Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Not-So-Minor Prophets, week 1 of 4
Four-week series on the 12 not-so-minor prophets of the TaNaKh
Preached August 9, 2020, for the 9:30 am Worship
Can any one person make a difference? I don’t necessarily mean a national politician or celebrity. I just mean… a person, any person. Can any single person make a difference and really change things for the better in their community, in their nation, for the world?
In our scriptures, in the Hebrew Bible, there are 12 stories of 12 individuals who weren’t well known, but somehow did at least try to make a difference. They dared speak truth to the people and to the powers. Some of them, when they spoke, were ignored, mocked, confronted, or perhaps even violently silenced. But over time, the wisdom of their sincere warnings and their great courage to speak God’s truth despite the resistance became more and more realized, and the things they said which people could not believe, were later revealed to be very true. In the end, they and their words were remembered in Scripture as rightly interpreting and expressing the will of God to their nation and their people.
Over these four weeks of August, Caitlan and I have designed a sermon series we are calling the “Not-So-Minor Prophets.” We will be hearing from all 12 “minor” prophets of the Hebrew Bible, in canonical order, meaning the order they are in scripture. We are reading from three different prophets each Sunday over these four Sundays to hear from all 12.
Today, we’ve already heard from Hosea and Joel. Before we read and preach from Amos, let’s pray…
Scripture/Sermon Amos 5:14-24
Seek good and not evil,
(so) that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice inside the gates;
it might be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
16 Meanwhile, thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, THE Lord:
“In all the squares there shall be crying;
and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!”
They shall call the farmers to mourning,
and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing;
17 in all the vineyards there shall be moaning,
and I will pass through the midst of you,”
says the Lord.
18 “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into a house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being, of your fatted animals
I will not look upon (them).
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and (let) righteousness (run) like an ever-flowing stream.
(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)
Sermon "Everflowing Justice"
In his “I have a dream” speech, I believe Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was remembering the prophet Joel, where old people dream dreams and young people have visions of a great new community. And I know he was quoting the prophet Amos when later in that speech he begged, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
There’s a reason these not so minor prophets resonated with and inspired King. King was just a small-town preacher, but he saw things in his world that were not right, and he couldn’t help but speak and act to make them more like God’s kingdom. That’s what led King to Amos.
Herbert Marbury, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2008, reflected this way about this passage from Amos. He writes:
“Amos’s name is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to lift a burden” (amas)… what burdens in Amos’ social world provoked this young shepherd to abandon the only livelihood he knew, leave his home and family, and march defiantly to the nation’s capital in order to speak truth to power? … Although ancient Israel enjoyed extraordinary political power and economic prosperity, neither the power nor the economic resources were distributed equitably among the populations of the small nation. On the contrary, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, ruling elites who controlled the government. Amos witnessed wealth flowing from the working, peasant class to support the luxurious lifestyle of a few politically powerful elites. The rich became richer, and the poor became poorer. During the reign of Jeroboam II, an increasing number of people lost their jobs. These people were squeezed out of the peasant class into a permanent underclass of “expendables,” who found themselves in debt ... education was the property of the privileged… vast amounts of the nation’s resources that could have been allocated toward humanitarian concerns, such as education and healthcare, were siphoned away (for wars)… These were Amos’s “burdens.” (end quote)
Can you see the similarities between Amos’ time and King’s, why King went to Amos to find words that begged for justice and righteousness then?
Amos wasn’t a clergy person. He wasn’t a politician or celebrity. He wasn’t a college professor or a successful CEO. The assumption of most scholars is that Amos was a shepherd, a small livestock farmer. He probably rented some land and raised and grazed his livestock there. He paid rent for the land. He paid taxes. He paid fees to access the markets to sell wool or milk or meat. He tried to run an honest business, and maybe to raise a family, and maybe to set something aside for the next generation.
But Amos began to realize, somehow, the landowners always seem to know when he was becoming profitable, and they would increase their rent. The politicians always seemed to know when he had a good year and would increase the taxes. The gatekeeper to the city market always seemed to know when he had a little extra and would increase the fee for the booth in the public square.
Those three were already, always, doing fine… better than fine. Whenever the people, the people like Amos and the locals or immigrants he used to help him run his business, whenever they began to have a little extra, the rent and the taxes and the fees went up. The wealthy got further ahead, and the people stayed right where they are.
Then this other dynamic started happening. Competitors who now needed to pay the higher rents, higher taxes, and higher fees would lower prices just to get the business. They weren’t profitable anymore, but they needed the cashflow so badly they were willing to sacrifice profits just to survive.
That cycle continued until some went into debt, on a bet that next year, they would finally make it. But even if next year was an amazing year, the landowner raised the rent, the government raised the taxes, and the marketplace raised the fees. They couldn’t pay back the debt… and the government and the landowners foreclosed on the small businesses and owned them… and then would hire back the former owner to run the business, now at a lower pay rate than they used to get when they owned it.
Amos lived in the middle of that system in the northern kingdom of Israel. He felt it, personally. He saw hurting shepherds, farmers, merchants, traders, restaurateurs. They all talked about it. They all hated it. They didn’t know what to do about it, and they felt powerless to change it. It was so big.
At some point, Amos laid down his shepherd’s crook. He might have sold his animals to competitors. He marched to the capitol and started protesting, and preaching, and prophesying. He spoke to the politicians and wealthiest and said:
“Stop doing evil on your people. Do good for all the people. Your lives and their lives are intertwined, and if you want to truly live full, happy lives, you have to make sure they have a way to live full happy lives. You’ve always said the Lord was with you, and you thought your wealth and prosperity were a sign the Lord has blessed you. No! Your wealth, you have gotten by holding others down and taking more and more from them for yourselves! You’ve become evil and used injustice to gain your wealth and power. But if you change, if you will become generous and fair in every corner of the nation to all the people, God just might spare this nation yet."
"But if you don’t, every street will be filled with cries of pain and anger. Farmers will go broke, and stop growing food, and protest. Mothers will stop teaching and raising children and scream in your face. All the people from the odd jobs that keep this economy running will follow God’s lead and assemble outside your big houses, your halls of power, your fancy places of worship, and demand change."
"You thought you were doing fine, it's their problem, not yours? What if I said to you, when the day of the Lord comes, it will not be a gentle escape into a luxurious rest for you. It will come on you like darkness and fire. You thought all this success would keep you safe, but you’ve only trapped yourselves. God hates your lavish lifestyles while so much of the nation is hungry and hurting. God hates the way you offer thoughts and prayers but then don’t change a thing about how you live. God hates the way you make token offerings but don’t sacrifice yourselves in love and compassion for your brothers and sisters. And God doesn’t want to hear any poems or songs or prayers you write to prove how much you love God, or how sorry you are. What God wants from you is change."
"God wants the people with the power and responsibility to guarantee justice for all, to ensure justice isn’t a deal cut for those who can afford the best lawyers but is something that floods the nation and washes over every person. God wants those in positions of leadership or responsibility to practice the highest holiest character traits of honesty, compassion, and humility, and to practice them publicly so grace, peace, and love overflow through all society and upon all the people."
When King looked around 1960's America, he saw much the same. That’s why he went to Amos.
If we look around today, what do we see? Who will speak today?
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown