Keeping Prophets Close – A Sermon on Amos

This summer our series is called Pirate Radio and it’s all about the Minor Prophets. Prophets were these spokesmen that God used to pass messages to people. Sometimes they acted out prophetic parables (such as the different stories with Jeremiah, or some people think Jonah is a parable), sometimes they would yell from a desert, sometimes they would prop themselves up in the middle of the city. The medium changed quite often, but these people believed they were passing along messages from God. Some were good messages. Some were bad ones. The prophets loved giving some, and others came some great risk, including being tortured, ignored, made fun of and persecuted to know end. Some prophets were told to shutup because they were wrong, or they weren’t being sensitive enough. The prophets were relentless. And when someone is relentless, and claim that what they are saying is what God is saying then you would think that you would listen. Sometimes, people did listen such as Nineveh. Other times, they would not, such as Israel, and the things that were told would happen, did happen.

The prophets were the pirate radio frequency of Israel’s time. They were the ones speaking when they shouldn’t and saying things that made people feel extremely uncomfortable. They were calling into question things that were not questioned, things that were normal, every-day activities that just happened. They called out the powerful and accused them of the way they became powerful was wrong. They consistently played a frequency that was offensive to the regular frequencies of their day. Amos was no exception. Amos began his life owning a farm and cultivating trees, he was a fairly wealthy man. Then he got the collect-call from God to be his messenger, to speak against the misuse and the immoral direction that the world was going in. Amos spoke not to just Israel but had a message even to the Gentile populations surrounding Israel. Amos was speaking on behalf of God now, and he wasn’t happy. Israel and Judah had become wealthy, were fighting no wars and spent their time developing their nation and becoming prosperous, which wouldn’t be a probably normally, if they didn’t forget who their God was and what their calling was in the world. They were always supposed to protect their slaves, protect the poor, and be the kind of nation that would represent the God of the universe, and their riches made them forget all this. Their riches distracted them and they soon forgot about their responsibilities. Amos reminded them.

When we are rich. When we are powerful. When we are comfortable. We generally don’t like what God has to say. We get angry at the person who speaks these truths. We make up excuses. But God is relentless. He always takes the side of the downtrodden and poor. I think you would be hard pressed to find one biblical story where God isn’t siding with the poor and marginalized. So prophecy becomes a soothing voice to those in need and generally a nagging voice to those that are rich, and have it all together. So then, a false prophet is one who flips this. They nag on the poor and comfort the rich (prosperity gospel anyone?). They make excuses for the wealthy and say things like “they just worked hard, they deserve it.” God doesn’t see things this way. He refuses to acknowledge any entitlement at all.

This is why I’m convinced that we don’t really hear the prophets voice today. We have no ears to hear. Prophets get drowned out in the sea of information, TV shows, false prophets and our never ending comfort. When the prophets speak we get annoyed, we justify and grumble. We accuse them for being too far fetched, unrealistic and oppressive. We are masters at being able to subtly ignore. We smile and nod at wave and barely absorb words of prophets. This is what wealth and riches cause. This is the kind of society that we are. We are deaf to the words of the prophets around us. When prophet’s speak we call them crazy, we ignore them or we fight back telling them that they are out of line.

Similarly, this is the same sort of environment that Amos came from. Amos came during a time when Israel was enjoying both prosperity and security. Luxury abounded as they were at peace with their neighbours and so they could focus on building up their economy and developing their nation. Religion ran rampant. When people are comfortable, they go to church a lot (what mega churches?), and pray a lot, and make sacrifices. They try to do all the right things on the surface because they want to keep their winning streak going.

“Go to Bethel and sin;
go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three years.
Burn leavened bread as a thank offering
and brag about your freewill offerings-
boast about them, you Israelites,
for this is what you love to do,”
declares the Sovereign LORD.
– Amos 4:4-5

What happened though was that making money ended up being more important than worshipping God and then everything hit the fan. The rich exploited the poor, the judicial system was corrupt and injustice flourished.

You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
– Amos 5:11-12

So we have a nation who has been through a hell of a lot. They have been enslaved, poor, starving in deserts who finally start getting established and developing and being able to eat. Israel and Judah are at peace with their neighbours – wealth and energy could be spent on developing their nations, cities were growing, new wealthy merchant class was developing – they were moving from agriculture to commercial and experiencing benefits and problems with that change. As soon as this happens though, those who become wealthy instantly forget about those who are poor and rather start engaging in these elaborate spiritual practices, that sound a lot like what our church services today. God wants no part of it.

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
“Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
You have lifted up the shrine of your king,
the pedestal of your idols,
the star of your god
which you made for yourselves.
Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,”
says the LORD, whose name is God Almighty.
Amos 5:21-27

Q: What does God actually care about? Why are these religious festivals despised?

The book of Amos is structured uniquely. Chapters 1-2 speak to all the nations surrounding Israel and then focuses in on Israel through a moral lens. Chapter 3-6 are a collection of verses that look specifically at all the things that Israel has done wrong. Chapters 7-9 consist of visions given to Amos and are written in more of a narrative when a priest comes out to oppose Amos and tell him to go away.

The central idea of Amos is that God rips into all these other evil nations and puts Israel at the same level as them. He uses the phrase over and over again, “for three transgressions and for four” which is a Jewish idiom that means an indefinite number that has finally come to the end. God expects more from them since afterall he did rescue them from Egypt and pull them to be apart to be a nation that blessed other nations. Just because they were chosen doesn’t mean God favours them, they are still held accountable, if not more so. The nation that represents God must be pure and holy and they allowed idols, and riches to seep in and determine the kinds of people they would be. They forgot about who they were. They forgot about the kinds of people they were called to be. A kind of people that always sides with the oppressed and marginalized and takes care of them even at the risk of loosing their own wealth. They didn’t do that and God let’s them have it.

Amos begins with Amos calling out Syria (Damascus was the capital) for treating the Israelites that were in their midst too harsh. He calls out Philistine cities and denounces them for trading human lives. He calls out Tyre because they were selling their friends (Israelites) as slaves). He calls out Edom because of their persistent hatred of the Jews. He calls out Ammon for being ruthless in their war and killing women and children. He calls out Moab for disrespecting the dead and royalty. Everyone has their problems. But then he faces into Israel for the rest of his message, and it isn’t pretty. Amos’ message is basically a message of cocky rich people that think they have it all together and have got figured out. God wants no part of it. So he uses Amos to tell them so.

God does not care if you show up to church on Sunday and give 10%, he wants you to care about what he cares about, the oppressed that are around you. He certainly doesn’t care that you give yourself the title of Christian.

So this the first section of Amos, basically an attack on Israel and how they are not being the kinds of people they should be and are rather masking their failure to live up to their identity with wealth and religious rituals. So Amos starts getting a bit more fiery and starts announcing the judgment that is coming. God starts giving him visions of what judgment is going to look like and Amos cries out to him not to harm Israel (after all, these are his people).

This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the late crops were coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”
So the LORD relented.
“This will not happen,” the LORD said.
This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: The Sovereign LORD was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”
So the LORD relented.
“This will not happen either,” the Sovereign LORD said.
This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”
“A plumb line,” I replied.
Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
“The high places of Isaac will be destroyed
and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined;
with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”

Interesting the response of Amos compared to the one we went through last week with Jonah. Of course, Nineveh was Jonah’s enemy, so I guess we can understand a bit why he didn’t want to see them repent. Amos cries back out to God to not be has harsh as God is suggesting. But there are people, obviously, that don’t like being told that their way of life is going to end. Who wants to be told that everything that puts a smile on their face is wrong and that it’s all going to crumble all around them one day?

Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. For this is what Amos is saying:
“‘Jeroboam will die by the sword,
and Israel will surely go into exile,
away from their native land.'”
Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now then, hear the word of the LORD. You say,
“‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and stop preaching against the descendants of Isaac.’
“Therefore this is what the LORD says:
“‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword.
Your land will be measured and divided up,
and you yourself will die in a pagan country.
And Israel will surely go into exile,
away from their native land.'”

Q: Do we want to hear God’s message for us? What do we do to ensure that we can hear what God is saying? How do we not become like Israel and kick our prophets out of our ear’s reach?

As a community we can learn to be the kind of community that listens to these prophets and learns to change rather than write them off. Communities need to make room for prophets to make wild accusations and imaginations, hurt their feelings and hear from God.

“when they forbid their prophets to go into the wilderness, they lose the possibility of renewal.”
– Wendell Berry

There is no room for us to be like Amaziah and kick our prophets away because we don’t like the way it sounds or if we believe it then it will change our lives drastically. We need to be able to accept that we are probably wrong, we are probably stagnant and we are probably not living the way that we are supposed to. We need to go out of our way and listen to these voices in the wilderness as they call us to come back to the way of living that we were meant to live. There are some people that speak as prophets into my own life, and when I read or listen to what they have to say I have a range of feelings. Some of them make me happy and encouraged that we are moving in a good direction and others make me pretty low because I know that we are eating our own vomit and writing our own disastrous ending. One of my favourite prophets of today is a guy named Chris Hedges; who depending on whose reading him will come across as extremely dreary and wildly non-optimistic. He is a straight shooter, exclaiming what it looks like if our society continues on this path of consumerism, war and destruction. He calls out the church, the liberal class, culture, the corporations and the wealthy to be who they should be. He used to be a wartime correspondent in Iraq for the New York times, ended up getting fired for being too honest, and now speaks very strongly against war, government and classes. Can we be the kind of community that allows people like this to help be our conscience as opposed to being offended by him and writing him off as a lunatic?

“A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”
– Chris Hedges

“The corporations that profit from permanent war need us to be afraid. Fear stops us from objecting to government spending on a bloated military. Fear means we will not ask unpleasant questions of those in power. Fear permits the government to operate in secret. Fear means we are willing to give up our rights and liberties for promises of security. The imposition of fear ensures that the corporations that wrecked the country cannot be challenged. Fear keeps us penned in like livestock.”
– Chris Hedges

“The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”
– Chris Hedges

Those are good words. But they face into things that make us comfortable. Many of us work for corporations who have used oppressive tactics to become the biggest and best. Many of us have had family that fought in wars. Can we allow someone to speak directly to our hearts and let that change us rather than getting offended? Or another one of my favourite prophets, who is probably a bit more like biblical prophets, Wendell Berry. He decided that the academic life wasn’t for him and moved back to his homeland, a life on a farm, and continued to write his stories and essays calling out culture for it’s spiral into chaos. He faces into the hard questions of our massive technological use and our industrialized food source and our lack of place and the degradation of families and marriage and sex. He says it like it is all the while being disregarded as a lunatic who is scared of computers.

“You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”
– Wendell Berry

“People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.
– Wendell Berry

“A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.”
– Wendell Berry

“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”
– Wendell Berry

If we listen to Wendell Berry we will all live on farms, toiling in the soil for our food and only purchasing local. So we don’t listen to him and we call him a fanatic (like we call Jesus when he tells the rich man to sell everything he has). We don’t want to change. We should however be the kind of community that can listen to words like his and start to be transformed to be more like we should be. Not just get depressed because we are far from where we should be, but use it as encouragement to know we are doing right. Berry asks tough questions about things that we just do. The way we let our kids obsess over TV and video games, the way our kids are never outside, the way we think about the aboriginal population around us, the way the oil plants treat the earth. Can we be the kind of community that can ask ourselves these tough questions?

Then there is someone like Stanley Hauerwas who speaks directly to the church, where Berry and Hedges seem to speak to Western culture in general with jabs at the church here and there. Hauerwas speaks almost directly to the church all the time trying to help them see who they are to become.

What we call “freedom” becomes the tyranny of our own desires. We are kept detached, strangers to one another as we go about fulfilling our needs and asserting our rights. The individual is given a status that makes incomprehensible the Christian notion of salvation as a political, social phenomenon in the family of God. Our economics correlates to our politics. Capitalism thrives in a climate where “rights” are the main political agenda. The church becomes one more consumer-oriented organization, existing to encourage individual fulfillment rather than being a crucible to engender individual conversion into the Body.
– Stanley Hauerwas

The confessing church seeks the visible church, a place, clearly visible to the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God.
– Stanley Hauerwas

One role of any colony (church) is to keep the young very close to the elders-people who live aright the traditions of home.
– Stanley Hauerwas

Luther called security the ultimate idol. And we have shown, time and again, our willingness to exchange anything-family, health, church, truth-for a taste of security. We are vulnerable animals who seek to secure and to establish our lives in improper ways, living by our wits rather than by faith
– Stanley Hauerwas

Then as now, it is difficult to think of a more deadly adversary to the gospel and its church than wealth. To his disciples’ question about salvation, Jesus replied that it was humanly impossible for rich people (like us) to be saved, as difficult as pushing a dromedary through a needle’s eye. Best then to adjust to what is given, do the best we can to not feel too guilty
– Stanley Hauerwas

Hauerwas’s books are full of changes that need to be made by the church because we are not living like the people of God. If we were to take Hauerwas seriously then we would have had better responses to 9-11, our church probably wouldn’t be full of young families because we wouldn’t be so estranged from our parent’s faith, we wouldn’t know what to do with the phrase “rich Christians” and forgiveness would be something sought after and not forced on us. He’s a tough prophet to listen to because he isn’t just speaking to the broader culture. We can’t just disregard him because we are different. He speaks directly to us and who we should be.

I share these prophets with you because I want you to be aware of these voices and the prophets in your own life and in this communities life. We brought Shawn in a few weeks ago to show us where we think we have gone wrong and what we can do to fix it. I hope the things he said sit in the back of your head and gnaw away at your conscience and help initiate some change. Can we make room for the role of the prophet in our lives? Or will we flee from the hard words of change and revolution? I don’t know about you, but I want to listen and I want to learn and I’m hoping that we will begin to allow their words to change us and encourage us to turn away from the inevitable fate that awaits those on the path of destruction.

Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.
-Abraham Joshua Heschel

Amos ends with a promise, it is a promise of renewal and hope. After a long list of judgment and how Israel is going to be overcome and destroyed, it seems as if this is exactly where God wants because this is how the book ends, with God speaking.

“In that day
“I will restore David’s fallen shelter-
I will repair its broken walls
and restore its ruins-
and will rebuild it as it used to be,
so that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations that bear my name,”
declares the LORD, who will do these things.
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman
and the planter by the one treading grapes.
New wine will drip from the mountains
and flow from all the hills,
and I will bring my people Israel back from exile.
“They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant Israel in their own land,
never again to be uprooted
from the land I have given them,”
says the LORD your God.

God’s judgment never ends in destruction. It’s always beautiful. This is where we are going, this is what we are aiming for. There is a goal, meaning and purpose behind our repentance and the message of the prophets. It’s not a message of just “turn or burn” but rather it’s a message of “turn because this is what awaits.”

May we become people that listen to prophets and aren’t afraid of change. May we become people that can see our wrongs and stop being defensive about them. May we become a community that cares about the things that God cares about.

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