18 Doom to those 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 sought refuge in a house, rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Isn’t the day of the LORD darkness, not light; all dark with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. 22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food– I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. 23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (CEB)
The Day of the Lord
I took Old Testament Prophets with Dr. Louis Stulman at The University of Findlay, and Amos was the first book we covered. When I tell people that Amos is one of my favorite books of the Bible, it’s passages like this one that might make them ask, “Why?”
For one thing, I like the guy’s style. The dude can preach. He doesn’t care if the message is unpopular, when God gives him something to say, he says it without holding back. And, Amos has the coolest similes and metaphors: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
For another, Amos has a way of irritating us that can’t be denied. Jesus had the same habit of irritating people. The problem with religious people is that, little by little, we forget the enthusiasm we once had and slip into various degrees of apathy. If Amos’s words do annoy us, it should give us pause to consider whether we’ve come to accept that apathy as normal and okay.
Honestly, apathy needs a little irritating. Sometimes we need to hear a challenge to our comfortable status quo, or have our feathers ruffled, or get our underwear in a twist. If we need a spiritual wedgie, Amos is ready to provide. If the kingdom of God is to come, then God’s people need to hear Amos’s challenge and get busy.
Let me tell you a little about Amos. He was a street preacher. He was a shepherd and trimmer of sycamore trees who went from his home of Tekoa, probably the one in Judah, to the capital of Israel to tell them they were worshipping and living wrong. For some perspective, we might appreciate that about as much as a migrant agricultural worker from Mexico traveling to Washington D.C. to tell the American people off. To get the people’s attention, he started out by preaching against all of Israel’s enemies, even his homeland of Judah. You can almost hear the people saying, Yeah! God’s gonna bring the hammer on ‘em.
Then, suddenly, Amos turned on Israel. And he kept going for seven more chapters. It was a scathing indictment, but Amos had their attention. In fact, Amos 5 begins this way: “Hear this word—a funeral song—that I am lifting up against you, house of Israel:” (Amos 5:1 CEB). This is doom and gloom. This is apocalypse. And Amos voices the rage of God against a people who should have known better.
The Kingdom of Israel broke away from Judah and the kings of David’s line because of Solomon’s corruption. For a wise guy, he did some really stupid things, and God told Jeroboam that he would take ten tribes from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, and give them to Jeroboam because the people had abandoned God under Solomon’s reign (c.f. 1 kings 11:26-39). They broke away from Judah so they could be faithful to God. They rejected Solomon’s innovation of worshipping only in the Jerusalem Temple for the older shrines of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba (c.f. Amos 5:4-6).
Roughly 170 years after they broke away, Israel had slipped into unfaithfulness and apathy for what’s right. Prosperity and comfort can do that to people. The wealthy had grown wealthier, and the poor had grown poorer. The Kingdom of Israel was at the height of its prosperity and power. The King at the time of Amos’s preaching, Jeroboam II, had pushed the boundaries of the kingdom out to an extent larger than any previous king. By some standards, the kingdom was doing well. They projected a sense of power. King Jeroboam II had made Israel great again.
At the same time, the people were not living out God’s expectations for justice and righteousness. Amos points out that Israel has done things like selling the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, crushing the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way. They’d also turned to some business practices that God had outlawed, (c.f. Amos 2:6-8). The wealthy had built lavish summer houses and winter houses with beds of ivory by cheating the weak and crushing the needy (c.f. Amos 3:15-4:1). They’d corrupted the judges against justice, crushed the weak, taxed their grain and used the proceeds to build houses of stone. They’d afflicted the righteous, taken money on the side, and turned away the poor who were seeking help (c.f. Amos 5:10-12).
It’s this lack of justice and righteousness on the part of a people who are supposed to be holy that has the God who made the Pleiades and Orion seething with anger. The people who think they want the Day of the Lord to come might want to get their act together first. The people of Israel likely assumed the Day of the Lord would mean victory for them over every enemy. When God comes in judgment, that judgment will be inescapable. The people seemed to assume that they had nothing to fear on such a day because they were on God’s side.
God, however, seemed to have a different idea. Another prophet, Joel, described the Day of the Lord this way: “Blow the horn in Zion; give a shout on my holy mountain! Let all the people of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is near—a day of darkness and no light, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread out upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes, unlike any that has ever come before them, or will come after them in centuries ahead. In front of them a fire consumes; and behind them a flame burns. Land ahead of them is like Eden’s garden, but they leave behind them a barren wasteland; nothing escapes them,” (Joel 2:1-3 CEB). Joel presents this army as coming for Israel, too. But he also tells them that the people can return to God and live because God is merciful, compassionate, patient, faithful, loving, and ready to forgive (c.f. Joel 2:13).
Joel and Amos both suggest that God is going to judge the world fairly and, whether we’re a part of God’s chosen people or not, our actions of justice and righteousness are what matter to God. If we’re on the wrong side of that, we should expect darkness, not light; gloom and not brightness. We can run, but we’ll be caught. Like a person who fled from a lion only to be met by a bear, or like a person who fled into the safety of a house and rested against the wall only to be bitten by a snake.
Then, Amos tears into Israel’s worship. God says, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps,” (Amos 5:21-23 CEB).
These festivals included the three annual pilgrimage feasts of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Harvest mentioned in Exodus 23, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 16. The joyous assemblies are the times of festival and breaks from regular work so the people can celebrate and worship God as mentioned in 2 Kings 10:20 and Isaiah 1:13. The offerings of the people no longer please God, and every kind of traditional offering is rejected: the whole burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace or well-being offering. God even refuses to listen to singing and harp-playing. The Hebrew word used here is the title for the Book of Psalms. God doesn’t want to hear the hymnbook of the Scriptures! And the question is, why?
Earlier in the chapter, Amos mentions three ancient sanctuaries: Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba. Bethel was the site of Abraham’s altar, Jacob’s ladder, it’s where the matriarch Rachel died. It’s where Deborah sat as a Judge, prophet, and administrator over Israel. It’s where Saul went to seek the Prophet Samuel.
Gilgal was where Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan so the people could cross over into the Promised Land. It’s where Samuel had abandoned Saul as king over Israel in favor of David. It’s where Elisha turned poisonous gourds into something edible. Beer-Sheba was where Hagar had her second theophany (Genesis 21:14-20). It’s the site of Abraham’s well and Jacob’s altar. It was where Elijah hid from Jezebel.
These are holy places to Israel. Significant places in the history and life of the people. It almost sounds like God is rejecting Israel’s worship as a whole. But a complete rejection of worship is not the case here. We have to look at the whole of Amos’s message to understand why God has gotten so angry. All those things I mentioned earlier about Amos’s message: cheating, selling, crushing, and pushing away the poor, the needy, and the afflicted tell us that, although the people participated in the correct liturgies, sang their favorite hymns, participated in all the wonderful holy days, and gathered together every Sabbath to worship, that worship didn’t affect how they lived.
In other sermons, I’ve preached about how our worship of God is more than gathering together in this building. Our worship of God is also how we live our everyday lives outside of these walls. How we treat others is our worship of God. What we give to others is our worship of God. How we speak about others is our worship of God. Our everyday actions reflect our worship of God.
At the same time, our worship of God, here, is supposed to shape and influence our everyday actions so that what we do, what we think, what we say, are holy and righteous and just. If it doesn’t… If our worship doesn’t shape and influence us so that we speak and act like God’s people in our everyday, then what’s the point? If we don’t offer ourselves to God when we come here, if we don’t seek a change of heart and mind for ourselves so that we can live according to God’s ways, then we aren’t worshipping as we ought. It’s at that point that coming to this place is pointless.
And, to be clear, any lack of being shaped or changed or influenced to righteousness is not something we can blame on the preacher or the choir or the liturgy or the hymns. Worship in this place is what we, ourselves, give to God. The question we may need to ask is, are we really giving ourselves? The difficulty with any living sacrifice is that, no matter how many times we throw ourselves on the altar, our tendency is try and crawl off before our lives are no longer our own.
Yet, it’s when we give ourselves to God that we worship as we ought because our life, itself, becomes worship. That’s when we live in such a way that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God wants our actions to be righteous. God wants us to seek justice for those who need it. Our relationships need to be set right.
Amos reminds us that, as much as God loves us–as deeply as God loves us–God also expects certain things from us. In fact, I would argue that God loves us so much that God will not let us ignore justice and righteousness without saying something about it. God speaks strong truth when it needs to be spoken so that we can turn back to God and live lives that are holy, righteous, and just. That’s why Amos preached this stuff. If God didn’t love us, then God probably wouldn’t bother. I would argue that the fact that God speaks these difficult words to us is proof that God does love us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay