The prophet Amos was an unlikely spokesman for God. A shepherd from South Judah, he delivered a series of stinging messages in North Israel. To say that his words were out of step with the typical “prophetic messages” of his day is an understatement, for he delivered sermons no one believed or even wanted to hear. To our knowledge, he was the first prophet to openly declare the sinful direction of North Israel too far off course to be correctable. The only solution, he proclaimed, was the end of North Israel.
The Book of Amos contains the prophetic sayings of this shepherd-prophet. Its existence in the Hebrew Bible demonstrates both that Amos’s disciples treasured his words and that later generations saw in his oracles a truthful word from God. His message resonated with God’s people even centuries later (such as with the exiled Judeans). As a result, they carefully curated and preserved his words so that this message might speak to us today.
But how are we to apply the words of Amos? What if anything might his message say to the fractious times in which we live, an era when people not only leave churches but when fellow Christians are labeling and libeling one another? Does an ancient book like Amos have a word for those who divide themselves along progressive and conservative lines, who engage in outright partisanship?
I call your attention to Amos 4:6-13. These words of Amos exist in the form of a call and response. This passage calls the people of God to repent and to worship.
The words of verse 12, “Prepare to meet your God,” give us Amos’s ideal response to trauma and hardship. Tragedy of any kind should lead us toward self-examination and worship. This was the mindset of Amos the ancient prophet.
In the Hebrew Bible, the language to “prepare” was a call to get ready either for war or for worship. Worship was the clear intent of this usage. Amos was begging his hearers to prepare for an encounter with God. The following verse bears this out, “For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!” (4:13) “The Lord is his name” is a refrain as if from an ancient hymn. Amos used these words to help his audience recognize the awesome power of God and bow in humble adoration. They needed to prepare because to meet God without adequate preparation is to invite death upon oneself.
Unlike the hoped-for scenario of 4:12-13, the true response of North Israel is visible in the previous verses, 4:6-11. Here, the prophet listed five acts of disaster wrought by God. These acts (famine, drought, pestilence, disease and sword) had the intent of waking the people from their indifference and calling them to repentance. Each closing stanza makes clear, however, that they did not heed this call: “Yet you did not return to me,” says the Lord (4:6b, 8b, 9b, 10b, 11b).
“Please repent and worship,” pleaded Amos. You might assume the Israelites were godless pagans who never thought twice about God. If you read the context of this passage, however, you soon discover that the people of North Israel were active worshipers. These oracles (chapters 3-6) show that something about their worship was badly missing the mark.
The problem lay in the fact their worship was rendered impotent either by its robotic, unthinking nature or by the unethical and immoral behavior by the people in their everyday lives. They did not appear to take God seriously, nor did they show real concern for their neighbors. They cared only about themselves. Worship for them was like a checklist to secure God’s ongoing blessing.
As I fast-forward to our society today, I fear what Amos would say about much of the worship in our society. People appear to worship God, but have they in fact heeded the call to repent of their arrogant recalcitrance and humbly bow before God in simple adoration? Do they care about their neighbors, or do they only care about their own preferences and beliefs?
Honestly, I’m tired of the partisanship that has infected church life. I’m exhausted by accusations about who is being “political” or who is or isn’t woke enough, anti-woke enough, racist, anti-racist, etc. There are important conversations to be had about these topics, of course, and ignorance on key issues is nothing to celebrate.
Still, it’s demoralizing. Don’t we have better things to be worried about? What about the call to discipleship, to follow Jesus in loving the least of these—whether they be in our churches or our communities? We have serious work to do!
How do we break the gridlock? Is there any remedy for an injured church living in such testy times?
Amos had a word for the people of his day. It was word they did not heed. Thankfully for us, however, a later generation of God’s people did take note. The option to respond favorably to Amos’s message exists also for us today.
And just what was that message? Return to God. Repent. Fall on your knees in humility. Worship your Creator God.
As long as we continually focus largely on getting our way and listening only to what we want to hear, we will never move the needle on issues that plague us. But if we could stop and focus on the humble adoration of God, then we would have some hope for a renewed life. That is my aim and my prayer.