The recent passage of the toughest bill on immigration have me thinking…how are we, as Christians, to respond to this unjust law?
At our last church council meeting, I was asked to give the opening devotion, and, with this question on my mind, I used the Amos 5 text.
Here is a sermon I wrote for one of my preaching classes in seminary. The text was Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15. It amazes me how much this sermon still rings true today.
Believe it or not, I was in trouble a lot growing up. When I was little, my parents would make me stand in the corner for a period of time if I got into trouble, which is to say, I spent a lot of time in the corner. Occasionally, I would get spanked for doing something. As I got older, the punishments changed. There would be times that I was not allowed to watch television for a few weeks. There were times that I was grounded from driving. There were other times that I lost my allowance, which meant I couldn’t do much with my friends. Aside from one instance I can remember, I deserved all the punishments I received. Now that I’m older, I can see why my parents punished me…because they loved me. This wasn’t something I wanted to hear at the time. I thought my parents were being vindictive…that they did not love me. The hardest thing for me to hear growing up was my parents saying, “I’m doing this because I love you.” This often prompted the response, “If you love me, you wouldn’t ground me.” Needless to say, that didn’t work with my parents. They still grounded me. This wasn’t any easier on them.
But there was some grace involved. When I was younger, my parents would do the counting thing if I was acting up. “One…Two…Three.” If I didn’t stop by the count of three, I would end up standing in the corner. As I got older they would give me a chance to confess. If I told the truth, I might receive a lesser punishment. Today, I understand why my parents did what they did. They wanted to have a relationship with me. A relationship built on trust and respect. That was not going to happen if they let me go unpunished for something I did.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear an oracle of judgment delivered to Israel. This was not the unified Israel of David or Solomon. Israel was a divided kingdom; the Souther Kingdom, Judah, ruled by Uzziah; and the Northern Kingdom, Israel, ruled by Jeroboam II. This was a peaceful time that allowed the Northern Kingdom to grow and prosper. It also allowed landowners to fatten their pockets and acquire land and estates by taking advantage of the little guy, the farmers.
Justice was perverted. Formal trial proceedings as we understand court proceedings were lacking. Instead, the complaint would be considered and a judgment made. The innocent, yet poor people were unable to to receive fair hearings for their complaints because they were silenced by the wealthy. The scales of justice were tipped in favor of the business men and was a disadvantage to the farmers. The prophet Amos goes as far to compare justice with wormwood, a plant whose pulp has a bitter taste.
Within this, the people of Israel had broken two of the laws in Leviticus. In verse 15, Amos calls for the people of Israel to change their ways by establishing justice in the gates of their cities. But, it is not just the courts that Amos calls for change. Amos also calls for change in the temples. This can be seen in verses 4-6. “For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel and do not enter into Gilga or cross over to Beer-sheba; for Gilga shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing. Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, with no one to quench it.”
During the time of Amos, worship of God was not what it was supposed to be. The people were going through the motions of worship but were not worshiping with their heart. It’s easy to listen to this reading and say, “Where’s the good news in this?” This was one of the struggles I faced with this text.
The good news is God loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us. This is a relationship that is built on trust and respect. God hears and answers our prayers and therefore deserves our trust. God created us and therefore deserves our respect. It is this relationship that makes us righteous before God. Righteousness in the time of Amos was a relational term. Righteousness meant fulfilling the demands of a relationship.
God called Israel to be in relationship. The people of Israel were called to love God. God also calls us to love our neighbor. Neither of these were being done and Amos lets the people of Israel know that God has been watching them and knows that the people are not fulfilling this relationship. “For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” The rich of Israel ignored the call by taking advantage of the poor and helpless instead of showing mercy.
This text also shows that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God’s act of grace throughout this time was the prophets. God would call someone to go and be the prophetic voice, someone to go and tell the Israelites, “We need to straighten up. God is not happy with what’s going on. We need to get our act together.”
God’s act of sending the prophets did not stop with Amos. God continued and is continuing to send prophets into the world. God calls us to be the prophetic voice in the world today. God calls us to be the ones who stand up and say, “This isn’t right.”
This also shows that God is slow to anger. God gave his people several chances to repent, to change their ways. This can be seen throughout the Old Testament. God sent Judges to bring his people out of oppression. After ever Judge, God’s people would go back to what they were doing before the Judge. God would punish his people and when they cried out for help, God sent someone to help them, another Judge.
We can see this continuing through to the time of the Prophets. God called Prophets to tell the people of Israel what they were doing wrong. When the people of Israel did not change their ways, God punished them. But God continued to send prophets to the people just as God provides prophets today.
In his condemnation of the legal system, Amos says things will be turned upside down. “You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.”
This is followed by another call to repentance, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.” The Hebrew word for live carries a larger meaning than existence. It also refers to health, reputation and prosperity.
As we know, in 721, Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire. The people of Israel were taken from their homes and land. Their world was turned upside down. The rich and powerful were no longer rich or powerful. The people of Israel lost their life in the Exile in terms of loosing their home, their possessions, and their prosperity.
God turned everything upside down when God sent his Son into the world to save us from our sins. Christ came into the world not as one of the rich and powerful, but as one of the common people. Sending Christ into the world was God’s ultimate act to bring God’s people back into relationship with God.
Through the waters of Baptism, God calls us into right relationship with him. We are marked with the cross and made one of God’s people. Because God calls us into right relationship with him, we are called to care for the poor and to help those in need.
The book of Amos closes with a promise. God promises to restore the Davidic kingdom. This new kingdom will encompass other nations as well. There will be a re-ordering. No longer will the first be first and the last be last. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Because through God, all things are possible.