Like an ever-flowing stream

Amos, the prophet, has a tough word for us.  But sometimes that's just what we need.

Full Text: 

Like an ever-flowing stream

November 10, 2013 – Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

 

            Of all the books in the Bible, I find the prophets to be the most difficult on which to preach.

            I am most comfortable with the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  It’s not only that they are focused on Jesus.  It is also that they are generally in story form – stories about Jesus or stories that he tells.   I find my imagination is most easily engaged by stories.  I am drawn into stories.  They create a world I easily enter. And I interact with stories in a way that I don’t with straight teaching.  This is also true of certain books of the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings – stories like we’ve been hearing so far this fall.

            I am less comfortable with the rest of the New Testament – the letters of Paul and the others.  Even though they help elucidate the work of God in Jesus for us, they are more doctrinal.  They are more theological.  With my training in philosophy, you’d think I would be glad to preach on these books.  I don’t mind leading Bible study on these books.  But they seem to have an effect on my mind in a way that is not helpful for preaching.

            More than any of those, however, I am uncomfortable with the prophetic books.  This includes the Major Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – but also the 12 so-called Minor Prophets – Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah and the others.

            I could say that I find them difficult to preach on because there are rarely any stories.  I could say that, although there are some wonderful passages of comfort and hope, there is also a lot of anger in the prophets.  But I’d probably be more honest if I said that I avoid preaching on the prophets because I’m afraid they will challenge me in a way that I don’t want to be challenged.  They will disrupt my life in a way I don’t want to be disrupted.

            Take this, for example:

            I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…

            “Festivals and solemn assemblies” are the way that, as a community, we celebrate the great actions of God for us to save us and deliver us.  For the ancestors of Abraham and Sarah this included, above all, Passover – the meal of remembrance commemorating their rescue from slavery in Egypt.  It not only teaches new generations the joy of redemption but also brings hope to those living in present bondage.  Festivals would also include the Festival of Tabernacles, commemorating Israel’s 40 year journey through the wilderness, where they received manna and miracles and learned to depend on God. 

            For us, “festivals and solemn assemblies” would include weekly worship – the gathering for Word and Sacrament that is central to our identity as Lutherans, but certainly also yearly festivals, like Christmas – the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord – when we celebrate God being born among us, coming to us in the flesh as a human being, and also Easter – the Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord – when we celebrate the greatest act of all for us – God’s raising of this same Jesus from the dead.  These celebrations bring us joy and give us hope like no other on earth.

            And, for me, as important as all of these are, they also include singing and playing my harp.  All of these bring us strength and joy for our journey in faith.

            But Amos rains on our parade:

            I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps…

 

            This is a clear prophetic word.  To be sure, Amos has a story.  All the prophets do, although we may not know much of their story and their writing is not in narrative form.  We learn from the opening verses that Amos lived in the 8th c. B.C.E.  He was from Tekoa, in the southern kingdom.  He did his work as a prophet in the northern kingdom.  But Amos was not a professional prophet.  He was a shepherd.  He kept sycamore trees. 

            It’s easy to imagine that, if a farmer from Mexico – someone with no political office, no professional training, and no spiritual pedigree – came north to Wisconsin, we would not likely pay much attention to him.  In fact, Amaziah, who is a professional prophet and who works for King Jeroboam of the north, tells Amos to quit prophesying, to pack his bags and go home.

            And it’s no wonder.  Life is good in the northern kingdom – at least for the rich and powerful and well-to-do.  The economy is strong.  Trade is brisk.  The country is relatively safe and secure.  It is no wonder that Amaziah invites him to leave.  Amos is raining on their parade.

            But Amos provides us a crucial teaching – that, while worship provides joy and hope, it cannot be divorced from what is happening outside of worship.  It cannot be divorced from how we are treating our neighbor and how our neighbors are being treated.  It cannot be a wall we hide behind so we don’t see the ugliness of life.

            A spiritual issue I’ve gotten interested in lately is called, “spiritual bypassing.”  The term was coined by John Welwood in 1984.  Spiritual bypassing has to do with all the ways in which we use our spirituality to avoid dealing head-on with difficulties in our lives and dark places in our hearts.  It may manifest itself in a variety of ways including emotional numbing, anger avoidance, and overemphasis on the positive. 

            We may say to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, “If I just pray enough, this problem will go away.” Or, “If I were more peaceful, I wouldn’t be bothered so much by this.”  Prayer and peace are both good things, but if we use them to bypass our problems rather than address them directly – with prayer and peace – then they will remain ineffective.

            This can also happen with worship.  We can use worship as a time of renewal, a retreat from the chaos of our daily lives to take time of focus on God and on God’s love for us in Jesus.  But sometimes, I think, we all use worship as an escape from problems, rather than as a resource in addressing our problems and the problems of the world.

            I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like ever-flowing streams.

 

            This spring I will be preaching on the Gospel of John.  One of those Sundays, I will be preaching on the story in John 4.  Jesus is traveling through Samaria – the same area Amos worked.  He stops at the well at Sychar.  There he asks a woman for a drink of water. 

            She says, “How is it that you – a Jew – ask a drink of me – a woman of Samaria?”

            Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

            She says, “How can you do that?  You have no bucket and the well is deep.”

            To which Jesus replies, in part, “The water I give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

            Now he has the woman’s attention.  But then he says, “Go get your husband.”

            “I have no husband,” she tells him, which is a half-truth, at best.  She has had five husbands and the man she lives with now is not her husband.

            Jesus has made an offer of something of infinite, spiritual value, but he then confronts her about the truth of her life.

            We cannot use our spiritual life to turn away from difficulty – whether it is the personal struggles we have or the difficulties of our neighbors.  But we can use our spiritual life as resources to face our difficulties and to seek to help our neighbors in any way that we can.

            Amos is a prophet.  He provides a critique of the spiritual life of Israel.  But he is also a poet.  He provides a poetic image for Israel to return to the way God wants them to live – Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

            Jesus is also a prophet.  That’s how the woman at the well thinks of him at first.  But he is more than, a prophet.  He is the source of living water – a water that gushes, a water that flows, a water that pours out from him, through us, to all the world – that we all might know the justice and righteousness of God.