Where were you on 28th June? That was the day of the great storm. In the future you'll look back and say, 'I was there. I got soaked. I had to abandon my car. The garden was flooded. There were no trains going north.' But as the years go by the stories about the day will be exaggerated, but the storm will be long remembered. Something to tell your children and grandchildren.
Amos didn't experience a great storm, but a great earthquake. Two years after he had preached a series of sermons there was a powerful earthquake, and it remained in the collective consciousness of the people. In Israel earthquakes take place roughly every fifty years, so what was special about this one? The earthquake (believed to be a symbol of divine judgment) was a mere rumble of distant thunder compared with the destruction of the nation when it was sent into exile. As well as mentioning the earthquake (1v1) Amos also referred to an eclipse of the sun (4v13; 5v8; 8v9). These two happenings – the eclipse and the earthquake – provide the backdrop to the book of Amos. Today we may not consider earthquakes, or eclipses or even rainbows as divine portents – but without these happenings how do we see the hand of God active in the world around us? Challenging us ... provoking us ... judging us? Perhaps we ought to think much more seriously about what we call 'chance' or 'nature' or 'acts of God' in an insurance policy?
I want to remind you of the context in which Amos was preaching. From about the year 760 BC (and for the next year or two) he preached a series of sermons. Though he came from Judah in the south, his message was delivered to Israel in the north. But it was not just for them. When it says: 'you, O people of Israel' (3v1) this includes all of the people of God, all of the Jews who had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Amos delivered a challenging and disturbing message to his contemporaries, and it's also an uncomfortable message for us today. It is a message of God's certain judgment.
And who was Amos? He was a farmer. He bred sheep and cultivated figs (1v1; 7v14-15). What makes Amos interesting is that he was not a professional prophet or priest. He was not a theologian. He was not part of the religious establishment. He was a layman, an outsider, one specially raised up by God to proclaim his word. He was catapulted (perhaps unwillingly) into this role. And we may contrast the lowliness of Amos with the pride of the people of Israel. Their veneer of respectability and sophistication, and his forthright, uncomplicated, uncompromising, message. The people may have had great wealth - but they were spiritually impoverished.
Amos didn't beat about the bush. He simply proclaimed the word of God. But would the people hear it – and (since this is also a message for us) do we hear it? Do we want to hear an uncomfortable message? Are we genuinely open to hearing the voice of God however unpalatable it may be, however disturbing it may be to our comfortable Jesmond religion?
1. The Word of the Lord
In the mid 8th Century BC the northern king was Jereboam II and the southern king was Uzziah. In both nations there was peace, security, economic stability and religious fervour. On the face of it things were going well. They had never had it so good. So why then this particular message at this particular time? The storm clouds of invasion were on the horizon – and the people were challenged to consider their situation – not their military might – but their spiritual position. Amos' sermons were not simply a tirade against the rich and the powerful. Yes, he spoke out against those who had two homes; yes he spoke against those whose homes were richly furnished. The point was that the riches of the few were in stark contrast to the poverty of the many. The rich were indifferent to their needs, more concerned about themselves. One day they oppressed the needy – the next they performed their religious duties. The two didn't match up.
Much of this resonates with us today. We have so much material wealth, possessions and ‘things’. But where are we spiritually? What shapes our lives and our lifestyle, our spending and our values? Bishop John Taylor Smith used to ask everyone he met a simple, rather disarming question: ‘What's your best thought for today?’ If your answer is just about material prosperity rather than spiritual priorities, then think again! So then, 'What's your best thought for today?'
From Amos we learn that Bethel and nearby Gilgal attracted large congregations. They were very popular places for the rich and powerful. But their worship was formal and lacked reality. They went through the motions. They recited the liturgy. They made a great show of being religious. Look at Amos' caustic taunt: 'Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years' (4v4). Such things were an abomination to the Lord! He disapproved of their religious practices; he denounced all that they did in his name. 'I hate, I despise your religious feasts, I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps' (5v21-23). In other words, the Lord despises religious people. No wonder then that Amaziah the priest of Bethel was incensed! He was livid! (7v10ff). 'Who is this interloper to come and say these things?' Amaziah was too much of an establishment figure, concerned more with duties than devotions, indifferent to the word of the Lord (7v12, 16). His response to Amos was to be expected. He said to him: 'Shut up and get out' (7v12). His pride was challenged by the Word of God delivered by the prophet.
Each of Amos' three sermons begin with the same words: 'Hear the word of the Lord' (3v1; 4v1; 5v1). 'Hear the word of the Lord.' Hear what God wants, not what you think he wants. Hear what God wants, not what you suppose it to be. Hear what God wants, to follow him, to obey him, to believe in him, to reflect him. As one commentator put it, 'the words of the most high God are to be heard, not with a superficial, unawed, wandering mind, but with reverence, fear, and love.' Too often our relationship with the Lord can be too friendly, too chummy. We can all too easily make him into a god made in our image. Nice and respectable, undemanding, superficial. A symbol rather than a reality.
Amos chapter three begins, 'Hear the word of the Lord' – that's OK – we can easily accept that. But it doesn't just say that. 'Hear the word the Lord has spoken against you'. Now that's not what we expect to hear! Words spoken against professing believers? Yes, it’s nice to have a Bible study and to share some blessed thoughts together; it’s nice to hear a sermon that evokes the shallow response - 'nice sermon, vicar'. 'Hear the word the Lord has spoken against you'. Here is a fundamental challenge from the Lord that is addressed to all religious people – that is to you and to me!
Verse 1 is speaking to 'the whole family [of Israel whom] I brought out of Egypt.' Here was a message to all of the twelve tribes. God had rescued them. God had redeemed them. God had delivered them from Egyptian slavery. God had led them through the wilderness and established them in Canaan. Why was this? Because he loved them. Though they were the chosen people, loved by God, saved by God. They failed to obey him. They went their own way. They thought too much of themselves. They became arrogant and proud. They paid lip service to the Lord, but their hearts were far from him. They went through the motions of religious observance. If God chose to absent himself from them – they would still carry on as they had always done. Fundamental to the Jews was the Exodus. It defined them as the people of God. Once they had been enslaved but now they were free. Though God had revealed himself and made himself known to the Jews, he was to them a stranger. For their sins, for their corrupted spirituality, for their wilful rejection, he would punish them. The promised land would be taken from them. Forty years after the sermons of Amos, Israel became engulfed by Assyria, and then 135 years later that same fate fell upon Judah.
There is a fairly obvious application to us, isn't there? We religious people are just like those religious people. We can claim that we are chosen and called, redeemed and saved by the Lord Jesus Christ. We have heard the word of the Lord, and by his Spirit it has spoken to our hearts. But our hearts have grown cold. We have become self-righteous – less devout – more religious. We have become too casual concerning the faith we profess. It has become just another hobby. Just another part of our leisure activity on Sunday and not a way of life – but not etched in our hearts.
But then the Lord intervenes. He interferes. He has the effrontery to disturb us. He challenges us so that we become uncomfortable. He has the audacity to interrupt our devotions. He points out our very obvious sins. Known to him. Covered up by us. Hidden from other people. Mere words do very little – but the Word of Lord – heard, obeyed, believed, illuminated by the Spirit of God – moves us and challenges us, confronts us, disturbs us. It invites us to examine our lives, to look away from ourselves, and to gaze upon the one who alone can deliver us and restore us and bring us before the throne of God. So what are we to do today? We are to Hear the disturbing, challenging Word of the Lord – and respond to it!
2. The Roar of the Lion
On the north Norfolk coast there is a village called Stewkey – spelt Stiffkey. You easily drive through it and think nothing more of it. But in the 1930s it became notorious because the then vicar was tried and unfrocked for alleged immorality. He had always loved acting and he ended up entertaining the public in a lion's cage in Skegness. But one day he trod on the lionesses tail, she attacked him and he died. Lesson – don't go into a lion's cage. Lions are dangerous. Lions get hungry. Lion might eat you!
The Word of the Lord spoken through Amos was like the roar of a lion. Someone has put it like this: 'The lion-like roar was a divine NO, shouted through the prophet' and aimed at every aspect of the nation's 'political, social, economic and religious life.' The divine lion roared his disapproval and his displeasure. He was far from pleased with the so-called people of God. If we are challenged by the Word of God, then we are deafened by the roar of the lion! Here is no quiet conversation. No vicarage tea-party set in St Mary Mead complete with Earl Grey tea and polite conversation. Amos doesn't go in for that sort of thing!
Through Amos, the word of the Lord was shouted out. The tranquillity was drowned by the lion's roar! And not only did the lion roar, but the trumpet sounded (3v6)! Soon there would be the rumble of the earthquake. Now it was time to take stock. Now it was time to take some action. Now it was time to repent. The lion (that is the Lord) roared out – 'I will punish you for all your sins'! (v2). 'Who will not fear? The sovereign Lord has spoken' (v8). Only the deaf could not hear. Only the blind could not see. Only the foolish were oblivious to what was happening. The warnings from the Lord were clear, but the people chose to ignore them.
The prophet Amos proclaimed a hard message concerning the judgment of God. Clearly Amos was not going to win the preacher of the year award. No Templeton prize for him. The judgment of God was not a popular message then: and it's certainly not a popular message today. Amaziah told Amos to shut up and get out. In chapter four we read that the Lord gave various warnings to the people – some were physical - famine and drought and blight and plagues and earthquakes; and some were political – battles, and defeats and invasions – but all to no avail. The people would not listen. They were not prepared to hear the Word of the Lord. Instead they went their own way. Happy to remain in their ignorance. Oblivious to what was happening. Content to live in their comfort zones. Seemingly unable and unwilling to hear what the Lord was saying to them. Is that like you? Is that like me?
I wonder how we can discern God's righteous anger today? Religion without repentance displeases the Lord. It is an abomination to him. Religion can so easily envelope each one of us. We become less keen than we once were. We fail to read God's word. We take the Lord's Supper for granted. Church becomes more a respectable club for the self-righteous, rather than a gathering of sinners saved by grace.
After the death of King Solomon the nation was divided. Rehoboam became the king of the two southern tribes and Jeroboam ruled the ten northern tribes. They turned their backs on being a united nation. They went their own way. They set up their own alternative places of worship. They followed the ways of other nations. They compromised on what they believed. They corrupted the worship of the Lord. And for their disobedience they would be judged, defeated, and exiled.
There is a real irony in the story. After the wilderness wanderings, the people of God crossed the River Jordan and based themselves at Gilgal near Jericho. Gilgal was a reminder of God's past blessing. But by the time of Amos, Gilgal was no longer faithful to the Lord. And what about Bethel? For the patriarch Jacob it was 'the house of God... the gate of heaven' the place where God had revealed himself to him (Gen 28v11-22). In that time Bethel prospered. But after the kingdom divided it became the main cult centre for the northern kingdom. A place of corrupted worship. A place that served the creature rather than the creator. No longer a holy place but a hindrance to true worship. Bethel and Gilgal had become tainted, and the northern capital Samaria would also be judged, weighed, and found wanting. The sins of the people were both religious and social. The idle rich, who had summer houses and winter houses, who oppressed the poor and the needy. The women (unglamorously referred to as 'cows' [4v1]) were addicted to alcohol. And the sins of the people were such that the whole nation would be destroyed and sent into exile. And Amos pictures its death-throws as if it were a great stage set (3v9). The old enemies – Egypt and Ashdod would have a front row seat and look down and see Samaria judged, defeated, and exiled. And verse 11 pictures the extent of its destruction.
Always the message of judgment is unpopular. Though it is an integral part of scripture, preachers play it down, and congregations turn a deaf ear. But if we take scripture seriously we know that judgment is the consequence of God's anger against sin.
God's wrath is real. Though it is never capricious, never variable like our human anger. It is his response to our sinfulness and waywardness, our pride and self-centredness, the very corruption in our hearts.
Hear then – God has spoken to you and to me. Hear then – God has set forth and declared his will and purpose. Hear then what the Lord has said.
He spoke clearly to the people in the mid 8th century – and he continues to speak to us today. But are we listening? Look at what happened to them – to those nice religious people, nice prosperous people, and consider what can happen to us too. We, Christians, need to hear the whole message of scripture. That message includes the judgment of God in Amos and the love of God that we find in his near contemporary, Hosea. Love and judgment need to be kept in balance, and not separated from each other, but both believed in and recognised as being part of the full orbed revelation of the Lord to us. We love to hear of the love of God. We need to heed to judgment of God.
So then there are two clear messages addressed to each one of us:
Hear the word of the Lord!
Hear the roar of the lion!