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16th sunday in ordinary time

July 11, 2010

Lessons From the Prophet

Success

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 Three Stooges.

Our obsession with success stories may be the reason that we do not spend much time reading the Prophetic books. Except for the stories of Shadrach, Meshach 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.

Actually, 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 amazing.

To 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.

The 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.

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
    and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation,
    to whom the people of Israel come!

Amos 6:1

Military victory meant 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.

They do not know how to do right,” declares the LORD,
    who hoard plunder and loot in their fortresses.

Amos 3:10

The 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 value.

For three sins of Israel,
    even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.

Amos 2:6,7

The rights of the poor were trashed and justice went to the highest bidder.

Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,

Amos 8:4

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.

I will tear down the winter house
    along with the summer house;
the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed
    and the mansions will be demolished,”
declares the LORD.

Amos 3:15

The social climate also influenced 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.

Go to Bethel and sin;
    go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three years.
Burn leavened bread as a thank offering
    and brag about your freewill offerings—
boast about them, you Israelites,
    for this is what you love to do,”
declares the Sovereign LORD.

But they reshaped their religious 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.

The high places of Isaac will be destroyed
    and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined;
with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.

The amazing 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.

Amazingly, though, 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.

Theology Matters

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?

The spiritual 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 contemporary worship 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 lesson.

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:

‘Love the Lord 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 yourself.’

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.



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