God of the Prophets
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
Amos 2:4-16, 7:10-17
I am honored to be asked to preach several times (six to be precise) during this summer when Carla is focusing her attention on preparing for the bar exam. I have decided to use this opportunity to preach a series of sermons on a topic that I have never addressed before. I will be speaking about six of the so-called minor Hebrew prophets - so-called minor, not because their message was unimportant, but because their writings are concise. I have planned the series so that you can either go back and read the book of the prophet after you have heard my sermon on it, or, even better, prepare for worship by reading the book ahead of time. There is a schedule of the sermons in the bulletin.
Today we begin with Amos. But before we dig in, there are a few things you should know.
First, I have selected these minor prophets in chronological order, based upon the time of their ministries, rather than on the canonical order, which is the order of the books in the Old Testament. This arrangement will allow you to place these prophets in a chronological, historical context.
Second, because these prophets must be understood in their historical context, you will be remembering, or perhaps learning, some of the basic, key events of Old Testament history. I will try to provide just enough context to make the messages more understandable.
Third, I will often refer to these prophets, and their writings, as Old Testament. I notice that your lectors prefer to use the term “Hebrew Scriptures”. Such a preference is fine. However, I assure you that I have it on good authority that many biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, agree that, for Christians, the term Old Testament is not derogatory. It is simply descriptive. These scriptures are not only Hebrew scriptures. They are also Christian scriptures. But for Christians, they are the Old Testament. I certainly mean no offense by using this term, and I hope that none is taken.
Fourth, although often we have an Old Testament lesson in our worship service, it is unusual to have sermons and readings dealing exclusively with Old Testament texts. This series is therefore unusual. I will not be preaching from the lectionary, so there will be few or no New Testament readings during this series. I hope that the power of these prophetic readings will show why they deserve our focused attention. Often when Christians use texts from the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, they use them almost as proof texts, without paying adequate attention to their original context. I hope that this series will not make that error.
Fifth, this series will certainly introduce us into the study of the nature of prophecy. While many of us think of prophets as simply predictors of the future, we will come to understand that they are more accurately understood as interpreters of the present.
Finally – do not worry – I will not repeat this explanation every Sunday. You’ll just have to remember it.
Now, to Amos. Chances are that Amos is better known to you than any of the other minor prophets, but he is still a mystery. To appreciate his message, you will need to remember the history; The twelve tribes of Israel, after the exodus, spread across the territory that we now call Israel/Palestine and lived under tribal rule until they demanded a king. You remember how Saul was anointed as King over all Israel – over all the 12 tribes - by the prophet Samuel. But the Israelites remained scattered and not united until King David and King Solomon conquered and centralized their authority in the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. The united kingdom of Israel reached its greatest height under Solomon in the year around 1000 BC. After his reign, things began to fragment once again, until by about 920 BC the kingdom had been divided into two parts – north and south. The southern part was Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem. The northern part was comprised of the other tribes and was called Israel, with its capital at Samaria. Each part had its own kings. There was tension and bitterness between Israel and Judah, and of course, both kingdoms were constantly worried about their more powerful neighbors.
Amos, a man who called himself a shepherd and a pruner of sycamore trees, lived in the south, in Judah, in Tekoa, near Jerusalem. The south was the more religious part of the region. The northern part had become more secular and much more prosperous. Amos felt called, however, to go from the south to the north, during the time when the north was experiencing its greatest prosperity under King Jeroboam II. The Israelites attributed their power and prosperity in part to their formal piety and to the sacrifices they made at the official temple in Bethel. Amos made his way to Samaria and to the shrine at Bethel to deliver bad news – to tell the Israelites that their piety was not pleasing to the Lord. At the royal temple, he gained a hearing first by working up his audience - by proclaiming God’s judgment on all their unrighteous neighbors. But then he turned the tables and saved his harshest words for Israel. When he started doing that, he had, as the saying goes, stopped preaching and gone to meddling. We read part of his word to the Israelites in our first scripture reading today. It is not surprising that Amos’ scathing indictment of Israel was unwelcome. In our second reading, we heard how the official priest of the national shrine, Amaziah, after speaking to the King, told Amos to go back home and never return. The words of a prophet can be very troubling. Israel was, in its own eyes, just fine. It was more prosperous and powerful than it had ever been. What right did that shepherd – not even an official prophet – what right did he have to challenge their wealth and comfort?
Now it is important to understand that, in the time of Amos as well as in our time, there were many prophets – some officially commissioned by the king and priests, who only spoke good news, and some unofficial ones like Amos who told it like it was. This is the problem we have with prophets. There are always too many of them, and they speak contradictory messages. The prophetic writings that we have in our scriptures are, of course, highly selected. These writings are remembered because, in hindsight, the words proved so valuable and true. But at the moment, Amos’ words were disturbing. The king and the official priests found him a trouble-maker, not a prophet. Only in hindsight do we understand that his words were the true ones.
And what were his words, precisely? Well, you can read them for yourself. Some of them, like the passages we read, are familiar to us. Here are others that Amos spoke to these very religious, very pious, very prosperous people who thought that the anticipated “day of the Lord” would bring them even greater triumphs:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light,
As if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear;
Or went into the house and rested his hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
And gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies,
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 515-24)
No wonder he was declared unwelcome. He was indeed a skunk at this garden party.
It was unthinkable to these people that their way of life was weakening them, so much so that, in about a hundred years, their land would be captured by the dreaded Assyrians. Many of them would be exiles; foreigners would come in and mix with them, so that the kingdom of Israel would be utterly destroyed, leaving in its place only the despised people known in Jesus’ time as the Samaritans.
When we read the words of the prophets, we are always tempted to overlook their original meaning and to apply them to our own situation. And it is true, to a point, that prophetic words are always pointing toward a future. But they are anchored in a concrete and immediate situation. Amos indicted Israel, not because it was impious, but because it was unjust; not because of its wealth but because of its greed; not because it was not religious, but because it was unrighteous. And these words of warning to Israel are, quite properly, a warning another nation which is, by all accounts very religious, but which is arrogant, and greedy, and unconcerned about the gap between the rich and the poor. No thoughtful American can read the words of Amos without seeing their implications for our nation – or for any nation where the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, where some have far too much and others have far too little; where words of criticism, when offered, are called disloyal; where many so-called prophets proclaim our goodness, and true prophets are exiled. It is a message as unwelcome now as it was then.
When I was a pastor in New Jersey, I had a friend who was also a pastor, in one of the wealthiest suburban towns of New Jersey, whose church was generally recognized as the best (most prestigious) in town. Indeed, it was so prestigious that, in one of the state elections, both the democractic and the republican candidates for governor were members of that same congregation. The church, of course, had expanded, and it built a beautiful new stone addition to its original building, with an ornate entrance. Above the entrance was a space for an inscription. My friend, the pastor, was showing a few of us around the new edifice. He pointed to the entrance and asked for suggestions about what should be inscribed over the door. Such passages as “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go unto the house of the Lord” were suggested. I, being a contrarian, and also something of a skunk, immediately countered with another suggestion. I said, “Inscribe the passage from Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” I do not think my suggestion was taken seriously, even though I meant it so.
For indeed, if we are to be Christians, if we are to follow the one, Jesus, who certainly stands in the line of the Hebrew prophets, then all of our worship should take place under that inscription. What is required of us is not piety but justice, not empty praise but honest concern for those who have become lost in the greedy rush for gain.
Last week at this hour I sat on the stage at Dartmouth’s graduation and watched the young graduates receive their diplomas, after they had heard a stirring address by Geoffrey Canada, challenging them to remember the children in Harlem, and in places like Harlem, whose opportunities are stunted by the culture of poverty. It was an address that I hope was heard by some, but I know how many of those graduates are headed off directly to lucrative jobs in finance, where they will soon absorb the pernicious message that they deserve to be rich. Mr. Canada left them an out: he said that he hoped some of them would make a lot of money, because he had tried raising money from poor people, but it didn’t go so well. And of course, he is right. It is up to those who have been privileged to carry the greater burdens in any society, and it is true that some rich people understand that. But many do not. Wealth has a way of expanding our sense of entitlement and diminishing our sense of responsibility.
The words of Amos are for me echoed in the familiar words of Lincoln, spoken at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg, 150 years ago this summer: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Our nation has endured and has increased in prosperity. But the question posed by Lincoln, and by Amos, haunts us still with its truth: can a nation deeply divided between rich and poor long endure? Can a nation so obsessed with security that it undermines the liberty for which it was founded long endure? These are questions posed by prophets and answered by us all. The prophets who posed them, and the words they spoke, were judged so important by their descendants that they were enshrined in sacred scripture, where we read them today, and ponder them, and ask ourselves anew: what is the true religion which we should practice – the religion to which Amos and Jesus call us? And how have we answered? Amen