High Summer! We’re all in the full swing of travel, barbecues, sunscreen, sports, family and friends!
I guess because I often go to Israel in the summers, which puts me in a mode of self-examination, and because I often travel and preach or teach in the summer, mid-summer is like a “mini-Lent” for me. Okay, maybe it’s also contemplating how my body looks in a swimsuit that prompts self-examination, but we’re not going there.
The book of Amos at Chapter 3 starts a new section. The book’s heading in 1:1 locates this word “two years before the earthquake.” Maybe Amos considered that earthquake a vindication of his prophecy. Maybe we who read it need to realize that this book can cause major tremors and earthquakes! Amos then announces his core message in 1:2 “The Lord roars from Zion, and from Jerusalem he utters his voice; and the shepherds pasturelands mourn, even the summit of Carmel withers!” How striking. The voice of prophecy breaks into the darkness of Israel’s sin, already talking about shepherds. I’m impressed with the term “roars.” Hebrew has several words for lions roaring. This one, which occurs 28 times in the OT, seems always to be the roar at the moment the lion has attacked. The roar that paralyzes the prey in place. You do not want to hear this roar coming from a lion near you!
Then Amos propounds a series of numerical sayings, based on the pattern of “For 7 sins…for 8…” taking a tour of nations around Israel, getting the audience nodding and saying “AMEN!” while he blasts Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab… and then, for fateful number seven, Amos turns his gunsights on JUDAH. His northern audience probably celebrated that one! Since the kingdoms divided almost 200 years earlier, the rivalry, economic, social, military, and even religious, had been fierce. How delightful to hear this southern prophet climax his tour of unforgiven nations with Judah! It’s like hearing a former evangelical exposing his conservative church’s corruption on a Patheos.org blog! But… the pattern of the sayings was “For 7… even for 8…” In this series, it’s not “lucky 7” but number 8 that is the focus, and for number 8, Amos singles out “Israel,” the northern Hebrew kingdom! There follows then, in chapters 3-6 a series of speeches that all follow the classic pattern of the prophetic judgment speech. They open with a “call to attention,” “hear this word!” followed by a scathing account of the people’s sins, which German scholars term the Scheltwort (Invective), followed then with a pronouncement of judgment, again fetching named by German scholars the Drohwort (Threat). Then, in Chapter 5 Amos shifts to a “Woe” speech and his poetry shifts to the “limping” meter of the funeral dirge. A series of visions closes the book, stressing that Amos is not just some embittered enemy dumping his load of bile on hated adversaries. He has prayed for his audience. He has stood between them and God’s judgement, time after time. He has pled, “But Lord, Israel is so small!” He has loved them, even though his harsh words can be hard to hear as love.
The passage today should be seared into our souls. It is based entirely on the fact that the Israelites are God’s special, chosen people. Notice the appeal to the great redemptive event of the exodus, “the whole family which he brought up from the land of Egypt.” Then in verse 2, a body blow: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”
They’d come to think that being God’s people somehow this gave them some moral and ethical wiggle-room. The church makes the same mistake. We think the very same sins for which we stood under condemnation before we came to Christ now, magically, aren’t as serious as they used to be. Notice God doesn’t say “You alone have I chosen, but despite that, I will judge…” he says therefore. It’s explicit in the Hebrew, which uses such logical connectors pretty rarely, especially in poetry.
The prophet then hurls out a series of rhetorical questions: Do two walk together without an appointment? Does a lion roar unless it has prey? Does a bird just drop out of the sky for no reason? Does the alarm sound in a city just by coincidence? In short, do you think that life is just a set of random, disconnected events? Do you think God is just sitting back, doing nothing?
Amos then declares that God will not act without revealing his secret to his servants, the prophets. The lion has, indeed, roared… better check your hole card. The Lord has indeed spoken. Life is not an accident, not a random series of events. Sins don’t get committed without consequences. A just and holy God who loves his world will not look lightly on those who harm that world.
So as we enjoy the summer’s languor, as we watch playing kids, check sunscreen, plan barbecues… let’s listen. There is a lion in the thicket. A fierce, tawny beast, clear eyed, on the prowl. If you listen closely, you might hear his throaty, rumbling murmur…
St. Paul said, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you be in the faith.” Peter, echoing Amos, declared, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
Remember when the children in the Narnia chronicles were re-united with Aslan after the horrors of the Stone Table? Remember that last line?
“And now, I think I am going to roar. You had better cover your ears!”