When we think of God as the big, bad meanie God, we have the Prophet Amos to thank for it. In a book of only nine chapters, 28 different verbs are employed to describe God’s divine role as warrior and destroyer. God kills, annihilates, and sends fire, pestilence, and famine upon the people of Israel. But here’s the thing: God is by no means depicted as a capricious or vengeful enemy. He is merely the executioner of a people who refuse to obey the divine standards of justice. The Prophet Amos was the first of all the prophets to announce that Yahweh was about to engage in a holy war against His own people. But what was especially difficult and confounding for those who would have heard Amos’s message, and for the scholars and readers of the Bible who came along much later, was that Amos did not offer any solace, any hope. The happy ending that was tacked on to the end of the book was added much later to soften the doom and gloom of God’s countenance.
Allow me to give you some background about the Prophet Amos and his prophesies for I think it will elucidate our scripture this morning and one of the more famous passages in the Bible and the climax of the book: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). Amos came from among the shepherds of Tekoa, a village a few miles south of Bethlehem in Judah. What we know about him is that he had been a herdsman and trimmer of sycamore trees. He was active as a prophet during the reign of two contemporary kings, Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel. At that time, the Hebrew people were losing their land in droves and being sold into slavery. Wealth was becoming concentrated in the hands of an undeserving few while the majority was left with what Amos describes as “cleanness of teeth” because there was no food or drink to stain them.
Amos experienced five visions from God, which prompted him to shock everyone by proclaiming the impending doom of a flourishing nation. In other words he was preaching harsh words in a smooth season. His unpopular message denounced Israel, as well as its neighbors, for reliance upon military might, its mistreatment of the poor and weak, and for its shallow, meaningless piety. Seldom was the future as dark for a given people as it was for those who lived before the Common Era in 8th century Israel.
One of the more startling visions from Amos is recorded in verse one and two of the third chapter: “Hear this word that Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.’” Amos maintained that of all nations, Israel as Yahweh’s beloved, was the obvious target of divine retribution. Its status as a “chosen people” which had been widely understood as conferring unconditional benefits and security now made it the most vulnerable. One of the themes we, and when I say “we” I mean those of us who possess wealth, privilege, and power, what we need to take home from Amos today is that being one of the “chosen” isn’t a free ticket to salvation. In fact, it means that God holds us to a higher standard and greater responsibility. In essence, Amos told the Israelites that His chosen people were punished not for crimes of violence but for crimes of faith and morals.
In our passage this morning, Amos reverses the popular conception of the “Day of the Lord” by portraying it as a day of darkness and judgment rather than of light and celebration. He describes how awful it will be on the Day of Judgment, brilliantly capturing a world in which horrors never end: “It’s as if a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against a wall, and was bitten by a snake!” (5: 18-20). And God, too, was wickedly vicious on the subject of the Israelites’ superficial piety and rote and meaningless religious rituals: “I loathe; I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. … Spare me the sound of your hymns.” Amos was not implying there was anything inherently wrong with their worship, but that there was much wrongdoing with those who worship. Amos called out the disconnect between what goes on in society, in everyday life, and what is said and done on Sundays. The pomp and circumstance of liturgy to the exclusion of covenant responsibility for the poor and marginalized did not appease Yahweh. We’ve all heard people mutter about hypocrites in church, well, this is its genesis. So, it is here that Amos rolls up his sleeves and declares, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
I’m sure many of you recognize that verse because it was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He alluded to it in his “I have a Dream” speech that he gave at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. One can hear the ethos of the Prophet Amos in Dr. King’s words:
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The liturgical church year was not devised for the United States, yet its rhythms fit our nation in an election year. November begins with national elections and ends with Christ the King Sunday, a reminder to us all that Christ is the sovereign who matters most. And while elections produce overwhelming hope or overwhelming disappointment, the intensity of our reactions should give us pause as Christians. In responding to an election as if it were a matter of life and death, we have to ask ourselves if we place too much power in the hands of the president and too little in Jesus? There appears to be an interesting parallel with political and Christian eschatology of the end times that says “while our world is a mess and in danger today, there is always hope for tomorrow.”
Yet Jesus, in his parable of the ten bridesmaids, says we’d better be prepared for whatever may befall us. His parable ends with a disquieting judgment on the foolish, who when they beg, “Lord, lord, open to us,” they hear from behind the closed gate, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Jesus leaves us with a question, a deliberation that will only be revealed at our death: “Were we wise or foolish?”
The wise bridesmaids were prepared for the nighttime arrival of their bridegroom. They brought with them flasks of oil. The foolish bridesmaids were probably more concerned with how they looked in their wedding finery than in preparing for the bridegroom’s arrival, so much so, they did not have enough oil in their lamps to light their way. With this parable in mind, we Christians have to expect that any situation can seem dire, any night can seem long and dark, so the important question remains, “Are we prepared for when the time finally comes?” Are we learning God’s word, doing God’s work and praising the Spirit in season and out of season?
What I also find interesting about the passages from Amos and Matthew showing up in our lectionary now is that they give us a fair warning that we need to prepare to prepare ourselves for Advent. It could not be more obvious! And it is also a warning that as ardently as we may feel the loss or victory of our particular choice for candidate, Jesus calls us away from politics to face a more important question in these gloomy and uncertain days of our nation’s stability: Will we be prepared for the birth of our heavenly king, the Christ child, come December?
While Amos’s torrents of justice might appeal to our passion for vengeance in an overly political and economic milieu, the way of Christ offers a bold though seemingly ludicrous alternative: a gentle revolution of justice waged in hope and mercy, one seed at a time, each carried by the winds of faith blowing where it will. Seeds will be sown but not without our prayers of healing and reconciliation for our country and one another.
God is at work whether we recognize it or not, and yet unless we allow ourselves to be grasped by God’s presence, we will remain outside of the banquet. The good news is that the bridegroom comes not just once, but over and over again, opening wide the banquet door to see if we are ready to be received into his arms of love.