Let Justice Roll: A Sermon on Amos 5:18-24
Today we begin our sermon series on the prophets. We’re calling it: Hearts on Fire: How the prophets teach us to see God at work in our current situations. It seems like the whole world is in daily upheaval as we ping pong from one major crisis to the next. If you dig into the prophetic books, it can help give you some perspective about how to think through the kinds of things we are going through today.
“Why study the prophets?”
You may think it sounds hard, like taking calculus. It’s okay for the hard-core Bible students but sounds like a bit of overkill for the rest of us. But this is more like learning to count to three. It’s part of the foundation on which everything else rests.
First, the prophetic books take up a big chunk of the Bible. In terms of the volume of pages, eighteen prophetic books take up 26.8% of the Bible. Or, the whole back third of the Old Testament.
Second, understanding the prophets helps put Jesus’s actions and messages in a broader context. It’s easier to understand what’s going on in the New Testament when you learn about the prophets Jesus quoted.
Third, the prophets give us examples of how faithful people can engage in the significant issues nations face. They were always bringing to light God’s perspective on the troubles that faced their countries. The prophets model ways to think through the conundrums plaguing our times because the root problem (then and now) have more to do with human nature than the particulars of any given situation.
What is a prophet?
Since culture uses the word prophet differently from how the Bible uses it, we need to understand the differences. On television, we see programs about Nostradamus and other people who seem to have future forecast events–sort of fortune-tellers who predict things that come true centuries after the prediction. That’s our cultural understanding.
But that’s not the biblical version. The prophets were individuals who spoke to their nations from God’s perspective about the real issues going on in their time. The biblical prophets cover about 300 years, starting about 750 years before Jesus was born.
Here’s a fun fact. In the Bible, the prophetic books are not arranged in chronological order. It’s confusing to read the Bible cover-to-cover because they placed the prophetic books by the length of the book, with the lengthiest going first and the shortest going last. The books in their biblical order jump back and forth from one century to another. Before digging into reading a prophet, it’s good to understand his context.
Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
An adage says the role of a prophet is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Often, they function as protest voices against abusive practices of both the government and religion. They offered messages of inspiration to the victims and hoped that someday God would bring justice and a better day to them.
The prophets were notorious for predicting how bad things would happen to those who took a cavalier attitude toward their faith. They warned against assuming God would always make them prosper, no matter how abhorrent their behavior. They confronted kings and the elites and influential institutions and even the culture, telling them that their current path ends in catastrophe.
Prophets function like an interventionist with an addict.
Most addictive behaviors wind up, causing pain to the addict and those around them. You don’t need to be a fortune teller to see that it will cause misery if they keep feeding that addiction. We’ve all seen it.
Rev. Steve Thomason says the prophets intervene in much the same way you or I would with a friend or family member. He says, “You would probably tell them three things…
- First, you would remind them that they are loved and worthy of a better life.
- Second, you would tell them about the consequences they will face–the imminent destruction–that will happen if they continue their path.
- Third, you will remind them that there is a way out.” It doesn’t have to get any worse than it is right now. There can be better days. https://www.stevethomason.net/2013/11/14/let-justice-roll-down-like-water-a-sermon-from-amos-521-24/ )
So that’s what the prophets did. Interventions. They spoke hard truths about how things were going, but they offered hope for a better alternative if people changed course. But most people covered their ears and didn’t want to hear anything about it. That’s what happened with the prophet Amos.
Intervention about Idolatry and Injustice.
Amos was the earliest of these 18 prophets. He felt God’s call on his life to do the unpleasant task of leaving behind his land and occupation as a fig farmer, crossing a national border, and telling the people in the other country to straighten up and fly right. He went to the king, the wealthy elites, the priests, everybody, but nobody took him seriously.
Like the other prophets, Amos zeroed in on two main complaints of where the people had gone wrong: idolatry and injustice. Next week we will look at how Hosea dealt with the issue of idolatry. Today we will focus on how Amos is a superb example of prophetic rants about the injustices that rigged the system against poor people.
The injustices Amos called out.
In 2:6-7, Amos describes how the rich mistreat the poor. They sold servants into slavery. “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. . .”
In 5:10 and 12, Amos describes a system were justice went to the highest bidder. “How great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
He describes how the elites weighted the tax system against the poor. Amos bluntly confronted people who benefited from the status quo. From Amos 4:1: Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…” Can you tell he’s a bit fired up?
In chapter six, he criticizes those who live in ease while others suffer. Amos calls them out for their callousness and indifference. Amos ranted at them because they presumed that God sanctioned their system. They deluded themselves into believing that if they attended worship, paid their tithes, and said their prayers that they were good with God. But Amos would have none of it.
Worship without justice displeases God.
Nearly every one of the eighteen biblical prophetic books contains a passage similar to our scripture today. These passages warn us that worship without justice displeases God. God despises it when we go on with our worship, revel in the beautiful music, get our spiritual batteries charged but then do nothing to address the great injustices toward the most vulnerable people in society. We have a particular obligation to get involved for justice when we directly or indirectly benefit from a system rigged against those who have little voice.
Amos taught that worship should lead us into compassion and service. Worship isn’t just about your needs. It’s there to remind you of who you are and how God calls you to live your life. We are all connected. Your calling is not to build up a pile of cash to splurge on yourself so that you can live the most comfortable possible life. It’s to be useful in making this world better for all.
Justice and Righteousness in the Bible
In our worship, we look at scriptures that challenge us to seek justice. The prophets tell us the antidote to what is ailing us. Amos says, “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Justice is our calling. Like a wolf with a bone, the prophets sink their teeth into the idea that a fundamental part of faith is committing to evening the playing field that always slants against the poor.
In scripture, a righteous person is not someone who keeps his nose clean and blindly obeys all the rules. The righteous are those who stick their necks out and actively do what they can to help others’ plight. See Job 29:12-19.
Check this out, according to Rev. Jeremy Marshall. “Together, justice and righteousness are mentioned about eight hundred times in our Bibles. . . .” Compare that, he says, to other great biblical themes. Scripture talks about love 538 times, and it uses the word faith 424 times. The Bible talks about grace 122 times. But the Bible talks about hell 13 times.
According to Sojourner’s Magazine, the Bible talks about compassion and making things right for the poor and most vulnerable over 2,000 times. Authentic faith cannot and must not hide its head in the sand and avoid the injustices that keep people in poverty and misery. Yes, it makes some people uncomfortable. Yes, it can create conflict and
It’s evident that our texts and what we talk about in worship address the injustices that keep people in poverty.
An intervention for American Christianity
Reading Amos is like sitting down for our intervention, begging us to make things right. An intervention is needed when millions of homeless roam the streets. Intervention is necessary when every significant piece of legislation has the lobbyists for the wealthy influencing legislators when the poor have little or no voice. Someone needs to intervene when race and class issues deny equal opportunity and a fair shot for everyone to achieve their dreams.
What Should be Our Responses to Injustice and Poverty?
First, we can do acts of mercy or charity. We provide relief for those suffering and vulnerable in our community and throughout the world. We give a hand up for those who cannot do for themselves, and we make sure people have the opportunity to do for themselves what they can do.
Second, God calls us to address the root causes of suffering. We look at what we do with our resources, how it’s invested, and how we distribute it. Additionally, we can keep informed about the great injustices, listen to perspectives different from our own, build empathy. Also, we can advocate and get involved in the political process.
That doesn’t mean we are going to turn into a tool for partisan agendas. We won’t tell you how to vote. There are many competing visions of how to make things better for impoverished and marginalized people. Vote your conscience but make sure your faith informs your conscience. Don’t just think about yourself, but consider the plight of others.
Let Justice Roll
Martin Luther King ended the I Have a Dream speech with a rousing quote from Amos. He was saying that the American project, our moral work as a people, is not finished. “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” In the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, they displayed this beautiful fountain with the words of the prophet carved in granite that water flows over perpetually.
Right now, with generational poverty, rampant racism, and a system where the poor don’t have lobbyists on their behalf, the opportunities for all are not equal. We have work to do. As people of faith, it is part of our work. The prophets are begging us to turn things around. There’s been an intervention now. Let’s get on with the treatment and work for justice and righteousness.
Amos 5: 21-24
September 27, 2020
Sermon by Rev. Dr. David Clark for Bay Shore Community Congregational Church in Long Beach, California.