church" services are in record attendance. Yahweh had commanded in the Torah that the poor must be cared for as his special people:
And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you ... Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff necked any longer ... He [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens ... (Deut 10.12-22)
There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance ... if only you fully obey the LORD your God ... If there is a poor person among you in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard hearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother or sister. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs ... Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart ... There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and sisters and toward the poor and needy in the land (Deut 15. 7-11)
But the church's sin is that the poor and needy are denied basic justice! (see 2 Kgs 4.1-7)
The sin of Israel reaches a nadir in v.7d. Here Amos points to the exploitation of a female for sexual pleasure in direct violation of the Torah (cf. Lev 18.21ff) and profaned the holy name of God. This woman is likely a female slave already devoid of rights and standing and now her dignity as an Image Bearer is ripped away as well (Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah: Word Biblical Commentary, p. 317). Notice carefully Amos does not charge the pagans with this crime. He says the religious folks, the 'church' goers are the ones oppressing the poor to their own advantage. Just as in James 5, the ones that have will experience God's righteous judgment. God will settle the wrongs we perpetuate on those who are downcast and abused by the world and the church. He will judge us according to his holy justice to see if we have upheld the covenant we entered into with him. It is the church's job to protect the poor, to feed the poor, ... to go to bat for the poor. Even if they are not "Christians."
In verses 9-10 Yahweh reminds the church of the Story of Grace that gave them life. By briefly reviewing Israel's history God is shown to be incredibly faithful to faithless Israel. God gave Israel the land by Grace. Yahweh delivered Israel from slavery by Grace. God even placed in their midst prophets and Nazirites ... by grace. The prophet thunders: "Is this not true, people of Israel?"
Amos does NOT reveal a God of Wrath. Amos reveals a God that is a SPURNED LOVER! Yahweh has been unbelievably loving, undeniably generous, undeservedly gracious to his People. God has given Israel the honor of being HIS. But Israel has polluted the marriage, profaned the covenant (marriage language), and in essence has become an incarnation of Egypt to the downtrodden!! This is why Yahweh chastises Israel. The church's failure to image divine grace toward the poor (as he had toward them) results in the poor becoming objects of scorn and self-advancement rather than opportunities to exercise our understanding of what it means to be saved by grace! The graced are generous!
Israel's problem was not that she heard to much grace. Israel's sin is affluent complacency. How this ailment has been handed down in our spiritual DNA. How many times have we said "I don't want to be involved. It's not my problem!" The "problem" with this mentality is that Yahweh did not ask if we wanted to get involved or not. He commanded us to be involved. Involvement in Amos' project of redefined justice is a covenantal requirement.
Yet the church forbade the prophets to preach. Even late in the book of Amos we learn that Amaziah demanded that Amos no longer preach (7.10-14). So many times God's People willingly hear a so-called prophet if he points out everyone else's sin. Just as they listened to Amos as he preached against the nations. But as soon as "I" need to repent we get a little upset.
We tend to think "our life is just fine with God. Look at all the good things I have. Surely this means God approves of us." What a misconception. Indeed it is a lie according to Amos. How many worldly possessions we have or do not have has nothing whatsoever to do with our standing in the sight of our God. This is an unpopular point of view but it is true nontheless.
God will purify his people. God's judgment will come and be so great that "even the bravest of warriors will flee naked on that day" (v.16).
This passage reminds us that those who have been blessed and graced much is expected of them. God did not redeem Israel so she could become a curse to the world. He saved the church so she could be part of the solution to the curse! She is called to be a holy priesthood to point others (the nations around!) to the one true God. This remains our task as God's People. God has not called us out of the fallen age to be elitists but so that we could get on our hands and knees with the downtrodden to shoulder their heavy burdens. We point to the one who as the Suffering Servant brought the Year of Jubilee to all the world's poor. Peter reminds us, like Amos of old did, that on that great day God will do some house cleaning.
We need to hear Amos as he redefines righteousness. Amos is calling us to be a servant church with a suffering servant heart. A church that (to paraphrase Paul) carries around in its body "the marks of Jesus" (Gal 6.17).
He who has an ear ...