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Good News For Tough Words

November 12, 2017


New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

November 12, 2017 (22d Sunday after Pentecost)


Amos 5: 18-24

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 the 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. 
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 righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 


When one reads this passage it is hard to not think that someone really got on the wrong side of Amos.  Something really got him aggravated for Amos to resort to such tough talk, and about worship ceremonies at that.  He chided the people of Israel about looking forward to the day of Jehovah.  Then he really let them have it about their worship services.  Somehow Amos got the notion that God detested their worship.  


I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of the well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  


Those words must not have gone over well with whoever was in charge of planning worship music and prayers in Israel.  Imagine working hard to think of the right music, rehearsing with musicians and soloists, and selecting the best animals and other items to be presented to God and then being met with those words.  


Let’s not get things twisted.  Amos wasn’t a music hater.  He didn’t oppose worship ceremonies and rituals.  It would not be fair to Amos or to God for us to understand these words as indicators that the prophet and God despise worship ritual and music.  


Instead, Amos was challenging the notion, that seemed to be widespread in Israel, that rituals and ceremonies are the same thing as righteousness and justice.  Amos was from Tekoa, in the southern kingdom of Judah.  But he was inspired to travel to Israel to provide prophetic commentary on the sad state of justice in that society.  


Workers were oppressed.  Women and children were mistreated and bullied.  Poor people were ignored.  Immigrants were bullied and exploited.  Elderly, sick, and other frail people were not protected, but were suffering abuse and neglect.  These and other social ills were happening in Israel while the worship rituals and ceremonies were taking place.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


When we understand what was really troubling Amos, it is hard to criticize him.  After all, why should God accept our well planned and performed worship rituals without comparing what we say and do in worship with the way we live?  Why should God behave as if God does not know or care about the difference between ritualism and righteousness?


So despite the tough words Amos used, this passage is “good news.”  It’s good for us to know and remember that God cares about how people treat each other.  It’s good for worship leaders to know and remember that well-presented songs, prayers, and preaching don’t take the place of truth, justice, mercy, peace, and hope. 


It’s also good to know that God is faithful to send the kind of prophetic “wake-up call” that Amos delivered.  God doesn’t leave us on our own.  Amos is proof that God can and does send people to challenge and correct us.  Think of Amos and his words in the same way we think of an alarm clock that disturbs us and prevents us from sleeping our way through appointments and duties we need to meet.


How do we respond when God does this?  Do we miss the point?  Do we get “in our feelings?”  Do we dismiss Amos and people like Amos who ruffle our feathers about injustice and the suffering that goes along with it?  Do we write people like Amos off as “haters” of our music, the honest and sincere efforts people make to honor religious heritage, and the hard work musicians, soloists, and others do in worship?  That happens.  But should it?  


It shouldn’t!  The truth is that we need to be reminded that the test of our devotion to God is not how we perform during worship gatherings, but how we relate to God and others all the time?  And in that sense, the words of Amos are truly “good news.”  They are good news because of the last thing we read in the passage.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. repeated those words many times as he challenged and called our society and world to turn aside from idolatry to materialism, racism, militarism, and become what he called “the Beloved Community,” where people are valued more than profits, property, and privilege.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Those words declare that you and I have the potential to be forces for justice and righteousness.  


We have the potential to be forces for peace in a society that is addicted to personal, commercial, societal, and global violence.  


We have the potential to change conditions that cause suffering.


We have the potential to do things that set people free from wrongful oppression, whether it is the wrongful oppression of mass incarceration, the wrongful oppression of addiction to fear, the wrongful oppression of idolatry to greed, and any other forms of oppression.


When we read and hear the words “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” you and I are reminded that we have a high calling from God to be people of justice.  We have a high calling from God to turn the world right side up so that the poor are privileged, not the powerful.  We have a high calling from God to make a difference because God cares, because we belong to God, and because the highest form of worship is in living for God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s truth, and in God’s love.  


It is good for us to sing, pray, and present our alms to God.  Those worthwhile worship behaviors take on their highest and greatest impact when we live for justice and righteousness as people of God.  When we sing This Is My Father’s World our words ring true when we work to protect the soil, air, and water from being poisoned by pollution produced by human actors.  When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer, our prayer takes on meaning when we are concerned enough to do something to change the fact that there are people around us who have no food each day.  


The good news is that God will help us do justice.  God will help us right wrongs.  God will help us repair wounds caused by oppression.  God will guide us.  God will renew us.  God will empower us!  We get the “tough words,” because God calls us to do the good and tough work of making justice roll down like waters and making righteousness flow like a stream that will not be stopped up.  


This is our calling from God.  This is what happens when worship inspires us to live for God.  This is what the world needs from us.  




©Wendell Griffen, 2017