The prophet Amos had a rough life. He was born and raised to be a shepherd when, all of a sudden, one night in the fields, the word of the Lord came to him. That was it. His life was never the same. Instead of speaking softly to sheep, fending off wolves, Amos found himself spending days and weeks that turned into months and years warning the Northern kingdom of Israel about their impending doom. Some guys seem to love getting a rise out of people, making a scene. Amos would just as soon keep to his flocks.
It was Amos who said, I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ He, along with all of the true prophets God has called throughout the years, felt the incredible burden of bearing the word of the Lord. And his message was not pretty.
In a nutshell, God had seen enough of his people measuring out the correct amount of dill (apparently dill is not only a type of pickle, but also a type of spice! Of course, this insight can only be gained in a reputable academic setting!) while totally disregarding the poor, the destitute, the outcast, the widows and orphans and such. Do you remember what Jesus said when they asked him what all those laws meant? The whole point is to love God and love one another. Incidentally, this might make some sense out of the case law in Leviticus. The point of God belaboring the point of the law was to put it within the day-to-day life of his people. The law needed hands and feet.
But the same way that we understand the laws of our land, it is really the spirit of the law that counts, not the letter. Would the police be executing justice if they arrested a man for speeding when his wife was going into labor? Would the District Attorney’s office spend their time prosecuting a jay-walker for stepping into the street to save a child from oncoming traffic? Is the letter of the law what we value or is it the spirit?
In Amos’ day, the people had forgotten that the law was there to protect the helpless and prosecute the heartless. Are times really that different today? This prophet’s sermon would never be televised. It hits us where we live; right in our selfish little hearts. The message was that Israel had run out of time. The wrath of the Lord was heading in their direction. Anybody feeling hopeful yet?
In today’s Advent reading, Amos’ prophesy sheds a glimmer of hope on the situation. On second thought, maybe “glimmer” is too strong of a word to use. Amos’ words today provide a “speck” of hope. That is more like it.
Thus says the Lord: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed…”
The people would have to readjust their view of hope. Things would never be the same after Assyria destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel. Life would go forward, but with a gaping wound. Amos must have remembered a few sheep over the years that he had lost to a lion’s jaws. The work to salvage a dying lamb had a mixed success rate. Sometimes all you can save are pieces of what used to be. He must have remembered the picture of devastation and the heartache it brought him as a shepherd.
But we have more hope even in the midst of Amos’ prophesy. What if the shepherd became a sheep? It would defy logic, sense and, perhaps most of all, the natural order of things. For the shepherd to make himself as helpless as a lamb, we need a whole new category.
What if we called that category, Gospel? And what if we named the Shepherd, God with us, for us?
Just a thought.