Friday, September 13, 2013

Amos 8:4 - 7 -- Living in Kindness, Faith, and Justice

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
       God often uses ordinary people we might not expect to help him carry out his work. The disciples whom Jesus sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel are one example. The prophet Amos is another. Amos was a shepherd who also tended fig trees in the southern part of Israel, which was called Judah in his time. You may remember that Israel was divided into two parts after King Solomon died, with two kings and two governments and two armies. To make his assignment even more of a challenge, the Lord didn’t keep Amos at home, but sent him to the nation in the north, which kept the name Israel.
       Now, Israel was prosperous and strong at that time, the way North America is today. The people were secure and comfortable. They believed God favored them with the earthly blessings they deserved, because of what one biblical scholar  called their extravagant support of official government shrines. They paid their dues and more.
       But there were lots of problems from God’s point of view. It was Amos’s task to deliver his judgment on their way of life to people who were pretty comfortable and didn’t want to be told about their failings.
       Amos delivered God’s message forthrightly. He didn’t shrink from speaking bad news. You see, while God loves justice and righteousness, all the nations of the area gained their wealth and power by unjust means and wrongful behavior. Pagan nations enslaved their neighbors and sent whole countries into exile; one nation pursued her own people with the sword. We ourselves live in blessed circumstances, but if you follow the news – and hardly anyone misses the main facts – you know that in other parts of the world things just as horrible as the crimes and abuses mentioned in the Old Testament take place in our day. Our own laws permit abortion and same-sex marriage, and we know what God thinks of that. Anyway, the world always finds paths of sin and injustice when it refuses to follow the word of God.
       Even Judah, where Amos came from and which the Lord loved, rejected God’s law and lived by falsehood. They would pay a price. God said through Amos, “I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds pf Jerusalem.” Amos especially emphasized the sins of the northern kingdom: They sold the righteous for silver. They trampled the poor into the dust of the earth, and they wallowed in immorality. Above all, they worshiped false gods and practiced automatic religion. They believed that God rewarded them simply because they carried out the prescribed animal sacrifices and made offerings from their rich harvests.
       True religion has to do with the heart and not externals. A heart that is close to God and is moved by him will rejoice and be thankful. Faithful hearts love justice and do numerous good works without thinking twice. They are humble before God and loving to their neighbors. The nations of Amos’ time, including the Lord’s beloved Israel and Judah, practiced injustice day in and day out. “They do not know how to do right,” the Lord said.
       Wickedness and injustice never, never have the last word. God promised to punish heathen nations severely for their crimes. He would punish Judah and his wrath would fall on Israel. He would send drought and famine and a foreign army would surround the land. “I will punish the altars of Bethel and the houses of ivory shall perish.”  Although he had sent plenty of warnings in the past, the nation didn’t return to the Lord. “I know how many are your transgressions,” he said through Amos. They afflicted the righteous; they took bribes; they turned the needy aside at the city gates. But a price must be paid. “In all the squares there shall be wailing,” The Lord said. “And in all the streets they shall say ‘Alas, alas’. Farmers would mourn there would be wailing in the vineyards. “I despise your feasts,” the Lord said. He would not accept their offerings. “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” Instead, the Lord commanded, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” A bad time would come, Amos foretold, if God’s chosen nation continued to ignore his wishes. “I shall raise up against you a nation...and they shall oppress you.”
       Now, nobody wants to hear a message like that, and the leaders of Israel sent Amos back home so that he couldn’t prophesy any more among the wonderful people of Israel. Amos did as he was told, but not before he issued another warning – that there would be violence and division in the land and the leaders would be sent away into exile.
       This is a strong message, and sometimes God needs to speak strongly or else no one will listen, and even then some folks still don’t pay attention. As it turned out, the leaders of the northern kingdom disregarded what Amos and other prophets told them, so a few decades later the nation’s leaders were sent into exile, and Judah’s turn came not too long after. Although Amos delivered his message thousands of years ago, the words he spoke about faithfulness to God and his commands apply to the world today, and if you find yourself taking his message to heart, praise the Lord for giving you wisdom.
       We also praise God that Amos’s message isn’t made up completely of reproaches. For one thing, Amos teaches us that God loves justice. He hates oppression and wickedness and the crimes and misdeeds of people in high places, of which the news is often very full. What a blessing for ordinary folks like ourselves that Jesus is on the side of good and that he will eventually make right every injustice for his glory and the benefit of his people. He punishes unrepentant sinners and lifts up the humble of heart. He helps strengthens us to endure inequities now so that we may rejoice with him when we reach the next life that he has prepared for us.
       He gives us hope in God’s justice and makes us workers for justice ourselves. We are fair and just in our dealings with others. We comfort neighbors who may be victims of injustice or crime. We pray for justice here in the Toronto area and in the world at large. We are beacon lights for the justice and fairness of our Lord. We set examples in our own lives of trust in heaven’s justice. We thank God for making it possible for us to live by his standards rather than the imperfect ways of the world.
Amos prophecies good news as well as bad in still another way. He promised at the end of his book that the God who shakes the house of Israel will also lift her up again. “In that day, I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its branches and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in days of old....I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel...I will plant them upon their land and they shall never again be plucked up.”  The Lord who brings down in order to chasten and teach wisdom also rebuilds and gives back. He replaces sorrow with joy in his own good time. When the Israelites went back home after 70 years of exile, they sang this psalm: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy...He that goes forth weeping shall come home with shouts of joy.” God removes the heavy yoke in his own good time. He sends joyful days even in this life.
       Now, joys come because of the goodness of Christ. We find joy in his justice. Human justice is flawed, but God is perfect. We know how it works. Every sin of people and nations must be paid for, but not even death can make amends for the depth and height of the world’s sin. So God sent his son to die in our place and to take our penalty upon himself. He loves life and his creation, and so he died to bring us life and abundance.  When we read about the trespasses of God’s Old Testament people, we think of our own. When we hear about the wrath that came upon them, we are reminded of what we ourselves deserve. The Lord took our sins upon him, however, and endured the wrath of God in our place. His justice includes mercy and pardon. All he asks of us in return is faith in him.
       The unbelieving part of the world is hard of heart and turns away from the God who loves it. Jesus calls us to walk along a different path – of tenderness and mercy, faith and justice. We’re kind to the unfortunate. We don’t oppress. The earthly goods we have come to us by honest means. We don’t practice a religion of show; we worship Jesus with purity of heart. We rejoice that God’s justice rolls down upon us like a river and we freely offer it to others – to children, to old people, to folks in need who can’t do for themselves. We share with others the good news that God has shared with us – with friends who may be discouraged at the way the world works, with loved ones who feel the unfairness of earthly life. The Lord’s justice is strong; it won’t fail. It reaches out to everyone.  The proud will be brought down, the lowly raised up. And sinners are forgiven, for God’s justice includes mercy. He is just to everyone, and so are we, thanks to Jesus, who clears the way for us. If Amos were at Our Saviour this morning, he would encourage us to keep on walking alongside our Lord, who will continue to shower the blessings of his justice upon us. In Jesus Name, we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.   

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