Toward the end of October of this year, the South of Scotland endured some severe rain and flooding. Scots are used to rain but this was toward the extreme end of our tolerance, with fields and town centres filled with water, roads made dangerous, railway bridges closed (just in case) and two foot bridges washed away. You can see some photos of the flooding here:
Still, this is nothing compared to the devastation and death caused by flooding in other parts of the world, including Indonesia and Thailand.
It is this image of flood, that Amos uses when he describes how God envisions justice. Not just a trickle. Not a mere stream or brook. Not even a waterfall, but a flood. Floodwater is powerful; impossible to stop. Floods affect every aspect of the lives of those enduring them. Flooding disrupts and disturbs. It changes the surroundings, sometimes forever. That is what God wants justice to look like for us. Let righteousness flow like rivers. Let it pour into your lives. Let justice flood your communities, your churches, your nations.
Amos, the shepherd and fig pruner (7:14), lived around 750 BC (see 1:1 and 2 Kings 14:23-15:7). He was a contemporary of first Isaiah and of Hosea, being the first to have his writings compiled in a book of their own. Amos, who insisted he was not a professional prophet, called out the people of Israel on their utter hypocrisy. How could they celebrate their religious festivals while they trampled the poor? How could they sing their worship songs and bring their offerings to God, when they worshiped other gods and set up altars to them too (5:5-7)? Could they not see how all of this is utterly contemptible to God? Amos, from the south of Jerusalem in the land of Judah, poured judgement after judgement upon the land of Israel to the north. So unpopular was his message that eventually he would be told to leave by the priest of the national place of worship (7:12-13).
There is a chance that preaching this passage may make you an unpopular preacher! Your message, coupled with that of Amos, may well cause people in your congregation to at least squirm in their seats. However, we don’t go to church simply to feel better about ourselves. Sometimes we need to be challenged or chided. I think the balance lies in highlighting that Amos was speaking to a whole body of people. He wasn’t talking about individual sin, but communal sin. That’s worth exploring.
The greatest injustice of our time is undoubtedly linked to the climate chaos we are experiencing. We know that it affects the poorest people the most. The church as a whole, along with our politicians, needs to wake up to the call to act on the climate crisis before it’s too late. As COP26 draws to a close in Glasgow, will it have made any difference at all? I suspect we will need to speak out more and more.
In the UK, this Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, the 11th of November 1918 being the day that World War I was ended. The injustices of war may be another way to preach this passage, as wars continue around this planet on which we live. The war poet Wilfred Owen speaks of the “old lie” told from one generation to the next, “Dulce et decorum est
pro patria mori.” (Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.”)
Amos considered his words to be God’s words, and Amos was angry. He had a lot in common with Jesus who was righteously angry in the temple because of the injustice he found there (Mark 11:15-17). Like Amos, Jesus saved his strongest words for the religious hypocrites (Matthew 23:23). We might not like the image of an angry, vengeful God, but on the other hand, we may find that we too are angry at the injustices of the world. I hope that this energy produced by our anger will spur us, God’s people, into action. Small actions which begin as a trickle, move into a stream and become a flood of justice and right-ness, can change the world. As Amos encourages, we can choose to do right and run from evil. When we do this we find that God is our Helper (5:14).
Rev Dr Jean kirkwood is a Church of Scotland parish minister working in the East of Scotland.
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