Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
15 July 2018 + Lectionary 15B (Pentecost 8)
I have some bad news. I tried so hard to get a fantastic guest preacher for this morning, but Amos just wasn’t available. I know how much we were all looking forward to a good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone, sinners-in-the-hands-of-angry-God sermon — so I’ll try my best.
Speaking of bad news, Amos is such a short book — only nine chapters — short enough to read in one sitting (which I would encourage you to do sometime) but not quite short enough to do so right now. So here come the CliffNotes…
First things first: We need to understand the trajectory of the Old Testament, essentially a history of ancient Israel. It’s not exactly the kind of history you would find in a textbook. There’s certainly more poetry, and there are details that biblical scholars have found to be puzzling, if not outright historically inaccurate. The history of ancient Israel in the pages of the Bible is more theological, more about what God is up to in the lives of God’s people, rather than a History Channel documentary.
Way back in Exodus, after God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land, it wasn’t long before Israel got itself in trouble — repeatedly. The pattern was predictable: When Israel would enjoy a time of peace, they got comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, even lazy. They started to ignore the laws God had given them to establish order and justice and promote the wellbeing of their neighbor, and they began to worship the gods of their neighboring nations. Inevitably, this would get them in some sort of mess with those nations, and they would cry out to God for deliverance, who would, inevitably, deliver them. And repeat…
Early in Israel’s history, that deliverance would come through “judges,” leaders that God would raise up specifically to help Israel when they got themselves in trouble. Later, Israel decided they wanted a king, to be like the other nations around them. Not entirely without irony, it’s being like other nations around them to begin with that constantly got Israel in trouble — so you can already start to see the problem here.
Israel’s history of kings was an uneasy one — each king evaluated based on how well they upheld the laws that God had given the people way back at Mt. Sinai, not long after their deliverance from Egypt, laws that were meant to govern how the people lived in relationship with God and, just as importantly, with one another. Laws, in other words, that were about justice and social welfare.
Enter the prophets. These were figures set up in stark contrast to Israel’s kings, whose job it was to challenge the king when he led the nation away from observing these laws of justice and social welfare.
To make a long story short, Israel’s period of monarchy ended even worse than it began: with a divided nation of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Soon, Israel would be conquered by Assyria, and not long after, Babylon would conquer Judah.
It’s in the midst of these turbulent latter days of the monarchy that we encounter Amos, a shepherd unsure of his own status as a prophet, but nevertheless faithful to God’s call. Amos came from the south, from Judah, but his prophetic career took him north to Israel. Amos’s message was clear. In the opening judgment against Israel, Amos declares: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment: because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way…” (2.6-7). Economic injustice and social inequality is the chief judgment leveled against Israel, and for this, God threatens to destroy them. (Like I said, good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone!)
The passage we heard read today comes in the latter half of the book, after Israel’s sin of neglecting social justice and promoting prosperity for the few at the expense of the many has been made clear. After all this, God shows Amos five visions of destruction. In the first, God prepares to send a plague of locusts and, in the second, a shower of fire. In both of these, Amos is able to intercede on behalf of Israel, and God backs down.
But in the third, finally, we get the plumb line. It doesn’t really matter if you know what a plumb line is because the vision of a plumb line is not actually a plumb line. The meaning of the word in the original Hebrew is uncertain. “Plumb line” is one translation. A better translation is “tin” — as in, one of the metals that makes bronze, the metal of choice for making weapons in the ancient world. So the vision is, more accurately, a huge pile of tin, a stockpile of materials to make weapons — essentially God declaring war on Israel. And in this vision, unlike the first two, Amos does not intercede. Israel’s sin is too much. Destruction is inevitable.
The final two visions confirm what the third suggests. In the first of these, God shows Amos a basket of “summer fruit.” Well, that sounds pleasant enough (almost like something that would go nicely in sangria!). But in the original text — and this is why you should all learn Hebrew — it’s a pun. The word for “summer fruit” sounds a lot like the word for “end.” Forget melons and mangoes (and sangria). This is a vision, yet again, of the inevitable destruction of Israel — a point made abundantly clear, in case the people haven’t been paying attention, in the final vision, in which God speaks orders of destruction directly. Destruction is inevitable.
So now what?
Immediately after the fifth vision, Amos ends with this: “On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it… I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them…” (9.11, 14). God promises restoration. Restoration presupposes that everything has indeed been destroyed, but it reminds us of the overwhelming message of the prophets, Amos included, indeed the message of the whole of Scripture: God’s final answer to God’s people is always yes, not no. Restoration, not destruction. Life, not death.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take God’s threats earlier in Amos seriously or take for granted that everything will somehow be okay in the end. As if to say, it doesn’t really matter because God will forgive us anyway and fix everything. The promise of restoration and life is inevitable and certain, but it shouldn’t be taken as a license to ignore and even perpetuate social injustice.
Theologian James Cone reminds us that even God’s wrath and anger are part of God’s love. God is not angry in the book of Amos for the sake of being angry. God is angry because God loves God’s people too much to ignore the ways we hurt and inflict pain on each other. Cone writes, “The wrath of God is the love of God in regard to the forces opposed to liberation of the oppressed.” In other words, God’s righteous anger in the midst of so much human suffering, oppression, and injustice shows just how much God cares. God’s wrath is God’s love. Indifference to suffering, oppression, and injustice is not love; it’s apathy. God is not apathetic. God is angry because God cares for and loves God’s people too much to let us keep going on in the ways that harm our neighbors. Tough love, we might say.
Tough love — and unrelenting love. This is the promise of Amos, even amidst destruction: God’s love does not give up on us, even when we are guilty of sins that perpetuate systemic injustice at the expense of others’ humanity. This is the promise for us: God’s love does not give up on us, no matter how many times we mess up, no matter how badly.
let us go.