We’re all familiar with the importance of mood music in such communication media as films and television. The right music can make a good film great. The wrong music can destroy what was otherwise an enjoyable experience. But music can do more than just enhance the enjoyment. It can be used in such a way that it brings the message home in a way that words alone could never do. If you’re as old as I am you may remember a piece by Simon & Garfunkel in the late 60s or 70s at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests. It was called "7 O’clock News/Silent Night". In it they juxtaposed the singing of Silent Night with news bulletins about war and violence in the US at the time. And the real horror of their message was brought home as we listened to the peaceful music and lyrics of the Christmas Carol while reports of fighting and murder and violence were read in those emotionless tones that only news readers seem capable of.
Well, it’s a shame that we don’t have video footage of Amos delivering this prophecy here in Amos 4 & 5, Because it seems that he’s doing a similar thing here. It’s as though he’s standing in front of the temple as he speaks and the sounds of the singers in the Temple are wafting out, forming a background to what he has to say. Look at 4:13: "the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth-- the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!" They’re the words of a psalm of praise to God. Then Amos speaks and as he’s speaking we catch a further snatch of music in v8: "The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name, 9who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress." The people are singing praises to God, going about their regular routine of worship, going through the religious motions, unaware of the terrible words that Amos has to say.
You see what Amos is about to say is far removed from a song of praise. It, in fact, is a lament. It’s a funeral song. A funeral song for the nation of Israel. "Fallen, no more to rise, is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land, with no one to raise her up." Israel is likened to a young girl in the flower of her youth, who is about to be cut off in her prime. Taken away without any opportunity to bear offspring. Dying childless in a barren land. A funeral for a young person is the saddest of sad occasions isn’t it? When an 80 year old dies you can at least look back at what they’ve accomplished, the people they’ve touched, but when a child or a teenager dies our sadness is multiplied by the potential lost, the hopes abandoned, the promise unfulfilled. And that’s what’s about to happen to Israel.
What’s more it’s to be a humiliating defeat. A total catastrophe. I was watching "Australians at War" on Wednesday night and they said there were about 1 million Australians who fought in the 2nd World War, of whom I think they said, about 50,000 died. But imagine if it had been 900,000 who had died and only 100,000 had come home. Total devastation! Think what the war memorials in our country towns would look like. Of 100 young men who’d gone to war imagine if 90 had died and only 10 returned! That’s the scale of destruction that Amos is talking about here. The whole nation will be reduced to tears. Look at v16: "In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, "Alas! alas!" They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing." Now I don’t know if farmers in those days were like farmers today, but it wouldn’t surprise me. You have to be tough to be a farmer. You have to be able to handle set backs. Just look at the way farmers in Australia seem to cope with year after year of drought and then when the drought breaks, they’re as often as not faced with floods. But they plough on (if you’ll forgive the pun). You don’t see them reduced to tears very often But here even the farmers will be in tears, mourning the death of the nation.
And as Amos’ words ring around the Temple Square the words of the singers reach our ears: "the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth-- the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name! ... The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name." The people are calling on the name of the Lord, confident that the Lord who made the heavens and the earth, who set the planets in their order, who makes night turn to day and day to night, every 24 hours without fail, will continue to bless them, his own people, his precious possession. There’s a confidence in their mind as the people of God, that things will be well. "God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world" seems to be their theme song. But things aren’t right with their world.
It may be that Amos adds an extra stanza to their hymn as he hears them finish: "who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress." "Don’t be complacent" he says. If God can put the stars in place, what’s a fortress or two? God is the one who sends the lightning to strike where he wills. If he’s established your kingdom he can just as easily destroy it, in a flash. As an American politician once observed, "A government that’s powerful enough to give you all you want, is also powerful enough to take it all away again."
Well, that’s even more true of God. The status quo exists only because God allows it to continue to exist. If God is able to tame the chaos of the universe to make this a safe world in which to live, he’s just as capable of unleashing those same energies against those who stand against him. The history of empires is littered with nations that chose to ignore God to their peril. Why should anyone think that theirs is different.
And so it’s God who is about to act against them. "The Lord will break out against the house of Joseph like fire (v6)." "I will pass through the midst of you, says the LORD (v17)." God is offended by there behaviour. The God they sing to isn’t the God they imagine. Nor is he the God that so many today imagine. He isn’t your kindly grandfatherly God, sitting up there on a cloud smiling kindly down at you, winking at your misdemeanours. He isn’t a softy you can wrap around your little finger just by saying the right words or singing the right hymns. The Bible speaks of both the kindness and the sternness of God. Jesus warned us not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather to fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mat 10:28 NRSV) Now, today’s liberal mindset doesn’t like talking about such things. We think it all sounds too harsh. We’d rather talk about God’s love and leave the hard stuff out. But let me suggest that all that does is leave us with a greater dilemma. You see if God is just a God of love how do we deal with a world that’s full of suffering. How can we believe in a God who’s all love when the world is full of such misery. It seems to me the answer to that question is, you can’t. And the Bible never suggests you should. Amos certainly doesn’t suggest that. But then the question of suffering isn’t a problem for Amos. His only problem is how long it’ll be before God punishes those who cause suffering in the world. The only question he has is how come God has been so patient with his people when they’ve ignored him for so long.
Amos is in no doubt that love is an important attribute of God. We saw that last time and we’ll see it later in this passage, but equally important is God’s desire for righteousness.
You see, the suffering that Amos sees is suffering experienced by the poor and powerless. It’s suffering inflicted on them by the rich and powerful. Look at the litany of accusations and complaints he raises:
"7you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!" What they call justice would make you sick. Righteousness is trampled upon. "10They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine." If you wanted justice in Amos’ day you went to the elders who sat in the city gate and presented your case to them. But what’s happened? If one of the elders gives a judgement that reproves a wrongdoer, he gets frowned upon by his peers, that is by the other rich and powerful elders. If someone speaks the truth he earns their hatred. They justify their oppression of the poor by levying taxes of grain, so it sounds above board. They might even give them the odd one-off grant of $300 each to make them feel better, but in the end all they’re doing is exploiting them to their own advantage.
"12For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins-- you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time." Political expediency takes precedence over justice. The rich, those who can afford a bribe get away with murder, while the needy are punished or simply excluded from the courts. Of course it’s often more expedient to keep quiet isn’t it? If you’re only just keeping your head above water it’s dangerous to make waves. Let sleeping dogs lie. No-one likes a dobber. We all learn these lessons early on don’t we? And so morality goes out the window, blown by the winds of pragmatism and expediency.
The trouble is, this has got to such a stage of structural evil that it seems like there’s no solution. Yet that’s the point at which God’s love and mercy enters in. Amos has a remedy for the ills of Israel, terminal as they may seem. In fact it’s a threefold remedy.
A personal encounter with God
First, he says: "thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: Seek me and live." The first step towards redeeming their situation is to turn to God. To seek his face. He says: "Don’t seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba;" These were the 3 shrines that the Northern kingdom had adopted for their worship of God when they separated from Judah.
So what’s he saying? What’s wrong with going to church if you want to seek God? Well, the trouble was that their worship had become a thing of ritual and ceremony, of social respectability and religious habit. A 17th century Anglican Bishop once remarked "The nearer to Church the further from God." Their religion had degenerated into something of form without substance. They went through the motions but their hearts weren’t changed. They thought that if they were in God’s house they were safe, but when God breaks out against the house of Joseph like fire, "it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it." The sacred shrines will be swept away with the rest of the nation. The fire of God’s wrath will be unquenchable.
What they need to do is to seek the face of the Lord. They need to confront themselves with the holiness of God. They need to confront their own unworthiness, their own failure to obey God. And then comes the second step:
"14Seek good and not evil, that you may live." They need to turn away from their evil deeds, evil attitudes and seek to do good. They need a change of heart. This is something that some of us have difficulty with at times. Some people, I think, get confused about repentance. They equate it with being sorry for the consequences of their actions, or shame at the way people now think of them, or even being afraid of punishment. But genuine repentance involves a change of mind. It involves turning away from ourselves to God: "seek me and live" and turning towards godly behaviour: "14Seek good and not evil." So it’s both God-centred and it’s active. It affects the will. See how he repeats it in the negative: "15Hate evil and love good." There’s a change of heart involved. We’re to adopt the mindset of God, the moral passion that God has, to hate all that is evil and to love that which is good. Finally, we’re to
Humbly ask for God’s Grace.
"15It may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph." Notice that "It may be." There’s no room here for complacency is there? There’s no place for those who blithely appear at the temple on the allotted days and simply expect God to show mercy. There’s no room for those who think that simply coming to communion week after week will bring salvation. God is looking for a humble heart, a humble dependence on him, on his mercy and grace, not on a presumptuous mindset that expects mercy as a right. God is sovereign and will show mercy on those to whom he chooses. That’s the essential nature of grace and mercy isn’t it? It’s unmerited, freely given, undeserved. Yet at the same time we have Jesus’ promise in John 6:37: (John 6:37 NRSV) "anyone who comes to me I will never drive away;"
God invites us to come to him in humble dependence, to seek him and live. He makes us an offer of mercy even as the funeral march is playing in the background. On the day of Pentecost the people of Jerusalem cried out in response to Peter’s proclamation of the gospel "What shall we do?" And what did he say? "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." The message hasn’t changed has it? Seek the Lord and live. Repent and believe the gospel. Be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. A personal encounter with God, repentance of sins and humbly asking for his grace and forgiveness.
This is the gospel of the Lord.
For more sermons from this source go to www.sttheos.org.au