How many people here have recently read the book of Amos? Has anyone ever heard a sermon preached on it? Are you looking forward to this sermon today?
Of all the parts of the Bible, the so-called minor prophets of the Old Testament are probably among the least read and least understood. And it’s not hard to see why. They refer to events of long-ago in a distant land. They contain vivid descriptions of judgement that seem harsh and cruel. There are references to strange gods and pagan practices that belong to another age. And perhaps above all else the God these prophets portray appears very different from the New Testament God of love and peace and righteousness we find in the gospels - a point to which we shall return at the end.
So how do we begin to make sense of an Old Testament prophet like Amos? Maybe the way into the book is to look at how Amos describes the people of his day. Because despite what some idealists might believe human nature really hasn’t evolved that much over the past three thousand years, and the sins and the injustices Amos highlights aren’t greatly different from the ones we see today. A society where the rich grow richer at the expense of the poor. A society where basic rights are denied to the needy. A society where the rulers live for their own pleasures.
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, "Bring us some drinks!" It really isn’t that hard, is it, imagining Amos saying this kind of thing today to footballers’ wives and girlfriends, or the actresses who grace the pages of Hello! magazine? But before we imagine these are words simply about the world out there, about the evils of society around us, we ought to pause and reflect that these words of Amos are addressed in the first instance to the people of God, to the people who have entered into a covenant relationship with Yahweh, the Lord Almighty.
The apostle Peter in the New Testament tells us in 1 Pet 4:17 it is time for judgement to begin with the family of God. As we shall see there is a sense in which all of us will be judged, whether or not we have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. We can’t simply take the words of Amos and, as some churches do, simply use them to condemn the excesses and vices of others. After all, we are part of this thing called “society”. We do not live as monks or hermits. We are deeply and inextricably bound up in the culture of our day, at home, at work and at play. We too vote for the government we want to rule over us, decide where to spend our money, and how we will earn our crust. And as Christians we will be held to account for these choices. Maybe the real reason why we don’t like to read the message of the Old Testament prophets is that in some sense they read us, and remind us of some inconvenient truths we would rather not think about.
First of all, Amos reminds us of the uselessness of religion.
Now about 200 years before Amos’ time, the northern kingdom of Israel split away from the southern kingdom of Judah. There were all kinds of reasons for this, and if you are interested, you can read more about this in 1 Kings, chapter 12. The only problem for the new king of Israel, Jehoshaphat was that the temple was still in the capital city of Judah, Jerusalem. And he realised that if most of his people went down south to worship they might end up transferring their support back to the king of Judah. So what did he do? He invented his own religion. He made a couple of golden calves, one in Bethel and one in Dan. He appointed his own priests. He set up his own festivals and customs for his people to celebrate. And clearly from Amos’ sarcastic comments in verse 4, this new religion soon attracted a large and loyal following. The religious centres of Bethel and Gilgal were places where the Israelites loved to offer sacrifices and bring their tithes. After all, the god they worshipped had to be pleased with all this honour and devotion, didn’t he?
Sad to say, the tendency of man to invent his own religion is something that is still with us today. In 1950 the best-selling science fiction author L.Ron Hubbard released a book called 'Dianetics, The Modern Science of Mental Health' which provoked a storm in the medical world. When they rejected it, he released it a few months later as a religious book. This was the start of the Church of Scientology, a movement that has now an estimated 600,000-700,000 followers worldwide. If you haven’t heard of them, you soon will. They have just bought the Royal Fleet Club in Devonport for £1m.
Despite the fact we are living in an increasingly more sophisticated, more technological, more scientific age, it seems increasingly people are turning to their own invented religions. It might be an organised religion like the Church of Scientology. It might be their own mixture of new-age remedies like crystals and feng shui. It might be something like paganism or white magic. But whatever it is, the general idea seems to be that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere. It is reported - but I haven’t been able to verify this - that Prince Charles wants to be known not as the Defender of the Faith, but as the Defender of Faith, as if faith, no matter what you believe in, is good in itself. Amos reminds us that it is not.
But again before we point the finger at others, we need also need to look at our own situation. Because if you mention religion to folk, what do they tend to think of? The answer, of course, is the church. “I don’t go to church. I’m not religious”. Which in practice often means they don’t go to church regularly. But just to make sure everything will be OK in the end, they will come for high days and holidays, and get their children christened. Because that’s what church is all about, isn’t it? Brothers and sisters, if all we are doing is offering useless religion, then I, for one, am going home. Customs, ceremonies do have their place but only as expressions of a living faith. Otherwise they are not only hollow, they are, as in Amos’ day, a dangerous and deceptive hypocrisy leading people to think that if they carry them out, they will somehow be right with God. Until in the end actually it is the correct performance of these rituals that count more than the worship itself. May the Lord indeed deliver from this kind of religion.
So Amos exposes the uselessness of religion. Secondly, Amos details the warning signs of God.
In verses 6-11 Amos lists five disasters that have befallen the people of God, each one of them followed by the sad refrain “yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord. And at least four of these disasters refer to natural phenomenon - famine, verse 6, drought verses 7-8, plague and pestilence verse 9, the aftermath of war, verse 10 and catastrophic disaster, verse 11. He could almost be describing the current news headlines, couldn’t he?
Now it is often said that one reason why folk have turned from organised Christianity is the perception that our faith has very little to say on green issues. And certainly we have to say that the church has generally said very little in public about care for the environment, or how best to steward the resources of this beautiful, fragile earth. But a closer examination of a book like Amos reveals that God’s word has an awful to lot to say on the subject.
To begin with, it is God who is the ultimate creator of all things. Verse 13: He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth - the Lord God Almighty is his name. We are not simply here by accident of evolutionary forces or natural selection. We are here as a result of the one true God who is all powerful and ever present.
And this means at least two things. First of all - however hard we might find to comprehend this - everything that happens in the created order is under His control. He is the one who decrees when it rains and when it does not rain, when the harvest is good and when the harvest is poor. And although we might well struggle with some of the terrible things that happen, we should at least have the reassurance that nothing can indeed separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. But the corollary to this is that our response should be to live in humble dependence on Him, to recognise that life is a precious gift, and that we are only stewards of His creation. We are not free to plunder the world’s resources for what we want, and then dump what we no longer need.
Yet even as we speak, according to Tearfund’s website,
almost 900 million people do not have access to clean water, the majority of them women and children. While over 2.5 billion, a third of the world’s population, are without a clean and safe place to go to the toilet. Those are just a couple of statistics, among many. many others, which remind us so many of our environmental issues are linked to injustice between rich and poor, the same kind of injustice which Amos highlighted all those years ago. There is a human element of responsibility in so many of our natural disasters, and yet despite all the warning signs telling us where our greed is leading us we have not returned to the Lord.
I guess when I talked earlier about Amos addressing the inequalities between rich and poor most, if not all of us, tended to identify with the poor. And maybe by the standards of this country we do fall into this category. But in global terms, who are the rich? People like you and me. People who, if we’re honest, don’t really ask too many questions where our food comes from or decide the problems are too big and too vast for us to do anything about. It seems to me that if we are to be a credible witness to the wider world, we need to show we do care about creation and that we are willing to be a difference. Not necessarily by jumping on the latest environmental bandwagon or getting diverted from the task of proclaiming the gospel, but by being willing to return to the Lord, in humility and penitence and faith, and asking what He is calling us to do in this area.
Because thirdly Amos reminds us of the reality of judgement,
Verse 12: Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel. Now I guess when we hear that phrase “prepare to meet your God” we think of eccentrics with sandwich boards proclaiming that the end is nigh. Well, whether or not the end is nigh, the reality is that one day we will all meet with God and have to give an account of our lives. And on that day it will be of supreme importance whether we have practised a living faith or a useless religion, whether we have lived in humble dependence on our God or lived only to serve our own ends.
Of course you may say, and rightly so, that because you believe in Jesus Christ, you will be saved on that day. And that is indeed wonderfully and profoundly true. Jesus does indeed promise that whoever believes shall not perish but have eternal life, that He is the propitiation for their sins and that He will raise them up on the last day. And because none of us know when exactly when we shall meet our God, it falls to each and every one us to turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in faith and trust.
But, and this is a point we don’t stress enough, on the day we meet with God we will also have to give an account of the way we have used our lives. Here are some verses not from the Old Testament, but from the New. Matt 7:23: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 2 Cor 5:10: we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Revelation 20:12: Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The witness of Jesus, Paul and John respectively is that our faith has to be more than simply a matter of words. It has to be a living, growing relationship with Jesus Christ where day by day we submit to His rule and His authority and do what He says. As the old hymn says Trust and obey; there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey. There is, you see, quite simply little point trusting if we are not willing to obey.
It’s when you understand this link between trust and obedience that you begin to see what Amos means when he talks about returning to the Lord, or again what Jesus means he says in our gospel reading, in Luke 13:3 unless you repent, you too will all perish. Repentance isn’t simply saying sorry for our sins, or performing a religious ritual. Repentance is a change of direction, a turning towards a new way of life where we live day by day humbly before our Creator, open towards the needs of others, aware of our own shortcomings and failures. It involves practising not dead religion, but a living faith, through prayer and reading Scripture and meeting together in worship. It involves looking at our lifestyle and how we use the wonderful gifts of God’s creation which we in the West are so privileged to enjoy. It involves living in awareness of the fact one day we will meet with God and making sure that we are ready.
That is the urgent message of Amos today and it is, I believe, one we should all take to heart.