At first sight it isn’t easy to see what this passage has to do with the ‘Remembrance’ theme which will be uppermost in everyone’s minds this week. Personally I prefer chapter 4, which I have preached on several times on Remembrance Day: ‘”I killed your young men with the sword … yet you have not returned to me”, says the Lord.’
What we have today is something of a purple passage for the bashing of charismatics by those who think that social justice is the most important thing for Christians to be doing, and indeed that is what Amos appears to be saying, although of course in the broader sweep of the book he isn’t saying don’t worship, but rather when you worship make sure it is with integrity, holiness and concern for others.
So how are we to read this passage in the context of Remembrance, with all its associated and contradictory themes of courage, thankfulness, pacifism, if you’ve died in battle you get to go straight to heaven, and so on? What can we learn about the nature of God?
The background, of course, is the Israelite belief in ‘the Day of the Lord’, that coming time when God would step in and intervene, defeat once and for all those nations who had been so nasty to the Jews, and put Israel back in their place as Top Nation. Yes, says Amos, the Day of the Lord is coming, but you lot are in for a nasty shock. If God is coming to punish and overthrow evildoers, you are at the top of his list. You’re longing for that day to come, but it will be you, not the nations around you, who will be in for a bit of divine smiting. Light won’t dawn for the nation: it’ll be pitch darkness instead. As such this oracle is a warning against presumption and comfortable neglect of God’s standards. Let those who think they stand beware lest they fall.
But the second part of the passage is more difficult. We know that God loves justice and righteousness more than mere music without integrity – that’s a given. So what are justice and righteousness? And in particular, what are justice and righteousness in the context of Islamic State, the Taliban, radicalisation and terrorism? Is the right thing to do to avoid violence and warfare at any cost? Or are there times when injustice and bloodshed demand a righteous response of military action? The pacifist point of view would argue that violence is never justified under any circumstances, but others would disagree. I can remember a Baptist minister who was influential in my teenage years, and who had been a forces chaplain in North Africa, on the beaches of Normandy and ultimately in Belsen, preaching on this subject. ‘When you saw what Hitler was doing’, he told us, ‘I knew that he just had to be stopped.’ So what is the just and righteous response today in 2014? I’ll let you answer that for yourself, but what we can say is that to bury our heads in heavenly worship without agonising over that question is not an option.