Amos spoke sometime between 760 and 750 B.C., during the reign of King Jeroboam the Second of northern Israel. Jeroboam had ruled with spectacular success for the first half of his reign. Northern Israel was more prosperous than ever before. It held a larger amount of territory than it ever would again. People thought to themselves, “Of course, God has made us prosperous. God has protected us because we have observed all the proper festivals and made the proper sacrifices in the temples. Everybody goes to church. Everyone contributes to the community. And if sometimes we have to sell a poor person and their family into slavery because they can't pay their debts, well, that's just business. It's always been that way, probably always will be. They shouldn't have taken out that loan in the first place.
Second half of Jeroboam's reign, they had some recessions, a couple of famines, plus foreign powers were beginning to pose a threat from beyond the borders. People were looking forward to the “day of the Lord,” which referred to a day when God would destroy all of God's enemies. That would be a good day, when all those threatening powers out there would go up in smoke!
Amos arrives on the scene and says, “you who look forward to the day of the Lord, you should not look forward to it. It is darkness, not light. It will be as if you run away from a lion only to be eaten by a bear, because God's enemies are not just out there. God's enemies are you!
You oppress the poor. You set up a legal system that favors the rich and crushes the needy. You sell people who are financially desperate into slavery for the cost of a pair of sandals. And then you come into the temple and you bow and sing. I hate, I despise your festivals. Take away from me the clamor of your songs. But let justice roll down like thunder.
(Most of the time we think of justice as what happens when somebody gets punished for doing something wrong. So if I rob a bank, I get thrown in jail. That's justice. If I lie to a judge, I get convicted of perjury. But in the Bible, justice is a lot more than punishment. Justice is when both rich and poor alike are treated the same under the law. Justice is when people can go about their lives and not have to worry about being robbed, or being gunned down in a drive by shooting, or shot while they sit in church.)
Let justice roll down like thunder and righteousness. . .
Most of the time we think of righteousness as refraining from doing bad things. So I did not rob a bank. Therefore I am righteous. I did not lie, so I am righteous. Again, in the Bible, righteousness has to do with a lot more. Righteousness is fulfilling our obligations to a healthy relationship. It's doing our duty. I am righteous when I fulfill my duty as a father, as a brother. When we uphold a healthy relationship as a friend, an aunt, a grandmother, a citizen who feels a passion for justice, our obligation as a human being to care. You have to care.
Righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
What do you think? Do we have justice? Do we have righteousness? Then what are we going to do about it? Or rather, what is God going to do about it through us?
We come to church to be strengthened, to be reminded, to have our lamps filled, as Jesus describes in our Gospel lesson for today, we keep our lamps full. We come to church to be reminded of the power and the hope of God. Our liturgy does that. It's very old, and it will spin your head around it's so radically new.
For example, early in our worship service, we get down on our knees. Where else in our world do we get down on our knees? Nowhere. But here, we intentionally encounter a light and beauty beyond comprehension, a miracle beyond utterance, and we have the insane boldness to hope that it will heal us, turn us, change us, forgive us. That's wild.
Later on, we often sing this song: “This is the feast of victory for our God.” Wait a minute. Did you say this feast, now? This communion meal? Not just the feast of God coming someday in the future. Not a wonderful potluck at church where we filled the halls back fifty years ago when things were so great. No. Now right now. Goodness is stronger than evil, now, love is stronger than hate, now. Light is stronger than darkness, now, life is stronger than death, today. Why? Because this is God's goodness, God's love, God's light, God's life that moves through us, like thunder rolling.
Or at the end of the service, this little phrase: “Go in peace, serve the Lord.” First of all, the Lord is Jesus, who said, “The rulers of the Gentiles,” (that is, the people who don't fully understand about God) “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their leaders exercise domination over them, but it will not be so among you. Whoever is greatest among you must be the least, and whoever is first among you must be the servant of all, for the Son of Man” (that's Jesus) “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We are servants of the one who came to serve sinners, by dying for them. That means we are not here to be served. We are not here on this earth to be pleased. We are not here to be catered to. We are here to serve the life and the hope and the beauty of God as it moves through the real people and real circumstances of this world.
Now, this is not easy. We have people who do radical evil. We also have illnesses and emergencies that seem purposeless, random, even absurd, and to cause meaningless suffering. It makes no sense. We can even cry out to God, “Why do you let these people do things like this? Hey God, why did you let this happen?” That's fine.
It also helps to know that in the Christian life, things will get dark sometimes. Our lamps will fade. So it's good during the week, or when we can't make it to church, to bring a little of church with us into the week. Might sing a snatch of song, “This is the feast of victory for our God,” or if you like a little more rhythm, a song like, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, keep your lamps trimmed and burning. . .” Or, at night you might pray a very familiar prayer that is mind boggling if you stop and think about it. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
This is how we keep our lamps filled, our awareness of the beauty of God, clear, our lights shining, so that we can be a part of God working for justice in the world, God working for righteousness. So that we can be a part of God's thunder, rolling.