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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Seek God and Live

Amos 5 is a prophecy full of righteous anger, and yet, embedded in tragic reality ("fallen is virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land), and in the piercing accusation from God ("you who turn justice into bitterness"), and in the ominous truth ("there will be wailing in all the vineyards for I will pass through your midst") is a divine invitation. I don't particularly like words like "fallen," "bitterness," and "wailing." I especially don't like thinking on these thoughts knowing I am going to bed soon. Why would the Lord passing through be a cause for anguish?

It makes me think of Jesus' parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The goats were sent off to eternal punishment because they neglected the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger in need (v.44, 46). In Amos 5, those who end up wailing in horror and sorrow when faced with the Lord's presence are the ones who despised the truth and trampled the poor (Amos 5:10, 11). Amos 5 and Matthew 25 are good companion passages, but not just because both speak God's justice against those who trod down on the weak and needy, the oppressed and the powerless.

In both places, there is also a sign of hope for those who seek God's help and find their redemption in God's grace. In Amos 5, right in the middle of the accusing rant, God says, "Seek the Lord and live" (verse 6). And then again in verses 14-15. "Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord almighty will be with you. ... Hate evil, love good. Maintain justice in the courts." God is angry, but God will not turn away the repentant sinner.

Even is one has been an agent of evil, a dispenser of pain, God will receive that one when he comes on his knees, begging forgiveness. This is not entirely played out in Amos 5, but the seeds of redemption are planted in the rough soil of wrath. God always, always makes room for the recalcitrant who would turn from evil and turn to the ways of God.

I hope that as you read this, you'll realize that your story is not yet written. Some of it is but a lot is still to come and it can always turn on grace. Amos doesn't speak of grace, but what he says would only be possible with a God of grace. Amos is the truth-teller and some times, many times, the truth is really hard to hear. I pride myself in being someone who deals with the whole truth and doesn't hide behind nuance or pretense, but I am frequently surprised by situations in which I have been hiding behind something. When it comes out, it hits me right between the eyes and I realize I have to come clean.

That's the ticket - come clean! The only way one can truly seek God is to come clean about who he (the seeker) really is. God raises up prophets like Amos when his people play the part of holiness but live in evil. Evil isn't some caricatured demon like Freddy or Jason or some other horror movie monster. Evil is when people are cruel to one another in real world ways. Evil is seen in Christians who neglect the vulnerable, needy, difficult people around them. Evil is the church huddling up and keeping out the "undesirables."

To seek God, we have to be honest about where we have ignored God and lived by our own standards whether it be theological arrogance, a sense of moral superiority, or something else. Whenever Christians get into the "us and them" mindset, we forget that at the communion table everyone is equal - a sinner in desperate need of grace. I heard recently about a Sunday school teacher that has no time and no love for homosexual teens and teens that get pregnant. She feels they have no place in the church. She is who Amos is talking about when quotes God as saying "I know how many are your offenses and how great are your sins" (5:12). Is premarital sex that leads to pregnancy a sin? Sure, but the greater sin is the Christian who ought to know better refusing to love the broken sinner who comes to church in need of grace. That SS teacher needs to come clean, admit her prejudices and bigotry, and repent. We all need to do that.

The good news is we can, and God will love us. We can seek God and live. We can have another chance at shedding the clothing of this world and instead clothing ourselves with Christ and living as his disciples here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

God Surprised?

One of the themes in Amos is God's anger at God's people. Israel (the Northern Kingdom of 10 tribes) had relied on alliances with foreign, pagan powers for national security instead of trusting in God. These alliances included syncretism, the blending of religions. God found this to be intolerable.

Equally distasteful to God was the hypocrisy. The wealthy minority demonstrated proper form in their pious religious rituals, but at the same time, they neglected the needs of the most vulnerable people in society and even perpetuated the suffering of the poor. And so, in creative wording and vivid metaphor, Amos speaks God's wrath to Israel.

But, it seems the Israelites do not react the way God thought they would. Amos 4:6-13 presents a progression of responses from God. If we ascribe to the notion that God knows all before it happens, it wouldn't seem God ever responded to anything. Is something really a response if I know ahead of time it's going to happen?

It is not analogous to say I know ahead of time that if my son has a great day at school, he will get a nickel in his jar and ice cream at dinner. I know that's what I would do. But, maybe I forget. Or maybe, he forgets to tell me. I know that is my plan. To say God knows all, means God knows what is going to happen including what God will do. This is not what God would do, but what God absolutely will do. No other scenario is possible.

So, if God knows the whole drama before it plays out, then God isn't responding to things. God knew ahead of time Israel would rebel and abandon the covenant. God knew in advance how God would react. Yet, the wording of Amos 4 doesn't read with that certainty.

In verse 6, God recites a series of harsh punishments God has meted out to the people. "I gave you absolutely nothing to eat." Then at the end of the verse, God seems surprised. "Yet you did not return to Me" (HCSB).

So, God ramps up the divine discipline. "I withheld the rain; ... I sent rain on one city, but not on another." And again, the chagrined response, "Yet you did not return to Me" (end of v. 8. HCSB). Five times God tells of drastic ways He has punished the people. Find times, a frustrated God repeats, "Yet you did not return to Me."

Finally in verse 12 God says, "Therefore, Israel, that is what I will do to you." And God proceeds to inform the recalcitrant Israelites that there will be no more discipline from a distance. God is moving in. "Israel, prepare to meet your God" (end, v.12). That's a bit peculiar. Hasn't Israel already known God?

This whole monologue from the Lord sounds dramatic. It is like God is caught in a cause and effect situation and it does not seem that God is free to step out of it. God is reacting to Israel with the same anger a parent has when a child is completely disrespectful and disobedient. As a parent of young children, I can relate. But, I am not supposed to be able to relate to God. God is supposed to be above such pettiness.

What I see here is a personal, relational God, one who takes the relationship very seriously. I admit it is completely possible I am seeing implications in the text that are not there. Perhaps Amos 4:6-13 says nothing to indicate that God is surprised or caught off guard by Israel's sinfulness. Perhaps the belief that God knows the future as if it already happened is in tact with a reading of Amos.

I would take issue with the notion that sovereignty = foreknowledge. I believe God is absolutely sovereign over the universe and especially over the ways of humans beings and the history of earth. I don't think God is ever out of control or that there are events that are beyond God's control. I don't think anything happens that God cannot handle.

But I also think God gives human beings free-will. That's what it means for us to be made in the image of God. The people of Israel could have chosen to be faithful to the covenant. They would have needed God's help to live as a faithful people, but they could have chosen to ask for that help and I believe God would have given it. All along the way, Israel had choices. As I read Amos, I see God confounded by their choices.

Does that mean God did not know their choices before they made them? I am not ready to go there. But, the question is intriguing.

"So the Lord God formed out of the ground each wild animal and each bird of the sky and brought each to the man, to see what he would call it" (Genesis 2:19, HCSB). Did God not know a turtle was a turtle? Did God have to wait and see what Adam would call it before God knew it was a turtle? God waited to see what the man would call each animal. Mmmm. God was frustrated each time Israel did not respond to God's discipline.

What does it mean about God, about time, about the future, about foreknowledge?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ignoring God

The Ancient Israelites, the people of God, ignored their God and it led to drastic consequences. They continued ignoring God in spite of the drastic consequences. How bad did it get?

God imposed starvation ("cleanness of teeth ... lack of bread," Amos 4:6); and drought ("I also withheld the rain," v.7). Dramatic crop failures came from God (Amos 4:9); so too did suffering from disease, war, and domination at the hands of invading armies. God takes credit for all the pain (Amos 4:10-11). Even though it was awful, the wrath of God did not have its desired affect. Five times an exasperated God says, "Yet you did not return to me" (v.6, 8, 9, 10, 11). God brought about all this drama and to no avail.

I love the way Eugene Peterson renders these verses in The Message. A longing God says to Israel, "You never got hungry for me." "You never got thirsty for me; you ignored me." Three more times, he words it "you continued to ignore me." I am not always thrilled with that paraphrased version of scripture, but I think it really preaches in this case. When the people of God "hunger and thirst for God" and pay attention to God, life is good, very good.

When we hunger and thirst for other things, those things become idols, occupying the space God is supposed to have. We summarily ignore God, and life falls apart at that point.

It makes me think about the city of New Orleans. America built a large city below sea level with a lake on one side and the Mississippi Rive on the other. This city was built right next to the Gulf of Mexico - hurricane central. The poorest people of the city live in the low-lying, most vulnerable areas. And the city is known for partying (excessive drinking and women revealing their breasts so that they can build a collection of cheap beads).

So, the mother of all hurricanes hammers New Orleans, and some people shake a fist toward Heaven and blame God. Never mind that this hurricane wouldn't crack the top 10 of natural disasters for loss of life in the last decade. We'll blame God and make New Orleans the cause celeb in the United States.

Salvation comes because of great humanitarian efforts? Of course not! Salvation comes when the football time wins the Super Bowl. It was destiny (forget the superior game planning and the gutsy play-calling). And what does that Super Bowl win bring about - more partying (Mardis Gras style with beads and boobs and booze).

I am encouraging my congregation to seek Jesus during Lent, 2010. Of course, seek Jesus all the time, duh! But, the preaching emphasis for this season will be the relationship we have (as a church and as individuals) with God. Hunger for God. Thirst for God. At the end of Amos 4, God says,

12"Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!"

13For behold,AC)">(AC) he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
andAD)">(AD) declares to man what is his thought,
AE)">(AE) who makes the morning darkness,
andAF)">(AF) treads on the heights of the earth—
AG)">(AG) the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!

Does it sound ominous? It does to me. I'd rather have the experience of Mary in the garden. In her hazy confusion, she met the resurrected Lord and he called her by name. I want to see the risen Jesus and hear him say, "Rob." And I will say, "Master." And, I'll fall at his feet. Yeah, I want to want that. That's the way to meet God. So, I will seek that in Lent, 2010. I encourage you to join me in the quest.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fat Cows

Honestly God, "fat cows"? Was that you, or is that Amos' paraphrase? Did you say it with more dignity, more aplomb?

I am asking these questions of God because I read of God's displeasure expressed in Amos 3:13-4:3.
"15I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end, says the Lord.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”"

The wealthy women of Samaria lived large, so Amos called them "Fat Cows." It reminds me of the unfortunate response from the queen in France shortly before the French Revolution. She was told the starving people where riotous because they had no bread. Her brilliant response? "Let them eat cake." Why didn't some court attendant pull the clueless monarch aside and say, "Um, excuse me your blindness, er, I mean, your highness. But they don't have bread. They certainly can't afford cake."

Or earlier in history, to the rich women in Samaria demanding "drink" from their husbands. "Excuse me ladies, but while you are loafing, consuming all the resources of the nation, the people in your country are starving and your opulent, extravagant life styles are contributing. And GOD SEES!!"

That's one thing I take away from Amos - God sees. God always sees when there are a few people soaked in riches and a lot of people wallowing in hunger and scarcity. God sees me - my life. In my honest talk with God, I have to honestly acknowledge where I have lived wastefully. I have to confess when I have demonstrated indifference where God would want me to express compassion. I don't want to be a fat cow demanding drink and living in summer and winter houses (Amos 3:15).

If you read Amos and try to localize his piercing prophesy so that you would say he only speaks to ancient Israel and ancient Samaria, hear the words of 19th century Bible scholars Johann Frederick Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch. These scholars refute any attempt to dismiss Amos as a prophet for back then but with nothing to say today. Keil and Delitzsch write "The sin of these women consisted in the tyrannical oppression of the poor, whilst they asked their lords, i.e., their husbands, to procure them the means of debauchery." God's judgment speaks to wealthy people today.

Amos said they would end up dragged into slavery by hooks in their noses (4:2).

Really, God, did Amos need such graphic imagery?

Perhaps the real question is do I realize how disgusted God when people of privilege ignore people on the margins?

I hear enthusiastic Christians talk of the urgency of evangelism. They want to "get people saved," get them into Heaven. I don't deny it. With Heaven and Hell at stake, Christians need to share Christ with people. However, we also need to understand what it means to say Heaven and Hell are at stake. Read Matthew 25:31-46 or Luke 16:19-31. In those passages Jesus condemns to Hell anyone who has neglected to help the needy. Would that include me?

Or read Amos. The language is colorful and the reader might feel like Amos is calling him a "Fat Cow." But it is better to hear that, awaken, and take spiritual stock. It is better to change one's life and live compassionately today. That is better than to continue to live in blissful ignorance and then discover on the "Day of the Lord," that God was really angry, judgmentally angry, that we didn't notice those around us and help and love them.