Sunday, June 28, 2015

Defying Amaziah: A Sunday-School Lesson on Amos 7-9 for Our Time

As we've been working our way through the Book of the Prophet Amos this month, we've finally come to the end. And while our lesson manual only calls for the bulk of Amos 8, I think current events require us to zoom out a bit and include the context, looking at Amos 7-9. In these chapters, Amos gets a sequence of vision-messages: God sort of brainstorms with Amos through riddles and pictures. In chapter seven, there are three of them. In the wake of threatening that he was “raising up against you a nation, O House of Israel” (Amos 6:14), God shows Amos a massive swarm of locusts who would consume all the vegetation of the whole land (Amos 7:1-2). But Amos objects that the judgment is too harsh. It's overkill, he says, so God moves on to option two: a shower of fire that would burn the land to a crisp (Amos 7:4). Again, Amos objects: “O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (Amos 7:5), and for a second time, God relents and cancels the proposal (Amos 7:6).

Finally, there's a third vision, and God asks Amos to describe it. Amos sees it for what it is: a plumb line. God is standing next to a wall built using a plumb line, and there he is, holding the plumb line (Amos 7:7). The wall is being compared to the original standard. And that's exactly what's happening: This plumb line is God's red line, the final line, the one Israel does not get to cross and survive. He says that he's “setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by,” never again spare them or look the other way, never again back down. The plumb line is the last straw (Amos 7:8).

Through Amos, God delivers a final pronouncement that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with a sword” (Amos 7:9). In short, the climax of these three oracles is a judgment against Israel's government and against the form of religious worship officially endorsed by the state. All the organs of official state ideology are subject to God's judgment because of the way they've collaborated with the sinful desires of the Israelite leisure class, who feel that they can bend God's laws to their whims.

Naturally, this threatens the gatekeepers of public opinion, the propagandists of the party line. That's really what Amaziah is. Amaziah is introduced to the action here: his title is “priest of Bethel,” which is the headquarters of Israel's state-sponsored pagan cult, the established state religion – or, perhaps, irreligion. As soon as he hears that Amos has declared a challenge to the state's idols, he springs into action. Amaziah sends a letter to Jeroboam II, Israel's king at the time, and lodges an official complaint, accusing Amos of treason and of upsetting the status quo. In the very halls of power, Amos has dared to speak against the state. And as in any tyranny, that can't go indefinitely unpunished, because “the land is not able to bear all his words” (Amos 7:10). Amos is officially a rabble-rouser, a dissident. He's the exception to tolerance, he's a threat to civil order, he must be stopped.

So with a complaint lodged with the king, Amaziah takes it upon himself to confront Amos. Amaziah tells him to take his trade and pack up his bags and go home to Judah, because no one in Israel wants what he's selling (Amos 7:12). Amaziah wants to have Amos kicked out of Israel, excommunicated from society as a whole, because his challenge to state ideology is just intolerable. Amaziah is very clear: he does not want Amos prophesying at Bethel, “for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:13). There's no place for Amos' kind in the public square, Amaziah makes clear. If Amos wants to worship God in private, he's welcome – for now – but the moment he tries to live his public life in society on that basis, he's crossed the line where Amaziah takes his stand. The solution is censorship of speech and of action: “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac” (Amos 7:16). It's the same as when the Sanhedrin freed Peter and John but “ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Amos can talk about whatever else he wants, but he'd best not dare touch the sacred cows in the state herd. He can preach personal conversion to his heart's content, thanks to the state's oh-so-generous permission, but now he's preaching politics, and that breaks all the rules.

It's a remarkably familiar story, when put in those terms.  One of my favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, once famously said, “Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God.” Just two days ago, our own government – in terms of the judicial branch of the federal government – took a decisive stand saying that marriage is officially something other than what God made it, and that every state government absolutely must play make-believe with the same legal fiction. Paul said in Romans 1 that a confusion of the distinctions between created things is the closest sin, as an idea, to idolatry itself, the confusion of the distinction between creature and Creator. The de facto law of our land now enshrines confusion as a god – a culturally popular one, to boot – in our fractured national pantheon and demands us to bow the knee to Baal. You can worship whoever you want in private, but your public actions – business decisions, political or charitable donations, acts of speech – will in time be judged for compliance with the law of this “temple of the kingdom.” As in Jeroboam's Israel, so in five justices' America.

How does Amos respond to Amaziah's ruling of exclusion from Israelite society? Amaziah had made a claim, an accusation against Amos, that Amos is just out to “earn [his] bread” in high-profile places through his prophetic ministry. Amaziah accuses Amos of being motivated by the quest for personal benefit. Amaziah has become so compromised that he can't imagine being motivated by a conviction about truth. Motives that pure are actually incomprehensible to Amaziah. He doesn't think in terms of truth; he thinks in terms of interests. About thirty years ago, the late Richard John Neuhaus – one of the leading thinkers on issues of church and state in America – wrote:

Without a transcendent or religious point of reference, conflicts of values cannot be resolved; there can only be procedures for their temporary accommodation. Conflicts over values are viewed not as conflicts between contending truths but as conflicts between contending interests. … In a thoroughly secular society, notions of what is morally excellent or morally base are not publicly admissible. That is, they are not admissible as moral judgment: they have public status only as they reflect the “interests” of those who hold them. … In that approach, as we have seen, all values and all truth claims are reduced to the status of individualistic “interests.”

Amaziah is alive in America today! Just like Amaziah, many of the architects of the modern American state pretend that truth is irrelevant, that all that matters is balancing the interests of one group with the interests of another. And many of those crowing in triumph in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges verdict accuse disappointed Christians of just being upset that we didn't get our own way, of being sore losers. Just like Amaziah, they can't see any issues of substance at stake, only the will to power of one group pitted against the will to power of another. If anything, through sleight-of-hand they'll proclaim that “love wins,” that that's what this case was ultimately about. But “love … does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Who here better stands for the real victory of love: Amaziah or Amos?

Amos rejects the not-so-subtle insinuation that his public stand is a mercenary one, for sale to the highest bidder and peddled like vacuum cleaners at people's doorsteps. Amos disavows any professional status: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14-15). He isn't in it for the money. He isn't in it out of choice. This wasn't a life that Amos chose for himself, and it doesn't serve his interests. He didn't pick it; God did. God wrenched him from his peaceful, quiet life and tossed him into the thick of conflict with a controversial message to bring, stoking the fires of public passion and getting him nothing but ill-treatment and mockery. That's often where God sends his unlikely messengers.

Amos refuses to leave things at a secular plane, as though they could be fully accounted for just by counting up the contents of the prophet's wallet or seeing if he gets his kicks out of controlling others. Amos instead jarringly reintroduces what Neuhaus called “a transcendent point of reference,” saying that it was a divine call that broke his life and gave him a mandatory message. Amos refuses to assent to Amaziah's reduction of truth to interests. Amos insists that self-interest takes a backseat to truth. The value of his message isn't whether it helps Amos get ahead in life, the value of his message isn't whether it wins him popularity contests, the value of his message isn't whether it makes him feel good to think about it. The value of his message is that it's true, and the truth has practical consequences. And because Amaziah threw his hat in with the authorities under judgment, the authorities insistent on censoring Amos, he'd join their fate; Amos said that Amaziah would personally “die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (Amos 7:17).

On the other side of that face-to-face confrontation, Amos gets one last vision from God: a bowl of fruit (Amos 8:1). It sounds like a cheap painting you'd pick up at a yard sale! But there's a point being made here. This is no plastic fruit; it will spoil and rot. And Israel's shelf-life isn't looking so great. God actually gets a bit punny here with Amos. He sees a basket of qayits, summer fruit, and it shows the imminent qets, the end, the doom of Israel. God repeats exactly what he said before: “I will never again pass them by” (Amos 8:2). No more second chances. When the fruit spoils, it's gone. When the doom comes, the door's shut.

The list of problems is familiar by now. They're the same ones that Amos has been hammering at for the whole book: the corruption of the judges, ensuring that the system can be manipulated to keep the poor downtrodden. The elite class of Israelite society “trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). Some of them pretend to be pious, devoted to the LORD. But Amos has exposed that pretense. Even when they have to observe the sabbath for outward appearances, Amos sees through the display. Instead of finding joy in the rhythms that God established for our benefit, they're eager and chomping at the bit to get back to their real passion: commerce and deceit (Amos 8:5-6). They check their watches when the sermon goes over, worried they'll miss the first minutes of the big game. They find God's laws constricting and unfair, and if they follow the big ones at all, it's only a hypocritical show for the sake of social respectability, and not because of any serious commitment to discipleship and transformation.

To emphasize his seriousness, God swears an oath not to let Israel off the hook; and he swears, not by himself, but by “the pride of Jacob” (Amos 8:7), the very thing that he hates the most (Amos 6:8). To get out from under this divine commitment, they'd have to repent! God swears that he will never forget what they've done, never forget that they've decisively rejected him. And he promises judgment that would shake the land like the rising and falling of the Nile River (Amos 8:8; 9:5). Around the time Amos was preaching, a massive earthquake struck Israel around 760 BC – stronger than anything the continental United States have ever seen.

With that on everyone's mind, God warns that he can make the land tremble indeed. And, he poetically adds, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight” (Amos 8:9). In books of prophecy, it's common to use the sun, moon, and stars as a symbol for nations and rulers. Think of the way Joseph dreamed about his family government – the sun, moon, and stars – bowing down to him. Think of the way Revelation talks about Jesus holding seven stars in the palm of his hand. The imminent downfall of Jeroboam's dynasty, and the disaster it will spell for the nation within a generation, is serious enough to use the same language. And Amos was right in prophesying a sword against Jeroboam's house: his own son Zechariah wouldn't last six months before being assassinated by Captain Shallum, who reigned a month before being assassinated himself. God will indeed turn their feasts into mourning, their songs into laments – because the fruit of sin is bitter, and God won't restrain them from tasting it as it is. Over the last couple of days, we've seen a great deal of celebration by the worldly – including some who profess to belong to God's people – over the bad law, bad philosophy, and bad culture-making in which a narrow Supreme Court majority has been engaged. The official state ideology collaborates with the desires of the elite American leisure class. Let's pray that, unlike Israel in the days of Amos, the plumb line hasn't been dropped just yet. Let's intercede on their behalf more urgently even still.

We'd like to think, as Americans, that we're special. So did Jeroboam's nation. But they aren't as special as they assume. Sure, God saved them in the past, leading them in an exodus – but God's had his hand in plenty of national pies before and since: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? Didn't I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). If even Israel wasn't chosen in a way they could honestly brag about in front of even their worst enemies, can we seriously think that America is? Aren't we like Ethiopians or Philistines or Arameans before the LORD?

Amos warns that the final curse is “a famine on the land – not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). This is the last straw. Having shown Amos the door, the people of Israel are going to find that this amateur prophet was their final lifeline. When all grows dark, when the time of luxury unravels, when Jeroboam's twisted parody of Solomon's glory loses all its lustre, the people will wish they had a word from God to get through it. They'll want that comfort, that hope, that glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. And with Amos gone, they'll come up dry. God has said all he has to say to them.

That sounds cruel, almost – but it isn't. The people will “run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,” they'll “wander from sea to sea,” they'll go questing in the north and searching in the east – but there's one direction they won't go: south (Amos 8:12). South to Judah, where they sent Amos packing, where the LORD still sends prophets to his people. This famine is largely of their own making. That old “pride of Jacob” will keep them stuck in their sin. They're desperate, they'll go anywhere, they'll do anything – except the right thing. They'll ask anybody – except God.

See, Amos does end his book with a prophecy of hope and restoration (Amos 9:11-15). But Israel chose not to even hear him out to the end of his case. They chose to stop up their ears, they chose to avert their eyes, they chose ignorance of the truth. They don't want to hear it. Their minds are made up: Amos is nothing but a bigot and a hater, he's on the wrong side of history, he has no place in the national conversation, his voice is a danger, he must be silenced. So they don't know that the bad news always gives way to good news! They don't know that there's always a gospel after the earthquake! They don't know that comforting word of peace and security, through the falling and rising of David's booth in Jesus Christ (Amos 9:11). Unless they know to store their life in what will rise even though it falls, they're doomed to “fall and never rise again” (Amos 8:14), the fate of everyone whose ultimate allegiance is to the official ideology of any earthly power, including our own impulse to play at being kings for a day.

Amaziah can evict, Jeroboam can frighten, the elites can bribe and feast and lie – and, to be sure, many well-meaning people will be swept up in the currents of culture that Amaziah's kin are stirring. It's no surprise that “distressing times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1). But Amaziah does not last. Amaziah does not have the last word. The LORD does, even when he chooses to bring it through unlikely figures like Amos and you and me. The recent Orthodox saint Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain once remarked, “What I see around me would drive me insane if I did not know that, no matter what happens, God will have the last word.” And God will have the last word. Amos had no reason to be afraid of Amaziah. Amaziah can do his worst, but God's call is God's call, and while Amaziah is dead and gone, our God is alive! So even today, Amaziah's followers can mock us, they can belittle and misrepresent us, they can accuse us of acting in bad faith, they can try to shut us out of the public square, they can try to exile us into insignificance, they can even go so far as to challenge our livelihoods. But God's people have seen plenty worse.

If we're thinking with the mind of Christ, this should scarcely faze us. It's sad, it's bad for people both within the church and outside of it, but we will get the message out. Like Amos, we persist in proclaiming a message “by which all existing establishments and revolutionary would-be establishments are brought under divine promise and judgment,” to quote Neuhaus again. We dare to contradict the new gods of identity politics, just as we contradicted the gods of Greece and Rome. They called it blasphemy then, they may do the same now. If we have to proclaim it from the margins of society instead of the halls of power, so be it. If we have to proclaim it from poverty or prison or exile, so be it. The people of the truth cannot be silenced. With gentleness, with respect, with winsome words backed up by actions of evident love, we will not stop living according to the word of God – not just teaching our faith, but exercising it also. “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal,” says the LORD (1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:4). Whatever happens to to our bodies or our possessions, no disciple of Amaziah can destroy a believer's soul (cf. Matthew 10:28). Whether in this age or the age of resurrection to come, you and I will see the end of this Court term. You and I will see the end of the next election cycle, and the next, and the next. You and I will see the rise and fall of nations. When proclaiming the good news, the church has the mandate of urgency; but when weathering the changing winds of culture and law, the church has the luxury of God's own patience: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Peter 3:8). This will pass. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

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