I’m not even giving you that familiar choice: good news or bad news first?
I’m starting with the bad news…the really, really bad news.
God is so ticked off that the One who created, blessed, and made covenant with us
is slamming the door on us.
You can call after Him or Her (if you prefer),
you can hit the speed dial on your ever-present cell phone and try calling,
but God is so angry there won’t even be voice mail.
God’s back is turned, ears are deaf, and God won’t be speaking to us anymore.
Oh, I know…there’s that phrase we hear in the community of faith,
especially when we’ve said we were sorry for messing up…
it comes from Exodus 34:6 ---
where Moses hears God saying, “God is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”
SLOW to anger…but even Yahweh can be pushed too far.
Thus, the really, really bad news.
I suspect that no one here this morning, no one, came hoping to hear bad news.
No one came expecting to hear bad news
(unless you had read the hint in the sermon title on the sign out front).
As the result of God’s silent treatment, the praise band has been fired,
and we’ve recruited a lament band to take its place.
Cue the gnashing of teeth and the beating of breasts and the tearing of garments.
unless we could silence the prophet, permanently.
Things seemed fine, or at least normal, copacetic until he showed up
with his bullhorn, his fiery voice, his list of complaints, charges, and indictments.
Born in the Southern Kingdom, he strolls into the Northern Kingdom
and has the nerve to announce God’s judgment on us.
He’s not even one the big guns; he’s a minor prophet called Amos.
And he’s not tempering the bad news with rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns.
The old Colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards must have been right
when he titled his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Keep in mind that these prophets, major and minor, were not fortunetellers,
seers with some spiritual ESP to divine the future.
No, these men and women were more like your unfriendly announcer,
called and empowered by God to deliver the divine word,
that is, to make known or to remind people of God’s will,
denouncing sin, pronouncing judgment, and announcing consequences.
There were many times the news was good,
full of promises, hopefulness, and that steadfast love Yahweh was known for.
But often, the Amos’s of the kingdoms brought news of God’s angry impatience.
You must have glimpsed that anger in the second of today’s scripture readings.
(I read it because I didn’t want to Kurt stuck with the bad news.)
Were you listening?
Amos, who wasn’t going to win any popularity contests in either Kingdom,
speaks for God, saying,
“I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head.”
(Gosh…that’s getting really personal now…)
“I will send a famine…”
The fine translation of the New Revised Standard Version is clear enough,
but maybe the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson’s The Message
focuses God’s anger more sharply:
“On Judgment Day, watch out…
I’ll turn your parties into funerals, and make every song you sing a dirge.
Everyone will walk around in rags, with sunken eyes and bald heads.”
(Even the paraphrase has to mention baldness!)
Lest we make light of that, the next threat is brutal:
“Think of the worst that could happen – your only son, say, murdered.
That’s a hint of Judgment Day – that and much more.”
And this reading all started with a vision of ripe fruit.
By the way, that vision was one of five…
you should have heard what he said about the others!
There are only 9 chapters in Amos’ book, so help yourself later today,
if you have the stomach for it.
Throughout the book, Amos’ complaint is relentless:
“You people have trampled, oppressed, and crushed the poor and needy.”
The weak and unfortunate are not to be exploited;
“they should be treated with the respect and concern due to kins(people) and neighbors.” (Mays)
Some of you may have an Oxford Study Bible at home.
When it introduces us to this book, its summary includes these words:
“Amos was called by God from a shepherd’s task to the difficult mission
of preaching harsh words in a smooth (that is prosperous) season.
He denounced Israel, and its neighbors, for reliance upon military might,
and for grave injustice in social dealings, abhorrent immorality,
and shallow, meaningless piety.”
What’s with the ripe fruit?
It’s a clever Hebrew word play we don’t quite pick up in English.
Reverend Pat (Raube) knows Hebrew far better than I, so I won’t go into detail,
but what it comes down to is this:
You see this ripe fruit? The time is ripe for judgment, Amos.
Now we get to specifics.
You heard them listed as I read a few moments ago.
The merchant class seems pious, careful to observe the Sabbath and the holy days
by refraining from doing the business of buying and selling
both product and people, it turns out.
But it’s obvious that while they claim allegiance and loyalty to Yahweh,
their true religion is commerce, and (as James Luther Mays puts it)
they “can see only profit and are blind to the reality of the (ones) they exploit.
They love the Lord less, mammon more, and their fellows not at all.”
Amos points out the three dimensions of their cheating and stealing.
They have different measures for what they buy (the larger size),
and what they sell (the smaller size) pretending it’s all the same size.
And the scales are rigged.
They sell grain, but mix in some chaff and some dusty scraps
to make it appear a larger portion.
If a poverty-stricken person owes as little as the cost of pair of sandals,
the scandal is that that person could be sold and bought to satisfy the debt.
There may not have been an LED sign that flashed it, but their motto might have been:
“Service is our middle name; slavery is yours.”
The basis of this injustice may well confront us to this day
so far removed from the middle of the 8th century BCE.
And that is that the idea of prosperity on the backs of the poorest was a theological problem,
not merely social or political or cultural.
You see, the merchants against whom Amos rails, are keeping their God in a restrictive box.
They have compartmentalized their faith
to the point where business is business,
and faith is, well, in the way most of the time.
“When will the Sabbath be over so we can get back to making money?” they whine.
But the prophetic message, here and elsewhere,
rejects the rivalry between faith and life, and religion and business.
“Religion, it says, has to do with the whole of life, holy day and holy place,
but also every day and every place.” (James Limburg, Interpretation.)
I like the way one of my seminary classmates put it:
“…Religion has to do not only with the Sabbath and the sanctuary,
but also with the shops and the sheckel.”
It’s easy to leap into the 21st century here, isn’t it?
We could introduce Amos to the greed of affluent American society,
but let’s not stop there.
Because there’s China, too, and Japan, and the European Union, and modern Israel,
and an endless list of nations and systems that trample, oppress, and crush,
We could show Amos what greed is doing to our environment,
what big drug companies are doing to health care,
systemic racism that locks neighbors in poverty,
what private prisons are doing to inmates
(you know, the prisoners Jesus urged us to visit?),
what near-monopolies are doing to small, local businesses,
and the for-profit colleges that would rankle the prophet who sees students cheated
out of both money and learning.
If the phone should ring while Amos is in the building,
let him get it and talk to the telemarketer scammer.
I’m still pretty ticked off at the local car dealer who wanted over $900
to fix a loose rocker panel on a not-quite 3 year-old Toyota.
(A retired dealership owner I know said,
“Don’t you hate it when they scam you like that?”
Yes, and Amos wouldn’t be pleased either.)
And as we point it out, look at all those fingers aimed back at us.
Because I’m greedy too.
Given the chance, I’d exploit a situation to turn the tables to my favor.
I’m not fair.
And I must confess that the decisions I make often leave my faith aside.
I don’t know about you.
But you do.
So Amos announces the judgment God pronounces:
Not of field or farm, nor drought.
No shortage of Oreos, lamb spiedies, or pizza, or garden fresh salads.
This famine is silence. God’s absence from the crime scene.
“They shall wander from sea to shining sea, from north to east,
running to and fro and back again, seeking the word of the Lord.
But. They. Shall, Not. Find. It.
Thinking about repentance? Too late.
It was not long after that the demise of Israel came at the hands of the Assyrians.
God’s absence—their collapse – that’s how they perceived it all back then.
See? Really, really bad news.
Now, for all the darkness, destruction, and death that Amos sees coming
as a result of the faithful acting unfaithfully and the prayers and songs
that only reached as far as the treasury,
the very last five verses of the book of Amos glow with hope from the ashes.
Finally, some good news.
Restoration. A glorious age to come. All, apparently, is not lost.
But before we pat Amos on the back for switching on some light in the darkness…
the scholars whisper to us that those last five verses were no doubt added
by someone else, to kind of soften the blow of a prophetic word given without hope.
For that was generally what most prophets had preached:
judgment and hope, indictment and redemption,
not because anyone had earned it, even by repentance,
but simply because of the aforementioned steadfast love of God.
If you still watch the evening news at 6:30 on a major network,
you know this formula well.
The news anchors speak of outrage, crime, troubling politics,
someone’s cell video of violence, fire, or terrible accident,
all sponsored by medicines, insurance, and feel-good snack foods,
(but mostly medical fixes for the bad feelings we get from watching the news!).
And then comes what the news producers call “the closer.”
It’s to be the bright spot that redeems the previous troubling headlines:
stories about soldiers coming home to surprise their kids at school,
or cute children doing cute things, or the dogs that find their way home.
The bad news came first, lots of it; now, finally, a tiny bit of good news
that raises hopes, brings a smile or a happy tear, or otherwise helps us
move on into the evening looking forward to brighter next day.
Well, here’s the good news as we move toward the close of this meditation.
Now, we are standing on the other side of biblical history,
and the good news we encounter as one testament turns to another,
as one covenant yields to God’s last word…
the good news is this, and it is no token smile or breath of relief.
It’s far from those butterflies and unicorns.
But not far, actually, from a rainbow, if we think way, way back to that
earliest covenant promise as the waters began to recede
and the dove arrived with a sprig of hope.
I have saved the best news until last.
It is the news of the cosmic Christ, and it is a new song altogether!
Kurt had the gift of reading that passage to you.
I could have asked him to sing it, because it has all the elements of a hymn.
In fact that first chapter of the epistle to the church at Colossae
does have a hymn in it.
We don’t recognize it as such, but the Colossians probably knew it and used it
in their gatherings.
It is to our ears such (shall we say) stilted language, such exaltation, such glorious imagery.
Like some of the traditional and well-loved hymns of the church.
Full of hyperbole, flowery prose, images no long familiar to us.
We sing them, but we don’t talk that way, or even preach that way.
Yet, here is Paul (or one of his students) adapting a hymn for this church,
tweaking the theology to focus on something that congregation needed to hear.
A generation from the death and resurrection of Jesus
there is already this hymn singing of the mystery of the cosmic Christ,
and reconciliation and peace joining heaven and earth.
It was an echo of Amos’ message about how faith and life, cosmos and neighborhood,
Christ and Church cannot be separated, divided, neatly stored in distinct boxes.
Christ is the image of the invisible God…yet head of the church,
that earthly, earthy, grounded body of saints and sinners we have become.
The hymn sings of the fullness of God dwelling in him,
yet there is the stunning reminder of the blood of the cross,
part of the life and death story of the Jesus whose human touch and teachings
inspired the curious and the committed,
blessed the poor, healed the sick,
lifted up those pushed down and away
by the powers of worldly kingdoms and misleading shepherds.
Notes of mystery, wisdom, inspiration, and glory blend with
words that challenge the epistle’s readers and hearers:
suffering, struggle, warning…
See, life still brings some bad news hard times to deal with,
but the good news, the really good news is this:
you are in Christ, and Christ is in you.
Our compassion has no bounds, our faith no borders, our love no limits,
in cathedral or marketplace, sanctuary or family living room.
Among my favorite verses in all of holy scripture are these words from
the third chapter of Colossians:
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[a] has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
And be thankful.
See? I saved the best news for the end.