Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 17, 2016
Amos 8:1-12 Commentary
“Judgment” is one of those chilling words that may send shivers racing up and down our spines. Yet there are times when judgment is also a gracious gift from God. The word of judgment God wants to say through his prophet Amos, however, is as dark as an unlit cave at midnight. So it may be very hard to see any good news in Amos 8.
Of course, it begins with what seems like a lovely picture of “a basket of ripe fruit.” Few things are more attractive on a hot summer day than a ripe piece of fruit. Few things feel more decadent than letting the juice of a watermelon dribble down your chin.
So God’s sons and daughters need God’s help to understand just what God is trying to tell Israel through this apparently attractive image. By it God seems to be saying that things in Israel look as good as a bowl of ripe fruit.
Amos’ Israelite contemporaries are, after all, putting lots of money in the collection plates. They’re both attending religious ceremonies and carefully observing the Sabbath. Perhaps, in other words, the Israelites look a lot like ancient templates of ourselves, as well as those whom we teach and to whom we preach.
After all, they’re likely listening to us while their neighbors are doing things like playing golf, sleeping in or doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. They’re ripe “fruit” that drops offerings in the plate and leaves to do their best to act like Christians.
Yet Amos suggests that such appearances can be deceiving. After all, a piece of fruit can be so “ripe” that it’s almost rotten. God says that while Amos 8’s fruit looks ripe enough to be eaten, Amos’ Israel is ripe enough to be judged. While Israel may look as shiny as bright red apple, on the inside she’s basically as rotten as an overripe apple.
Those Israelites would never think of violating the Sabbath by buying and selling things on it. They also sing praise songs with their whole hearts in the temple. Yet Amos notes that the Israelites spend their whole time in church thinking not about their God, but about their gold. They basically can’t wait for the Sabbath to end so that they can get on with their daily work.
Amos 8’s preachers, teachers and their listeners may find Amos’ indictment of Israel to be sobering. Don’t all of us also, after all, sometimes think about what we have to do on Monday even as we sit in church on Sunday? That project we need to complete, paper we need to grade or write or guests we have to host easily distract even the most faithful Christians. Daily life is sometimes so full that it demands our full-time attention. What’s more, honest teachers and preachers must admit that sometimes worship allows our minds to drift like an untied boat to our daily lives.
Yet what’s particularly chilling about Israel’s ripeness isn’t that her businessmen are thinking about work during church. It’s that they’re also plotting how to rip off their customers even as they claim to worship the Lord. Israelites, in other words, sit in church scheming how to, in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of verse 5, “give little, take much and never do an honest day’s work.”
So has Amos’ Israel failed to follow church rules? Is she singing too many praise songs? The prophet mentions none of that in our text. Instead he says that it’s pure economics that makes God’s blood boil. In other words, the way Amos 8’s Israelites do business is enraging the Lord. They basically view such people as merchandise, like fruit and furniture they can buy and sell. Israelite merchants sit in church plotting how to swindle vulnerable people not only out of their money, but also out of their freedom.
Some Christians have always been tempted to view Amos 8 as affirming of their prejudices about Jewish businessmen. They’ve seen in our text Shakespeare’s Shylock plotting to defraud innocent people. This challenges Amos 8’s preachers and teachers to help hearers get past those stereotypes so they can not only to love their Jewish neighbors, but also fully appreciate what God is saying to us.
After all, God’s 21st century children also may look like shiny, ripe fruit to many of people around us. The life of the church can, for example, look as beautiful as a painting. We enthusiastically support the work of missions and caring for the poor. Many gather for worship at least once every Sunday. We’re also careful about our doctrine.
Yet if God’s people are honest, we admit that we’re naturally little less rotten than Amos’ Israelite contemporaries. What goes on in our hearts may be no godlier than what went on in the Israelites. While we may not be contemplating how to swindle people, we may be, for example, lusting and coveting even as we act like Christians.
Amos reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that what lives in our minds is more important than the religious motions we go through. While people may not know our sometimes-rotten thoughts, God does as surely as God knew what Israel’s people were thinking. Amos reminds us that it’s easy to contemplate disobedience even as we seem to practice obedience. It’s tempting to polish our shiny religious image while masking our spiritual rottenness.
Is there, then, any grace in the prophet’s blistering condemnation of such hypocrisy? Is there any good news in God’s judgment on inconsistencies between what we do and think? Perhaps Amos 8’s preachers and teachers might use the metaphor of a pothole in the road that has no signs warning drivers about it. What happens to drivers who blithely drive right into that pothole? They may destroy their car and, in a worst case, themselves or other people.
In a similar way, consider what would happen if God didn’t condemn sinfulness. What would happen if the Lord simply let God’s people act and think the way we naturally do? Certainly vulnerable people would suffer even more than they now do. We’d naturally exploit the very young and the elderly, the poor and the undereducated. We wouldn’t be concerned about how our society’s policies affect, for example, the materially poor and the unborn.
Since God cares so passionately about vulnerable people, God’s 21st century children would go straight towards the kind of punishment Amos describes. Our own hymns and praise songs would then turn into the kinds of mourning songs we generally sing only at funerals. Left to our own devices, we’d bitterly grieve as though our only child had died prematurely.
God’s act of judgment is also God’s act of mercy. God’s condemnation of mistreatment of materially poor people is a sign that God loves you and me enough to warn us when we’re heading toward danger. God judgment is a sign that God cares about us so deeply that God refuses to leave us to our own naturally sinful devices.
God loved Amos’ Israel so passionately that God kept talking to her through prophets like Amos even though Israel didn’t listen. God spoke Amos 8’s fierce words of judgment so that Israel would recognize how far short she fell of what God created her to be. God punished her so fiercely that she’d come to know how much she’d offended the Lord.
God’s judging word still comes to God’s people in a similar way. God condemns sinful thoughts and behavior in those ways not because God is like a playground bully, but because God cares so deeply. The Lord doesn’t want anyone to disobediently stumble into eternal separation from himself.
So God condemns sin so that God’s adopted sons and daughters can, in a sense, condemn our own sinfulness. The Lord God calls us to confess our sins so that we can again hear about God’s gracious forgiveness. God’s people can be honest about the longings that sometimes consume us because we know that God longs to transform our desires into godly desires. You and I can be candid about how our self-interest drains our concerns for society’s vulnerable members.
God is utterly determined to make God’s people more and more like God’s Son, Jesus Christ. So we can test ourselves to see whether we’re ripe for judgment, or ripe for eternal life in God’s presence.
After all, while God let Amos’ Israel endure a famine of hearing God’s word (11b), God eventually fed God’s people very well again. For a time the Israelites staggered around like refugees desperately hunting for food because God’s Word was so scarce. That Word graciously both creates order out of chaos and sustains what God creates. God’s Word also guides, forgives and blesses. Without that Word, there is only bedlam.
So at the proper time, God graciously sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, what John calls “the Word.” That Word came and ministered to us as “the Bread of Life.” By faith we receive that Word and Bread so that it nourishes us for faithful obedience.
In an op-ed piece in the November 30, 2012 issue of The New York Times, entitled “The Monster of Monticello,” Paul Finkelman writes about Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy on race. When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson affirmed the “self-evident truth” that all men are “created equal.”
Yet even as he wrote that, he owned 175 slaves. On top of that, while many of Jefferson’s contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the Revolutionary War, Jefferson did not. He remained what Finkelman calls “the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.”
1820’s heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise shocked Jefferson. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
Yet Finkelman concludes, “If there was ‘treason against the hopes of the world,’ it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all.”
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