‘Do you bear amazing messages?’ was a talk on the prophet Amos given by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley on July 15th 2018. It’s based on Amos 7: 7-15.
Amos – a farmer interrupted
There’s a novel called ‘Night flight’ and in it there’s this line: “In every crowd are certain persons who seem just like the rest, yet they bear amazing messages.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Amos was minding his own business when God interrupts him, taps him on the shoulder and makes him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Amos was a shepherd and farmer. You can imagine him out in the fields, wild hair, calloused hands, tough feet and a weather-beaten face. Pragmatic, no-nonsense, tell it like it is. But he is overwhelmed by God and called to be a prophet.
Standing in the Presence
It’s hard being a prophet. You don’t do it for laughs or for popularity and it often ends badly. Amos got into trouble with the authorities, just like John the Baptist, who in our Gospel reading got into deadly trouble 800 years later. Agents of God who confront power tend to suffer the consequences.
But both Amos and John were compelled to say what they did. St Mark’s Gospel uses John the Baptist to prefigure the very challenges and obstacles that Jesus would face in his turn with the political and religious hierarchy of the time.
But it would be wrong to see prophets as simply messengers of God. Prophets stand in the presence of God. They challenge and argue with God when the message is one of woe. They show compassion, they pray for mercy on man’s behalf.
And this is the burden of the prophet: to show compassion for man and sympathy for God. Prophecy proclaims what will happen to man but what has happened to God. We often forget that second part. Sin isn’t only a violation of God’s law – it’s as if sin is as much a loss to God as it is to man. Prophecies aren’t just full of God’s disappointment, anger and indignation – but His mercy, compassion and love too. In speaking, the prophet reveals God. The invisible God becomes audible.
And this is how we need to read Amos. Someone who holds God and man together in a single thought.
Most prophets have a particular God-given bee in their bonnet, their own recurring theme. For Amos it was God’s desire for righteousness: in individual lives, religious institutions and society at large.
We don’t use that word ‘righteousness’ much these days. Today we’d call it ‘social justice’ – decency, integrity, fairness, honesty.
Israel seemed ok. It was prosperous. Its military was strong and victorious, gaining territory. The King, Jeroboam II, reigned for over 40 years. He was popular. He had high approval ratings. By any normal human standards it was a success.
But in this vision Amos has the illustration of a plumb-line, which shows whether a building is built true. Israel, both the religious institution and the state, is found to be out of line, crooked.
Because, despite the seeming success of the King and the country, Amos shows that underneath it all they were also self-indulgent and proud (6:8). The religion was all show (5: 23-24). The financial markets were being manipulated to make more money than was reasonable (8:4-6). Worse, there was a huge divide between the rich and the poor (2: 6-7, 4:1).
Does all this sound strangely familiar to now? These people weren’t righteous. They were indifferent to the fate of others. There was no fairness, no social justice. Yet these were God’s chosen people and that meant a higher standard than other nations, not a free pass.
So, God is angry at their indifference – but he also cares. He loves. He is not indifferent. Justice is a divine concern. The message spoken by Amos is the utterance of a Redeemer who is pained by the misdeeds of his people, by the thanklessness of those he came to save.
Amaziah, from the local clergy, takes exception to this troublemaker from Judah being on his turf and escalates to the King. And just like the media and politicians today he misquotes Amos. It’s fake news. There’s no mention of Jeroboam’s response but Amaziah and Amos have words – and Amos is thrown out of town.
It’s revealing that in Amaziah’s response to Amos he calls the sanctuary, the church, as belonging to Jeroboam rather than to God. Unwittingly he proved Amos right, that Israel was centred not on God but on the King.
Martin Luther King Jr
Some speculate that Amos was one of the first prophets to have his sayings written down. After he was expelled from Israel he got his prophecies published in an effort to still get them to his intended audience. You can imagine that Amos would be a strong advocate of social media if he was around today. He’d be on twitter to get his voice heard, to cut through and around the normal channels.
And Amos voices the heart of God. The pragmatic, tell-it-how-it-is farmer rages against Israel with a surprisingly pure, visual, poetic language: Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light… Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (5:24)
Do you recognise that last bit? Martin Luther King Jr, who infused his speeches with scripture, quoted it in 1963 before famously proclaiming that he still had a dream. Then, in 1968, when he went to the mountaintop.
Closer to home
And so the themes from nearly 3000 years ago are just as relevant today. Not just in the United States of the 1960’s but here in the United Kingdom of 2018.
Because we still see around us the concentration of wealth in some quarters and the corresponding increase in poverty elsewhere. We can’t escape the displays of self-importance by some in the public eye.
According to Amos a nation should be judged on how it cares for the lowest members of society – and he tells us that a nation of religious hypocrisy and economic injustice will ultimately perish.
Remember that Amos criticised the religious set up as well as the state. It was the church not the King that expelled him from Israel. Last month the Church Times had an article on the financial inequalities between the Anglican dioceses here in England – and how that directly impacts on the effectiveness of parish mission within their communities. How the unequal distribution of money in the church today affects who gets to see Christ at work amongst those that the church serves. What would Amos say of the Church of England today I wonder?
Closer to home, if it was Amos and not the Archdeacon who did a Visitation then what would his audit of our own Walmersley Road Benefice come up with?
You and me
And Amos talked about personal righteousness too… So what about you and me? 1 Corinthians tells us that Christ is our foundation stone. You and I are the building blocks. If we’re being judged by that same plumb-line then how upright are we? Do we speak up regardless of the personal cost? Do we stand up for justice? Are we known for our personal integrity and honesty? Do we actively love our neighbour?
Martin Luther King finished his speech urging his listeners to go and work together to speed up the coming of God’s Kingdom. A world marked by righteousness and social justice.
That world can be here in this church as well as on a global stage. Each of us here today is in a different situation. We may be content with our lot in life – or struggling with a low income, or weary from looking after children or a sick relative, or a manager faced with difficult decisions.
There’s always hope
So we may be in a hard place but Amos ended with words of hope and restoration: They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
In the week that England lost in the World Cup it’s interesting to reflect on how the mood is still positive. The team approach was different and as an audience the English public seemed to have embraced hopefulness, being part of a bigger story and doing something in community. Perhaps we have something to learn?
With God’s help and in community with those around us here today, we each need to go and figure out how we can be more honest and more upright. How to show more personal integrity in our own particular lives and circumstances. And, hopeful of God’s restoration, bring a bigger story, God’s Kingdom, God’s righteousness, more speedily to this place.
Are you called?
And perhaps there’s someone here today called to be a prophet? Someone here in the congregation who seems just like the rest yet they bear amazing messages. Look around you. Maybe they’re sat in front of you or beside you? Maybe it’s you?
It’ll be a tough job – but, like Amos, you may get to hold God and man together in a single thought. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Amen
- Thanks and apologies to Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, to which this piece is heavily indebted
- To see Margery Spencer’s sermon on the same day, please click here
- For more about St John & St Mark, Bury please visit our ‘about’ page
- For more talks by Ian please click here
- For those into typography here’s a really interesting article on Martin Luther King Jr and turning his speech into a memorial inscription