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Friday, November 7, 2014

The Challenge of Preaching from Amos

Sometimes making the bible relevant and applicable to my congregation is a challenging exercise.  No, sorry.  It’s always a challenge; but sometimes it’s more challenging than others.

This week we’re looking at Amos chapter 5 verses 18 – 24, a passage that includes those wonderful words, “But let justice well up like water /Righteousness like an unfailing stream… (JPS Hebrew- English Tanakh, Amos 5: 24)  But I wonder how I am going to preach from this passage; Amos’ audience was so very different from mine.

Amos speaks as an outsider – that is, as a Judahite addressing the people of the Northern Kingdom, Israel.  He addresses the rich and powerful leaders of the community, those who were responsible for the administration of law and order, those responsible for ensuring justice. I will be speaking to people who have little money and even less political clout. 

His condemnation of Israel is largely that the leaders have failed to protect the poor, and that they have exploited the poor for their own gain.  They have taken bribes, perverted justice, thrown it to the ground; they have taxed and defrauded the poor.  And Amos isn’t gentle about it.  His finger pointing condemnation is sharp.

It would be easy to turn this into a vitriolic condemnation of politicians.  It would be easy to turn this into a hell-fire and brimstone kind of sermon, castigating government officials for every failure of justice, and promising swift and righteous judgment. 

And the congregation might respond with “Amen” and head nodding agreement.  “Yes, let them get what they deserve. Let God judge them. Let God punish them.”  But then we will have become something like Amos’ audience. 

In the first several chapters of his book, Amos condemns those nations and territories surrounding Israel: Damascus, Gaza, Moab, Ammon, Judah…. And I’m sure that the people of Israel who heard him speak responded with “Amen” (or the 8th century BCE equivalent) and head nodding agreement.  “Yes, let them get what they deserve.  Let God judge them.  Let God punish them.” 

But then Amos says to them:

Ah, you who wish
for the day of the Lord!
Why should you want
the day of the Lord?
It shall be darkness not light!
(JPS Hebrew- English Tanakh, Amos 5: 18)

Be careful about calling down the judgment and wrath of the day of the Lord.  When it falls, it falls on everyone.  I’m not yet sure how I’ll preach this one.  I have to invert Amos’ audience and message without becoming too much like one of those he condemned.

JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh. Philadelphia, PA. The Jewish Publication Society. 1999.

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