The prophet Amos reads somewhat like a long scolding one receives from an angry boss or guardian. It certainly is not a book you want to read if you are in need of easy encouragement. For this reason, many have avoided the passages from Amos because these texts often feel harsh or disconnected from the types of things we want to talk about in our regular preaching life. However, by looking closer at this text, I believe there are significant points of connection for our contemporary life together that can be good and transformative news.
One significant point occurs in the first section of this text. Here Amos receives a vision, that upon consideration, is difficult for Wesleyans to affirm. In the vision, God shows Amos a plumb line. God then says that the people of Israel will be divided and God will never again pass by them. The Common English Bible translates this last phrase, “I will never forgive them.” This harsh judgment should alert us that we should pay attention carefully to this text. One way to read the text would be as a prediction that God was done with Israel and indeed would not pass by or forgive Israel. With history on our side this is true because we know that Israel did not repent and they were ultimately overrun by the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE. However, another way of reading the text is that God shows this vision to Amos in order to awaken him to the seriousness of the situation. In such a reading, the phrase, “I will never again pass them by” should have struck Amos as counter to who God was and invited response from Amos.
The earlier context of Amos 7 invites this reading as prior to this vision, Amos is shown two other visions in verses 1-6. In each of the previous visions Amos is shown something that is catastrophic. Upon seeing each vision, Amos tells God that the people cannot bear such a fate. God relents because of Amos’ crying out. Thus, this vision invites the prophet, and we as readers, to respond similarly by saying, “Wait God! You are not one who gives up on people! We cannot bear that!” By overstating the situation, the images call the people back into covenant faithfulness by portraying a possible reality that is unbearable. This technique reminds us that scripture is not simply a set of propositions meant to be repeated, but rather a dialogue to be understood in particular contexts for particular purposes. Indeed, the primary purpose of the text of Amos is the desire of God for the people of Israel to return to covenant faithfulness, even if that means awakening them with a startling image.
Another significant point to consider in the passage is the dialogue between Amaziah, priest of Bethel, and Amos. In this interchange, Amaziah challenges Amos’ prophetic office. He tells Amos to go back home and prophesy there. Amos, instead of leaving, delivers his message again so that there is no doubt that the people of Israel have heard God’s word of judgment. There are a couple of things to consider in this exchange. First, it is a helpful reminder that there will often be challenges when the people of God are engaged in kingdom work. There will be resistance. There will be those who do not desire transformation, just as Amaziah did not wish to hear Amos’ words. However, just as Amos did not leave in the face of resistance, we should remember that the call to do kingdom work will not always be successful in the ways we think it should be. Our call is to be faithful and trust God to be with us. Amos’ faithfulness to remain in Israel and deliver the word of God in a difficult situation is important.
Second, I find it interesting that God called Amos, a shepherd and arborist, to do prophetic work in Israel. Certainly there were professional prophets at work at the same time. Why did God choose Amos? Perhaps it was because the professional prophets were unwilling to go to Israel, the northern kingdom at the time. It might be worth thinking about the places we are unwilling to go to do kingdom work. Where in our current contexts have we decided that God is uninterested? Where is God having to raise up shepherds and arborists to go do the work of prophets because the regularly appointed people are not doing their job? Conversely, could God be calling us to go somewhere and do kingdom work that we have yet to consider?
Finally, in Amos’ last oracle, spoken directly to Amaziah, we hear particularly graphic language of judgment. Amaziah, as a priest of Bethel, is told his wife will become a prostitute, his children will die by the sword, and that he will die in an unclean land. All three of these things would have been abominations to a priest. It is interesting that the oracle is once again a very striking and overstated image. It seems that this too is intended to get Amaziah’s attention and move him toward repentance. What we see in this passage is an attempt by God to get the attention of a people who had wandered from covenant faithfulness. It is an attempt, even in the midst of active resistance, to get their attention and, hopefully, get them to change their ways. It is simply amazing to me how far God would go to try and win Israel back. Perhaps, as we prepare for this coming Sunday, we might consider this passage and think of those particular places or people we have written off as too far from God. Israel, according to some of the theology of Amos’ time, had apparently wandered too far for the professional prophets. Amaziah, a priest of the northern kingdom, was considered apostate and actively resisted Amos’ work. However, God and Amos did not give up on the people of Israel or Amaziah. The word spoken was graphic, but it was ultimately an attempt to bring about transformation. In our kingdom work, what is the ultimate goal? What are the places we have written off? Where are the places we must continue to be faithful so that the kingdom message of salvation can be proclaimed and lives transformed? As we consider these questions, may the faithfulness of Amos and the grace of God be our example.