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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/21/2013

I think it’s usually around early June that summer reading lists start to show up in newspapers, TV, the internet and so forth; schools send them home with kids at the end of the year too.  What these lists tend to do is to direct you toward  what you might call lighter fare, entertaining page turners that you might read at camp or at the beach, or just sitting on the porch because summer is a time to relax and take it easy; you don’t want to tax your brain too much.  So while the suggested books may not be great works of literature or history or whatever, although they could be, they’re good reading for a summer day or evening.

The biblical prophets aren’t likely to show up on a summer reading list but whether we like it or not, for the rest of the summer and into the fall, they’re part of the reading list here at church.  Now with some editing, you could make the prophets more edifying summer reading; most of them do eventually get around to words of hope like some of the more familiar passages we get before Christmas, “Comfort, comfort my people,” “a little child shall lead them,” “the lion will lie down with the lamb,” things like that. 

But you don’t get to those kinds of verses right away because the prophets were truth tellers.  They didn’t give the people of their time relaxing summer talk but were much more likely to point out their hypocrisies, especially how the people were straying from the way of the Lord while at the same time convincing themselves that they were being faithful.  What the prophets had to say was not what the people wanted to hear and it’s still not what we want to hear, especially during the lazy, hazy days of summer because, several thousand years later, many of their words still accuse and convict us.

Amos is a classic example of this.  Despite where Amos is placed in the Bible, he was one of the earliest of the prophets or it might be even better to think of him as Israel’s first theologian because what he did was to look at the religious beliefs and practices of the people of Israel in light of their understanding of God which is what theologians do.  A key point in that understanding of God, was that God and the people were in a special relationship.  Amos himself didn’t use the term covenant to describe this relationship but he could have and others after him would.  God and the people were in a special relationship, but what Amos pointed out was that while that relationship represented a unique connection to the Lord, with that connection came responsibilities and failure to uphold those responsibilities would result in punishment, there would be consequences.

Amos 3:3 is a significant verse regarding the relationship between the Lord and the people: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed.”  That’s the KJV of Amos 3:3 and let me tell you a little story about that verse.  It really has nothing to do with anything, but it’s summer. 

Back when I was a confirmation student, at the end of our three hour classes on Saturday morning we would have Bible races.  The pastor would give a Bible citation like John 3:16 for example and we would have to look it up and whoever found it first and read it got a point.  Well, one of the verses he used was Amos 3:3.  Amos is one of those books of the Bible that even if you know the order of the books it can be hard to find because it’s tucked in there with the other so called minor prophets and it’s short, just a few pages, unlike the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel that have forty or fifty or sixty chapters; so it wasn’t easy to find Amos 3:3. 

After a couple of weeks though, I figured out that the pastor repeated some of the verses, Amos 3:3 being one of them.  So I memorized it, and the next week as soon as he said Amos 3:3, I shouted out “Can two walk together except they be agreed!” and I got a point.  I thought I was pretty clever, but then, not too surprisingly, the other kids started doing the same thing, memorizing other verses that he repeated so I lost my edge, and then the pastor changed all the verses on us.

Anyway, I memorized “Can two walk together, except they be agreed” a long time ago but through all these years I never really knew what it meant until I was looking more closely at Amos this past week.  If the people of Israel were going to understand themselves as being in this special relationship with the Lord, to see themselves walking with the Lord, there had to be agreement on what that meant.  What Amos was doing was pointing out to them their failure to understand the relationship, their failure to honor their part of the agreement and because of that failure, they would face punishment.

Today’s reading though, starts with the image of a basket of summer fruit.  That doesn’t sound so bad, kind of nice actually as we’re into the summer berry season around here; we can relate to a basket of summer fruit; we can enjoy some strawberries after church.  But then you find out that this image has more to do with a play on two Hebrew words, the Hebrew word for “summer fruit” being very similar to the word for “cut off” a play on words which of course the English translation completely misses.  So what we at first think is a pleasant and reassuring picture of summer fruit is really about the Lord giving up on his people, cutting them off which is why, in the next verse you get, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by,” which is another way of saying there will be no more forgiveness, God can no longer pass by your foolishness; the end has come.  Like I said, this is not exactly what you’re looking for in the way of summer reading.

It turns out that this chapter that starts with the innocence of a basket of fruit is actually one of harsh judgment on a people for whom making money had become the highest priority.  Observation of the Sabbath was an inconvenience for them, wasted time, because they couldn’t conduct business.  Care for the poor and needy was neglected because that would cut into the profit margin.  Religion was serving primarily to reassure people that everything was OK, when it wasn’t.  The result then is that Amos, speaking the word of the Lord, announces the end.  From the perspective of Amos, it’s too late; it’s over and Israel is out of options.

See why you don’t want Amos on your summer reading list?  Everything he said was true but it wasn’t what they wanted to hear plus the fact that he prophesied at a time when things were going good, the market was hitting record highs.  Who did he think he was anyway?  “Go back to your flocks and your sycamore trees” they said to him in the verses we heard last week and that’s probably what he would have preferred too, but when the word of the Lord comes to you and says “Prophesy!” apparently it’s hard to say no.

What is perhaps most difficult about this is it’s apparent finality.  For Amos, it’s over and the situation can’t be reversed which doesn’t fit with our theology that has hope and new possibilities at the center.  If this was the only word we had, it would indeed be grim.  But it’s not the only word; there are more hopeful images in other parts of the Bible and in the writings of the prophets.  Even the book of Amos ends on a more optimistic note, although it may have been added later by others.  Either way though, a more hopeful ending is there.

The hope doesn’t mean much though unless it’s accompanied by the honest acknowledgment that there’s a problem but such acknowledgment is often difficult.  Amos reminds us that as churches, as much as it might be nice to serve up lighter fare for your summer enjoyment, a nice basket of summer fruit as it were, a steady diet of that really wouldn’t be helpful.  Some of the problems of our time seem as irreversible as those that Amos saw but those are the things we need to be talking about.  And…we need to be talking about them not apart from the word of God, but with that word as our guide. 

Amos feared a famine from the word of the Lord, people seeking the word but not finding it.  These days I fear that people aren’t even seeking it.  But we have it; we have the sacred stories; we have the word of the Lord and it is a word of hope revealed most fully in Jesus.  With Jesus there is always hope, but prophets like Amos remind us that it comes at a cost; as we say you don’t get to the hope and promise of Easter Sunday without going through the loss of Good Friday.  The cautions of Amos, unpleasant though they be, must be heard. 

The prophets don’t necessarily make for easy summer reading but…they’re on the list, so we’ll see where they take us.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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