7th Sunday after Pentecost
Prophets hold a unique place in the history of Israel. The famous Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel has called them ‘some of the most disturbing people who ever lived’. He writes that the prophet is not merely a ‘microphone’ through which the voice of God is transmitted, but also a person. A prophet is a person who stands in the presence of God; who speaks only on behalf of God; one who is in complete communion with God; one in whom the ‘invisible God becomes audible’.
Prophets did not merely convey a divine point of view, but they also were that point of view: their very lives were part of their message. In seeking the biographical details of the prophets as they are presented in the Bible, we seek not merely explanations or motivations for their prophecies, as are favoured by our modern approaches to scripture, but rather amplifications of their spoken message. What prophets do is invite us to see our world and our faith from a different point of view: they call us, even shock us, out of our daily complacency of living life as we have always lived it.
Throughout the First Testament any number of people arose and claimed the gift of prophecy; so the scriptures gave Israel a way to distinguish between true and false prophets: true prophets speak only on behalf of God, never in their own interests. True prophets point beyond themselves and their message to the divine. They deliver their prophecy regardless of the personal cost to themselves. Because of the great cost of delivering their message, they are terrifying indeed.
In our readings today we encounter two such prophets: Amos and John.
Amos was a prophet who arose in the first half of the 8th century BCE, a time when the peoples of Israel were split into two nations, Israel in the north and Judah in the South. Amos was a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees, an uneducated man who was the first of the so-called ‘minor’ prophets, called by God to deliver God’s call to repentance to the peoples of Israel.
Amos came from the small village of Tekoa, in the southern kingdom of Judah, but his prophecy was directed at the northern kingdom of Israel and its highly successful king, Jeroboam II. I suppose it would be as if someone from Ranfurly came to tell us big city folk how to reform our political, moral, and economic infrastructures. The Herald would probably write a feature for the back page, Stuff would link us to a few websites, and perhaps do a few follow-ups (“you may also like”) on the crackpot from the country trying to tell the big city folks
what to do, and then ignore him as a country bumpkin, a gadfly.
Amos called the people to repent and return to right faith with God. According to Amos, the sins of the people were two: an absence of loyalty, to God and to each other, and an absence of empathy for the poor. Amos was burdened by his message and did not suffer gladly being ignored by the people of Israel.
When Amos appeared in the North, there was pride, plenty and splendour in the land, elegance in the elites and power in the palaces. The rich had their summer and winter palaces adorned with costly ivory, gorgeous couches, with damask, dare we say ‘designer’ pillows on which they reclined in their sumptuous feasts. They planted pleasant vineyards, and anointed themselves with precious oils. Their women were addicted to wine. (All of this comes from Amos himself.)
However, Amos pointed out that there was no justice in the land, the poor were afflicted and exploited, and even sold into slavery. (We might say that they were homeless or living in motels.) Even the judges were corrupt and favoured the wealthy. Into this polarised society Amos came with his unwelcome cry, and God gave him only one tool: A plumbline. This word אֲנָךְ (‘ănâk)only appears here in the 7th chapter of Amos out of all of scripture, and we’re have only an informed guess as to what it means. But it was with this tool that Amos was commissioned to measure the righteousness of the people of Israel.
Woe to those who are at ease in Zion and those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria… Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp… who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oil, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those to go into exile.
Amos decried the economic disparity in the land. He prophesied that first the northern kingdom of Israel would fall, and then the southern Kingdom of Judah. Amos called the people to repent, or ‘turn around’, renew their relationship with God, and fulfil their basic obligation to care for the poor. The people did not repent: and not long after both rich and poor of Israel and Judah, would be carried off into exile’
Not surprisingly, Amos and his message did not go down well in Israel. Things were going quite brilliantly in the northern kingdom, and King Jeroboam was in the midst of a very successful reign of 40 years. Israel was at the summit of its military, political and economic power. It is hardly a shock to discover that many people tried to silence this annoying stirrer from Tekoa. Yet a true prophet is a messenger from God. When Amos condemned the hill-shrines and sanctuaries of Israel, and prophesied the fall of Jeroboam, he spoke on behalf of God. It was both deeply shocking to the people, and treasonous to the court. Amos would not be silenced.
Enter Amaziah. Amaziah was a priest of Bethel, on the king’s payroll, and loyal to the king. Amaziah was the Establishment, a spin-doctor. He was frightened and angered by the words of Amos, and reported them to the king. Amaziah was likely well aware of the truth in what Amos was saying, but his livelihood depended on the good will of the king, and the tributes paid to him. Amaziah saw that the wealthy, who held all of the power, who paid most of the taxes, and on whose generosity he depended, were actually very well off, and quite satisfied with the way things were. To allow Amos to challenge that system, to disrupt the existing social and economic order, to demand justice for the powerless, the poor and the outcast, would be to risk everything, including Amaziah’s own livelihood.
Like the Wizard of Oz, Amaziah was probably not a bad man; but his livelihood, his power, his authority, and his comfort depended on allowing the Israelite elites to live in their own comfortable lives. Amaziah denounced Amos to the king and to the country.
What we know about John the Baptist comes from all four gospels, although his role in each is different. John was the last of the old-style prophets He began his own public ministry of prophecy at the River Jordan, and preached baptism for the personal forgiveness of sins. His odd life of eating locust beans and honey meant that he was something of a loner, but his proclamation was simple: The messiah was coming, and the time was now to repent and prepare. John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas for denouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias. His casual death at the hand of Herod signaled the dismissive way those with wealth and power received his message to repent, and how they silenced those messengers of the uncomfortable. John’s role was similar to that of Amos: to call the people to make ready for a great change in the history of faith. With his death the first covenant was ended, and the way was prepared for the new covenant. (Perhaps Mark’s detailed attention to the execution of John was intended to signal the end of the first Covenant and the beginning of the new.)
Neither John nor Amos could be silence and their prophecies redound throughout history to this day. Their very lives stand as testimony to their faith, and God’s call. Amos was not merely a shepherd or sycamore grower. His message had to do with justice, and his mission was to give a voice to all the powerless. John the Baptist inherited the tradition of Amos, and called on the mighty as well as the ordinary to repent . John cared passionately for the people’s relationship with God, and paid the full cost with his life.
Prophecy has rather fallen out of favour in our time, a time when we are more likely to rely on political pundits or opposition spokespeople to hold governments accountable. When we see people ranting on the banks of our rivers or our street-corners we are apt to give them a wide berth. Even if we are part of a community of faith and we see serious problems, we are unlikely to stand up and say ‘Wait, wait, this is all wrong! You people have it all wrong! Repent and return to God!’ Our fellow believers would probably smile tolerantly and make sure they did not sit next to us next week. Much better to form a committee to study the issues, or to hire a spin-doctor to tell us how well the government is managing the complicated issue, how they feel our pain, or to promise us a brighter tomorrow, Yet the essential aspect of prophecy, a call for us to see things differently, a call for us to understand using only the plumbline standard of the divine covenant, is inescapable for Christians.
Prophetic faith calls us to be uncomfortable, calls us to question, calls us constantly to reassess what we believe to be true, calls us to repent, to turn around, to reaffirm the justice of God, Prophecy, in short, calls us to be uncomfortable.
You are seated at café tables tonight, so I would like to place one question on those tables for you to consider: What is the role of Christian prophecy in 21st century Aotearoa New Zealand today? We have many prophets around us, particularly those who calls us to a better relationship with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and so they should. But what is the role of Christians prophecy?