God Calls The Ordinary Into The Extraordinary

I used Ken dolls as visual aids in my sermon today.

And good news!  I still have a job.

Oh and then there was my horrendously sketched-on map.  I’m sorry, Dr. Petersen.  I did pay attention in your class.  Geography is just not my thing. :)

Enjoy …

Amos 7:7-15

God Calls The Ordinary Into The Extraordinary

I was having a difficult time getting my sermon started this week. I really wanted to spend time this summer preaching through some of the Old Testament passages in the lectionary, but oftentimes those texts are a little bit more difficult to approach from a preaching perspective. So as I stared at the blinking cursor on my computer screen, I thought of the preaching method my mom often uses when she is in a rush: Tell a joke  Make a point  Sit down.

Okay – a joke. I can do that. After all, even just explaining the passage seems to lend itself well to starting off a bad joke. You’ve got a prophet, a priest and a king – all you really need to do is throw in a barstool to find a good punch line, right?

But alas – I could not come up with a good punch line. So y’all do not get a joke this morning – just a description of the prophet Amos and the circumstances surrounding this particular passage of scripture and visual aids that involve maps and Barbie dolls.

The Book of Amos chronicles prophesies spoken by the prophet Amos, one of the minor prophets of the Old Testament. He was an 8th century prophet, dated approximately between the years 785 and 745 BCE. Amos was not a man of great means or large societal influence. He was a shepherd from Tekoa, which was a town in Judah, about 10 miles south of the city of Jerusalem.

Amos traveled to Bethel to prophesy; Bethel was a royal sanctuary in the northern kingdom in Israel, approximately 10-11 miles north of the city of Jerusalem. When Amos was Bethel, he had an encounter with a priest named Amaziah.

We really do not know a lot of biographical information about Amos. There is one introductory verse at the beginning of the book that describes Amos as a shepherd and gives a brief synopsis of the vision that he saw concerning Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam. But that is it – the book itself essentially jumps right into Amos’ prophesy.

That being said, the verse that popped up in the lectionary this week – Amos’ encounter with Amaziah, the priest at Bethel – is the closest thing that we have within the book of Amos itself to a description of who Amos was and how God called him to be a prophet.

There are three characters at play in this story: The prophet Amos, the priest Amaziah and King Jeroboam). Amos is a prophet from Judah, but now prophesying in and about Israel. Amaziah is a priest from Israel, trying to stay in the good graces of King Jeroboam, the king of Israel.

“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son” the prophet Amos said to Amaziah, explaining who he was. “But I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos was just an ordinary man living an ordinary life when he heard God’s call to him.

“And the LORD took me from following the flock,” Amos began to describe his call. “And the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

Amos was not exactly welcomed into Bethel and the Kingdom of Israel with open arms. “Oh seer,” Amaziah, the priest, sneered to Amos. “Go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Essentially, the priest, Amaziah, was saying to Amos, “Go back to where you came from! This is King Jeroboam’s land.”

So, why was Amaziah so rude to Amos? Well, first of all, Amaziah was annoyed that Amos, a man from Judea, had come to Israel to prophesy. People – back then and, yes, even today – do not like it when outsiders come in and tell them what they are doing wrong, what they need to change or how they should be running their communities. This is one of the reasons ministers are taught in seminary to just passively observe their congregations for at least one year before starting to make changes. You cannot not simply walk into a new community with your own agenda and immediately demand change; you will be asked to leave. Amaziah did not trust Amos and asked him to leave.

Second of all, Amaziah was also extremely nervous. You see, Amos’ prophesy was not filled with sunshine and roses. Amos said that divine punishment was about to befall the Kingdom of Israel, that reign of King Jeroboam was going to be taken down. “The high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,” Amos prophesied. “And the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” This was not taken lightly; Amos was accused of conspiracy against the king. And Amaziah did not want people to think that he was endorsing Amos and therefore part of the conspiracy. So Amaziah’s reaction to Amos was stern; “Flee away to the land of Judah … and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sancruary.”

Amaziah wanted people to know that his allegiance was with Israel and with King Jeroboam.

Okay, now that we have a little bit of a better understanding of the context of this passage, let’s look more closely at Amos’ response to Amaziah. Amaziah had just told Amos to leave Bethel, to leave Israel and to go back to Judah, that no one wanted him to prophesy in Israel. This is how Amos replied: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” I was struck by this particular line in the scripture, because it is something I have often thought about when I think about my own call to ministry.
While I am preacher’s kid, I have never thought of myself as somehow prophetical or extraordinary. Like Amos, who described himself in ways that made him mortal and human and ordinary, I have always thought of myself an average person; a woman, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a niece, a friend. I am a blogger, a photographer, a runner and an avid coffee drinker. I do not come from some line of great and powerful prophets; I come from a family of hardworking and caring individuals who lived and live their lives just trying to be good people.

I am a fourth generation clergy; my mother is an ordained minister and my grandfather and great-grandfather were also ordained ministers. But I do not wear that history as a badge of honor. Because I truly believe that, ordained clergy or not, my great grandfather, my grandfather, my mother I were and are just ordinary people who felt called into the ministry by God.

But here’s the thing – God calls the ordinary into the extraordinary.

“I am no prophet,” Amos said. If you look at the literal translation of the original Hebrew, the text actually reads, “No prophet I,” which is kind of ambiguous. Some scholars do translate that to say, “I was no prophet,” meaning that Amos was not a prophet – he was a herdsman, a shepherd, but is a prophet now and speaking on behalf of the divine.

Other scholars believe that Amos was still speaking in the present tense when he said this; the translation that appears in the NRSV implies that even after he felt God’s call, Amos still did not consider himself a prophet. He was just an ordinary person, called by God to do something extraordinary.

Traveling to Israel and into Bethel was not necessarily an easy or safe thing for Amos to do. Kings and priests held a lot of power and they were not willing to let that power be compromised by a voice in the crowd, no matter where the voice was coming from or what it was trying to say. Societies develop hierarchical structures that enable and invite people to rise into positions of power and authority. These structures exist so that we, as human beings, can maintain a sense of decorum and organization in our communities. While I do think that these structures are important, I think it is also important to be reminded every now and then that communities do not exist because of the structures that stand around them – communities exist because of the individual people that live and work within them.

Sometimes we, as human beings, confuse manmade power with divine grace. God is the only one who can truly call us to do great things in our lives. Our callings and passions in life can be found where the roads on which God speaks and the roads on which we listen finally intersect. Yes, we are all simply ordinary people – but God is truly calling us to do extraordinary things.

The Rev. Karen Sapio, who is the pastor of the Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, California, reflected on this text and said the following:

Amos declares to Amaziah that in pronouncing God’s judgment upon Israel, he is not simply carrying on the family business. He is acting on a call from God, who alone can command who may prophesy. The authority to prophesy comes from no one but God alone. Neither the state nor the religious establishment may decree where or through whose lips God will announce words of judgment or mercy to God’s people. God calls prophets from all walks of life and empowers them to speak. The collusion of kings and priests to silence words that threaten their power cannot ultimately silence those whom God calls to work of prophecy. {Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, Page 223}

Is there a prophet among us? I have no idea. But I do know one thing is for sure – God uses the ordinary for the extraordinary. This morning’s scripture does not come from the Book of the Priest Amaziah or the Book of King Jeroboam – it comes from the Book of Amos. Amos – a shepherd; Amos – a herdsmen; Amos – a Judean in a foreign land; Amos – an ordinary man, called by God to do something extraordinary.

There is a lot of pressure in today’s society to be the best, to have power, to have money and to have prestige. We are inundated by media that elevate those with money and portray perfectly fit and proportioned bodies, perfectly decorated and pristinely clean houses and perfectly developed styles and lifestyles. We feel like we have to keep up with those standards and feel inadequate when we cannot.

But we really do not have to. God does not work through the powerful or the perfect or the extraordinary. God works through the ordinary. God works through you and me.
If we open ourselves us as vessels to do God’s work in the world, God will use us to do great things; God will call us to be ministers to the people we meet along our journeys; God will use us to do extraordinary things.

How blessed are we that we are witnesses to the constant miraculous transformation of the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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