Text: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Date: Pentecost XX (Proper 23) + 10/14/12
The prophet Amos was sent to deliver a challenging word to a people who had become spiritually self-secure. They were convinced God was on their side but only by virtue of their outward connection with the covenant nation. The evidence showed (in verses 10-12 of our text) that true repentance and faith of the heart was lacking. It was the same with the rich man in today’s Gospel who, thinking he had the catechism pretty well down pat, and having fulfilled all the requirements of the Law was shocked at Jesus’ further challenge to “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.” St. Mark reports, “disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Yes, repentance, faith and salvation do have an effect also on your money. So in every generation there is the temptation to resist daily repentance and a lively faith and presume on God’s grace taking refuge only in our outward affiliation with the Church. Amos calls God’s people of every age to the renewal of repentance and faith (the two always go together) saying that if you will, “it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you and be gracious to you.”
“Seek the Lord and live,” says the prophet, not just once but three times. “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” There are two issues in this prophetic word for us.
The first issue is the surprisingly tentative nature of the prophet’s word of absolution. He says here not that the Lord will be with you and will be gracious but only, “it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,” “will be gracious.” This is the “second use” of God’s Law, the threat of God’s judgment unless you repent. How did this strike his listeners? What would be your reaction after confessing your sins in the Divine Service if then you saw the pastor turn and say, “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake perhaps He may forgive you all your sins”? You would think possibly there is something missing, that you may not have confessed aright or believed enough. The rich man in today’s Gospel went away sorrowful because he sensed something was missing in his piety or life of faith. And there was!
True repentance and faith, says the prophet, will be reflected especially in the area of public, social justice. He lists the sins of trampling on the poor, exacting taxes of grain from the poor all the while building expensive houses “of hewn stone,” planting pleasant vineyards, afflicting the righteous, taking bribes, and turning aside the needy (vvs. 10-12). Because of sin, you see, all our priorities and values become disordered and confused. It is a classic quality of conflict that when you lose the ability to judge what issues are more or less important than others the result is that everything becomes a life-and-death issue!
In the latest Lutheran Witness (October 2012) the editor introduces the issue as addressing the conflict between the moral or cultural relativism of the secular world and the moral values of God’s Word. She notes what she calls the “cacophony of competing voices” in modern society with the result that any answers “seem gray and murky.” She then says, “But Christ came into our world to turn the gray into black and white, to bring order to the chaos, to shed light into the darkness, to make sense of the incomprehensible.” The October issue then addresses a number of “the Church’s historic answers to its timeless questions.”
This was quite a pleasant coincidence as I then considered the second issue of our text. And it has to do with the phrase, “the Lord, the God of hosts.”
We’re told you won’t find this phrase in the first books of the Bible, Moses, Joshua and Judges. The first time it appears is in First Samuel chapter one verse three. The most memorable event for us, of course, is when this phrase is heard in the eternal song of the angels, which Isaiah saw and heard in the temple at his call to service (Is 6). This song has been enshrined many times untranslated from the Hebrew in the liturgy of the Divine Service when we join our voices “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” singing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabbaoth,” armies or power and might. Saba is a military term. We think primarily of the order and ranks of angels singing the eternal Sanctus. But the “hosts” of God include also His people, the Church, but even more interesting, also all of creation which God set in order and continues to rule, as it says in Genesis 2, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (Gen 2:1).
Now the reason this is an important insight is to notice God’s ordering not only in the Church but also in the world, in all of creation. The Lord set His hosts in order so that they might serve Him. The Word of God by which He created all things gives direction to His hosts. The result is the orderly, natural world in which we live.
The list of sins the prophet mentions are the evidence of the disorder of values and actions. The only remedy is, as the prophet says, to “Seek the Lord and live,” “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.”
But where do we go to “seek the Lord”? He can only be sought in the manner in which He wishes to be sought and worshipped, namely, in His Word. “His Word” is, of course, the Bible. But it is also the Church’s catechism and hymnal, her sermons and preaching and teaching. So it is not good enough only to be outwardly connected with the Church, but must be a constant hearing, a “reading, marking, learning and inward digestion” of God’s Word.
There we are to discover that only something as drastic and dramatic as the Son of God taking on our human flesh and blood in order to offer Himself as the only sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world, only this Gospel, and only this Jesus, thus forgiving and taking away your sins, can then restore, renew, set in proper perspective and order life according to the values and intent of God’s original design. That renewal will be only partial and weakly experienced in this life. The perfect renewal or reordering will be in the day of the resurrection of all flesh.
So when Amos says, “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate,” he means not only being right with God but also with the neighbor; helping the poor, treating others fairly, dealing honestly. This is why Jesus said to the rich man, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
It is because of this re-ordering of our values and life that Martin Luther included in his catechism, after stating the pure doctrine of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments, added the section called the “Table of Duties,” “certain passages of Scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” It includes the proper ordering of bishops, pastors and preachers, of the hearers of the Word, then of civil government and citizens—yes, God’s Word and the Church do have something to say to and instruct civil government!—then husbands, wives, parents and children, then workers of all kinds, employers and supervisors, and a final word to youth, to widows and to everyone. It ends with the little rhyme, “Let each his lesson learn with care, And all the household well shall fare.”
It is as we continually seek the Lord where and in the manner in which He wishes to be found and heard, by faith in Christ, that the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of creation and salvation, of order and real life will most definitely be with you and be gracious to you. The God of hosts be with you.