Lessons From the
Americans love to
hear the word
success. Amazon.com has 109,021 books with the word success in their
title and only 15,235 that contain the word failure. Success sells.
We enjoy reading stories about people who were born into poverty or
with a physical challenge and were able to overcome their
circumstances and become successful. The paparazzi swim around the
stars of the latest box office sensation. Presidents who leave office
after two terms are in more demand on the public speaking circuit
than those who were defeated while in office. The same is especially
true in sports. Reporters spent more time the last month speculating
whether Phil Jackson would return to coach the LA Lakers than
wondering whether any team will offer Mike Brown, the fired coach of
the Cleveland Cavaliers, a contract. With Lebron James' abandonment
of his home town, he, along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are the
darlings of the sports world because they are three very talented
basketball players. Now the speculation is whether the Three Kings
can win the coveted ring. While I do not wish them ill, I would wear
a gleeful smile if the Three Kings ended up playing together like the
Our obsession with
may be the reason that we do not spend much time reading the
Prophetic books. Except for the stories of Shadrach,
and Abednego escaping the flaming fires and Daniel surviving
a night with a den of lions, that section of Scripture does not
contain many success stories. You can tell that the prophets never
took a Dale Carnegie course in public speaking or a Robert Schuller
seminar on Possibility Thinking. Spend an evening reading the
prophets and you will probably go to bed depressed. The Women's Bible
Study breathed a sigh of relief the morning they completed their
study of Isaiah.
the Bible is
not filled with a lot of success stories. While I have not tabulated
all the stories, I would still venture to say that Scripture contains
more stories of failure than success. This is true for the story of
Amos. He was serving as a shepherd. That would be the equivalent to
being a non-union contract worker doing custodial duties at the
National Cathedral. Shepherds were not held in high regard in Jewish
culture. They were constantly being accused of stealing sheep and
then claiming that animal was killed by a predator. They were never
invited to the social dinners of Jerusalem's Blue Bloods. In today's
culture they would not be writing an Op-Ed column or posting entries
on a blog that anyone would read. That Amos' story and messages to
the King of Israel and the priestly hierarchy even survived is rather
better understand the
story we should put it in its historical setting. Amos began his
prophetic ministry about 750 years before Christ and about 250 years
after King David ruled. The Jewish nation was divided into two
nations. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were bound together as the
southern kingdom and referred to as Judah. They held control of
Jerusalem and the Temple. The northern kingdom, referred to as
Israel, consisted of the other 10 tribes and had its central place of
worship in Bethel, a village in Samaria.
northern kingdom of
Israel was enjoying a time of great prosperity at the time of Amos
largely at the expense of its neighbor Syria. Assyria had laid waste
to Syria about 40 years before Amos. The King of Israel, Jeroboam II,
took advantage of this and also attacked Syria. Israel won some very
impressive victories. According to Amos they were feeling very cocky
about their military prowess.
you who are complacent in Zion,
and to you who feel secure on
you notable men of the foremost nation,
whom the people of Israel come!
plunder and an extension of land holdings. However, this prosperity
was not shared across all social classes. Only the warrior
land-owners were entitled to a share of the plunder and new property.
not know how to do right,” declares the LORD,
plunder and loot in their fortresses.
peasants may have been conscripted into military service but they
were not permitted to enjoy any of the spoils. They also suffered
hardship because of their military service. They had no one to work
their own fields. Some fields were never planted and the crops
suffered neglect. The wealthy hired laborers to tend their fields
while they were off fighting. When they returned they took advantage
of the desperation of the poor by hiring them at below fair market
three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back my
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for
a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
rights of the poor were trashed and justice went to the highest
this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the
success of the few
meant failure for the many but Amos came with a very harsh message to
the privileged few. He told them that they would lose all that they
had gained. Their success would turn into failure.
will tear down the
along with the summer house;
the houses adorned
with ivory will be destroyed
and the mansions will be
declares the LORD.
The social climate
the spiritual life of Israel. The religious duties were not being
neglected: they continued to offer sacrifices the first day of every
month; they continued to celebrate the three main holy days—Passover,
Pentecost and Tabernacles.
to Bethel and
go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices
your tithes every three years.
bread as a thank offering
and brag about your freewill
boast about them, you Israelites,
for this is
what you love to do,”
declares the Sovereign LORD.
But they reshaped
views to support their economic and social lifestyle. The discarded
the worship of Yahweh and substituted idolatry. The erected to gold
calves and put them on the altar in Bethel that had been used by
their ancestors when they finally entered the Promised Land after
wandering through the wilderness for forty years.
high places of
Isaac will be destroyed
and the sanctuaries of Israel will be
with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.
part of Amos' ministry is that King Jeroboam and the chief priest
Amaziah felt threatened by him. If a self-styled prophet strolled
unto Wall Street the day after the news media announced bonuses given
to the bankers who contributed to the “Too Big to Fail” disaster,
denouncing those bonuses that Goldman Sachs employees received, I
cannot see many people paying attention to him.
The same would be
true if that same
self-designated prophet walked into a grand mega church and denounced
their contemporary music.
Amos had just the
opposite impact. The religious leader of the day, Amaziah, accused
him of conspiring against the King.
Some may be asking
what is the
practical message from this passage? It is a fair question. This was
a nice review of ancient history but how does it help me live the
Christian life? In reviewing the story of Amos I have personally
gleaned three lessons.
The first lesson
that I glean from
the book of Amos is that theology, ethics and morality are
important. Religion is not just about loving others. All religions
are not the same. This is the message of Stephan Prothero's new book,
God Is Not One.
Prothero is teaching religion at Boston University and is trying to
point out that every religion approaches the critical questions of
existence and God from very different perspectives. Their roads to
God are not one and the same. He also says that religious dogma will
then have a significant role in shaping ethics and morality. We
cannot just accept simple Sunday school lessons that we learned a
long time ago. God is indeed putting a plumb line against the walls
of the church to see if we still match his standard in what we
believe and how it shapes our lives.
Worship is Work
The second lesson
that I gleaned is
that faith is not about religious rituals but compassionate deeds.
Amaziah was furious with Amos for challenging his religious
practices. They were offering the sacrifices on the holy days. The
people were bringing their tithes to the store house. They were
adhering to the dietary laws. They were practicing the Sabbath. What
more did Amos expect?
climate of Israel had
Amos' contemporaries going through the motions without understanding
their meaning. They had forgotten the underlying message of the
sacrifices. They had forgotten the reasons for the festivals of
Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles but they kept celebrating them.
The advocates of
accuse traditionalists of doing the same thing. They defend taking
out memorized prayers and liturgical readings by saying that people
to not pay attention to the message. They just mumble the words.
While that may be true in some cases I have found that people can do
the same with contemporary praise music. They like the beat and the
words are easy to sing but what little message the songs actually
contain is lost in the swaying of their arms.
Worship is work.
The word actually
means “to work.” Whether the music is contemporary praise songs
or traditional hymns we should be focusing on their meaning. When we
sing we should be contemplating their message. I wonder how many of
us here have ever gone home and reread the message of a hymn or song?
Has anyone ever tried to connect the words that we sing with the
words of Scripture and apply them to their lives? God has called us
to worship him with our minds. That requires intentional thought and
mental activity. Worship is work.
Deeds of Serving
The third lesson
from the prophet
teaches us that faith is about deeds of serving, not rituals. This
lesson is somewhat of a continuation of the first lesson. The people
of Israel felt secure in their rituals but they had missed a major
theme of the law. The OT reading actually connects to a gospel
One day an expert
in the law stood up
and asked Jesus, what did he have to do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus told him to follow the two greatest commandments:
your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your
strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as
This was not good
enough for the
lawyer. He wanted something specific. He wanted a hard and fast set
of rules to follow. He wanted to know how many bulls did he have to
sacrifice. How much of his income did he really have to give to the
priests. He was looking for the minimum requirements that would
qualify him for eternal life. Jesus would not give him the answer he
wanted. Instead Jesus told a story. We know that story as the story
of the Good Samaritan. When he concluded the story Jesus asked the
lawyer which of the three men was a neighbor to man who fell into the
hands of robbers.
The nation of
Israel at the time of
Amos had forgotten the important of loving the person in need. They
were enthralled with the religious performance. Amos challenged them
to look around and to see the suffering of the poor. I am afraid that
we reduce this message to a more simplistic level of merely helping a
friend. The message on the sign this week was “Try to make three
people smile every day.” That is a good thought but it is not the
entirety of gospel. We are called to emulate the Samaritan who risked
his life, sacrificed his time and went to considerable expense to
help the man in need. How often can we say the same? The Parable of
the Good Samaritan and the teaching of Amos are quite consistent.
The Old Testament
prophets most often
spoke of a time of religious and political turmoil. They did not come
with a feel good popular message. They came with a message of
judgment. Their theology mattered.