What is the one thing that you would miss most if it were taken away from you? What would you most miss if you woke up tomorrow and found you no longer had it? Would it be your family? Your children? Your dog or your cat? Your photo albums? Your health perhaps? I want you to think about that question as we look at Amos 8.
In fact we’ll look at chs 7&8, because they fit together. Here’s the situation. Israel has been ignoring God. He’s been sending his prophets to warn his people to return to just living and to faithful worship of the LORD alone almost since the kingdom was first divided, back in 930 BC. But the people haven’t listened. As we saw last week, the rich have oppressed the poor. They live in luxury while the poor are downtrodden. Writing at about the same time, the Prophet Hosea speaks of their idolatry. They’ve taken for granted their status as God’s chosen people for so long that they seem incapable of understanding their plight; of understanding that God might be angry with them. Despite Amos’ warnings they continue to do evil in God’s sight. And so God is preparing to bring judgement on them. Ch7 begins with the approach of a swarm of locusts, which will destroy the harvest, leaving the people to starve. Amos sees this and prays to God to forgive them; to have mercy on them, because this will devastate the land. And God relents. Then he sees a vision of a great fire coming that will be so great that it will even fry up the sea. Again he prays for mercy and God relents.
But it’s clear that this is only a temporary respite. In 7:7 God shows Amos a plumb line set against a wall, to show that the wall had been built true to plumb. And he says I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword." God’s patience has a limit. He’s listened to Amos’ prayers up until now, but the time has come to apply God’s building code to the structure of the nation of Israel. God is going to judge the sins of Israel.
Mind you, the scale of destruction in this case is different. The earlier visions showed utter destruction for Israel. They would have wiped Israel out altogether. But this time God is acting not in wrath, but in objective judgement. The high places will be destroyed, the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste. Up until now, he says, he’s passed by the high places, the sites of pagan worship by his people. But no more. Now he’s going to target them as he sends the Assyrians to carry out his judgement.
God’s patience is a tricky thing isn’t it? Sometimes we see how God lets sinfulness go and we wonder what he’s doing. We see evil in the world and wonder why God hasn’t done something to wipe it out. On the other hand sometimes it makes us complacent. We see that we’re getting away with blue murder and maybe begin to think that it doesn’t matter. That’s certainly the way the people of Israel were thinking. We’ll see that in a moment when we look at their attitude to the Sabbath. But it does matter. God is patient. God is merciful. But let’s not forget that when he revealed his name to Moses on Mt Sinai he said this: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, ... yet by no means clearing the guilty." God is patient, but a time will come when his patience will run out and he’ll come to judge the world. Peter tells us this: "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance." (2 Pet 3:9 NRSV)
But time has run out. In 8:1 Amos sees another vision, this time of a basket of fruit. God asks him "What do you see?" And Amos replies "A basket of summer fruit." So what? What does this basket of summer fruit mean?
Well, we actually lose a bit in the NRSV translation. There’s actually a play in words in the Hebrew here. The word for ’summer fruit’ and the word for ’end’ sound very much alike. The NIV puts it like this: ’"A basket of ripe fruit," I answered. Then the Lord said to me "The time is ripe for my people Israel."’ They’re about to be gathered in like the summer harvest of fruit. Not that this will be a particularly joyful occasion mind you. In fact it’ll be the opposite: "3The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day," says the Lord GOD; "the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Silence!" Do you remember how a couple of weeks ago we heard Amos preaching in the temple square with the sound of the singers echoing through the gates of the Temple. But no more. All you can hear now is silence. Desolation. The people have been removed or killed. The sanctuary is laid waste.
And why is this about to happen? Is it just God being fickle? Is he doing this on a whim? No! The full extent of their corruption comes out in the next few verses: "4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
Not only were they exploiting the poor. At the same time they were putting on a show of piety. They hadn’t turned away from religion. They still went to church each week. They made sure they fasted on the full moon and during the festivals. But all the time their thoughts were on new ways to make a profit. This was economic rationalism gone mad. Never mind the poor blighters who’ll suffer from our corrupt practices, lets think of new ways to maximise our profits. Rig the scales, overvalue the produce, use your economic muscle to manipulate the weak and powerless, even to the point of selling the rubbish off the floor along with the wheat.
There are echoes here of some modern business practices aren’t there? Squeezing the middleman. Undercutting the weaker opponent. Pressuring staff to work longer hours for the same money. Forcing people to take redundancies, and expecting those who are left to handle the extra workload. Company directors receiving million dollar bonuses while their company flounders, leaving the small investors to carry the can. And they seem to get away with it don’t they? As long as they haven’t acted too illegally. But God says to these rich merchants of Israel: "I will never forget any of their deeds." They won’t get away with it. God is about to act in judgement. Nor will those who act corruptly today get away with it. It matters what God thinks of your business dealings more than how the law sees it or how the community perceives it. This is a particular warning for those of us who are involved in the business world, of course. It’s no use coming to church on a Sunday and going through the motions of worshipping God if your behaviour on Monday, or even on Sunday these days I guess, doesn’t match the way God expects us to behave.
And what’s the nature of the judgement that God is about to bring? Here’s where we come back to the question we started with. What’s the worst thing God could do to them? Well, look at what he says: "8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day." The first thing he describes is an earthquake. The land trembling, being tossed about, rising and sinking again like the Nile. The sun will be darkened. People will be so terrified they’ll throw off their normal clothes and dress in sackcloth as a sign of mourning and repentance. Too late they’ll seek the Lord, but they won’t find him. Why?
Because the real depth of the calamity that’s about to befall them isn’t to do with earthquakes and darkness. It isn’t to do with a famine caused by locusts eating the wheat. Oh, there’s a famine coming, but not a famine of bread or a thirst for water. No it’s far worse than that! "11The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD." The ultimate judgement of God on those who refuse to listen to him is that he’ll stop speaking. That he’ll close our ears. When we read in v3 those awful words, "the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Silence!" we don’t realise just how deathly a silence it will be. A silence not just of human voices, but silence also from God. A famine of hearing the words of God! (cf Is 6:9-10)
And no matter how hard the people try to find God’s word again, they’ll fail. "12They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it." God has given them so many chances to repent. So many times he’s warned them. So many times he disciplined them, given them close calls from other nations’ attacks, sent them prophets to remind them of his word, and they’ve ignored them all. And the time comes when it’s too late; when they’ve gone beyond the point of no return, and God withdraws from them; leaves them to their own devices. And sadly it’s only then that they realise what they’ve lost.
I’m reminded here of the story of Job. Do you remember how Job experienced that series of disasters culminating in an awful skin disease that left him wanting to die. But what was it that Job most desired at that point? It wasn’t death. It wasn’t healing. No, it was to speak to God face to face. He wanted to hear God’s side of events. He wanted God to come and speak to him about these disasters that had come upon him so unjustly. That’s such a normal human response isn’t it? To want to question God about the disasters we experience or the state of the world. But what if God is inaccessible. What if he’s withdrawn his word from us? What a desolate experience that must be!
There’s a warning for us here I think. We evangelicals pride ourselves in being people of the word. God’s word is so important to us. It’s the source of our knowledge of salvation, it’s the guide for our lives, the plumb line against which we measure how we live, it’s the source of the truths we know about God and the world. But its actually of no value to us unless we use it, unless we read it and take notice of it. The danger for the people of Israel in Amos’ time was that they relied on their ceremonial customs, their worship, their hymn singing. We run a similar danger in thinking that because we have the truth about God we’re OK. But unless we take that truth, that word of God and apply it to our lives, to our behaviour, to our relationships, we might as well not have it at all. In the end it will become as useless as their temple worship was. In the end it will be as useless as if we hadn’t had it in the first place. And then the danger is that we won’t be able to recover from it any more than the people of Israel could even by seeking God’s word to the ends of the earth. Heb 6 warns us that "it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt." (Heb 6:4-6 NRSV) So the warning is here for us, as well as for them, to take God’s word seriously.
But that isn’t in fact the end of the story. Although this is our last sermon in this series on Amos, the story doesn’t actually end here. The people of God are about to be judged, but they’re still the people of God. They’ve failed in the way they’ve related to God but they still have a relationship with him. God still has a plan for his people, a plan not for their destruction but for their future. So in 9:11ff he promises restoration for the nation, a return to prosperity for the Land. (9:11-14 NRSV) "On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; 12in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the LORD who does this. 13The time is surely coming, says the LORD, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. 14I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit." God’s covenant with his people isn’t wiped out by this act of judgement. Rather his judgement of Israel is a prelude to his ultimate fulfilment of his promise of blessing to Abraham. He’s going to raise up the booth of David that’s fallen. A time is coming when a second David will appear who will do all that Israel has failed to do. A Messiah who will bring God’s word to the nation once again. He’ll rebuild God’s kingdom, restore the blessing to the remnant that remains. And the final state of the nation will be unparalleled prosperity. That of course is a promise we find repeated in the book of Revelation, with the picture of the new Jerusalem with the river of life flowing through it, and on either side of the river the tree of life growing, bearing fruit each month, and at the centre of the city are God and his only Son Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, the second David, the Word of God incarnate.
Our situation of course is different from that of the people of Israel in Amos’ time. Our salvation no longer depends on our obedience to God. We know that Jesus’ death on the cross has cleansed us from sin and that we’re ready at any time to stand before God in the righteousness given to us by Jesus Christ. (If you don’t know that, by the way, then you should talk to me about it.) But nevertheless, there is a warning here, not to take for granted God’s grace and forgiveness; not to take for granted God’s word revealed to us in the Scriptures. Jesus warned of a time that will come when he’ll sit in judgement to separate the sheep from the goats. 1 Cor 3:10-15 warns that the way we’ve responded to God’s word, the way we’ve worked on building God’s kingdom, will be judged as if by fire and only that which is solid will stand. We ourselves will be saved on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross, but what we’ve done here on earth may or may not survive that last day of judgement. So let’s hold firm to God’s word, let it dwell in us richly, let it do its work of teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Because nothing could be worse than no longer being able to hear God’s word.
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