“but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.”
That was Amos’ response when he was told to take his message elsewhere. God hadn’t chosen him to to be a traveling prophet to take his message on the road. He was not from a school of prophets. He was not a priest, serving in the temple. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees and God had raised him up to deliver a specific message to a specific people and that was what he was going to do.
Amos gave his prophecies about 750 before the birth of Christ. So it would be natural to think that while this ancient work gives us historical insights it could hardly be applicable in our day. But that assumption would be a mistake. Not only because it is the Word of God and therefore living and active and sharper than a two edged sword, but because his message is one we need to hear TODAY.
Here is some background. The threat of the Assyrian Empire had begun to wane and so Israel was experiencing a relatively stable government and a time of prosperity. It is not unlike what the United States experienced at the fall of the Iron Curtain. But do you remember the motto of the 80’s that came from the movie Wall Street? “Greed is good.” Israel could have had the same motto.
Israel interpreted this time of prosperity as God’s approval and fully expected God to judge the nations around them. But Amos was there to tell them that judgment was going to begin with them. Why? Because the government was oppressive and Israel’s religion was full of compromise and heresy. Now I know it’s a real stretch to think of the government treating people unfairly (like using the IRS to punish political enemies) or the church being full of compromise and heresy (like changing the definition of marriage) but use your sanctified imaginations and hang in there with me. Amos prophecies revolve around 5 themes. Let’s see how relevant they are for us today.
His first them was that since God is Creator of the Universe, His ethics are universal and all people will be judged in light of them. This concept while true is like a foreign language to the average guy on the street today that has been raised in radical relativism.
People correctly bemoan how fractured and divided we are as a society but they fail to see that it is our own relativism that has caused it. If there are no absolutes and every man’s truth only has to be true for him, then what is it that will bring us together? As our lawmakers stray further and further from law based on the law of God then it further divides us because we end up with law rooted in politics.
The Church needs to be a strong voice in our society that God’s laws are true for all people because He is the maker of all people. It is our common submission to God’s laws that will bring us together. We may not be able to agree in fine points of politics but “Thou shalt do no murder”has worked for the last 3,000 years to keep societies out of chaos. With elections around the corner we need to participate in them and vote for people who will support righteous laws.
Amos’ second theme was that while the people were looking for peace and prosperity God was looking for justice and righteousness. Evidently some televangelist had time traveled and snuck into Israel with the prosperity gospel because that was their mindset. But God was not judging them on the size of their bank accounts, He was judging them on how they treated others especially the least among them.
This is a common theme throughout the Scriptures and we see it particularly in Gods’ concern for the widow and orphan. But Israel was failing miserably. In fact in chapter two Amos said that they were selling the poor into slavery because of their indebtedness for something as paltry as a pair of sandals.
Now I understand the challenge here. The difficulty in caring for the poor is that their needs seem so overwhelming that we don’t know where to begin and so we end up doing nothing. But may I offer some practical steps.
The first thing is to say your prayers and seek God’s wisdom and direction. Emotional reactions can cause as much damage as they do good so you need a plan. Second, once you have a direction then be faithful to it. You are not trying to change the world. You are simply called to serve those in need around you. The results are up to God.
We have seen this in our parish. We did not set out to have a ministry to Burmese refugees but today we have a Burmese daughter church. It all started with sponsoring one family. Again it didn’t change the world but it did change that family’s world.
Well the husband had a cousin and she had a relative that wanted to join them. We thought “why not?” Then she had a nephew and he had a friend and before we knew it there were about 150 Burmese that we were ministering to. Of course there has been challenges and they have gone through their own squabbles but it is God’s work and we were right to be involved. Amos would tell us that what God is looking for in St. Patrick’s is not the size of our budget but whom are we serving in His Name.
Amos’ third theme was that compromised religion is disgusting to God. This is what God had him prophesy; “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me you burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them….take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The reference to justice rolling down like water was because the religious leaders of his day were also involved in the oppression of others. Try to imagine in our day that a wealthy religious institution would kick people out of their churches, sue congregations for their property and take away all of their resources. Since such an institution would be disgusting to God you would want to take great care to distance yourself from it.
Amos’ fourth theme is that while Israel may think that their covenant with God ensures them special protection, that same covenant also holds them to a higher standard and a stricter judgment. “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, an the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Israel had become arrogant. We can see the depth of their spiritual arrogance and blindness in the priest Amaziah’s response to Amos. In essence he said,“Tell someone who cares. After all, this is the kings special place.” They thought that they could treat people badly, act immorally and look down their noses on the heathen because after all they were God’s covenant people. God through Amos told them differently.
This theme is also a great warning to the Church. We have to strike a delicate balance. On one hand we are to believe, as we just heard from St. Paul, that we have been called before the foundation of the world to be God’s children. But on the other hand, as St. Paul said elsewhere, we are to work out our salvation in FEAR AND TREMBLING.
We must not become complacent or lax by thinking that our standing with God exempts us from the call to be holy or to act justly. We are on a journey and must remember that Scripture also says that it is he who perseveres to the end that will be saved.
I believe that it is particularly important that those of us who are so proud of our Anglican heritage should exercise caution. It is possible to be very religious and still miss the kingdom. It is possible to get so caught up in the liturgy that we miss the Lord of the liturgy. Recall Jesus’ sobering words. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
God does not judge us based on our pedigree. There is a vast difference between spiritual assurance that gives us peace and spiritual pride that makes us blind to our need to repent and to change.
Amos’ last theme was that while a terrible destruction will fall on unrepentant Israel, there will yet be a remnant that will be preserved and they will see a day of glorious restoration. This prophecy of course came to be. Assyria reemerged as a superpower and in 722 the kingdom of Israel was destroyed but a remnant remained.
This idea of a remnant preserved by God is not a theme that is peculiar to Amos. Lot’s family surviving Sodom and Gomorrah was the story of a remnant being saved in the midst of a disaster. The family of Noah after the flood is one as well. The few prophets in Elijah’s day who did not bend the knee to Baal, and those who returned from the exile were the remnant. Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah and more speak of it.
In the New Covenant it is the true Church that is the remnant that God has and will preserve. God says to the remnant, through the prophet Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you up and you shall be built.” 31:3,4. Jesus echoes this prophecy when He said, “ I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Emperors have outlawed the Church, dictators and despots have banished the Church, atheist regimes and false religions have tried to eradicate the Church and secularist have told us that we will disappear because we are no longer relevant. Yet Jesus remains true to His promises and we are still here and the remnant will remain until the end of time. The Revelation to St. John speaks of the remnant and they are defined as those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus. This light will never be put out. You want to be sure that you are part of that remnant.
One final thought about our friend Amos and applying his message today. It was not an easy job for him to deliver such sobering news. Again he was not a professional cleric, he was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. Yet God used him to speak some hard reality to both the government of Jeroboam and the religion of Amaziah.
I believe that it continues to be the Church’s call to speak prophetically to society and especially to those in political and religious power. We are to call for justice and righteousness and to not mince our words. The lesson of John the Baptist is that it will not always go well with us if we do, but standing up for the truth is not only the right thing, it is the loving thing to do. Without the light of the truth, people will continue to live in darkness.
Political correctness tells Christians to keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves but God calls us to be bold and to be salt and light. If we will not be salt and light then who will? When the apostles were ordered by the authorities to remain silent they asked the rhetorical question,“Who should we obey, God or man?”
I encourage you to look around at your circles of influence and consider where God may be calling you to speak prophetically. Speak the truth in love but speak the truth. It may involve uncomfortable topics like abortion or the plight of the poor or telling someone the truth about Islam, but if God is calling you to do it, then be obedient. You may not feel worthy. You may feel untrained or ill-equipped. You may even think to yourself, “but I’m just a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” To which God will say, “Perfect, then you’re just the one that I was looking for.”