Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Lion of Tekoa - Reynolds

Amos, the Man and his Message


I    Read:   Amos 7:10-17 
A voice speaking out of the distant past, yet speaking with a strange and startling relevance to our own time.  Words, unimaginable words, strong words, true words, frightening words.  This is not the past -- this is now!   For eighth century Israel and western society today are startlingly alike.
 A voice, not of an educated leader of the people, an aristocrat born to responsibility and respect, but of a simple shepherd who lived in the wild and lonely region south of Jerusalem called Tekoa.  But such a man! 
“I’m not one of your paid-prophets,” he roared at them, no member of the “Prophets Guild” whose members lived comfortably as any minister or pastor today, whose sons were trained in song and dance and politics in order that they too should be effective and pleasing “communicators” of the Word of God.
Rough-hewn and untrained he was, but not unintelligent nor lacking in insight.  Living in the stark-naked desert as he did, he saw things more clearly, in sharper relief.  And sitting down at night by the campfires of travelers and caravans who passed his way (for Tekoa was on the route of caravans which passed between Assyria and Egypt) he knew, perhaps better than King Jeroboam himself, what was happening in the world around him.  Certainly, in Amos, we are again reminded that intelligence is more important than education, and spiritual insight more important than professional training.
II   Read:   Amos 2:6-8, 14-15; 3:1-2
It was a good time to be alive – Israel, 800 years before the birth of Christ.  It was a time like our own, a time of relative peace and prosperity.  In the wars that she had to fight, Israel had been the victor.  The threat of distant Assyria was somewhat withdrawn as she had enough problems nearer home to keep her occupied.  Jeroboam II was a capable king, business was good, religion was flourishing – so what did this shaggy lion of the desert have to roar about?
But!  Beneath the placid and prosperous surface of life there were all the marks of corruption and decay – and Amos saw these.  Wars had wrought changes in the social fabric.  Small landholders were being forced off the land by large concentrations of land-holding capital. The “family farm” we would say was being forced out of existence – just as in the days of the late Roman Empire.  (The Roman mob, you may remember, were in large part small landholders forced off their land, who then drifted to the city looking for employment.  Today we have a dozen “Romes” around the world, cities of 18 or 20 millions or more, people who have been forced off their ancestral lands by large land-holding corporations.)
The prosperity was not universal, of course.  There were those who lived in large stone houses, lolling on luxurious couches inlaid with ivory, drinking cocktails and smacking their lips over the latest delicacies.  In the same city also lived those “beneath the poverty-line,” sons of Joseph ruined by hopelessness and obstacles they could never overcome, trampled down by “the system,’ broken for lack of education and training, cheap victims of wine and other drugs, living on the streets or lying in the gutters.  
So often, prosperity and wealth do not breed sensitivity and generosity but callousness and indifference.  Overeating and over indulgence become the chief causes of death on this continent, while overseas millions starve, and pictures of starving children with distended bellies no longer move us to tears or action.
Perhaps that’s one of the most terrible things about our own condition – we become hardened and human life becomes cheap!  In Amos’ day, he says, some people’s lives were sold for the price of a pair of shoes, souls for soles!  (In Vancouver’s downtown eastside, shoes are valuable items, taken even from the feet of the dead who are lying in the gutters or the back lanes.)  In Rome, remember the horrible spectacle of a man’s life depending on the whim of the courtesans of the moment – thumbs up, or thumbs down. 
Of course, we aren’t that bad.   We don’t do the really bad stuff – murder and theft and rape.  That’s other people, not us.  We lock our doors and close our eyes, except to watch the news every evening on TV.  Oh, we know it’s there.  But maybe it will go away, or the government or someone else will look after it.  In any case, surely, it won’t bother us.  Will it? 
Hand in hand with moral callousness goes a soft conception of religion.  The people of 8th century Israel were religious; they were very religious.  Shrines and sanctuaries such as Bethel and Gilgal were crowded at the set seasons of religious festivals.  Money poured into the coffers of the temples.  God had prospered them and they reciprocated with sacrifices and festivals that would have impressed Cecil B. DeMille.  God, they seemed to think, will pardon them: “that’s His business.”  In any case, they thought God was more interested in proper temple ritual than those wretched people who, if you gave them a coin, would spend it for liquor.  A bit of charity was all right, but religion didn’t have anything to do with the political system.
III   Read:   Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; 6:1, 4-7; 4:1-3
Against these conditions the lion of Tekoa roared.  God is more interested in righteousness and justice than religion, Amos claimed.  Don’t think you can “buy him off” with flatter and sacrifices, with praise and offerings.  He cried, The Lord says,
“I hate your religious festivals,
I despise these solemn assemblies. 
When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I won’t accept them. 
I won’t look at the animals you have so carefully fattened. 
Stop your noisy songs!  I don’t want to listen to the melodies of your harps.  Instead, let justice roll down like a great river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!”  (Amos 5:21-24)
Don’t think, he told them, that God is concerned only with your relationship with him (“Jesus and me” religion!)  God is concerned about your relationship with each other as well.  He’s angered when he sees the poor deprived of justice, politicians who accept the influence of “gifts,” priests who are more interested in income for the church than help for the poor.
Woe to you who live at ease in Zion, to you who feel safe in Samaria,
leaders of the people, to whom the poor go for aid. 
You loll on couches inlaid with ivory, feasting on steak and lamb,
drinking wine by the bowlful and wearing the finest perfumes. 
But you are not grieved over Israel’s ruin. 
Therefore you will be the first to go into Exile
and your feasts and banquets will come to an end!
Listen to you, women of Samaria,
growing fat like the well-fed cows of Bashan. 
You demand that your husbands keep you well supplied with wine,
but you treat your servants miserably
and give no thought to their poverty-stricken children! 
The Lord God has sworn by His holiness that your time is coming. 
They shall thrust hooks into your bodies, every one of you like fish on a hook;
they will drag you to the nearest break in the wall and throw you out on the garbage.  (Amos 4:1-3)
IV Read:    Amos 3:3-8
But, the people said to Amos, we are God’s chosen people.  We are the church!  We are the saved!
All the more reason for God to punish you, came the reply.  “You alone have I chosen of all the nations of the world.  Therefore I must punish you, must discipline you.  If I didn’t love you I wouldn’t care.  But because you have known my grace and my love, because you have, so many times, sitting there confessing your sins, been assured of my forgiveness, therefore especially you fall under my judgement.  For it is written, “judgement shall begin at the house of God!”
And, said Amos, speaking for God, “my judgement is sure.”  It is certain, as certain, if you will, as the law of cause and effect. 
Do two people meet together unless they have made an appointment?
Does the lion roar in the forest unless it has killed its prey?
Does a bird get caught in a trap if the trap has not been baited?
Or does a trap spring unless something has set it off?
When the trumpet sounds the alarm, don’t the people take alarm?
Does disaster befall a city without a cause?
Does the Lord do anything without first revealing it to his servants, the prophets?
The lion has roared!  Who will not be afraid?
The Lord God has spoken.  Who can but prophecy? 
          (Amos 3:3-8)
Our world has grown smaller in the last one hundred years.  Improvements in transportation and communication have brought us into contact with many peoples and nations we knew before only remotely.  Most of us have been off this continent, some around the world.  The nations and peoples of the earth are being jostled together.  We have indeed become a “global village.”
In this world of ours today, do we not see that international justice is an immediate imperative?  How long do we think God will permit us to control 85% of the world’s wealth, we who are 15% of the world’s population?  How long do we think God will allow us to grow flabby with rich and soft living: red and beefy young men leaning on the marble tables of the beer parlour watching the immediate sports event on the colossal TV screen; women who spend more on their hair than they give to the poor; “suits” at expensive restaurants doing business over their two-hour martini lunches?
This, while children of Africa and Latin America and south Asia go hungry for want of food, blind for want of the simplest of medicines, crippled through life because of a landmine supplied by a foreign power, a mining company whose only interest in the country is the money it can make on the minerals in its mountains.  Not the people!  Not the people!  Will the Lord not use the lean anger of the deprived peoples of the world as a vehicle of His judgment?
If the “Lion of Tekoa” came out of the desert today, would he not look on the luxuries of our western world and say, “Does a nation grow rich without growing fat?”  And looking at the hunger of the rest of the world, would he not say, “Will a starving man not fight for food – for himself, for his family?”  -- Wouldn’t you?  Wouldn’t we?
V Read:    Amos 8:1-3
Several times during his lifetime, Amos had joined the crowds going up to Bethel or Gilgal for religious festivals.  He had, each time, come home angry and bitter – and afraid.  He was sure that God must move in judgment to destroy his beloved people.  Once, it seems to him, he saw God coming in judgment through a plague of locusts, again by drought and fire.  Each time he prayed, and believed that the Lord God relented and said, “This shall not happen!”  But Amos knew that the next time God would not relent.
And as he walked up to Bethel, the long trudge in the hot sun, just ahead of him he noticed a slave, sweating as he staggered under his burden – a great basket of ripe summer fruit for the offering of his rich master, a sacrifice for the temple.  As he watched the yellow fruit rolling on the back of the bearer, the Hebrew word for summer fruit rolled in his mind – qayits, qayits, qayits!  Then the awful truth impressed itself upon him, and qayits, “summer fruit,” became qets, destruction! (The two Hebrew words sound very much the same.)
I had another vision from the Lord.  In it I saw a basket of summer fruit (qayits). 
The Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”  And I answered, “A basket of summer fruit.”
Then God said to me, Destruction (qets) has come upon my people.  I will not change my mind again about punishing them.  The songs in the temple will become cries of grief.  Dead bodies will be everywhere.  They will be thrown out with no one to protest or mourn.   (Amos 8:1-3)                       
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “In every civilization its most impressive period seems to precede death by only a moment.  Like the woods in autumn, life defies death in a glorious pageantry of colour.  But the riot of this colour has been distilled by an alchemy in which life has already been touched by death.”
Will our civilization reach the height of its glory just before its impending doom begins to descend?  As the leaf reaches its peak of glory just before falling, as fruit becomes most tasty just before it starts to rot, will our civilization also at its highest point see the beginnings of its destruction?  Our comforts, luxuries, and much-prided culture, our chesterfields, Cadillacs and concerts – will they be swept away?  Is it necessary cause and effect – that human pride, arrogance, and love of comfort will destroy either us or the heritage we would leave to our children?
            Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
            Where wealth accumulates, and men decay!
            (Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village”)

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Alan, you surely cause the roar of the lion to powerfully sound out a contemporary and profound message in prophetic voice. Niebuhr's quotation and your concluding questions lead to sobering introspection and the challenge to turn to God with our whole heart -- both painful and necessary.

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