Sunday closest to November 9 Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
It is a terrifying thing to be surrounded by enemies on every side. It is as though a gun is perpetually held to your head, threatening to go off with even the slightest misstep. The people of God at the time of Amos have been beset, abused, and threatened by their neighbors. Earlier in his prophesy, Amos denounces Damascus for war-crimes, apparently using a threshing sled to torture and execute people in Gilead. Gaza and Tyre carried off the people of Israel and Judah and sold them as slaves to the Edomites. Edom of course forgot the treaty of peace between them and Israel and attacked the people of God with the sword. The Ammonites committed horrific acts as Amos describes in 1:13, ripping open pregnant women, attacking the most vulnerable citizens of Israel.
Israel was beset by murderous enemies all around and Amos announces God’s judgement against them on account of their evil and despicable acts of violence and treachery. As God said to Abraham, so we see fulfilled here “those who curse you I shall curse”. God is the defender and avenger of his chosen people.
But as we read through these opening prophesies against Judah and Israel’s enemies, Amos reveals a more urgent and more shocking message. After denouncing the evil of other people, the prophet turns his eyes upon the evil of the very people of God.
“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—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.
Israel’s ears were pricked when it was other people who were on the receiving end of prophetic judgement, but they seemed to have forgotten that their God was alive, and their God’s thoughts were far above theirs. How easy it is to believe in the god of our own choosing, who always agrees with us, who always sticks up for us when we are afraid. How easy it is to mistake God’s covenant love for us as though he is our servant.
Amos however will not let this error continue. The Israelites believed that God was on their side and that they could maintain this relationship by the offering of their worship and sacrifice. They had confused the true God for magic, as though by offering worship they could buy his favour and blessing. But Amos thunders a voice of judgement, bringing God’s people to account. They have sold the righteous into slavery, for silver and for shoes. The people of God transgress even the most sacred place of the marriage bed, instead of committing to mutual lifelong monogamy. Women were not equal partners in marriage, but it seems were made to be sexually available to every man in the household. Amos even reports to us that these economic and sexual sins are not secret or behind closed doors, but right out in the open. In 2:8 he describes this depraved sexual indulgence happening on top of a ‘garment given in pledge’ which it is no lawful to keep over night, because as the Torah says this would deprive the poor of something to sleep under. Beside forbidden altars, God’s people show absolute contempt for the plight of the poor and indulge their most base desires. Amos announces, apparently to the surprise of his hearers, that the same God who judges the evil of other nations has a message of judgement for the evil of Israel.
Fearing the threat that was all around them, an idea had emerged amongst the Israelites of the “Day of the Lord”. Amos is the earliest Biblical writer to write about this idea and it seems like this “Day of the Lord” is a desire for God to act in decisive ways as he had in the past, at the Exodus, for Joshua and Judges, for Saul or David. The people of God knew their only hope of salvation is if God acts, and so they worshipped and prayed and longed for this day.
But the Prophet warns them: Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord.
On the day of the Lord, he says, there will be not escape from judgement. Like a man running from a lion runs straight into a bear. Or escaping to the safety of a house a serpent hiding in the walls strikes him. For Israel, this will be the Day of the Lord.
Why is this?
They believed that their devout and pious worship, frequent sacrifices, and singing would cause God to draw near them for salvation. They were half right. God is drawing near but it is not to save them. God’s wrath is stirred up by the hypocrisy of their feasts. They celebrate and remember God’s saving power in history, in saving them from oppression and slavery, all the while enslaving their brothers and sisters. The people of God praise him for giving them rest from their labours, all the while despising the Sabbath Day which gave rest especially to the poor worker in the land. They thank him for his justice when others wronged them, all the while using dishonest scales in their trading. Amos preaches to a people accustomed to wealth and comfort at the expense of the poor. They had neglected the very intention of the Law of God which was in part to protect the vulnerable and curb the accumulation of unjust gold and silver.
Therefore Amos delivers the news they do not want to hear: God is not pleased with your worship. He despises it, because you have not kept the righteousness required of you. And worse still: The Day of the Lord for which you long is coming, but you will not survive it. God is the defender of the weak and right now, it is the leaders, rulers, and influential amongst the people of God who are causing their distress. Do they think that God’s ways can be stopped because they prayed? Or that his will can be turned aside because they offered bulls and goats?
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
There is no escape from God’s judgement, and his judgement is for the sake of the oppressed. In the past Israel had received deliverance because they were abused by others. Now, these who abuse the poor in their own community are bringing God’s judgement upon themselves.
Amos gives them their only way out: Change your ways. He has made God’s word clear to them, identifying their complete disregard for God’s law and the lives of their neighbours as the cause of the judgement which is to come.
The prophets words might have sounded to his hearers, and maybe to us, like a terror.