Where grace endures.
I am currently working through Jennifer Rothschild’s excellent study on the minor prophet, Amos with my ladies Bible study. When the women’s ministry settled on Amos for fall I was both intrigued and excited. Intrigued because the minor prophets don’t have the touchy-feely vibe most weekday women’s Bible studies want (I long for a time when women’s intellect is invited to fully participate in church). I was excited because our pastor mentioned that Amos is his favorite book of the Old Testament. Amos? Really? Hmm.
As I read I can’t help but see parallels between the culture of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and our own Western culture today. While the words in context are directly linked to a particular place and time (Israel in the 8th century B.C.), human nature hasn’t improved much, and Hebrews 13:8 proclaims that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So the words of Amos, while delivered to a doomed kingdom millennia ago, the Truth still applies. I am beginning to understand why my pastor likes this book.
God’s law requires wholehearted, undivided, impeccable loyalty. Being human, we can’t do it. No matter how “good” we think we are, no matter how many “good” things we do, we cannot be righteous the way the holiness of God requires. So what is the purpose of the law? Paul wrote, “The law…does not invalidate a covenant previously established by God…It was added for the sake of transgressions until the Seed [Jesus] to whom the promise was made would come” (Galatians 3). In other words, the Law and the sacrificial system was designed to remind us just how far we are from perfection.
Our problem is self. “There is nothing new under the sun,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes. The human mind defaults to things that feel good, like power and control and willfulness. The sacrifices of old became routines instead of reminders. In the 20th and 21st centuries, churches often became social gathering places where people of like minds, and often like ethnic and cultural backgrounds came together less and less for Bible teaching and more for “fellowship.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said in 1960 that, “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours in Christian America” (Meet the Press, NBC). In ancient days Amos noted that “The people are incapable of doing right” (Amos 3). Watching the news and the social media feeds, it’s beginning to feel the same way. When believers attack instead of converse, it’s hard to tell the difference between the saved and the lost.
The attacks imperil us as people, as a nation, and as a Church. “How can two walk together unless they agree?” asks Amos. The people of Israel answered by sending the prophet back to his figs and herds so they could continue on their path of indulgence and injustice. Leaders of “christian” America, and progressive America focus on grasping and holding power while the people struggle for daily bread. There is no justice when elephant and donkey leadership butt heads like goats.
Certain judgment came for ancient Israel just as Amos said. Divine justice brought down that kingdom as the Assyrians conquered the cities and enslaved the people. False gods at Bethel and Gilgal had enticed them, and the people acquiesced to their own desires, choosing wealth and power over justice and equality. Looking at the socio-political landscape of 21st century U.S., there is a similar divide, even in the Church. Sowing the winds of political power only reaps the whirlwind of disappointment and destruction (Hosea 8). God is not fooled by the talk of putting Christianity or even Christianic morality into political systems (Galatians 6). National systems easily become idols that draw people toward self-righteous power and away from the Lord God’s holiness. Justice becomes wormwood and righteousness is ground into dust (Amos 5). Or, in the case of the U. S., justice becomes politics and righteousness is fodder for social media outrage.
So, how then shall we who seek the Lord live? Certainly we cannot join the battle over cultural domination. Surely we should not succumb to the polarizing forces of social media. I understand what Rothschild meant when she wrote, “And because I can’t do everything, I feel like I can’t do anything” (p. 138). It’s overwhelming to see injustice and division become practically de rigueur in national conversations. It’s devastating to see people in need being used as political pawns in pursuit of power. It’s nearly paralyzing to see real people who are hungry being traded like commodities in trafficking and drugs and knowing there’s no way to intercede on any meaningful level. So what do we do?
Amos told us to “seek God and live…pursue good and not evil…hate evil and love good” (Amos 5). The answer to division is grace that comes from God and through us toward others. Andy Stanley said, “ Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone”’ (Tweet, 2019). Amos looked at Israel and called out the nation on its oppression, its arrogance, and its deprivation of justice. In the U.S. there is a similar attitude; warring political parties, dissention and abuse in churches, and a need to always have the last word. But parties and churches are made up of individuals. There are loud voices that dominate the media, but those voices can be transformed into nothing but hot air if the individuals they claim to represent take independent action to seek God alone. Grace toward the people nearest us is far more powerful than liking a social media diatribe. Amos said, “Establish justice in the city gate” (Amos 5:8), a reference to keeping local counsel instead of national affiliations. When people know each other, mediators can often find a path toward reconciliation. The “us” versus “them” mentality turns individuals into stereotypes and only exacerbates injustice. Grace must be real, grounded in love, and offered without thought to selfish gain or public opinion. Jesus made clear what authentic grace means:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or without clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’
“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25)
Establishing justice in the city gate includes caring for the poor, protecting the innocent, and interceding on behalf of the hurting people in our own communities. God has clearly spoken how we are to respond to his saving grace for us: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8). James reminded us that faith without works is dead (James 2) and he defined those works as controlling the tongue, looking after orphans and widows, and keeping “unstained” by the corruption of the culture around us (James 1). We serve a holy God, the Lord God Almighty and our response to His instruction makes us wise and glad (Psalm 19). We are capable of doing right through the mercy of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. In our small ways, we can worship God when we let justice flow like water and righteousness like an unfailing stream, because we are filled with the Spirit of living water that springs up for eternal life. We are able to overflow with grace through Jesus. In these divisive times, we must not staunch that flow, but rather let it pour out through us onto those who need mercy, justice, and love. Seek the Lord God and live. Pursue good. Default to grace.
Holy Bible, Christian Standard Bible (2017) Holman Bible Publishers.
Rothschild, Jennifer (2022). Amos: An Invitation to the Good Life. [Bible study workbook]. Lifeway Press.