Seek the Lord and live
Long ago, there was a sign found on the wall in the bathroom of a steakhouse near a rough and tumble horse farming territory out in Wyoming. The sign read, “If you find our steak to be a little tough, just walk out quietly. This is no place for weaklings.” I am reminded that my friend, Bo Prosser, likes to say that a little of the Prophets goes a long way. Their pronouncements can be tough.
So it is that we could read Amos 5: 6-7,10-15 and feel like just walking out quietly. These are not easy words, and their implications should leave us with eyes wide-open and hearts that tilt toward letting God reshape them. That is the job the Prophets had to do. The tough thing they had to step up and say was usually some version of, “You’ve lost what makes you matter. You’re basically irrelevant or dead to God.”
Some of the songs of our faith have a certain job to do. Just a Closer Walk With Thee comes to mind. The song Going Home has lyrics, though we may more associate it as a Bohemian classic that is played instrumentally. Amazing Grace will sometimes be played so thoughtfully in a funeral service that it becomes a dirge. Any of these can become especially dirge-like if that is the mood intended.
A song played or sung slowly has taken on a descriptive name: we say it’s dirgeful. An accidental dirge can suck the life out of a room. But a purposeful one can capture a heavy moment so appropriately. What we’re talking about is a genre of somber songs or laments expressing mourning or grief, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral.
Most scholars believe that Amos 5 is actually a funeral dirge. In our age, lest this sound anti-semitic, we do well to remember that the biblical prophets collection is part of the ancient Hebrew Bible. Originally, it was their own literature. Cautionary words spoken on God’s behalf, they were.
Let me ask you a question. How do you know that you’re alive? Now, I don’t mean for that to sound as dumb as it could. On the surface, you could say that you have a pulse and that you are breathing. You are alive. As Amos spoke to Israel, by all outward appearances they were thriving. But that’s not what God saw when God surveyed what they were doing as a culture and as a nation.
Amos was one of them, and was recognized as one of their own prophets. We should also keep in mind that ancient Israel’s history is the story of humanity by extension. So there is a tough notion that Amos has for us all to chew on. It is that we, too, can be up and walking around and even looking great, and still be just as dead as we can be in God’s eyes.
Here was the problem that this holy nation had as Amos wrote his prophecy to them on behalf of God. They had reached a point where they were God’s people in name only. There was nothing much that one could see in how they actually lived that resembled God.
You might wonder what the charges against them were. It’s all there to read in Amos. It didn’t matter what the people were called if they were trampling over the poor and the powerless. It didn’t matter what the people were called if they were perpetuating injustice. All around them every day were opportunities to do what was good, just and right. But their way of living was all about themselves.
Make no mistake. They were worshipping regularly enough in Amos’ years. Liturgy wasn’t their problem. Leaving the Temple or synagogue and actually making the liturgy matter in their lives was the problem. We can talk a lot about God, but they can be empty words when our living appears to be devoid of any hint of God.
Is there any good news here? A prophet never just dropped the judgment, the doom-and-gloom and then left. It only feels that way when the reading gets tough. On God’s behalf, he pronounced a chance to turn things around. Make no mistake, Israel was at poor odds of meeting those conditions. But they were at least invited to try. The door was left open. The same is true for us. It always is with God.