Let Justice Flow

Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15 & 21-24

Here at Zion United Church of Christ, our mission is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. That mission is a direct quote from the book of Micah chapter 6. Micah is a book of the Bible that is part of what we call the “minor prophets” – which means just that the books are short, not that the prophets were unimportant. 

Prophets play an incredibly important role in the ancient world. And I would venture to say that prophets play an incredibly important role in our world as well, although we are likely to ignore them. Often when we think of prophecy, we think of someone who tells the future. But that’s not usually what a prophet is doing in the ancient world. Prophets in the ancient world were people who spoke clearly and pointedly about what was happening right now. Prophets were, and are, people who tell it like it is. People who don’t sugarcoat the situation. In short, prophets are not nice. Prophets are not trying to be unkind, but they are honest, and the news isn’t always good.

This morning we are going to hear some honest and strong words from another minor prophet named Amos. Some of you have already guessed what we’re going to read based on the imagery you’ve seen. This is a really famous passage of scripture, and before we read it, I want to set the stage for you.

You remember hearing about the three great kings of Israel: Saul, David, and Solomon. After Solomon, there was a civil war. The northern kingdom kept the name Israel. It was the larger area and included ten tribes. The southern kingdom took the name Judah and included two tribes, but this smaller geographic area included the great city of Jerusalem and the Temple. 

The kingdom split in 922 BC, so almost a thousand years before Jesus is born. And things go downhill quickly for both the north and the south, although things are worse in the north. The prophets are the ones speaking boldly about the issues they see in their societies, the ways that the people are drifting from God’s directions for how to live. Over and over again the problems they name are (1) greed, including unjust economic schemes that allow the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer; (2) violence, which means bodily harm to humans, not the destruction of property; and (3) hypocrisy. 

Please hear this. The “sins” the people are committing are not some kind of vague unpleasantness or unkindness. They are concrete. The sins that will result in the downfall of the nations are economic, interpersonal, and religious. The people are not doing justice. They are not loving mercy. And they are not walking humbly with God. Christianity is not just about our relationship with Jesus; it’s about our relationships with others and how we conduct ourselves in the world.  

OK, so let’s read some verses from the book of Amos. Let’s start in chapter 1, verses 1 and 2 to set the stage.

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam II son of Joash was king of Israel.

He said:

“The Lord roars from Zion
    and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
    and the top of Carmel withers.”

Let’s pause for a minute, because there’s some important stuff here but we usually skip over it because we don’t recognize any of the names. What the first verse is telling us is that Amos is a shepherd, possibly even a sheep breeder, and he’s from Tekoa, which is in the south, in the smaller kingdom of Judah. But we learn in the rest of the book that he’s speaking to people in the northern kingdom. This is important because it means that Amos has a stake in the economic system; he’s not just someone who takes care of the sheep; he owns the sheep. So in this case we don’t have someone who is speaking from the margins; he’s speaking from a place of privilege. But he’s not speaking to his own people; he’s speaking to other people. Frankly, Amos has a lot to lose here. Nobody is going to like what he has to say.

Which is clear when he starts by saying that God is roaring, like a lion we assume, and that the hot breath of this roar causes the fertile land to dry up. God is displeased. Now I spend a lot of time trying to undo some of the very harmful stuff that some of us have been taught about how God is angry and out to get us. I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s an inaccurate and unhealthy depiction of God. However. There are times in the Bible when you can’t get around the fact that God is not happy with how we humans have been conducting ourselves: economically, interpersonally, and religiously. And this is one of those times. Amos is warning us that what comes next is not going to be nice.

Let’s pick up in chapter 5 verses 14 and 15 and then 21 through 24.

Seek good, not evil,

    that you may live.

Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,

    just as you say he is.

Hate evil, love good;

    maintain justice in the courts.

Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy

    on the remnant of Joseph.

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

    your assemblies are a stench to me.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

    I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

    I will have no regard for them. 

Away with the noise of your songs!

    I will not listen to the music of your harps. 

But let justice roll on like a river,

    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And all the Dr King-loving progressive Christians said, “Amen!” Of course we do. We love this message. You know why we love it? Because we are on the right side. We are the ones doing justice. Aren’t we? My dear ones, the invitation from Amos this morning is to take a close look at ourselves. 

Now friends, you know me. Even if you haven’t been here very long, I hope you have a good sense of what I personally believe and how I try to teach. I do not believe in scaring or shaming. I don’t think God does that to us and we must not do it to each other. So when we come to books like Amos, we can use them as mirror to hold up to ourselves and say, “How am I doing?” Are justice and righteousness really flowing in my life right now? And how would I know? Well, let’s think about the things that Amos is warning people about.

1. Greed. How am I spending my money? Especially as the manic gift-giving season approaches, what am I doing with the resources that God has entrusted to me? Am I thinking about who makes what I buy and who sells what I buy? Am I buying more and more because I feel safe and secure when I have more stuff? Am I sharing the best of what I have or am I only giving away stuff that’s worn out? What other ways can I find to be generous that maybe don’t require more Amazon boxes on my porch?

2. Violence. Now most of us in this room aren’t physically hurting others. But Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that violence starts in our hearts and minds and mouths. How charitable am I being toward people I disagree with? I mean, really really disagree with. We know the ideological divide in our country is getting wider and deeper every day. Am I willing to cross it? What story am I telling myself about “those people”? And what am I saying about them? What kind of words do I use about them: crazy, idiots, morons? What kind of memes do I share in my social media? Even if I’m not beating people up with my fists, am I beating them up with my words? Am I sowing the seeds in my heart that will grow into violence?

3. Religious hypocrisy. Am I saying one thing but doing something else? Are peace and love only words I use when I want to make a point? How often do I think about how I might be doing the thing I’m condemning in other people? What does it mean to me to “be a Christian”? Is it just because my parents were Christian, or because I come here when I don’t have anything else to do on Sunday? Do I pray before I’m desperate for a solution to my own problem? Am I trying to serve God or am I trying to get God to serve me?

Friends, we are all guilty of some of this, especially me. Romans 3 tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God AND all are justified freely by God’s grace. Although it does feel heavy to ask ourselves these questions, it should not feel scary or shameful. Jesus lived and died and rose again to show us what is possible and to do away with any shame or fear that we feel when we face ourselves in the mirror of God’s word. Of course we’re not perfect. But admitting that doesn’t mean that we give up. Admitting it means recognizing it and tapping into the bottomless love and grace of God so that we can change it. Because we can change it. That’s the whole point. The prophets speak, then and now, not because our failure is inevitable, but because growth is possible. Something good is always possible. 

You know the only way we can fail? The only way we can fail is if we read these verses and we say, “Oh yeah, those people who do that stuff, they are so bad! God is going to get them. Thank goodness I don’t do any of that.” In fact, if you spend some time reading Amos this week, you’ll see that’s what happens in this book. The prophecies start by calling out foreign nations, and then they get closer and closer until they are talking about Israel. 

These prophecies may not be nice. But they are still good news if we will only listen to them. We have been blessed to be a blessing, so let us live as children of light. Let us be honest with ourselves and draw strength from God as we clear out the greed and violence and religious hypocrisy in our lives. The streams in our lives can easily get polluted. We drop little pieces of trash and think it’s no big deal. Garbage happens. But once we realize things have gotten clogged, with God’s help we can clear out the streams in our lives so that justice and righteousness can flow clearly once again. Amen.

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