Amos 7:1-7 and Colossians 1:1-14
For the next few months our Old Testament lessons will come from the books of the prophets: Amos, Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Prophecy is a big deal in the Bible. So how do we apply it to ourselves today? How are we supposed to be prophetic? Thus, this sermon series on prophecy, and today is number 5. I was asked to review what we’ve learned so far, so here is a quick summary.
The first week we read about Elijah against King Ahab. I said that a prophet speaks against the normal way of things and contests the conventional wisdom. Prophets are thus not welcomed by the powerful and by those who benefit from the normal way of things. I also said that a prophetic church begins with self-examination, judging ourselves before we judge others. This self-examination is liberating because it frees us from our presumptions, pride, and prejudice.
The second week I said that the church is prophetic when it does what no other human institution does, and that is to discern, describe, and celebrate that alternate reality of the world that is the Kingdom of God, and to offer windows and icons for people to see into it. So we should not get distracted by every issue of the day. We witness to the alternate reality of the sovereignty of God behind the scenes, and we speak with joy and wonder of all of its vast claims on ordinary life.
The third week I said that the Holy Spirit within you is who enables you to be prophetic. The Spirit empowers you to see into that alternate reality and to tell out what you see. I also said that when we’re prophetic we have a double relationship with the world. We discredit the powers of the world and we dispute their pretensions and we grieve what they do, but we do not despair, because we live by hope. The alternate reality is for the world, and the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life to this world, and our hope is nourished by the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love into our hearts.
Last week I said that Biblical prophecy is always an invitation, and not some oracle of fate or destiny. I said that God respects your human freedom, even though God is absolutely sovereign, and God’s message invites your free response. I said that to accept the invitation usually includes some kind of repentance, but repentance is that liberation. I also said that it’s wrong to seek worldly power in order to enforce the sovereignty of God, but you witness to it by your deeds of loving service. I said that prophecy can be communal, a team effort, with each of you playing your parts, and your simple deeds of feeding and shelter are windows and icons into that alternate reality.
And now, today, is Amos. The prophet Amos marks the third stage in the evolution of prophecy in the Bible. The primitive prophets always worked in groups, with song and dance, and probably ecstatically. They spoke for the moment, and we have no record of what they said. Then came the solo prophets, Elijah and Elisha and others too, speaking truth to power and doing miracles. We have the record of their words and deeds in the books of First and Second Kings and Chronicles.
Today we get the third stage in the evolution, the writing prophets. Their sermons, poems, and visions were recorded in the books that bear their names, along with their trials and troubles. It is from these that we will be reading in the coming months. Some of them left a lot of material, and we call them the Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The others we call the Minor Prophets because their books are shorter, but not less important. Among the first of these writing prophets was Amos. He was a farmer from the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah.
We just read from the seventh chapter of Amos. He has come up to the northern kingdom of Israel to prophesy against it. Next Sunday, the eighth chapter will tell you why God was against it. I’ll say today that King Jeroboam II presided over military expansion and economic prosperity, but on the backs of the lower classes and the orphans and widows. The rich were getting richer but the poor were getting poorer. That’s the judgment you will hear next week.
In the first six chapters the prophecies were conditional. But they went unheeded, and with this seventh chapter it’s too late, and God has condemned the northern kingdom to destruction by the Empire of Assyria. The royal temple at Bethel will be demolished, and the population will be carried off as exiles into far off lands. So we can say that Amos is reinforcing what we saw with Elijah, that the prophet speaks truth to power, first by invitation, and then by condemnation.
What we also see today is that the prophet speaks his truth to religious power, and especially to establishment religious power. It’s easy enough for the church to criticize politicians, you don’t need the Holy Spirit to do that. It’s both more difficult and more needful to prophesy against religious power.
This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. He wrote it not to politicians but to religious leaders who were telling him to behave.
This is how our own Reformed Church in America finally responded to apartheid in South Africa. For years we had followed other Americans in opposing apartheid as a political issue, but in 1982 the “Black” Reformed churches in South Africa asked us to speak against apartheid as a gospel issue, and to witness against the white Dutch Reformed Church, which had invented apartheid as church policy, and then afterward had taught it to the government. So the point was to prophesy against the religious and spiritual power of racial injustice which was rooted in the church. The means of this prophecy was a faith statement called the Belhar Confession, which our own Reformed Church eventually adopted.
Right now our nation is extremely prosperous but the poor are getting poorer, and bitterness, hatred, fear, and violence are rising in our land. It’s awful. Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Minnesota, Dallas. What will it be this week? It’s terrible. What do we say? What do we do?
It seems to me that for the church to be prophetic here we have to discern the spiritual power of the violence and the religious powers behind the politics. I wish I knew what the answers are. I do know this: for the church to be prophetic now, we must witness to the religious and spiritual issues behind the violence, fear, and greed. And coming full circle, that must include our own prophetic self-examination. How are we complicit? What do we fear? What costs are we afraid to pay, especially to our wealth and security?
But our voice is so weak and our witness is so small. Well yes, and no, and that brings me to my second learning today about prophecy, which can give us hope. It is this: prophecy seems extreme and hyperbolic and extravagant, but no less it is true.
I want you to notice the language of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians. First he seems to exaggerate when he writes that the gospel “is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world.” At that time there were maybe a couple thousand believers scattered in what, maybe fifty congregations, and he writes “the whole world.” Extravagant confidence and hyperbolic hope! “Other-worldly hope,” as one of you here has written.
And then St. Paul writes about this little congregation in Colosse as if they were the greatest group of saints ever, and with a future most magnificent! The congregation will have read this letter and thought, “Who, us?” Yes you!
What looks like hyperbole and sounds like extravagance is the natural idiom of prophecy. Your window may be small, but you can see mountains through it. Your icon can be miniature, but it links you to a whole vast world. The prophet sees the great things in the small, in the little girl the future saint, and in the committee meetings of a church you can even see the Kingdom of God.
To be prophetic means to develop your prophetic imagination (Brueggemann), and I mean imagination as a precious gift of God to the human species, as God has imagined us, and we are in God’s image.
And so, beloved congregation of Old First Church, to be a prophetic church you must have a double vision of yourselves, in both self-examination and prophetic imagination: in admitting you have not loved as you should love nor spoken as you should speak, and no less regarding yourselves as St. Paul would, as the greatest group of saints ever, as God regards you in God’s grace.
And that is true for each of you individually. When I look at you all, you know what I see? I wish I had a lovelier metaphor, but I imagine each one of you as a glass vessel, filled with the vapor that is your soul, and your soul is lit up like the vapor in a light bulb, your soul is lit up with the energy of the love of God. That’s what I see when I look at you, I see the energy of the love of God in you.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.