Saturday, July 24, 2010

Amos 8:1-12 - The Great and Fearful Day of the Lord

Amos 8:1-12
The Great and Fearful Day of the Lord

The sun is shining through the artistically colored windows. The worship team is at its prime. The people are all dressed in their Sunday best poised and ready for worship. They are standing tall, faces up lifted toward the sky as the music is about to begin. There is a quiet reverence in the sanctuary. It seems as if nobody is shuffling, nobody is restless, and everyone is focused on the song they are all about to sing. Even the dust gently drifting in the luminously colored beams of light filling the sanctuary seems Holy. The voices raises the chorus begins but God can not hear the words of song because of the chaotic din. The man on the third row is wondering if he can nonchalantly slip his cell phone out of his pocket. He is positive that the service started a few minutes late, will that mean it will run a little late, will he be able to make it downtown in time if the service is 5-10 minutes over. Why did he sit on the third row? He can’t sneak out toward the end everyone will see him. He stands looking up at the screening singing the words. His face looks focused; by all appearances he is engrossed in worship. There a woman toward the back on the right. She is smartly dressed; her hair is neatly pulled back. She is the picture of modesty and propriety, but as she sings she begins to wonder if she can get away with cutting Amelia’s pay, she just can not afford to pay that woman as much as she is getting paid. Perhaps, she can tell Amelia that the work she did this last time around was just not up to par. Sure she knows that Amelia works herself to the bone and really does a fine job but sometimes you just have to pay someone a little bit less. She can tell Amelia that the seams were just not right that she was just not as happy and then simply give her 20% less than the agreed upon price for the garment. It will be ok, Amelia will find a way to make up for it somehow, I bet she over charges some of her customers anyway.
As the song proceeds the din grows louder and louder. God looks down on the people, hands over ears waiting, waiting for the noise to stop, waiting for the din to die down but the service seems to go on and on the raucous get louder and louder and finally something has to be done. It is at this point that Amos (the tree farmer and sheep herder) shakes his head once again wondering why God can’t give him something pleasant to say to these people, he steps out of his anonymous place in the pew into the aisle and raises his voice above the melodious strains of pious worship and says, “This is what the Lord God [just] showed me. . .”
God can not hear the worship. The worship is pointless the worship is useless the worship is not worship, when over laid with the din of unworshipful attitudes which fill the sanctuary. God wants to mourn, God wants to wail, this is an outrage this is deplorable. God will turn their empty songs in to wailing, their hollow praise into mourning. If they want the festive worship over so they can get on with business, God will put a stop top the festivities.
Israel is a basket of over ripe the fruit the last of the harvest taken in. It is past its prime the bananas are getting a little brown the peaches are soft and the apples would probably be a bit mealy when bitten into but it is worse than that. They are not merely over ripe they are rotten, more than a little past their prime those bananas are so far gone they can’t even be frozen and turned in to bread, best just throw them out and wait until next year there is nothing good left from this harvest.
God is a little more than fed up with the people of Israel at this point. When it comes time for the festive observances which God had set up for them, they are not grateful for the break from the routine, they are not joyful in the celebration of how God had provided for them once again, they are not enraptured and engrossed in worship of their God who lovingly and faithful takes care of them in season and out of season. Instead they can’t wait to get back to business. They can’t wait to get back to their shops and to their markets they can not wait to get back to work. Not because they need the money and every moment they are spending away from their labours is resulting in not being able to earn the money they need to survive but because they want to get back to business practices which are just a little on the “shady side” to say the least. They are selling their harvests with bushel baskets which are too small. They are doing business with falsely weighted scales which are in their favor. Not only are they dishonest in their practices but they are cheating the poor and robbing the needy of their due. God had set up a system by which no one in Israel would go hungry and in their practices they are sweeping up every last grain so they can sell it with their dishonest weights and their small bushel baskets, but they were forbidden by God to sell the sweepings. They were not allow to go back through the field and harvest what they missed they were not allowed to take a broom to the threshing floor and pick up every last grain they were to leave this to those who had fallen on hard times they were to leave the leftovers for the poor and they needy so they could come and pick up the scraps which were over looked. But they were not doing this; they were picking every last head of grain and picking up every last wheat berry so that they could turn the most profit while the most vulnerable in their nation starved to death at on their doorsteps searching for the food which was rightfully theirs by law. They are not respecting each other and in doing so they are not respecting God.
God says they are like over ripe fruit. They look good on the outside but at the core, in the center of their beings they are rotten, rotten to the core. They might look righteous, they may beautiful but they are evil they are ugly. And God is tire of it. God can not stand to look at them any more. God can not stand to have them singing in the sanctuary. God is going to turn their singing into mourning and their songs into lamentations. God is mourning, God is lamenting it is high time that the people joined their God in this respect. They are going about their sinful lives, going living daily in the muck and the mire of their sin, pretending to be righteously dressed, pious minded people but they are really clothed garment they stole from the poor and their minds are continually on who and how they can cheat next, to get just a little more ahead.
God can not stand idly by while the poor are starving to death and the needy are trampled under foot. But this is not where God’s ire ends. Even as the people are cheating and stealing longing for the Sabbath to be over so they can cheat and steal some more they are full of pride. They seem themselves in a distorted mirror and instead of seeing who they really are, ugly, evil and rotting from the inside out, they find pride in what they see, believing themselves to be examples of piety, pillars of righteousness. They are a diva preening in the mirror seeing how beautiful she is proud of her long silky hair and her exquisite clothes who then turns from the mirror and lashes out at those she sees as her servants slaughtering them with her poison tongue and reducing them to piles of ash with her belittling triads. The beauty is really only found in the mirror because the person in the room is as ugly as can be. They are prideful in how they worship, they are prideful in their prosperity, and they are prideful of the peace they have brought to the nation. Their pride exceeds reality and so God says, that God will swear by their pride.
You must know at this point, that they believed that, you could not swear by something that is lesser than you. They believed you could only swear by something greater than yourself, so normally when God swore God swore by God’s self, since there was nothing greater than God. But here in this passage God, with tongue in cheek, swears by the pride of Jacob, Jacob being a representation of the people of Israel. God is telling them that their pride has gotten so big that even God can swear by it now.
God says, I am coming and I am going to set things right. In verse 9 God says, “On that day,” and in verse 11, “the time is surely coming.” If you were just reading this you might just over look these phrases or you might stop and wonder to yourself, ‘on what day?,” or “what time?” And you would be right in wondering because these were phrases which meant something to the people hearing them. “That day,” and the “time” which “is surely coming” is what Israel knew as the “Great and terrible day of the Lord,” often shortened to “The day of the Lord,” or even more simply, “that day.” This is the day when God will set all things right, the day when God will right all wrongs, the day when the evil will suffer and the righteous will be lifted up. This is a great day if you are righteous, if you are one of the ones who had been wronged. BUT, if you are the wrong which needs to be righted; if you the one doing evil, well then it is a terrible day; a day of which you should live in fear. And far too many in Israel at this time are on the wrong side of this day and God says it is coming. The day of the Lord is coming and they had better be ready for it, because they are lying and cheating and stealing and God is going to set them right and it ain’t going to be pretty and it ain’t going to be nice. It will be, for them, a day filled with mourning and lamentations. It will not be a day to which they will look forward. It will be a day to avoid; a day to push off as long as possible. But God says it is coming and you had better be ready.
Amos is standing up in the temple of the Lord and telling the people there who have gathered before God to worship, that their worship is worthless, their praise is empty. They might as well go home and prepare for the day of the Lord, because this is not what God called for them to do.
We gather each Sunday here in this sanctuary to draw close to God; to hear God’s voice; to give God the honor and praise which God alone deserves and I can not help but wonder what God has to say to us this morning. Are we attending to the voice of the Lord, are we listening to God’s words, and allowing them to change our lives and remake us into the people God is calling us to be? Or do we come to God this morning worried and distracted by many things. Are we distracted by the care of our worldly lives? Are we more concerned with what we will do when we get home, or when we get back to the office tomorrow, than we are to attending to the will and ways of our God for our lives? Are we here in body but not here in our hearts?
We come before God this morning, and we might look like ripe fruit but are we rotten on the inside? We might be able to stand before our friends and loved ones here in this church and appear to be the people God is calling us to be but God knows what we look like on the inside. God knows if at the core of our beings we are not the people we appear to be on the outside.
We as Christians look forward to the day of the Lord; we look forward to Christ’s return. We look forward to the day when God will set all thing right once and for all but first we must be ready for that day, first we must seek the heart of God and allow God to remake us so that we are no longer a part of that which needs to be set right.
This is God’s call to us this morning. We gathered here to worship and the din and the raucousness of our distractions and sin have nearly driven God from our midst this morning and Amos has stepped into the isle and told us that we need to change. We need to set aside that which distracts us from God, we need to allow God to cleanse us of our unrighteousness and anything in our lives which is pulling us away from God and allow God to cleanse us and purify us, so that we can join with those who look to the horizon for our Lord’s coming with hopeful anticipation instead of fear and trembling. The day of the Lord is coming, let it be a great and not a terrible day for you.

Amos 7:7-17 - The Unpopular Will of God

Amos 7:7-17

When you talk about the prophets of the Bible, Amos was the very first of the prophets which come later in the history of God’s people. First there is Moses and then you had the judges and Samuel but then you have the latter prophets. The book of Amos may not be the first one when you are reading straight through the Bible, but Amos is the first of these latter prophets if you are looking at the prophets chronologically. This does not mean there were no prophets who came before Amos, but this means there are no prophets whose teachings were important enough to be considered as part of the Holy Scriptures. The fact that Amos is the first prophet of his ilk is important, because although Amos says a lot of things with which those of us who are familiar with the Bible and its general content might be familiar, this was new stuff to his audience. The way Amos spoke and the things Amos had to say had never really been said before. In many ways Amos was a prophet like none who had gone before him.
He spoke at a time of great prosperity in Israel. The country was at peace. Life was good. There was plenty of food, the land was plentiful, and the temple was running smoothly, the monarchy was running smoothly. Young women could spend there time mooning over young men. Young couples were working together, to build homes and houses and eek out happy lives together. Babies were being cuddled in the arms of indulgent grandmothers and grandfathers sat on porches late into the evening telling engrossed audiences of young children about how the sun was hotter, the snow was colder and how they walked everywhere up hill with no shoes.
One would think that this would mean that it was a high point in Israelite history, but it is not. It was a time of great prosperity but it was also a time of great corruption. Many were well off and life was good, but for many others, times were hard, life was not fair and no matter how hard they worked and no matter how many long hours they labored they just could not get ahead. Life was hard, and the future was bleak.
This was a time when the rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor. They were taking advantage of the poor to get richer. Those who were well off were well off because they were cheating others in the market place and not paying people what they deserved to be paid. They would make a “small bushel” and use hollow weights to work things in their favor so when they did dealings with those who had labored hard they were cheating people out of a fair wage. And this displeased the Lord greatly. God asked for two things, God asked for the people to love God and for them to love their neighbor and, the last time I checked, cheating people out of hard earned money was a very poor way to show someone love. And God thought this was down right despicable.
Because Amos is the first of the Biblical prophets of his era, although his teachings are filled with themes with which we may be familiar, when Amos came to the people of Israel this was the first time Israel was hearing any of this. One of these themes is the idea of Israel being taken into exile as a result of their sins against each other and against God.
Although the idea of foreign kings taking a conquered people into exile is a concept those of us, who are familiar with Biblical or ancient history, find commonplace, this was not true of the people to whom Amos was speaking. At this point in history the concept of exile was absolutely unheard of. Amos proclaims the exile before it was common practice for enemies to take their defeated foes into exile. This is not only the first time in the Israelite history the people are told they will go into exile, but it is the first time anyone, anywhere had heard of doing this. No conquering king at this point in history had ever taken a nation into exile. Exile, being the practice of taking the best, the brightest and the strongest people in a conquered nation and carting them off to live in another part of your kingdom as a way of weakening the conquered nation, and dispersing the section of people who could potentially be the biggest threat, so they can not bond together and become a threat. It was also a way to get the cream of the crop of a conquered people to work for you. The first king to ever take another nation into exile occurred for the first time about 8 years after Amos dies, when King Tiglathpileser of Kir, took the Ara-ME-ans into exile.
So you put yourselves into the position of the people to whom God was sending Amos to give this message. What Amos was saying did not make sense. This threat of exile was a crazy threat. “What do you mean God is going to send us into exile? What does that even mean? Why would a conquering nation do such a thing? Amos your crazy! No country is going to just cart the majority of a population of their conquered foes off to another land. That is absolutely ridiculous. You’re a not a prophet, you can’t even prophesy right. Go home where you belong!” Not to mention that Amos does not hold back any punches. He does not sugar coat this message on single bit. He describes the bleakest, scariest and darkest parts of what it means to be a conquered nation, just to make sure the people truly understand how bad this is going to be. He lays it out there like it is and takes some pretty good flak for it.
The particular part of the book of Amos which we are looking at this morning is the third vision in a group of five visions which God gives to Amos speaking about the judgment God is bringing down upon the people of Israel for the kind of lives they have been living. The first vision is about Israel being destroyed by an army of locusts. The second is a vision about Israel being destroyed by fire. This vision is the vision about the “plumb line,” which is followed by a brief dialogue between Amos and the King. The fourth vision is a vision of a basket of ripe fruit and the last vision is about an earthquake which brings destruction to Israel. So the vision we have before us this morning is just one gloom and doom vision in the midst of quite a collection of visions of gloom and doom.
So as we begin to look at the vision in the passage we have before us this morning, I don’t know about you but as I look at this text a huge question comes to my mind, “What is going on with this plumb line stuff?” It almost does not seem to make much sense. When something in the Bible does not make sense to me in English, I go and look it up in the Hebrew. And guess what this does not make much sense in the Hebrew either. In fact going to the Hebrew does not help me understand what is going on in this passage; all it does for me is tell me that this is so hard to understand in English because it is nearly impossible to understand in Hebrew. The word here which is translated “plumb line” does not literally mean “plumb line.” The Hebrew word is “anak.” And quite frankly we don’t know what it means. There is a special word scholars use to be all scholarly about not knowing what something means and that is “hopoxlagomena.” So when we run across a word like this one we say to each other, “‘anak’ is a “hopoxlagomena.” And every one goes, ahhh, hmmmm, I see. So now you can be all scholarly too. I can say, “’anak’ is a hopoxlagomena and you all can say, “. . . So anyway hopoxlagomena is really just a fancy way of saying this is the only time this word is used in the entire Bible. Not only is it the only time it is used in the Bible but this particular word is not found in any other sources, which means that there no way of coming to an understanding what this word means. The word here is one of which nobody really knows the definition.
The root of the “anak” word is “tin or tempered metal.” Some people have translated it “lead” which led early scholars to believe that this is talking about a lead plummet on a plumb line. Thus the reason why so many English translations say, this is a wall which is built with a plumb line. But the words “built with” are not even in the Hebrew so it could be that a “plumb line” is being held up to see if the wall is standing up straight. Now I am no metal worker or (alchemist) but I am pretty sure there is a big difference between lead and tin and others agree with men and thus conclude “plumb line” is not what Amos meant when we spoke these words.
Other scholars see that tin is an alloy of bronze which is the metal of which weapons of the day would have been made. The verse would then be talking about a wall made out of tin or weapons, a threat to the people saying that this is a metaphorical “wall of weapons.” This would have God standing beside a wall of destruction. This could be a metaphor saying that an army was going to come and destroy the people and this would be the judging force of God coming down upon them for their disobedience and failure to live the way God called for them to live.
Then there are still other scholars that see this word as a word play on a similar Hebrew word, “anacha,” which means to sigh, moan, or groan. God is standing in front of a wall of moaning and groaning. God is going to wipe away the arrogance and self indulgence of the people and set them to moaning, because God will destroy them.
So, who would have thought that going and checking on one little Hebrew word would dredge up so much scholarly thoughts. Wading through all the different ideas as to what this word means and therefore what is being set among the people is a long and a rather difficult endeavor, but no matter how you understand this one word, it is not looking good for the people of Israel. God is telling them that something bad is about to happen and it is because of the way the people have been behaving.
So Amos makes this ominous proclamation about the people of Israel being out of plumb and they will be destroyed or God is going to send a wall of destruction and they will be destroyed, or God is sending a wall of moaning and groaning because they are going to be destroyed. The fact of the matter is no matter which way you understand this oracle which God gives to Amos to give to the people, they are going to be destroyed.
And what happens next? The priest Amaziah goes running off to the king, like my 5 year tattling on her sister, telling the King what Amos said. Now as I am working through this passage I want to note a couple of things. First of all Amaziah the priest of Bethel, which means “House of God, leaves Bethel, the House of God, where Amos is preaching and goes to the palace, the house of the King and tells him that Amos is in the center of the House of Israel, conspiring against the King, which last I checked not exactly any where near to what Amos was saying or doing. The King then had Amaziah leave the house of the King and go back to Bethel, the house God and tell him that he should leave Bethel, the house of God, and go back to Judah to his home town, Bethlehem, the house of bread, and go earn his bread there, because the King will not have Amos preaching in the King’s sanctuary and or in the temple of the kingdom. Go home preach your message somewhere else, we don’t like it. We don’t need you prophesying round here.
And Amos’s response is pretty straight forward, “Hey, I wouldn’t do this if God didn’t tell me to, go talk to him.” He was not a prophet by trade, he was a herdsman and a dresser of trees, he was a keeper of livestock and a gardener, this was not what he wanted to be, this was not what he trained to be but this was what God called him to be.
It might be helpful to know that during that time there were schools for people who wanted to be prophets and people who were trained as prophets went there to learn how to be prophets and tended to then settle down near those schools. Also, just like with any other trade, often times if your father was a prophet you would follow in his footsteps and be a prophet as well. Amos did not go to school to be a prophet, nor was he a prophet because his father was one. He was trained as a shepherd and as a dresser of trees. You know what the nice thing about sheep and trees is; they don’t yell at you or go running off and tattle to the King about you, when you are “just doing your job.” People are definitely a lot harder to work with then sheep and trees.
Amos had not planned on being a prophet. Being a prophet was not his chosen career path. He was a prophet because God called him to be a prophet. He would gladly go back to the sheep if God would let him. So Amos responds to Amaziah’s belittling comment about going back to Judah (and the house of bread) to earn his bread, by basically saying that he did not chose to be a prophet but God chose him. What else could he do, but obey?
God said, “Go prophesy to the people. “ And that is exactly what Amos did. And as this little conversation between Amos and the King with the priest Amaziah as a go between goes on God gives Amos a little addendum to the prophesy he has already given and Amos begins now to paint a vivid picture of a land that has been ravaged by war. Well not exactly war, but the destruction that often follows a war. Amos paints the picture the desolation which a defeated nation finds themselves in when they have been completely and utterly demolished by their enemies. The men are all dead and the wives have no way to make a living, so they are forced to be prostitutes, selling their very bodies, their very beings to those who have defeated them, their sons and daughters have been killed as part of the destruction of war, there is nothing left to speak of and their lives are in shambles, and the people are lead out of the city in lines, that is as slaves. Amos describes to them what it looks like for a nation to be taken into exile. Nothing good, nothing beautiful, nothing worth having is left. And if any thing which is note worthy or good is left it is taken away. If anyone with any skills is left they are taken away. Amos described to them what it means to say that they are being sent into exile. And they will be lead off and they will be taken to live in a far off land, where they will die, never to be return to the land of their birth, never to return to the land which God had given to them. God sending them into exile meant that God was taking away the land which God had given to them.
Usually when you read a passage such as this there is a “but,” there is this will happen “unless” there is an “if,” somewhere and we get to see what will happen if the people repent, what will happen should they choose to go down a different path, if they choose to turn from the way they are living now and return to living the way God called for them to live. But there is no, “but” in this passage, there is no “if” and there is no “this will happen unless.” God just ends it there. I have been patient and my patience is wearing thin. This is the way you are acting and these are the consequences for those actions.
Now as I said before this is just one vision which predicts the destruction of Israel among four others which do exactly the same thing? Following the final destruction, there is an oracle of restoration. In the final chapter of the book God says, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when . . .I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel.” When the time of judgment is over God will restore them in the hope that having dealt with the consequences of their unfaithfulness to their God and to each other, they will mend their ways and live according to the ways God has called for them to live. But first the consequences and the consequences are great.
In the midst of all the doom and gloom in the midst of all the judgment and destruction stands a man, a man who is doing nothing but simply, plainly, and perseveringly doing the will of God. Amos is quite an amazing figure. He stands up in the house of God, before the priests of God and the people of God and tells them the word of God, which God has given to him to give to them.
Amos is a man, a humble man, with a humble hard working job and God comes to him and tells him that he needs to do something. He needs to go and speak this message, this hard message to a people who don’t want to hear it, to a priesthood which are little better than schoolyard tattle tales and to a King who wants to claim the people, the kingdom and the temple and the Lord God as his own. This is not the easiest thing to do. This is not the easiest message to give, but this is what God asks Amos the tree trimmer and sheep herder to do. God asks him to go. God asks him to speak the truth and God asks him to do it even when it is hard.
And he goes and does it. He goes and does it even though the people are against him. He goes and does it even though the king is against him. He continues to do the will of God even when all the religious leaders are against him.
What God calls us to do is not always easy. What God calls us to do is not always popular. What God calls us to do does not always win us the esteem of our peers, or the authorities but all that does not matter, because what matters is that we do what God calls us to do.
Amos went to the temple and he spoke the words of God to a people who would not listen. Amos stood in temple and spoke the words of God to religious people who went and spread vicious rumors about what he was all about. Amos spoke the words of God to the king, even when the king told him to go home and keep quiet. Doing what God wanted him to do was not easy, it was not popular but it was the right thing to do. And so he did it.
God does not ask us if what God asks us to do is easy. I hate to tell you, rarely is it easy. God does not ask us if it is popular, and I can tell you most of the time it is not. God just tells us to speak truth, to live the truth and to be the truth in a land and culture which does not believe they want to hear, see or know the truth.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Poem of a sermon blocked pastor

Sermonblock - 9pm, July 17, 2010

I am stuck
stuck like a duck in the muck
can't move, can't grove, can speak words that are smooth.
hey won'd flow, or mow or even come out slow
hey just stay and play in my mind, little pictures at play
won't become words or verbs or sounds they just play around
stuck in my head and I dread the coming of the dawn it is all wrong
no joyful song just the sound of the gong like on that show that we watch so long ago