“Establish Justice in the Gate” – Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Introduction – not your typical Thanksgiving readings
If you are aware of such things, you may wonder how today’s Bible readings relate to Thanksgiving Sunday. Let me admit that they don’t, or at least they don’t obviously. The readings appointed for Thanksgiving Day:
talk about God providing for the Israelites during their 40 year long trek through the Sinai Desert on the way to the Promised Land, and
relate the story of the one leper out of ten that were healed that came back to offer thanks to Jesus for that healing and restoration to community living, and
call on God’s people to bring their thanksgivings to Him in situations of abundance or need, for God supplies every need of ours according to His riches in Christ Jesus.
Because those are the readings every year on Thanksgiving Sunday, and because a pastor can only preach so many sermons on the same readings and on the same theme, I have chosen today to stay with the regular course of Bible readings, with this being the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. The Epistle reading from Hebrews 3 talks not about God’s gracious provision during the desert trek, but about the sinful disobedience of the Israelites during that same time period. That doesn’t have a Thanksgiving theme. The Mark 10 story of the rich man who went away sad when Jesus suggested that he give his possessions to the poor doesn’t smack of thankfulness. If he had given to the poor, we could take from that an example and expression of thanksgiving based on God’s blessings for him. But his greed – not his gratitude – ruled the day.
Finally, my sermon based on the Old Testament lesson from Amos 5 talks about social injustice and a complete disregard for the poor… not exactly a virtue to uphold on Thanksgiving Sunday. But here we are, listening to Amos’ God-inspired message to the people of His time. Let’s learn about our time from his time, about our culture from his culture, and let’s see if there is some hidden Thanksgiving “diamond in the rough” of Amos’ message.
1. Amos – the man, the times
Amos was a prophet who lived and prophesied during the mid-700’s B.C. He was not an “ordained” prophet, more like a “worker-priest” – someone who had a regular paying job, but who served God as a volunteer, or maybe part-time. Amos’ “day-job” was as a shepherd in Tekoa, just 20 km. south of Jerusalem – in the kingdom of Judah. But he was called by God to address the injustices of people in the northern kingdom of Israel, and to announce God’s judgment on them.
There had been a time of peace during the reigns of David and Solomon, but after that there was national turmoil – with separate kings, separate prophets, and separate histories for both the northern and southern kingdoms. In Amos’ time, both kingdoms were enjoying great prosperity and they had reached new political and military heights, defeating the enemies around them. But you may know that a time of prosperity often brings its own problems, and it certainly did in Amos’ time. There was idolatry, extravagant indulgence in luxurious living, immorality, corruption of judicial procedures and oppression of the poor. Amos’ message was not just one calling the people to return to righteous living, nor was it a message meant to shake and warn the people. No, this was a message alerting the people of God’s imminent judgment, an almost total destruction. Sure enough, within about 20 – 30 years, God used the pagan nation of Assyria to uproot and disperse the people of the northern kingdom, and that northern kingdom would never recover its identity within the Promised Land. In the meantime, Amos called the people to lives of justice – just in case “it may be that the Lord… will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.”
2. The message
So, let’s explore the message…
a. Seek the Lord
Our reading started with the five-word invitation: “Seek the Lord and live.” It probably would have been good to read the words just before that, because they identify the problem. They also began, “Seek me and live,” but then they went on to point out what the people were seeking: “Do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal, or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing.” Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba were centers of idolatrous worship with shrines and high places and altars that were dedicated to the false god Baal instead of the true God. God was warning that His holy judging fire would sweep through and devour those places of idolatrous practices. Nothing would quench that consuming fire of His judgment. If they didn’t seek Him with all their heart and turn to Him, then they along with the idol altars would be destroyed.
Seeking God is a common invitation and refrain throughout the Bible – in 1 and 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah, Isaiah, the Psalms, and other places in the Old Testament, but also from the lips of Jesus and from the pen of Paul in the New Testament. God was inviting people to turn away from their idolatry and to draw close to Him once again.
b. You trample on the poor
Amos then points a finger in accusation – “You trample on the poor, and exact taxes from him… you turn aside the needy in the gate.” Hasn’t that been a common refrain in human history! The rich always seem to oppress the poor, the big guys always seem to step on the little guys, the nobles always seem to rule over the peasants, the needy are ignored and turned aside, and it’s not just individuals who do it, but groups, and even countries. The attitude is: “We need to keep the downtrodden in place so that we can keep OUR place of privilege and honour and respect.”
We don’t know much about the rich young man that Jesus encountered in Mark 10. Perhaps he trampled the poor, too. One thing is for sure, he wasn’t willing to part with his riches for the sake of the poor.
About ten days ago, I received a hand-written letter in the mail from my dad. Now, my dad often has quite long and vivid and complex dreams, but this story was a real-life experience. Let me read it for you…
When that happens in human interactions, we are quick to identify it as bullying. And that’s the kind of thing that was happening in Amos’ day… people trampling on the poor and underprivileged, taking advantage of them, exploiting them with taxes, and the poor having no power or resources to defend themselves.
c. The prudent keep silent
A third part of Amos’ message is that, in that evil time, the prudent will keep silent. We generally associate prudence with wisdom, but here it refers to understanding and recognizing the realities and the evils of the day, and then not saying anything. That’s NOT a good thing. People who know better are self-muzzled because of the threats of the evil times, the evil people, the evil leaders. They know that if they say something, they will be rebuked and reprimanded, and probably not just with words but with actions. So, they conclude that silence will keep them personally safe in evil times. But that silence means that the evil can continue, because there are no voices speaking against it. That’s what the Israelite society was like… evil ruling the roost, and putting unspoken pressure on those who knew what was right and righteous. The prudent man cannot change the state of affairs in the society, so he silently awaits judgment. Sadly, there is truth to the saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And to say nothing! Amos recognized that that was happening in his day.
d. Seek good, not evil / hate evil, love good
The next aspect of Amos’ message to take note of is said first one way, and then the other – “Seek good, not evil,” then “hate evil, love good.” This word from God is the polar opposite of what was happening in the prevailing culture of injustice and oppression of Amos’ day. People loved evil, and selfishness, and pleasure, and greed, and idolatry. That’s what they ran after. They had the Commandments, they knew God’s good intentions for people, but they turned life in toward themselves. After all… what good is good, and honesty, and integrity, when I can lie and cheat and deceive and steal and get ahead with no obvious consequences? In contrast, they were called to love their neighbour as themselves.
e. Establish justice in the gate
One last part of Amos’ message, and my sermon title, is found in v. 15: “Establish justice in the gate.” That sounds like an unfamiliar concept, but in ancient Jewish times, visiting and commerce happened at the gate of the city. So did court. It was like a small claims court where the poor and disenfranchised could come to seek justice.
Later, in chapter 8, Amos gets specific about some of the injustices that were taking place. The people couldn’t wait for the New Moon Festival and the Sabbath to be over so that they could engage in commerce again, but that commerce was flawed. They were skimping the measure on the products they sold, boosting the price, using a dishonest scale, selling the chaff with the wheat, and even buying poor people as slaves. Back in Amos 5, God accused the people of turning justice into wormwood… that is, bitterness. Their kind of justice just didn’t leave a good taste in the mouths of common people. The gate was a place of business, but in Amos’ day it was rotten business. There was a lot of injustice taking place in the gates of the city, and God was calling them to restore justice once again… with a hope… that the Lord will be gracious to the faithful, and not bring about the judgment and destruction that were imminent.
3. Justice in our time
OK… that’s a lot – a lot of Amos, a lot of Old Testament Israel, a lot of injustice. I said at the beginning that we would learn about our time from his time, about our culture from his culture. What does justice look like in our land, in our world, in our time, in our lives?
Like the justice that God was calling for in the city gates, we often think of justice with respect to laws, and crimes, and the court system, and maybe even integrity in politics. We can be thankful for the rule of law in our country, and how those laws are upheld by both the police and the courts. On the other hand, we acknowledge that there are still injustices – when an innocent person is incarcerated for years, when a legal loophole prevents an obvious offender from being brought to justice, when trials are delayed – one way or another – as they make their way into the court system. We can recognize injustices on a larger scale, too, as we acknowledge again the atrocities associated with residential schools here in Canada, or as we consider the food inequality there is between western first world societies and third world countries, or as we consider that Covid third dose vaccine boosters are being administered in the ‘have’ countries while the ‘have-not’ countries struggle to get first doses for their people. If we are all part of the human family, why do such injustices exist, and why are they not being addressed? Through Amos, God is calling us to speak up, to speak out and to establish justice in the gates of our modern civilization.
Trampling the poor and bullying also happens on a grand planetary scale as wealthier and more populated countries with large military forces push around those littler, impoverished countries. But let’s consider this on a more personal level, because there are ways that each of us bullies others – not necessarily physically, but perhaps verbally, mentally, emotionally. We somehow think of ourselves more highly than we ought and more highly than others, and we use that to our own advantage. That, too, is addressed by Amos’ God-inspired words, and calls for repentance.
What about the silence of the prudent? There are times when we are fully aware of the truth, the background, the situation… and yet we hold our tongues, when simply speaking up could bring genuine justice to someone who truly needs it. Our silence can be damaging, maybe even deadly when we do not speak for those who somehow can’t speak for themselves – the unborn, the poor, the bullied, the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed, the elderly.
Sadly, there is truth to the saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And to say nothing! Amos recognized that that was happening in his day. We have something similar happening in our day. If you dare to say something that is Biblically correct but not politically correct, you risk public shaming – in the press, on social media, and maybe in more than just words. You can fill in the blanks with the issue that comes to your mind. We, like those in Amos’ day, sometimes choose to remain silent and await judgment. And that’s unjust.
Then, and finally, there is the idea of seeking God (and good). One of the most thorough yet concise expressions of “seek good” is found in Romans 12 –
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
There’s more, but I’ll quit there.
We desperately need God because a lot of those injustices of Amos’ time find their way not only into our society, but into our very own lives. It is important to truly and deeply seek God and live, for we all have our own Gilgals, Bethels and Beershebas – centers of blasphemy and idolatry. You might be thinking of a place that you go far too often, where you spend too much time and energy. You might be thinking of a place where, if Jesus was here in person, you wouldn’t want to take Him along. You might be thinking of foul language that comes out of your mouth at times or attitudes that don’t fit a follower of Jesus. For those things, we need first to repent, to honestly and sincerely acknowledge our sinfulness, and then to genuinely seek God. God invites us to draw near to Him for forgiveness, and for fellowship, and for a future. Seeking God really means turning toward and seeking Jesus for the forgiveness and salvation He won on the cross.
Although we didn’t get this far in the book of Amos, in the last few verses of the last chapter we hear that a future day will come when God will restore the fallen tent of David and when all the nations will bear God’s name. That is an image of the descendant of David’s kingly family who would come and be the Saviour and the eternal king, and who would unite not just those two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but people from countries all over the world.
Throughout the course of human history, we never seem to be able to establish justice in the gates of any of our cities, in any of our cultures, in any of our eras. But when we can’t establish justice, God can and does. God is just, and He establishes justice… but in an odd way. When that Saviour Jesus came, God’s odd justice put that sinless Jesus on the cross bearing the sins of every one of us unjust people – you and me. God’s justice punished Jesus in order to deal with OUR sins! Paul said it in 2 Corinthians 5: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” That doesn’t sound just to us, but it was God’s way of establishing justice, and of allowing us into the gates of the eternal city. Amos said: “Seek God… it may be that He will be gracious to His people.” For us, for YOU, it’s not just a possibility, but a certainty. Through Jesus, God, the Lord, the God of hosts, IS gracious to His faithful people, to YOU. Find God’s gracious justice for you… in Jesus.
For that, more than anything else on this Thanksgiving Sunday, we give thanks. It’s Amos’ Thanksgiving “diamond in the rough.” Amen.