+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Old Testament lesson came from the relatively short book of the Prophet Amos, which, along with the other so-called “lesser prophets”, gets a great deal less air time, as it were, than the more lengthy prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This is probably because the latter include more prophecies which we believe to have been accomplished or reinforced in the New Testament. Amos’ prophecy was a great deal more immediate. He predicted an earthquake and it happened about two years later.
Even so, there is much we can learn from this little book. Amos was probably the first prophet to have his prophecies written down. Biblical scholars have become surprisingly good at dating these things, and we are pretty sure that today’s Old Testament lesson was from a vision Amos had and preached about sometime between the autumn of 750 BC and that of 749 BC. Anyway, Amos would have been the first Old Testament prophet, an appropriate bookend to the figure usually reckoned the final prophet, John the Baptist, of whose demise we heard about in today’s Gospel.
Anyway, as the first prophet with a book, Amos set a program which other prophets would adopt, and this is specifically the practice of denouncing the unrighteousness of Israel. As the chosen people, the children of Israel would have been used to hearing prophets’ denunciations of their neighbors and approbations of Israel.
Now, Amos begins his prophecies in a manner which his contemporaries would have recognized. For the first two chapters of the book, we may read of the Lord’s wrath against the Edomites and the Moabites and the Philistines and so forth, and for about the first ten minutes of his sermon, Amos’ audience would have been quite comfortable. These were the familiar old denunciations which jingoistic pseudo-prophets would have given them before, and which would have served as pabulum for a people very much set in their ways.
But then would come the bit Amos’ audience wasn’t expecting. “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt.” He had sounded so much like all the other prophets, his audience must have thought, and then he had to go and kick over the ant hill. He had to denounce Israel! It is little wonder that at the end of today’s reading, Amos is told in no uncertain terms that he had better just head back to the farm, away from God’s own native Israel. Perhaps a better end than John, who we learned was beheaded for much the same thing, but still a disappointing reception.
Amos’ audience must have been furious, because what he was doing was saying that the chosen people had the same sins as the Gentiles, that they were just as guilty and that, in a sense, they had lost their special status. They had become just like the pagan people who surrounded them, and thus were no better.
And what were the sins of Israel which made this the case? They were both moral and religious. On the one hand, though the birthright of the Israelites was a strong moral code which protected the helpless and the outsider, the people had begun to “oppress the poor” and “crush the needy”. They had become both greedy and, Amos pointed out, lazy.
But in addition to this moral bankruptcy, the Israelites had become religiously unfaithful. This is just under the surface of today’s reading, the story of the plumb line. God was to level out the land of Israel in a manner they might have found counterintuitive. God said, “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste.” These were places which were erected to the glory of God, and in the time of Amos they had not been universally replaced by the Jerusalem temple as the locus of sacrifice, and thus they remained important places of prayer and devotion. It would have been analogous to God sending a prophet to Findlay and saying, “you’re a rotten lot of sinners, so I’m going to tear down Trinity Church and St. Michael’s and First Lutheran and on and on.” We would be justified in being confused and angered by such a prophet.
In fact, the places where Israel worshipped provided an all-too-simple means whereby they could overlook their own iniquity. This is a form of hypocrisy we might have noticed even today, and which from time to time I’ve noticed in myself. Now I’m the first to admit that religion is an important, powerful thing. It connects us to God. I’m not at all suggesting that being “spiritual but not religious”, as many contemporary people would say they are is preferable, and I personally don’t see how it’s ultimately tenable (but that’s the topic for another sermon). What I do mean to say is that sometimes our religion can be perverted to the point where it either justifies everything we’re already doing or it gives us an excuse to go out and be nasty people and still be self-righteous about going to church a lot. This was the point God was making through Amos by saying that he’d knock down all their temples. It was the point that a later prophet, Hosea, made even more explicitly when the Lord told him, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.”
The prophets can get polemical and make their points in shocking ways, and a fulsome appreciation of prophetic literature as a whole suggests that sacrifice and worship were not seen as unbeneficial or any less necessary than they had been. Rather, the point is that without faithfulness to the moral laws of the Old Testament, the Israelites could not render an acceptable sacrifice. The “high places and sanctuaries” and even the Jerusalem temple were built in vain. The Christian analogue to this is that if we’re not prepared to live a life informed by the virtues, we’re not making it better by showing up at church. Both virtue and religion, both moral commitment and worship, must be held together for either to make any sense. This was the point Amos was making and Hosea and even John the Baptist who, we may recall, referred to the religious authorities of his day as a “brood of vipers”.
As Christians we have a benefit, however, in that our liturgical life informs our moral life and gives it shape. I don’t just mean that my musings from the pulpit can occasionally encourage good behaviour, though I hope from time to time I might succeed in doing so, at least for myself, lest I fall into hypocrisy. No, our whole liturgical life is constructed in such a way that faithfulness in worship can help make us better Christians. We are exposed not only to theological truths but to moral teaching by our extensive use of scripture in worship. But even more than that, and in a way we cannot possibly understand or quantify, our regular, faithful reception of the Holy Communion slowly, mystically transforms us into the kind of people God intends us to be. Christ is not just made known to us symbolically in the breaking of the bread; he literally comes to dwell in us when we receive his Body. Thus, we truly do take these Holy Mysteries to our own health and salvation if we do so aright. We take them to the end of being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and conformed to the very body of Christ.
This takes some of the pressure off, because it means that it’s not all about what we do. It’s what God does in us. Yet we must remain open to the ways in which Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament is at work transforming us, or we can easily slip back into the hypocrisy and empty religiosity which Amos preached against. So, when you approach the altar this morning, and from now on, I encourage you to consider how the Sacrament is at work in your own transformation, how it is that it strengthens you to live in accordance with the virtues, and even how you might have stood in the way of that transformational work. In the end, the strength we need to be the kind of people God intends us to be is available at this very altar, and it is simply ours to be open to its power to change us.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.