The tragic and violent events that took place in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas this week have devastated all of us who care deeply and ardently love our nation. The shootings that occurred have wounded and scarred our people in emotional, spiritual, and societal ways. Across the world, people are seeing a darkness covering America. The plague of violence and blight of racism are destroying us from within. We are in the midst of civil unrest and community battles that are causing us all to suffer from a form of PTSD and war zone weariness.
Perhaps you are thinking that you came to church to escape from all of this. Maybe you were hoping to find some peace and quiet, refuge and sanctuary in the midst of troubled times. We’ll eventually get to that point this morning, but our Old Testament passage from the Book of Amos will cause us to ask some serious questions about our faith, our community, and our nation.
Amos never wanted to be a prophet. He was originally a shepherd who looked after sheep on the hills of Tekoa, just six miles south of the town of Bethlehem, in the same region where a group of local shepherds would one holy night be told of the birth of the Messiah, about 750 years later.
Amos lived in some deeply troubled times for the nation of Israel. God’s people had gone astray, dabbling with new religions and worshiping false idols. The economy was wrecked and the nation was in the middle of an epic power struggle between the Egyptian Kingdom in the South and the Assyrian Empire in the North. Israel’s leader at the time, King Jeroboam, was weak and indecisive. He didn’t know who or what to follow and was surrounded by false prophets and sycophantic supporters, who gave him questionable and confusing advice. Because he was so vacillating, his leadership was both corrupt and chaotic. Instead of guiding the people to the One, True, and Living God, he caused them to waver in their beliefs and follow unfaithful ways.
Amos, like most shepherds, was perhaps an introvert, so the thought of going up to the king’s palace to speak out against the corruption, idolatry, and faithlessness of the ruler, as well as his people, probably was the last thing he wanted to do. But God called Amos to go and prophesy, so the Shepherd from Tekoa obeyed God’s will, no matter how uncomfortable he felt or how unwelcome he would become.
Being a faithful prophet is a lonely experience because it always involves speaking the truth, usually in a place and time where both powerful and ordinary people don’t want to hear it. The main theme of Amos’ message was one of accusation and judgment against his society. He was given the unenviable task of telling his people and leaders that God’s patience had run out, so some sort of horrendous consequences were inevitable.
In today’s passage, God gives Amos a vision of using a plumb line against the people of Israel. A plumb line was used by masons in ancient times to check the straightness of a wall. If the wall was found to be leaning forward or backward, it meant that the structure was unsafe and usually had to be pulled apart or even destroyed, in order to rebuild the wall. Amos’ vision of God using the plumb line among the people of Israel finds them out of accord with God’s commands and covenant. They have fallen back into old idolatrous ways or have rushed forward into embracing false deities. Whatever the case, God’s patience is at an end, so judgement and destruction are coming to the king, leaders, and people of Israel.
This is something that we have to honestly consider in our present circumstances. A lot of people these days utterly reject the idea that God still punishes nations and communities for going astray. It might have been acceptable in Old Testament times, but we are living in the 21st century, so any Iron Age beliefs about the wrath of God seem far-fetched, distant, and are very unpopular. We want to hear good things about ourselves. We want to be encouraged as church people. We want to feel blessed and know that we are special in God’s eyes.
Those are wonderful blessings to seek and we have indeed come a very long way from the days of Amos. But let’s ask ourselves this question: are we really certain that we’re following the path that God expects us to walk? Do our lives honestly reflect our faithfulness and devotion to Him? Are we comfortable with where we are as a society and do we positively show that we are Christians by our love? Or have we become lazy with our faith, cozy with our own ideas, and deluded by our own interpretations of who God is, what God wants, and what we are supposed to do for God?
When John Calvin was teaching from this passage, he described the situation as follows:
‘…the people in vain trusted in their temples and superstitions, for by these they kindled the wrath of God against themselves. He would not have expressly threatened the high places and the temples, unless the Israelites had provoked Him in this way…they bring the vengeance of God against themselves, inasmuch as they had corrupted the true and lawful worship of God.’
When Amos prophesied publicly, he was accused of treason by Amaziah, the leading priest at Bethel. Amaziah was prejudiced against Amos because he was not of the priestly caste. There was such a thing as clerical privilege in those days, which meant that the authority, power, and esteem of the priesthood was transferred from father to son, generation after generation. Amos did not fit that category – he was an outsider, an uppity lowly shepherd, who didn’t know his place and who had falsely claimed to be a prophet.
Amaziah accused Amos of conspiring against the king and even sent a message to the royal palace, with these critical words: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words.” In other words, Amos was being accused of high treason against the king and the nation. He was a traitor and agitator, whose false prophecies were serious threats against the religious and political authorities. False charges were made and no doubt Amos’ integrity and character were severely torn to shreds. Those who opposed him couldn’t wait to condemn him; those who sneered at him, just wanted to silence him.
This kind of character assassination still goes on. Whenever we come across someone that we dislike, we look for faults. Whenever we encounter someone who opposes us, we seek for any negative thing that we can use to disgrace, disarm, or dismiss that person. We do it at work and at home, in our schools and churches, as well as our communities and neighborhoods. We use it against the poor and mentally ill. We also see it in racial conflicts and civil unrest. And sadly, whenever politics and politicians are involved, we see it and are sinfully guilty of using it to demonize the other side, the other party, and, of course, the other candidate.
The priest Amaziah took his prejudice even further. He personally confronted Amos and told him to get out of town. “Go and earn your bread somewhere else, and take your prophesying there. You are not welcome in this holy place. You are not qualified to work here. Go back to where you came from. Get out of here!”
Years ago, I can remember our Lynsey coming home in tears from Bearden Middle School. She was really upset and it took a while to find out what was wrong. She had fallen out with a girl with whom she had been friends for about eighteen months. Whatever they had argued over was unimportant, but at the end of their conflict the other girl was determined to get the last word and ridicule Lynsey in public. She stung her with these words – “You’re just a dirty little foreigner. Go back to where you came from.”
When Amos hear similar words from Amaziah, he could have turned away to go back home to tend the sheep and live happily and peacefully ever after. However, he knew his rights came from a higher authority and so he asserted his position with these simple and honest words:
“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.’”
Amos knew the source of his calling and would not back down from it. He understood that his words were unsettling, uncomfortable, and unacceptable; however, he was accountable to God, not the king, not the priest, and not even people. God gave him prophetic messages to proclaim and declare; Amos could not and would not yield to the fears of his peers.
So, what can we take away from today’s passage?
Firstly, if God was to use a plumb line against us, would we measure up to His expectations as individuals, as a congregation, as a community, and as a nation?
Secondly, are we willing to face the hard truths about the prejudice and racism which really exists among us, causing our people to be divided?
And thirdly, are we willing to hear God’s prophetic words for today and make a commitment to Christ and His Kingdom, which will allow us to rebuild our faith, regrow our church, and reconcile this land that we love?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, let Your Spirit walk among us and heal our broken hearts. Allow us to find the courage to overcome our fears by confronting racism, reconciling our differences, and showing Your love to all. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.