The Awesome God

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I remember years ago in Africa being taken with Vivienne on the worst and most uncomfortable drive of my life. We rattled and banged our way up steep slopes, sometimes literally driving down into massive potholes that were more like craters and up and out the other side, over rocks and round scary hair pin bends for hours. But when we eventually got to the top, the views and the flora and fauna that we saw were magnificent, unforgettable, and made the tough journey more than worthwhile.

This morning we’re starting a new series for the summer in the prophet Amos. Over the next few weeks we’re going through all of this. It’s not long – nine chapters in nine pages. But it packs a punch. It’s said of the Bible that its purpose is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed – and that certainly fits for Amos. So hold tight and come with us on this uncomfortable ride that ends at a glorious destination.

Today we’re covering 1v1 to 2v16 – all on those two pages except for the last verse that sneaks over the page. And it’s a section that reminds me of Romans 6v23. When I was a young Christian, Romans 6v23 was one of the key verses that I was encouraged to memorise. It is one of Paul’s summary statements that put the gospel in a nutshell. And back then I found it initially deeply disturbing, and finally profoundly comforting. And there’s no being comforted without first being disturbed. Romans 6v23 says:

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6v23)

There’s really no grasping the message of the Bible without taking those massive truths on board. In the first two and a half chapters of Romans, the apostle Paul is basically expounding the first part of that – “For the wages of sin is death…” – and making unmistakeably clear that there is no one (apart from Jesus himself) who does not deserve that penalty. And until we’ve got hold of that, it’s impossible to grasp just how wonderful God’s gift of life in Christ really is. If we’re going to know the comfort of the gospel, we must first be disturbed by it.

So it is with Amos. At the end of Amos comes massive comfort. But if we were to skip to the end of chapter 9 without first taking on board chapters 1 to 8, we’d miss the point. And Amos 1v1 – 2v16 is a kind of Old Testament equivalent to Romans 1 to 3.

I have four headings- They are as follows. One, Disturbing the comfortable. Two, The wages of sin is death. Three, You too Israel! And four, Comforting the disturbed. So:

First, DISTURBING THE COMFORTABLE (1.1-2; Romans 6.23a)

Look at the opening verse:

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa —what he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel. (1v1)

This is in the 700s BC, at the time when, following Solomon’s death, the people of God had divided into two kingdoms – Israel in the north and Judah in the south – each with their own king.

Verse 1 mentions three people, and a brief introduction to them will set the scene. They are Amos, King Uzziah, and King Jeroboam.

Amos is described as a shepherd, but we should think prosperous farmer or rancher with his own flocks rather than a hired hand. This prophecy is “the words of Amos… what he saw”. In other words, this book is both his words and God’s word, as it was shown to him by revelation. He is passing on the word that God has shown to him. That is what a prophet does, and that is who Amos is. He is God’s chosen spokesman for this time.

And his message is “concerning Israel” – that is, the northern kingdom. He’s a southerner himself, but it’s the northerners who are the focus of what God gives him to say. A bit like a Londoner telling it how it is in Edinburgh. Not necessarily popular.

Uzziah is the king of Judah, in the south. God’s verdict on him in 2 Kings is that he did what was right, but… He became king when he was 16 and reigned for 52 years, afflicted by God with leprosy. He made it to his Golden Jubilee but didn’t make it to his Diamond. He was militarily successful and powerful – an able administrator and commander. He was economically successful too, leading advances in infrastructure, employment, agriculture and armaments manufacture. 2 Chronicles 26 says of him:

His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful. But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God…” (2 Chronicles 26v15)

So he started well, but with long success he fell away

Jeroboam was king of Israel, in the north, at the same time. He became king 14 years before Uzziah and reigned 41 years – so there was a long overlap between the two. The verdict on him is that “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord…” Nonetheless he was militarily and economically successful.

So these long reigns of Uzziah and Jeroboam were good times. They were boom years. But the seeds of social and political collapse were being sown. That’s what Amos warns them of. But people don’t listen when things seem good. The boom years would not last. Things were good as long as you ignored the warning signs, but things were about to fall apart irrevocably. As Bob Fyall puts it:

In their reigns two big problems begin to emerge: the rise of Assyria as a super-power, coupled with socio-economic problems.

There are obvious and powerful echoes of their situation in our own day, as we draw to the close of a long and prosperous reign, with the West being eclipsed, racked with its own internal socio-economic problems.

After Jeroboam, half a century of downward slide would end in the permanent destruction of the northern kingdom. In the 42 years after his death – that is, the same length as his reign – there would 6 kings in Israel, 4 assassinations, one invasion, and the final destruction of the kingdom.

Amos saw, in the good times, what was happening, and warned but was ignored. And the warnings are for us too. As Paul puts it in the first part of Romans 6v23:

For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6v23)

So those are the 3 people in verse 1. Then in verse 2 we encounter the voice of God:

He said: “The LORD roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers.” (Amos 1v2)

In this one verse is really a summary of the whole Book of Amos. Hence our title for this series: “The Lord Roars from Zion.” The Lord is the central character, and it is his voice that rings through these pages.

These images of the Lord roaring like a lion as it begins to pounce, or thundering like a mighty storm, are images of the warning of a coming attack which is very imminent, even here now.

That this roar comes from Zion – that is Jerusalem – highlights the underlying rebellion of God’s people in the north who have rejected the temple, and thereby turned away from God’s presence.

And the withering of all that lives in the fields and on the mountains is like the warning of judgement on the Promised Land becoming reality.

The thundering of God’s voice reminds me of the great Newcastle storm of 28 June. I heard someone saying afterwards that he thought it was Armageddon and the end of the world had come. Such things live in the collective memory. In my parents’ church in Hertfordshire there is graffiti dating from the 1300s noting a great storm that coincided with the Black Death. Here in Amos 1v1 there is a note that Amos prophesied “two years before the earthquake” – an earthquake that was still remembered 100s of years later, and mentioned in the prophecy of Zechariah where he says (this is Zechariah 14v5):

You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come… (Zechariah 14v5)

God thunders his warnings through his creation, and above all he thunders in his Word, that we might listen, and take heed, and be rescued from the coming destruction. But through Amos there is now a double warning. Not only is there the warning of the prophecy itself. There is also the warning of history that the Israelites ignored God’s word through Amos and paid the price.

And that warning is expanded in what comes next. So:

Secondly, THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH (1.3 – 2.-5)

This takes in the section from 1v3 to 2v5, headed in the church bibles ‘Judgement on Israel’s Neighbours’, which sums it up pretty neatly.

There are in fact 7 neighbours. These are the states that surround the northern kingdom of Israel. There is a short section relating to each one of them, of 2 or 3 verses. Each section very closely follows a pattern. 1v3-5 is typical. This relates to Damascus. It’s noteworthy that the Middle East, centred around Israel, remains a political hot-bed to this day, with strife in Damascus all over the news right now. Take at look at that section, and let’s get a feel for the pattern:

This is what the LORD says:
“For three sins of Damascus,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
Because she threshed Gilead
with sledges having iron teeth,
4 I will send fire upon the house of Hazael
that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad.
5 I will break down the gate of Damascus;
I will destroy the king who is in the Valley of Aven
and the one who holds the scepter in Beth Eden.
The people of Aram will go into exile to Kir,”
says the LORD. (Amos 1v3-5)

So the Lord’s word of warning circles round Israel, as it were, taking in those 7 neighbours: Damascus in 1v3-5; then Gaza in v6-8; Tyre in 1.9-10; Edom in 1v11-12; Ammon in 1v13-15; and Moab in 2v1-3; before ending up with Judah, Israel’s brothers in the south, in 2v4-5.
Again and again we hear this chorus of judgement.

This is what the Lord says: …
For three sins of [the named nation] even for four, I will not turn back my wrath…
Because … (Amos 1v5-6)

And the reason is spelled out. Generally it relates to brutal, callous, self-serving violence. Just think about what is going on in Syria today. 1v11 in relation to Edom is a good example:

Because he pursued his brother with a sword, stifling all compassion, because his anger raged continually and his fury flamed unchecked… (Amos 1v11)

And then after the reason comes the consequence and the judgement:

I will …(Amos 1v12)

What will the Lord do? He will send fire, consume, break down, destroy, send into exile turn his hand against a people until they are all dead, and he will kill.

That’s what I mean about this being uncomfortable. This is a stark picture of the first part of Romans 6v23:

The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6v23)

Again and again this chorus of judgement comes. Why the repetition? Because we’re slow to learn. If you’re trying to knock a nail into hard wood you have to keep repeating the hammer blow or it won’t go in.

And don’t miss the implications of this chorus. Except for the last, these are pagan nations we’re talking about. But that by no means makes them immune from God’s gaze. All nations are accountable to the Lord God – and that is as true today as it was then, whatever a nation’s religious heritage or lack of one might be. And why are they accountable? Because, as Paul spells out in Romans 2, the moral law is written in human hearts even if they don’t have the specific revelation that we know in Scripture.

Now if Israel were not too disturbed at the thought of their neighbours and enemies coming under the hammer of God, they should have begun to get edgy when the chorus of judgement circled round to Judah, their blood brothers in the south. And here, in 2v4-5, the accusations are pointed:

Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed… (Amos 2v4-5)

The rot has never stopped. Here it is again: idolatry and immorality. They should have known better, with all their privileges as God’s chosen people. But they didn’t. So they are subject to the same judgement as the rest. Romans 3v9:

Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin… (Romans 3v9)

And then the circling storm settles above Israel itself. Which brings me to my next heading. So:

Thirdly, YOU TOO, ISRAEL! (2.6-16)

This is 2v6-16, which takes us to the end of our section. And here we’re introduced to themes that will dominate the coming chapters. Amos, remember, is prophesying to Israel, the northern kingdom. He has been prophesying about those 7 neighbours. But his audience is Israel. The storm of judgement that’s been circling round their horizon now comes to rest right above their heads. Here is judgement on a spiritually privileged nation. If they thought they were escaping the worst of it, now they’ve got another think coming. Here is the final chorus:

This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.”(Amos 2v6)

And then the indictment comes in verses 6-12. It’s a catalogue of economic exploitation, injustice, sexual depravity, profanity, and the forgetting or wilful rejection of God and all he’s done for them and said to them. Verse 10: “I brought you up out of Egypt…” In New Testament terms read, “I gave my beloved Son to die for you to redeem you from sin and death.” Verse 11: “I also raised up prophets from among your sons…” Verse 12: “But you … commanded the prophets not to prophesy.” You did not want to hear God’s just and loving voice. So you will hear it is a roar and as thunder.

What, then, was the judgement that Israel faced?

“I will crush you … on that day.” (Amos 2v 13, 16)

No-one will escape – not the swift nor the strong, not infantry nor cavalry, not the cowards nor the courageous. In other words: “You think that because of your power and prosperity now, you will escape then. Not so.”

Uncomfortable indeed. But as we’ve seen, this is not just an Old Testament warning. It is an Old Testament visual aid, in history, of our New Testament era situation. The Day of Judgement is coming. It is anticipated in history, but God stays his hand by grace to give us time. Romans 1v18:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness… (Romans 1v18)

God warns because he loves us and he wants us to heed the warning. So in conclusion:

Fourthly, COMFORTING THE DISTURBED (Romans 6v23b)

What hope is there? Amos takes time hammering home this warning because of the deep complacency of the human heart. As he says in 6v1:

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria…(Amos 6v1)

But in the end he gets to chapter 9v11-15. You can take a sneak preview if you like, but I’m not going to do that now. Suffice to say for today that the end of chapter 9 is the equivalent in Amos of the second half of Romans 6v23.

The wages of sin is death…(Romans 6v23)

Yes. We have to hear that, or we won’t understand what follows.

The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6v23)

We need to feel the weight of the warning. And we need to respond with a permanent (not passing) repentance – turning from our sin and finding forgiveness through the cross. We need to respond with faith in Christ in whom is life. And we need to respond with the obedience that flows from faith.

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