St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 18th July 2010
Right at the beginning of the sermon series someone asked me, “Is Amos all about judgement?” I guess the person who asked this question was articulating a common fear that many people have when they read Old Testament prophecy – that it is all about a God of wrath and anger and punishment, far removed from the God of love and mercy and grace that we find in the New Testament. And certainly when you start to read a passage like the one we heard read just now about wailing, and bodies flung everywhere, and a deadly silence in the temple, you well may wonder why on earth we should bother to read this sort of thing. Surely it’s far easier to turn over to the pages of the New Testament and look at Jesus instead?
But what I’ve tried to do in this sermon series is look beneath the strange and sometimes frankly disturbing imagery of this little book and show that despite first appearances Amos’ insistence on the reality of judgement actually has great relevance for us today. We began in chapter 4 by looking at the uselessness of empty religion. We continued in chapter 5 and thought how we too are called by God to seek the Lord and live. And we reminded ourselves in chapter 5 that the real measure of worship is not how we feel or what it does for us but how what we do when we are gathered together impacts on our everyday lives.
Because the problem of the people in Amos’ day wasn’t that they stayed away from church, or that they were ignorant of God’s word. But they did not mind the gap between what happened in their worship celebrations and the way they conducted themselves at home, in the court of law, in the marketplace. They claimed to follow God but in reality their hearts were set on other things. And I would put it to you that the issues Amos confronted are ones that we need too to confront today – nominalism, that is being a Christian in name only, lack of commitment, lack of any real desire to find out God’s will day by day. Of course none of this matters if you don’t have a doctrine of judgement. If you believe God will love you and accept you, no matter what you do, how you behave, then there is no problem. But I would suggest that is a message a long way removed from the message of both the Old and the New Testament which stress the need for repentance, for personal faith, for effort in seeking the Lord’s will.
So back to the question, “Is Amos all about judgement?” Well, no not completely as you will see if you read on in chapter 9. But the prophet’s emphasis on judgement is important, and chapter 8 which we are considering today gives three more reasons why.
First of all, judgement shows God is interested in ordinary matters. After all, what are the sins listed here in verses 4-6 that particularly attract the Lord’s displeasure? Failure to perform some religious ritual correctly? Using the wrong form of service? Not having a faculty to reorder the church? No. It was the ordinary business of the market place. Cheating the needy and vulnerable out of a fair price. Using dishonest weights and measures. Mixing up the sweepings with the wheat. All the sort of stuff that goes on widely today. Filling pies with meat unfit for human consumption. Clocking the mileage of a used car. Papering over the cracks before selling your house. To take three very simple and very blatant examples.
But I wonder, when did you last hear a sermon about trading standards? You see, I think the church’s almost total silence in this area amounts to a tacit collusion in the understanding that God isn’t really that interested in the way we live our daily lives. So long as we come to church, maybe confess a few sins, and go away feeling better, then really we can be free to carry out our daily business as we see fit. Of course, we’ll avoid the major sins like theft and adultery and stealing, but the little things, they’re not that important are they? Everyone else is fiddling their expenses, why shouldn’t we? When you’ve got the chance to make a quick buck, why not take it?
Now I am sure there are many reasons why the church in this country is weak and ineffective, but I think one of the most important of them is that we have forgotten what it means to be salt and light in our society. The thing about salt and light is that they permeate everything they encounter. Salt, for example, affects the taste of the whole dish, even though only very little of it may be present. It is distinctive, it adds quality, and in the end it changes the overall recipe. And that is what we are called to be. To be Christlike in every area of our lives, in every decision, even and especially in those areas which we don’t think of as particularly religious. God is deeply, profoundly concerned in the ordinary stuff of the ordinary day, such as how we earn our money, how we plan for the future, how we spend our weekly pay packet.
As Jesus Himself said, in Luke 16:11, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? Unfortunately the Israelites of Amos’ day didn’t see their wealth as a trust from God. They thought they could do with it exactly what they wanted. Because God was on their side, wasn’t He? Maybe then we can start to see why Amos’ message of judgement seems so harsh. It was an attempt to wake them up out of their complacency and show them every part of their life had to be under the Lord’s authority.
The trouble was, the people of Israel, God’s people weren’t listening. So Amos prophesied a time of great physical and spiritual darkness, when the sun would go down at noon, a time when the religious feasts would turn to wailing, a time, verse 10, like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day. And as I’ve said before, the reason why the message of Amos was preserved for future generations was that in some sense it came true. The Israelites were defeated, their cities destroyed, the people deported to foreign lands.
But hang on, a moment, you might say. This business of the sun going down, and the earth turning dark, and the mourning for an only son, doesn’t that also point forward to something else in the Bible? Indeed it does. At least I find it impossible to read verses 9-10 without thinking a hill shaped like a skull outside Jerusalem, of a carpenter nailed to the cross as the light stopped shining, and of three agonising hours when the land was plunged into darkness.
Which leads on to the second and probably most important point about judgement, that judgement explains the cross.
I wonder, if someone asked you to sum up the meaning of the cross, how would you reply?
You might say that it shows how much God loves us. To an extent this is true. We all know the verse from John 3:16 which starts: For God so loved the world … But there are surely easier and less painful ways of showing your love than allowing yourself to be hammered to a piece of wood.
Or you might say that it shows an example of giving up your life for the sake of others. Again, to an extent this is true. Jesus did tell us to take up our cross and follow Him, and whatever else that means, presumably His words tell us we should be willing to serve others in the same way He did. But this does not fully explain why we should follow the example of Jesus rather than any other great religious teacher or wise man.
So what is the cross really all about? Well, our verses from Amos help us to begin to see the answer. That as the sun went down at noon, Jesus was taking on His shoulders the punishment that God’s people deserved. God’s people had turned away from God. They had no desire to carry out God’s will. They forfeited the right to a relationship with the one who had called them His own. But the forfeit they deserved was paid for by Jesus. He paid the price of their rebellion by allowing Himself to be cut off from God for three agonising hours and dying the most terrible death imaginable. The only Son of God, beloved and most precious, crucified for the sins of the world.
Now we talk quite frequently nowadays about miscarriages of justice and there is no doubt that over the past thirty years there have been some particular shocking examples. But no miscarriage of justice can ever compare to what Jesus suffered on that cross. If you were at St Michael’s last week you will have heard this verse from 2 Corinthians 5:21 which says: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Just think about these words for a moment. Jesus full of goodness and truth and love became polluted, unclean to God as He took your sin, as He took my sin upon His shoulders. Never was their a death more unmerited, more unjust. But God knew this was the only way we could be put right with Him. Because no human effort, no religion or philosophy or law, could ever deal with the stuff that goes on right inside us which makes us unclean. It had to be Jesus who alone could pay the price for our sins.
And that, you see, is where the love of God and the example of Jesus come in. Because the cross isn’t about God showing us His love in some theoretical, abstract sense. It’s about God showing His love in a practical, saving action, by undertaking a rescue mission for people who are even in rebellion against Him and refuse to come under His authority. And it’s about the example of Jesus, because once you have understood just how precious and wonderful is the gift of life He offers you, then you really have no alternative but to give your whole life back to Him in full and total surrender.
So before I go on to my third and final point this morning, let me ask, do you know Jesus as your Saviour? Yes, you may know in some general kind of way that Jesus died of you, that His death on a cross is somehow important. But that’s a long way from knowing Jesus took the punishment that should have been yours, that He died in your place so that you could enjoy eternal life in full relationship with God your Heavenly Father. And if you haven’t yet really understood this meaning of the cross, then may I suggest you see me afterwards and find out how Jesus can be Saviour of your life.
For, thirdly, judgement is still a reality for those who fail to believe.
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it. ” And you don’t have to look too far today to see how these words of Amos are being fulfilled. We live in an age where there is a great spiritual vacuum in the lives of so many ordinary people. There is a kind of restlessness abroad which leads people to travel from sea to sea, from north to east to see new experiences, to search out adventure, to find something or someone which gives meaning to their existence. Even as we speak there are millions of backpackers on the move seeking out more and more remote locations where they can experience the thrill of discovering new places.
And what about all the festivals that have become such a part of the social calendar in this country? It was fascinating watching all the coverage of the 40th anniversary of Glastonbury and the interviews with folk who had been going there for many years. Because as they spoke, it became clear that for them Glastonbury was more than simply a place to hear music. It was a place where they found a community of like-minded people. It was a place of celebration even to the extent that children were born on site and welcomed into the festival community. And it was above all a place of identity where they found a place where they felt they could truly be themselves and belong.
Now of course you may say that what these backpackers or these festival goers really need to hear is the good news of Jesus who has died for them upon the cross. And ultimately of course that is true. Because as Amos makes clear the spiritual void within the hearts of so many people today comes from the fact that they have never heard the word of the Lord, they do not understand the word of the Lord, and they do not realise it is the word of the Lord they need to give them hope and purpose to their lives.
So what is our response to be? Well, we could try preaching at them and warning them about judgement. We could knock on a few doors or a hand out some leaflets. And God in His mercy may indeed rescue a few out of darkness into His glorious light. But I reckon that for the majority of people these kinds of methods are more likely to make them less willing to believe than ever before. They will on the whole remain largely ignorant of the fact they need a Saviour and that this Saviour is Jesus.
So what then is our response to be? Surely we need to be alert to what people are looking for. Not in the first instance a message, or tract, but a place. A place where there is genuine, real community. A place where life is celebrated. A place where people find their identity. For after all, this is what the church should be all about, isn’t it? Our weekly gatherings here should be communal expressions of faith, celebrations of the truth we have a Saviour, opportunities to find our identity as members of St Barnabas or St Michael’s. Because in the end it is when people find this kind of church, the church that God wants us to be, that they discover Jesus and the power of His salvation.
Back then, to the opening question: Is Amos all about judgement? To a certain extent it is. But it is not primarily about judgement on people out there, on those who never darken our doors. It is about judgement on the people of God who fail to be what God wants them to be, who don’t take their faith with them into the Monday morning, who do not act as salt and light in their everyday lives. The reason why Amos is still so important today is that it asks us serious questions about who we are and what God wants us to be. A people of God so shaped and moulded by the wonderful message of the cross that we give Him all that we are and all that we do and show others that there at the cross their deepest desires and longings can be met. Are we that people? Are we good news to others? And if not, are we willing for the Spirit to so transform us that we indeed fit for purpose?
Questions we all need to take away and consider seriously.