Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 21, 2019
Amos 8:1-12 Commentary
A delightfully humorous Lutheran pastor in Arizona has trained his congregation how to respond to his annual stewardship sermon. When he announces that sermon, they say in loud unison what all congregants think when they hear that it is stewardship Sunday. “Oh no!” That will undoubtedly be your congregation’s response when you tell them that you are going to preach on Amos again. “Oh no!” We did that last week, and it was real downer. Now we have to do it again, and it’s even more depressing? “Oh no!”
Oh yes, if you have the courage, and if you have any sort of moral outrage about the social injustice that has created the immense income inequality dividing much of western civilization. If you don’t, and if your congregation doesn’t want to hear about it, then you really should consider preaching on Amos 8, because it puts the whole matter of social justice in the starkest of terms, in apocalyptic terms.
Amos 8 contains the fourth of four successive visions, each of them with the same message repeated with increasing power and finality. Each vision opens with an image (a plague of locusts, a raging fire, a dangling plumb line, and now a basket of ripe summer fruit). This image seems the most benign, even pleasant, until God uses a play on words to deliver his devastating message. The Hebrew word for “ripe fruit” is similar to the word for “end.” The NIV captures the idea without conveying the word play. Even as the fruit is ripe, so Israel is ripe for the picking, for being consumed, for termination. The ripe fruit is the picture of the End. It has finally come.
“I will spare them no longer,”says the covenant Lord of Israel. Previous chapters have reviewed the story of God’s repeated efforts to bring Israel back to himself, each of which failed miserably. Chapter 4, in particular, has a drum beat refrain; “yet you have not returned to me (verses 6, 8, 9, 10, 11),” followed by Amos 4:12, “prepare to meet your God, O Israel.”
That meeting will not be pleasant, because, after all God’s patient effort to redeem his people, God has come to the end of his patience. “I will spare them no longer.” That is the most awful thing God could ever day. He doesn’t say it often, and it’s not what he wants. But he says it here. And in verse 3 we hear a series of almost disjointed outcries describing the trauma of the end: “the songs in the Temple will turn to wailing, many, many bodies flung everywhere, silence!” This traumatic text is something to wrestle with if we want to be faithful to the Word and to the people of the Word.
How has Israel come to this? Why has this disaster come upon them? Why would God punish his beloved, chosen people like this? Verses 4-6 point directly at social injustice. In other places, Amos talks about corruption in the courts, but here the issue is greed and deceit in commerce. God especially condemns unjust treatment of the poor. “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.”
“But we have never done that. You are exaggerating, God.” So we can imagine Israel responding, because that is how most of us would respond. Thus, God gets specific. You can’t wait for your holy days to end, so that you can get back to buying and selling (verse 5). You prefer business to worship, commerce to communion with God. “Greed is good” has become “greed is god.”
Not only were their priorities perverted, but so were their practices: “skimping the measure, boosting the price, and cheating with dishonest scales….” I think of my box of Raisin Bran. I used to pay $3.99 for 16 ounces, but a subtle change in box size now has me paying $3.99 for 12 ounces. And I can see that classic Norman Rockwell picture of the butcher with his finger pushing down on the scale while an apple cheeked little old lady pushes up. And when I read about “selling even the sweeping with the wheat,” I recall the gross article about the “pink slime” that is added to my hamburger.
The effect of this widespread deceit, says God, is that the poor and needy end up falling further and further behind, until they need a loan just to make it day to day. They end up being a slave to lender, even to the point of having to use their shabby sandals as pledge on the loan. So, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The bottom line for Israel was that making money was more important than caring for neighbor. The God of the prophets had been replaced by the god of profit.
Now, when you preach on this text, you should in all honesty say that business is not a bad thing, that this is not a critique of capitalism, that profit is not the devil. Business is about the exchange of good and service; it’s necessary and good. Capitalism is a time honored way of doing business; it has resulted in much blessing for many people. And profit is simply a reward to effort and risk.
But we must be very careful not to blunt the message of God through Amos. Business run amok, capitalism without caring, profit as the sole goal of commerce—these things are an abomination to God, as evidenced by this judgment on his own beloved people. God hates greed and deceit because they keep people from obeying the second great commandment about loving neighbor as self.
Those business sins are rooted, as we heard last week, in a perversion of religion, such that religion becomes the servant of the status quo in government, in business, and in society as a whole. When the King and the CEO and the leaders of a culture become more important than God, that culture will fall. It must, because the very things people do to insure their prosperity will kill them in the end. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Mammon consumes its worshippers.
That is God’s truth and we must not let our concern for our people or for ourselves blunt God’s message in Amos 8. Indeed, our love for our people should make us preach this forthrightly, because in verses 7-12, God says that these social injustices are precisely why Israel must fall. For honesty’s sake, for the church’s sake, for God’s sake, we must not stop with a condemnation of social injustice. We must keep going to the end of the chapter here. A liberal social agenda must not keep us from this shocking picture of a God whose judgment means severe punishment.
Here’s how seriously God takes mistreatment of the poor through greed and deceit. “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob (that is, by himself?), ‘I will never forget anything they have done.’” Is this is the God who “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103),” and who promises that in the new covenant “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jeremiah 31)?”
What are we to make of this? Well, of course, God does forgive all our sins through Christ when we repent and put our trust in him. That’s the Gospel. But these people have not returned to God in repentance and faith (remember the previously mentioned verses from Amos 4). They have stubbornly resisted and rebelled, and God wants to put the fear of God in them. He does not want them to lightly dismiss his words about the heinous sins of idolatry and injustice that will ruin their country and their lives. Having patiently dealt with them all those centuries, he will not simply let things go on and on. The End has come and he will not forget what they have done. For their sake, for the world’s sake, for God’s sake, this must stop. And though God will finally forgive and restore, he will not forget the sins that ruined his beloved nation.
What follows is a hair raising description of God’s judgment. The land will tremble as with an earthquake, rising and falling like the floodwaters of the Nile River. The sun will go down at noon, as with a solar eclipse. Nature itself will be shaken by God’s wrath. Israel’s festive feasts will become funereal and the whole nation will stagger about in sackcloth with shaved heads, mourning the way parents lament the bitter loss of an only son.
Worst of all, when all of this happens, God will not speak to them. In other times of distress, Israel could always look to God for a word of direction and comfort and hope. But when the End comes, God will go silent and there will be a famine of hearing the Word of God. Not only will nature be shaken and their nation destroyed and the people sent into Exile, but even worse God will not speak to them for years. He had spoken to them over and over through the prophets, but they had effectively said what Amaziah said to Amos in Amos 7:12, 13. “Get out, go back, shut up, do not prophesy!” In the End God will comply with their wishes. There would be no word from the Lord.
Of course, God loved them too much to keep silent forever. Eventually, when Israel understood what had happened, God sent other prophets to help them as they rebuilt their lives and their land. Finally, God sent his Word to become flesh and dwell among us full of grace and truth. It is through Christ that we must read this stunningly negative prophecy. All of this punishment was a sign of God’s love, tough love, stern love, to be sure, but love nevertheless. God said that very clearly in Amos 3:2, “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.” When great love meets great sin the result is great punishment. The cross is the ultimate demonstration of that.
We might say, why can’t God just let sin go? Because it is so destructive of human life. Why can’t God just make us stop sinning? Because he would have to kill us, take away our humanity, our will, to make us stop. So, instead, God lets our sin rebound upon us, allows us to experience the inevitable results of sin (“the soul that sins will die”). Then in his mercy God speaks a Word into our sin and guilt, a Word who takes the punishment we deserve and restores us to our place as God’s beloved children.
So, use this text to help people see the seriousness of the sins of idolatry and injustice. Don’t hold back on the reality of judgment. But don’t end until you have told them the Good News about what the great love of God has done about the great sin of God’s people. In the End, in Christ, God’s love defeats our sin. That is the hope of priests who have sold out to the culture, businessmen who have made greed their god, and the poor who have cursed God in their pain.
The idea of sin rebounding on the sinner isn’t a negative idea held only by grumpy old conservatives. It is the spiritual version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Our only hope for surviving the recoil of our sins is God providing a substitute who will take the blow for us.
I read recently that the cost of raising a child in North American culture is $250,000. Actually, it’s much more than that. Raising a child requires the sacrifice of a parent’s life. All parents know that from experience, although there’s a growing emphasis in our culture on taking care of yourself first. But the hard reality is that if we aren’t willing to sacrifice for our children’s welfare, they won’t grow up well. Indeed, when people focus on their own needs and simply let their children take care of themselves, we call that neglect. Sometimes we take a child away from neglectful parents to save the child’s life. God sent his children away to save their lives. Ultimately the Son of God sacrificed his own life for their salvation.
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