Hope for our nation, a dry and parched land: Duncan’s sermon from Amos

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A powerful message this morning from Duncan based on the book of Amos.  Duncan began with a little background.

The background

Having spent the last three months looking at passages from the books in the Bible which contain history, and law (Genesis – Chronicles), we’ve now come to the section of the Old Testament known as ‘The prophets.’   There were seventeen prophets who committed their messages to writing. Of these, five, including Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, wrote extensively, and are known as ‘the major prophets’ while the other twelve, the authors of shorter works are known as ‘the minor prophets.’

Who were the prophets?

But what do we mean by prophets? We may imagine that they were fortune-tellers, biblical versions of Mystic Meg, foretelling the future. But this is a completely mistaken view of Biblical prophets, and contemporary prophets whose thinking is shaped by the Bible.

These prophets, said Duncan, are ‘immersed in the present’ with a view to seeing ‘what is truly going on.’  Thus Amos, for example, was ‘looking at the present in Israel in order to change or make the future different.’

Here’s how Duncan applied Amos’s prophecy to our situation. What follows is and edited transcript of Duncan’s words.

Amos the outsider

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa – the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoashwas king of Israel.  (Amos 1:1)

Amos was a prophet for a short time around 762 BC. He worked the land, he looked after sheep, the text speaks of him tending fig trees. He was a man with blisters on his hands.

He was, in other words, an outsider to the contemporary religious society. He wasn’t a Priest. He didn’t come from one of the priestly families.

But he was an outside in another sense too.

Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judea, and God gave him a message for the northern kingdom of Israel. He had to cross the border between the two kingdoms in order to deliver that message.

And this outsider bore a startling message:

‘The Lord roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers.’
(Amos 1:2)

Zion is the southern kingdom where Amos lived. The effects of the Lord’s roaring from there are felt on Mount Carmel which is in the northern kingdom.

The place where Amos the outsider must deliver God’s message.

The importance of the outsider

The book of Amos highlights the importance and significance of the outsider.

Israel has lost touch with the reality of how things really were in their society and in their places of worship. In contrast, Amos as an outsider is able to see clearly what is actually going on, and point it out.

The role of the outsider remains as relevant today as it was 3000 years ago. Do we listen? Or do we push outsiders away?

Amos’ message raises questions for us individually and as a community, questions about what is really going on amongst us, in terms of our lives and our worship. Amos, if it’s not to earthy a way of putting it, is a bit like an ancient Trip Advisor commentator writing a review of what he saw in Israel.

I wonder what he would write about our lives individually and as a community? As Burns wrote ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us!’

Chocolat Parable

One of my favourite films is Chocolat.  It’s a story set in a mountain village in France, which is under the oppressive authority of a mayor who controls every aspect of the village’s life, including the Church and its Priest.

Under the surface, life is miserable. Families have fallen out. There is no love, no grace, no mercy. It’s all about Law.

And into this situation, at the beginning of Lent comes a woman, Vian, and her daughter, and they quickly cause furore and scandal by settling in the village and opening a chocolate shop serving the most wonderful and tasty chocolate drinks.

The miserable mayor does everything in his power to stop this new enterprise which is transforming the village, but he is powerless on the face of the influence of the chocolate shop and the love and community reconciliation it engenders.

In the end, even the mayor himself is transformed as he eats the chocolate on the eve of Easter.

A new Easter sermon has to be prepared.

Vian has transformed the village.

Chocolat and Amos both testify to the significance of the message that an outsider can bring with their clearer vision of what is actually going one.

What was going on in Israel?

Amos highlights the kind of behaviour within Israel which is causing such distress not only to the people, but also to God. This behaviour will bring judgement – ‘The Lord roars from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem’ (Amos 1:2); but Amos also points to the possibility of a different way of living. ‘But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (Amos 5:24)

Chapter 2 gives us some indication of the wrongs Amos as the outsider sees in Israel:

They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.
(Amos 2:6-7)

Slavery, economic oppression, sexual sin.

But Amos also saw a very active religious life in Israel. On the one hand, folk think nothing of taking advantage of the poor, rubbing their noses in the dust.  On the other hand, they are extremely religious.

Amos delivers a devastating judgement on them. Religion which has no care for the poor, no concern for justice is of no value. His words are powerful:

‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
(Amos 5:21-22)

Amos is telling us that, now as then, you can’t divorce your religious life from your life and behaviour within society.

Our worship is acceptable to God to the extent that it reflects God’s vision in Amos:

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
(Amos 5:24)

People of vision

Over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Junior quoted these words from Amos as he fought for civil rights for the African American community:

We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

What a vision!

Israel is a very dry and dusty land where it hardly ever rains, and where there were often droughts. So to that community, Amos’ vision of justice being like a river and righteousness like a never failing stream is a very powerful one.

The world must have looked very dry and parched to Martin Luther King as he saw the injustice perpetrated against his community.

Our nation, a dry and parched land

In many ways we can see the world we live in today as being a dry and parched land, reflecting all the sins of Israel.

This week we heard of the Paradise Papers, and remember the recent Panama Papers, both of which demonstrate the lengths to which the wealthiest people will go to avoid tax – which could help lift the burden on the poor – with off shore accounts which are legal!

Successive governments have failed to adequately address the loopholes in tax avoidance for the rich, and allow the poorest in the land to pay the price.

The last decade has seen a massive growth in foodbanks, and their use has increased massively as the poorest in our society struggle with a benefits system which uses sanctions, leaving people without any money for weeks at a time.

Slavery is on the increase in Europe, and its closely aligned to the sex trade, which reflects the same kind of issues Amos was speaking of 3000 years ago.

And in the last month, the name of Harvey Weinstein has become infamous as the lid has been lifted on the power dynamics primarily between men and women. And the hashtag ME TOO has highlighted the abuse across all levels of society.

3000 years on, a modern day prophet can stand side by side with Amos and highlight the way that money, sex and power can conspire to cause so much oppression and suffering in our world.

And Amos’ call, in the midst of these realities could be our motto:

Seek good, not evil…..hate evil, love good (Amos 5:14-15)

A word of hope

To finish, like Amos does, with a word of hope.

I spoke about Martin Luther King picking up on the metaphor of a river and water flowing. But even more significantly, so does Jesus:

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’  (John 7:37-38)

Jesus is quoting here from the prophets of Isaiah and Ezekiel, who share a vision of water flowing out from the Temple. But it’s not difficult to connect it with Amos -

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
(Amos 5:24)

As we connect our lives to Jesus by faith, so God’s Spirit, this living water fills our lives and overflows. – ‘rivers of living water will flow from within them.’

We are not to lose hope, either in ourselves or the world. Jesus took upon himself on the Cross all the evil that humanity could offer, and rose victorious from death.

With God’s presence in our lives, those lives individually and collectively can make a difference.

As Jamie reminded us last Sunday there is some situation in this coming week where only you can make a difference.

Somewhere this week, where the living water of Jesus in our lives can overflow, so that justice rolls on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.

To change the metaphor, like Jesus, rather than being overcome by the darkness caused by human sin as outline by Amos, we can shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never extinguish our light.

 

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