A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 18, 2010.
Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Luke 10:38-42
We do not often hear sermons dealing with rage, holy or otherwise, because preachers do not often preach them. The subject is not easy to think about, let alone consider from a moral perspective. On the other hand, preachers talk with congregations more or less regularly about difficult subjects. However difficult or unpleasant it may be, we talk about grief and death, fear and guilt, despair and failure. Rage is no less real than any of these or other difficult subjects.
Because preachers rarely talk with congregations about rage, people who worship rarely are asked to think about rage in moral terms. We are not encouraged to consider, for example, the following questions:
1. What is rage and is there a righteous dimension to it? If so, what makes rage righteous or “holy”?
2. What moral purpose does holy rage serve for individuals and a society?
3. How can followers of Jesus Christ fulfill God’s purposes when we are motivated by holy rage to action? What happens to us and to the world around us if and when we are unable or unwilling to act?
The Oxford American Dictionary defines rage as “violent anger.” This is not simple displeasure or even ordinary anger, but anger so intense that it does violence to something or someone. Anger is a normal emotional and moral response to an action or situation that is extremely offensive. Anger, like fear, grief, and joy, is a normal emotional and moral response in moral beings that are emotionally healthy. But how can violent anger be healthy, not to mention holy?
The lessons from Amos 8 and Psalm 52 put the issue in sharp focus. In Amos, the prophet rails against the greed, hypocrisy, and injustice of a society that has produced hurtful consequences for the most vulnerable people in that society, orphans, widows, and the poor. Religion, political officials, and commercial interests have combined at every turn to exalt private gain over fairness, compassion, and integrity. The prophet denounced the situation with words that are as chilling as they are clear at 8:2-8. In The Message, Eugene Peterson has paraphrased that passage in these words:
God said, “Right. So, I’m calling it quits with my people Israel. I’m no longer acting as if everything is just fine. The royal singers will rail when it happens.” My Master God said so. “Corpses will be strewn here, there, and everywhere. Hush!”
Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing. Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?” Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them—and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.
God swears against the arrogance of Jacob; “I’m keeping track of their every last sin.” God’s oath will shake earth’s foundations, dissolve the whole world into tears. God’s oath will sweep in like a river that rises, flooding houses and lands, and then recedes, leaving behind a sea of mud.
This is violent language. There is nothing easy-going about it. Amos understands that God is furious, not merely anger or displeased. The anger of God has reached the point that violent action will come. The issue for Amos is not whether God is angry or if God can become so angry. The issue is what God intends to do. And the message is very clear—God has sentenced the society to a violent judgment. The issue is only when the judgment will be executed.
As the prophetic agent of God to that oppressive society, Amos has the unpleasant but necessary duty of delivering the news. Amos is the reporter and editor. God is the publisher. God is violently angry.
Somehow we have convinced ourselves that God cannot or should not get so angry that we suffer harm. This is an interesting way to think. In physics we learn that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (this is Newton’s third law of motion). When I sit in a chair, my body exerts a downward force on the chair and the chair exerts an upward force on my body. When the downward force of my body is greater than the upward force of the chair, the chair will sag or crumble, causing my body to fall to the floor or on something else. The farther I fall, the greater I am at risk for serious injury or even death.
The Bible declares that something similar to the “action/reaction” law of physics operates in the moral realm, as today’s lessons from Amos shows. In Amos, we read a prophetic denunciation—a “reaction” to a conditions caused by actions taken by the ruling forces in a society. The prophet denounces that society for trampling on the poor and oppressing the needy. He rails against the society for religious hypocrisy and crass materialism. Speaking for God, the prophet announces that the society has passed the breaking point. “The end has come for my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings …”
People do not like to be told that they are wrong. They especially dislike being told they are so morally wrong that God is fed up with them. Perhaps that explains why preachers do not often speak of moral wrongs that outrage God and why so many church-goers do not appear to understand our moral obligation to be like Amos in the face of the things that outrage God.
But we cannot read Amos and the other prophets of his time out of Scripture. One clear and unflinching message of their ministry is that there comes a point where people can behave in ways that are morally outrageous. We are not “God proof.” We are not exempt from the moral judgment of God on the way we treat others. No matter who we are, when we live, or what form of society we are in, humans live under the moral judgments of God. We may choose to disobey God. We may rationalize our disobedience. But our disobedience and the reasons we offer for it do not cancel God’s judgments. For every action there is a reaction.
If I am too heavy for a chair that is six inches from the floor and the chair crumbles, I may fall six inches. But what happens when I am sitting in a chair 100 feet above the ground? The distance of my chair from the ground will determine how far I fall, how hard I crash, and how severely I am likely to be injured.
Amos tried to show the ruling powers in Israel that their greed, hypocrisy, and oppressive dealings toward weak and needy in that society violated God’s justice. Justice is not an alternative to love. Justice is the social outgrowth of love. Justice is love done right, love in action, and love in social dealings. According to Amos, the people in Israel had so badly and pervasively violated God’s justice by their unloving dealings that the society was doomed to crash. The chair was broken. God would not prevent it from crumbling. A crash was coming. The issue was not if, but when.
God has not failed when a chair crumbles because people put too much weight on it. God has not failed when people fall when the chair crumbles because they put too much weight on it. And God has not failed when people are injured from crashes when their chairs crumble. So when people who claim to know God and honor the justice of God express holy rage about how people are deliberately making the chair crumble, they are issuing warnings. Amos was obligated to express a holy rage about the situation and the conditions for it because he was God’s agent of justice and judgment.
And the intensity of a warning should be related to the danger that makes the warning necessary. Amos saw the danger. Amos knew how greed, hypocrisy, and injustice were oppressing the most vulnerable people in the society. Amos knew that the damage reached so high and spread so wide through the society that the chair was going to fall hard, fast, and far.
You and I are God’s Amos people for our time and place. Like Amos, we see how people are suffering. We see how greed forces working people to work longer and harder while the gap between rich and poor widens. We see how power is used to protect the wealthy from doing what is fair, and used to force the less affluent to pay the consequences. We see how children in some school districts and some areas of a community are nurtured for success while other children are left behind. We see how the air, soil, and water are contaminated in the name of profit-making. The issue is not whether we see what makes God angry, but whether we are willing to speak up like Amos about it.
If we will be like Amos, our time and place will get the news that there is a point with God beyond which no people can go without falling. The chair can fall. God does not owe it to any of us, or all of us, to catch the chair.
God will give us the courage to lovingly deliver the message. God will show us how to call our time and place to repent. God will encourage us, comfort our anxieties, and give us opportunities to make a holy difference as we warn our time and place about God’s holy rage. And if anyone tells you that this is just an Old Testament notion of God, remind them that Jesus ran some people out of a temple. Jesus, the love of God personified, shows us that people who love God’s justice also must love God enough to be angry, even violently angry, when God becomes violently angry because justice is not done for those who are weak and vulnerable.
Like Amos, let’s trust God to lead and guide us as we deliver God’s news to our time and place. Let’s trust God to use us to make a holy difference by how we stand up with and for God and justice about the things that matter to God—loving one another. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.