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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Amos During Holy Week

I thought I would need to take a break from my comments on Amos during Holy Week. I just thought “Amos: he’s all about God’s judgment on the wickedness and injustice that was perpetuated by the Northern tribes of the ancient Jewish people prior to the 7th century BC. There’s not much Easter in that!” But scripture (praise God!) is much wiser than me. The connections aren’t direct, but they are important. Amos does have a voice in the week normally reserved for Isaiah, the Psalms and the Gospels.

First, consider that Amos did not volunteer for the job of prophet – he was drafted. “I was no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel' (Amos 7:14-15). Similarly, the disciples were fishermen, tax collectors, and one was a revolutionary. They didn’t stand in line to follow Jesus. He selected them and being chosen was particularly trying when Jesus talked about being persecuted and “lifted up” (crucified). Unlike Amos, the disciples failed in the most dangerous moments. They betrayed, denied, and abandoned Jesus. But, he took them back.

Second, there is the image of fruit. Amos writes, “this is what the Lord GOD showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. And he said, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A basket of summer fruit." Then the LORD said to me, "The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them” (8:1-2). Keil and Delitzsch point out that this imagery shows the nation was “ripe for judgment.” Jesus used the fruit image in the last supper and he implied pain to the disciple. But he was talking about pain we need to go through to be who God wants us to be. He was talking about pruning.

After washing their feet, Jesus told the disciples, “"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:1-6, ESV). The fruit imagery indicates the cleansing by fire that Jesus-followers must go through.

Third parallel is found in Amos 8:8-9 indicates natural phenomena will accompany the Lord’s judgment. This includes a midday eclipse. Jesus makes a similar prediction as he preaches in days leading up to the crucifixion. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matthew 24:29). And then, on the day Jesus is crucified, the ultimate judgment of sin is executed, and we see that Jesus knew what he was talking about. “At noon the whole country was covered with darkness, which lasted for three hours” (Mark 15:33).

These tie-ins, from Amos to Holy Week, show just how thematically integrated and unified all of scripture is. The Bible is written by numerous authors over a period of thousands of years. But all are inspired by the same Spirit. In Amos, that Spirit spoke boldly of God’s angry truth in a time when God’s people rejected God’s ways. In Jesus that Spirit spoke of God’s merciful love for a sinful world. I normally don’t read Amos at this time of year, but I am very interested and spiritually moved by the connections I have found. One never knows what one will discover in the Bible.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Our Relational God - Amos 7:1-9

I’ve written on this numerous times – my gratitude that God invites people into relationship with Him. I appreciate that God loves us and wants to interact with us, and also that God is full of grace. People sometimes love God, but sometimes, often, we turn against God. God’s chosen people Israel did this – it’s seen throughout the Old Testament. And God’s people do it today.

God’s relational character comes through in the dynamic exchanges God has with the prophets he has called. A memorable incident is in Exodus where God is intent on destroying Israel for creating a golden to worship instead of worshipping the one true God. God will not tolerate their idolatry. God will begin anew with Moses. But, Moses intervenes on behalf of the people, and after hearing Moses’ appeal, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14).

This is not the only case where God has one thing in mind, and a prophet stands in the gap. Amos delivered messages of God’s judgment. However, in the first part of chapter 7, Amos’ message is not toward the sinful people. Amos turns and speaks to the angry God.

God formed locusts to wipe out the crop of the King of the Southern kingdom. As the locusts begin to eat, Amos says, “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small” (v.2)! The text says “the Lord relented.” Next, the Lord shows Amos a shower of fire to devour the land, as a punishment for the persistent idolatry and exploitation of the poor. Amos repeats his plea saying, “O Lord God, cease, I beg you!” And we read in Amos 7:3. “The Lord relented concerning this.”

This doesn’t mean Amos talked God out of judging the sinful people. God still had plans that would come to fruition, and those plans included harsh punishment for the people who ignored God’s ways in daily practice even as they performed sanctimoniously in worship. God would punish, but God would also listen to his prophet. Amos would speak God’s anger to the leaders of the people, but Amos was not a robot.

Neither should Christians today be unthinking mouthpieces who simply spout out positions or saying or ever scripture recitations. When we speak our faith and when we live our faith we must do it in a way that respects the presence of and attention of God. The Holy Spirit is ever present. The Father-God is always watching, always involved. This means when we disregard God and when we step on people, especially vulnerable people God sees it. God will react harshly against us.

Conversely, God hears when we repent. God hears our pleas for forgiveness. Obviously God is ready to forgive. God sent Jesus to the cross to bear the punishment for sin. God will grant forgiveness to those who come to Jesus. God’s plans are not written in stone. We learn from Amos and from Moses that God relents and even changes his mind, when that is called for.

God is relational God. Jesus-followers are wise to understand this and reach out to God in faith that the future is an open book. God is still writing our stories. We can be a part of that composition by constantly turning to God in faith and in prayer. God listens to us. Why wouldn’t we speak to Him?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


I have been reading the Old Testament prophet Amos and the commentary on Amos by 19th century German Bible Scholars Johann Friedrich Karl Keil (1807-1888) and Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890). One of the prevailing themes of Amos, who prophesies before the Assyrian dominance of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) of God's people, is spiritual pride or spiritual arrogance. Keil and Delitzsch repeatedly identify this theme, which also cannot be missed if one reads Amos even casually. Spiritual arrogance is a problem the chosen people had. Being chosen, they forgot to be humble and grateful before God.

American Bible scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier also identifies this prominent theme in Amos in her volum in the
New International Bible Commentary (1996, Vol. 17). She writes of Amos 6:1-7, "Amos continues to attack those aspects of Israel's life in which it rests [in] its [self] confidence. ... He treats one of the standard themes found in the prophetic writings concerning the day of the Lord, namely, the inability of fame and wealth to save in the day of Yahweh's wrath and sovereignty" (p.212-213). Most Americans enjoy tremendous wealth (when compared to the rest of the world). As I read Amos and the commentaries and try to understand how the prophet speaks in our idea, I begin to wonder about spiritual arrogance.

I first read Amos 6 in the
English Standard Version and in the Good News Bible (the Today's English Version). I found the TEV to be helpful in getting to the heart of what Amos is saying. Here is Amos 6 in the TEV.

1 How terrible it will be for you that have such an easy life in Zion and for you that feel safe in Samaria - you great leaders of this great nation Israel, you to whom the people go for help! 2 Go and look at the city of Calneh. Then go on to the great city of Hamath and on down to the Philistine city of Gath. Were they any better than the kingdoms of Judah and Israel? Was their territory larger than yours? 3 You refuse to admit that a day of disaster is coming, but what you do only brings that day closer. 4 How terrible it will be for you that stretch out on your luxurious couches, feasting on veal and lamb! 5 You like to compose songs, as David did, and play them on harps. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest perfumes, but you do not mourn over the ruin of Israel. 7 So you will be the first to go into exile. Your feasts and banquets will come to an end. 8 The Sovereign Lord Almighty has given this solemn warning: "I hate the pride of the people of Israel; I despise their luxurious mansions. I will give their capital city and everything in it to the enemy." 9 If there are ten men left in a family, they will die. 10 The dead man's relative, the one in charge of the funeral, will take the body out of the house. The relative will call to whoever is still left in the house, "Is anyone else there with you?" The person will answer, "No!" Then the relative will say, "Be quiet! We must be careful not even to mention the Lord's name." 11 When the Lord gives the command, houses large and small will be smashed to pieces. 12 Do horses gallop on rocks? Does anyone plow the sea with oxen? Yet you have turned justice into poison, and right into wrong. 13 You brag about capturing the town of Lodebar. You boast, "We were strong enough to take Karnaim." 14 The Lord God Almighty himself says, "People of Israel, I am going to send a foreign army to occupy your country. It will oppress you from Hamath Pass in the north to the Brook of the Arabah in the south."

In my honest talk with God, I first want to know, how can I avoid being among those who trust in my own wisdom, my own resources, and my own strength? I like being self-sufficient. I like being the one others turn to for help. I don't want to have to ask for help. I don't want to depend on God. How do I live in appropriate humility and gratitude before God?

A second question I bring to the Lord. How do I recognize damaging, spiritual arrogance in the church and in people all around me? I don't want to judge people, but I do want to be able to recognize what's going on. I want to be able to see and to speak the truth the prophets witnessed and testified to.

Third, when confronted with damning spiritual arrogance, what do I do? What is the appropriate response when I see someone in the church who acts like he knows it all? There are many in Christendom who behave as if they are the possessors of all the "right" answers and all truth. They speak their theology as if they stand on the hill of righteousness and to disagree with them is to be in error and heresy. How do I avoid becoming that person? How do I relate to that person?

Particularly chilling is Amos 6:10. Ten in a home have fallen dead before God's wrath and the last one left shouts out for silence. Don't even speak God's name. The pathetic fool had been glorying in his own opulence until the anger of God rained down on him. Now, he's left hiding in the house with decaying corpses around him. From whom does he hide? God. He thought he was in the right and that his prosperity was a sign that he was in God's favor. Now, he lives in dread and stays in the shadows. Fear is his companion, paranoia , his best friend. And in his lowest moment, he cannot even call on God for help. He has ignored God, forgotten God, and now all his woes are from God.

What can Christians learn from Amos? How can the prophet help us live today? I don't have all the answers, but I think it starts with us cultivating humility and gratitude. Neither can be generated by one's own will. To stay humble, a believer has to constantly praise God and see the beauty and the value in other people. Further, he or she must never see himself or herself as being above anyone else. To cultivate gratitude, the believer has to make prayers of thanksgiving a regular practice, even in difficult times. Thanksgiving prayers must be our defense against greed, jealousy, and the temptation to covet our neighbors things. Will humility and thanksgiving provide a sure safeguard against destructive arrogance? I think it's a good place to start.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Amos, on God

God invites. “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4); “seek the Lord and live” (5:6); “seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14). God is an inviting God. God also gives choices. Those who heard Amos report God’s words had a choice. They could seek God and God’s ways or they could live their own way. God invites and God allows people to respond.

God punishes. God sends into exile (Amos 5:5), punishes with fire (v.6), destroys (end of v.7), and brings darkness with judgment (Amos 5:8, 18). God invites and God punishes.

God creates. God made the stars (Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; 38:1), and rules the waters of the sea (Amos 5:8). God knows (Amos 5:12). God creates all and God knows all.

God invites, God punishes, God creates, and God knows.

God comes. Amos reports in 5:16-17, "In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, 'Alas! Alas!' They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, 17and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,’ says the LORD” (English Standard Version).

God invites, God punishes, God creates, God knows, and God comes.

God hates.

Say what?? We evangelical Christians can run with everything up this point. We believe that God invites. "Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). We know Jesus said that and that in Christ we see God’s ultimate invitation. We know there is a coming judgment for sinners, but we assume we’re in the clear. Since we’re in Christ sin doesn’t stick! “God creates.” Of course! What Christian would argue with that? It’s the same with God knows. One of the classical virtues of God is God’s omniscience. God knows everything. And, God comes? We’re counting on that one. Yes, we evangelicals are right with Amos right up to this last assertion.

God hates. We can’t stomach that, can we?

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24, the prophet speaking God’s words).

One of my favorite Bible-reading activities is to take a passage and imagine it is the only Bible we have. Obviously, this is an exercise. Amos 5 is not the only Bible we have. We have Amos 1-4, and 6-8. We have the other 38 books of the Old Testament and the 27 of the New.

However, for purposes of prayer, it is worthwhile to reflect on Amos 5 as if it were all we had. In prayer, I want to ask for God’s help so that I willingly accept his invitation. I want to learn from any punishments God might impose on me so I don’t repeat my mistakes. I want to rejoice on God’s creation and praise God from the depths of my being. I must open my heart to God and be completely honest before God. After all, God knows anyway. What secrets am I keeping? I want Jesus to make me ready when God comes.

Finally, I want to love what God loves, and hate what God hates. I hear a lot Christians, especially fundamentalists, conservatives, inerrantists, Bible literalists, and the like angrily, self-righteously proclaim how God “hates sin.” Then I actually read the Bible (Amos 5, Matthew 25, Luke 6). I read and realize that God hates hypocrisy in worship, and hypocrisy in worship comes when our praise songs are beautiful, but we treat the needy among us with contempt, neglect, and cruelty. God hates that. God loves it when “Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” So, with God’s help, justice and righteousness are what I must work for, especially with regard to disadvantaged people.