"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Amos – Judgement on Judah and Israel/Judgement on Us (final draft)

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Pentecost 23, 23 October 2016  SJE ©2016 Amos 1-2 (preaching series), Luke 18:9-14, Psalm 84:1-7

We’re starting a sermon series today with an extended trip through the minor prophet Amos.  This is simply awesome.  Aside from the reality that the Hebrew prophets are some of my best friends, our regular schedule of readings almost completely misses the minor prophets…and there is much of great worth in their words.  While reading through Isaiah or Jeremiah can be intimidating, you can consume one of the minor prophets while you’re waiting for your annual physical or the metro line LRT to arrive.  Now, that said, these texts are challenging, and one of the reasons I love the prophetic canon is because it continues to rebuke me, and us, in our lives even today.  You may find these prophetic words have some particular weight in today’s context, as we watch a US election achieve new heights of debasement.

I read an apocalyptic novel recently written by a Roman Catholic author, Michael D. O’Brien.  These words stuck with me as I was reading Amos:

Of man, the creature most blessed, most beautiful, and yet most capable of destroying, there is much to say. That he fell, and fell most grievously in a headlong plunge toward the bottomless dark, is now known by few. That he is rising of his own accord, in inexorable ascent to power and glory, is believed by many and is a feature of his continued descent. Little remains to enact. The consequences of his self-belief are hidden from his eyes. He will declare defeats victories. He will call darkness light, and depths heights. He will gain nothing and call it everything. He will lose everything and call it nothing. He will worship, as all created things must worship. Yet as he strains to worship himself he will come, without knowing it, to worship the father of lies.  –Father Elijah in Jerusalem, Michael D O’Brien

This is certainly the context into which Amos writes, and it is a context at home today as it was in 760 BC.  One of the things you should have heard listening to the text was the shock with which a Jew in Judah or Israel would have heard the words.  As we go down the list of the enemies of God’s people, you can see the assembled crowd cheering: take that Damascus, Gaza and Tyre, you show em God!  And then the text turns to Judah, which leaves the Israelites happy in their righteousness until the final judgement turns to them.  God’s chosen people placed on the same dung heap with their enemies, why?  Because they had deliberately ceased living the law of God (love your Lord, love your neighbour).  The Soviet dissident and Nobel Laurette Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (sol ja nit sin), reflecting on why the Jewish people had suffered so much over history wrote this, “The reason for our misery is that we have forgotten God.”  So Amos, rather than an interesting historic footnote, is spookily prescient of our post-modern context, prophets who still work to call us back to the One true God.

A bit of history to set the context.  Amos was no one famous or powerful.  He was a shepherd of sorts, but a part of the upper class of shepherds if there could be said to be such a thing.  The Hebrew more precisely describes him as a breeder of livestock rather than a keeper of the flock.  Amos himself will later describe his vocation as a ‘dresser of sycamore-fig trees.’  (7:14)  His home was in Tekoa, a village about 16 kilometers south of Jerusalem.  It is likely he travelled as a part of his work, since sycamore trees do not grow over 1,000 feet above sea level while his home is almost at 2,000 feet MSL.

This is the period in the history of God’s people known as the divided kingdom. David’s flawed rule has ultimately led to the nation Israel splitting into a northern and a southern kingdom that were frequently at war with each other around 1,000 BC.  Israel in the north, Judah in the south, each ruled by a king, each who vied to rule the other.  They existed in the midst of expansionist nations who were constantly seeking to claim this territory, and we have a constant series of invasions, wars, deportation of Jewish leaders and what we would describe today as horrific crimes against humanity – the Assyrians were particularly known for skinning captives alive.

Most of the kings of Israel and many of the kings of Judah were not seen favourably by God, and if you read the accounts in 1st and 2nd Kings, and 1st and 2nd Samuel, you will often see a chapter beginning with the refrain…”And he walked in all the sins that his father did before him, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father.”  (1 Kings 15)  There is a recollection of God’s covenant with David because David had been promised to always have an heir on the throne.  When Solomon went the way of all kings, that is bad, Jeroboam 1st was allowed to pick 10 of the 12 tribes to rule, while David’s heir was left with one, so that God’s covenant would still be honoured in spite of the royal mess David had left behind. (1 Kings 11)

Amos writes under the rule of Uzziah in Judah (790-741 BC) and Jeroboam 2nd  son of Joash in Israel (793-753 BC) which places his prophetic ministry around the 760s BC.  The massive earthquake he mentions is also recorded in both physical evidence and other historic sources.  Jeroboam follows with many of the bad kings, as we hear, “24 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin.” (2 Kings 14).  But, in spite of not meeting with God’s approval, Jeroboam 2nd brings in a time of great prosperity for Israel.  Combined with the lack of invasion or war with their neighbours, including Judah, this would be a not bad time to live in Israel…as long as you were a person who had access to the power structures.  If you were not within the privileged few, it’s not really any different from any other time in history…you’re not starving or fleeing because of the Assyrians or the Babylonians, but because of your own nation.  And when you’re starving does it really matter who has brought it about?

One of the things I have found immensely frustrating and ultimately lacking in any hope, are the many strident discussions about Canadian or American politics that I see on social media.  Why are these lacking in hope?  What I see is an immense polarization of opinion, ultimately devoid of any connection with fact, and marked only by the loudness of the shouting of a particular pundit or commentator.  I’ve stopped reading such posts on Facebook…primarily because most of them have so little logical consistency that they’re not even worth reading – they are not about truth, rather they are about feelings.  This is not the place that a Christian may safely dwell.  I’ll speak more of this in a moment, because this is one thing that Amos is also on about. Amos’ is cautioning us: if you are looking for righteousness or salvation through a particular political leader, party or ideology you need to read through Kings, Samuel and Chronicles and ask yourself the question of how different we are today?  If you learn nothing else it is this: secular rulers will ultimately always stray and will never be able to bring their nation into a place of righteousness.  Placing our hope in secular rulers as the solution to the fallen nature of the human heart is, in fact, something we Christians like to call idolatry…and is exactly the same dynamic that Israel and Judah experienced over and over and over.

One last note before we step into the text is to notice how concerned the prophecy is with social justice.  The Old Testament is sometimes rejected by modern Christians because it depicts what Richard Dawkins describes as a bloodthirsty despotic god.  Yet here, and elsewhere in the prophets, we hear clear sounds of the teachings of Jesus, that the real measure of a nation is not power or territory, but how they deal with the weakest people in their society.  The Old Testament manifests the same God of love and compassion which we see in the New Testament.  Don’t fall into the trap of segmenting the Scriptures because it makes you feel comfortable as this is not what Scripture is about.

A final word about prophecy.  It is a rare spiritual gift, and one that is still present in the midst of believers today.  Prophecy has two aspects.  One is the foretelling of future events.  The second is the interpretation of present realities through God’s eyes, and the chastisement of people of faith to call them back to the path that God has set for them.  Neither of those activities are designed to endear you to the people around you, and often result in your rejection or ejection from the community.  Prophets in Scripture almost always end up dead in nasty ways.  This tells you something important about the testing of anything which is sold as being a ‘bold new prophetic move’ by a person or a church…and particularly if it comes from a church leader.  If that ‘bold new prophetic move’ does not make you want to revolt, it’s probably false prophecy, because prophecy by definition is always calling us back from idolatry, from a loss of focus on God’s love and love of neighbour, which means it always comes as a critique of us or our nation on a fundamental level.  There is no need for a prophet when everything is consonant with God’s will.  So beware of those who try to sell things as bold new prophetic moves if it is met with approval by the church or the nation.

Amos’ main attack through all of these writings is on idolatry and social justice.  While both Judah and Israel were theocracies, the faith was only superficial and was no longer connected with the core of God’s being.  So people overtly worship other Gods, people worship other idols like money, prosperity, safety, power, family, a new car every three years and so on.  Everyone worships somewhere, even if they never darken the door of a church.  Basically, exactly the same context we are in today.  What keeps us grounded is our focus on the cross and on the image of God, because this is what makes us truly human.  When we replace that right focus on God with a focus on other idols we lose our link to our humanness which opens the door for violence and injustice.  If we do not see others as intensely human, beloved of God and therefore necessarily beloved of us, it becomes very easy for us to do violence to those others.  Worst of all, our idolatry with notional faith in God allows us to cloak our violence in false righteousness, by convincing ourselves that we are good, therefore all of our actions are also good even when it can be demonstrated that our actions cause violence to others.

Here’s a contemporary example.  This is an iPhone 6S, my work phone, and an indispensable part of my professional life.  If you’re like me, it is impossible today to imagine how I worked 2 decades ago without such a tool.  The Washington Post published an article in September that demonstrated 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Congo, what you might call ‘blood cobalt’.  Apple admits that up to 20 percent of the cobalt in its batteries has been sourced in the Congo.  So my use of a modern tool of business, and anything with a lithium ion battery, is an act of violence against subsistence miners in the Congo.  Do you see what Amos is speaking about and how it applies directly to our modern context?  Does this also change the equation for someone who has become a religious environmentalist, subscribing to the idolatry of environmental dogma, and proclaiming their righteousness after purchasing, for example an electric car?  We buy ourselves false righteousness through such actions, made worse by our insistence that we are justified by our worship at the altar of environmentalism, while sustaining economic violence against other peoples.

Edmond Burke once stated that people were qualified for civic freedom in exact proportion to their moral inclination to restrain their desires.[1]  That moral inclination can only come from one source, and that is a source external to ourselves, so skilled are we at convincing ourselves that we are truly righteous in our thoughts and perspectives.  It is only the person who knows that they are not free, and know they are prone to error, and who choses that moral referent external to themselves in humility, fear and trembling who can become a true moral agent for transformation.  This is why we so badly need God, He allows us to be situated in an external, absolute moral framework that, if we are willing to listen in humility and obedience, will protect us from the idolatry of self which justifies so many horrors and so much violence in our world today.

One quick example.  Our new government is keen to get our troops ‘peacekeeping’ again.  Why?  It looks good, gives us leverage internationally, and gives the world more of what we know it needs which is Canada.  A feel-good story all the way around.  I have to say that quite contrary to the dominant narrative that Canadians are ‘natural peacekeepers’, the reason our soldiers do well in all sorts of conflict situations is because they are very good soldiers.  ‘Natural peacekeepers’ is a government trope designed to cover up the reality of the sorts of places they deploy our troops.  So, this feel good story about peacekeeping.  Contrast this with the story earlier this week that there are 11,500 outstanding claims with Veterans Affairs for released or releasing soldiers with military-related injuries.  What that means is those soldiers will probably not have their disability benefits in place before they leave uniform.  The military finds them unfit for continued service, but they need to make a separate case before Veterans Affairs to obtain disability benefits.  When you realize that there is no such thing as ‘peacekeeping’ in the way that Pearson* conceived it, and that these new soldiers are entering into low- if not medium-intensity combat in what our government has falsely called ‘peacekeeping’, how moral is it that we generate more injured soldiers when we can’t care for the ones we already have?  (I mistakenly said Diefenbaker in the first version, and someone was kind enough to point out that it was Lester B Pearson who had led the move for peacekeeping).

Amos highlights all this, and when you listen to his condemnation of God’s people: Israel sells the righteous for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals, a man and his father share the same prostitute, and they corrupt the offering at God’s altar by taking it for their own use, it doesn’t sound that far off our present advanced age.  Os Guiness points out that the problem facing the west is not wolves at the door, but rather the complete loss of a moral framework on an individual level, which he describes as termites in the floor.  Our foundations are shuddering under our own neglect.  Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s (sol ja nit sin’s) critique of the west from his 1978 address at Harvard is that we have lost our courage because we have exchanged a central belief in the supremacy of truth as the key to true freedom, with a relentless legalism that asserts that individual freedom is the real holy core value, and if anything shown to be legal it is also acceptable and good.  This is what is guiding all of our corporate church’s discussions on doctrine now – that relentless legalism.  Anyone who opposes that assertion is branded as evil and worthy of the full weight of condemnation which Facebook and Twitter can bring upon them.  This is manifest in the immediate and violent condemnation of anyone or anything which does not fit the post-modern model of fashionable correctness, which is a moving target.

Solzhenitsyn’s (sol ja nit sin’s) tells us that freedom without an anchor of virtue ultimately turns into something hideous and evil, a place where the poor are consumed and the creation of the disposable person is immediately blamed on the victim.  That is, freedom without virtue absolutely anchored external to the individual, leads to fascism… fascism which is violently defended by its practitioners as morally righteous. As long as our focus is on appearing externally fashionable to the culture over internal integrity anchored in Christ, we will be subject to falling into the pattern of first world fascism.[2]  The words of Amos cut to the heart of our first world society and call us back to again renew our covenant with the Most High, and to refocus our lives on the two great commandments: to love God with all that we are; and to love our neighbours as ourselves.  We can do neither while we insist on presuming that we are righteous of our own strength, for that removes any possibility of humility which also removes any possible acknowledgement that we require obedience to the truth of Christ if we can ever hope to be a force for God’s good and not our good.

As a final note, Amos speaks about fire and destruction as the outcomes of a failure to follow God’s law.  Do not assume because your life seems pretty good that you are righteous; that because you do not have fire and brimstone each morning you must be mightily blessed.  Personally, the one thing that ministry has convinced me of over and over is that there is no one in the world as depraved as I am, and no sinner who needs our Saviour’s redemption more than I.  This is another mark of a sincere believer.  While God’s judgement may not come in fire, it may instead come in indifference. When we seek something strongly enough, God steps aside and allows us to pursue that goal, even if it is contrary to God’s will or desire for us.  This is not approval but the consequence of God’s gift of free will.  Sometimes the judgement of God may be permitting unrestrained deterioration, and giving us over to the consequences of our desires.  That is something I see clearly present in the world around us today,

Now, the point of hope that we will come to hear clearly in Amos in the weeks ahead, is there is always the possibility of a return home to the Lord for God will always welcome us.  All it takes on our behalf is our admission that we are not righteous without His redemption, that we can only truly live in him; and are otherwise dead to the world.  Amen.


For the first time in a long while, the divided north kingdom of Israel and the south kingdom of Israel were not at each other’s throats. And the superpowers of Egypt and Assyria were giving their imperialistic expansionistic policies a break. With this stable political climate, there was now money around— a lot of it.

But you know how it goes: the majority of the money was for the top 2%. Not much of a middle class, and lots of poverty. Hardly the vision for the Kingdom of God for which the LORD God, Creator of heaven and earth had planned for his people Israel/Judah.

But this state of affairs didn’t come about by accident: it was the result of a decline in paying any attention to their covenant with the living God. But attention was being paid to other spiritualities: the fatally attractive fertility gods and goddesses. So the LORD God speaks to the error of injustice and spiritual apostasy. He sends a prophet to the royal palaces of the rival kingdoms. In true Godly irony, the prophet sent to the lavish palaces is the farmer/shepherd Amos. His words—the word of God to our distorted social, economic and spiritual states —are potent and timeless, and worthy of attention for all times and places and people.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s address to Harvard: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/alexandersolzhenitsynharvard.htm

“The response at Harvard hurt him more than all the years of torture in the Gulag” [when the Harvard students booed him for mentioning God]

Solzhenitsyn reported that his grandfather, in response to the question “why has our nation suffered so much” replied, “The reason for our misery is that we have forgotten God.”

Funeral of the last of the Hapsburg emperors, Zita.  We all stand as sinners before the Almighty, regardless of the laurels we won or lost in this physical world:

The titles were read aloud: “Queen of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia. Queen of Jerusalem. Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Cracow…”

“I do not know her,” said the father.

A second knock and “Who goes there?” brought the response, “Zita, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary.” Again the reply, “I do not know her.”

When the inevitable question was put a third time, the answer was simply, “Zita, a sinning mortal.”

“Come in,” said the priest, opening wide the door not for royalty, but for a faithful member of the Church, whose life had finally reached its end.


Did the archbishop have friends and relatives whose lives violated the commandments? Perhaps in the beginning he had meant only to be kind, to evangelize with empathy. Then, because of the adamancy of God’s laws, he had fallen into the dilemma of kindly men who lack courage to speak the truth in love. Their natural sympathies told them one thing, and their faith told them another. Thus, internally divided, these pastors strained for a resolution. They were further weakened by long years of endless nuances, by reading disordered theology and feeling helpless whenever they were confronted by the tears and reproaches of those who found moral imperatives too hard. Add to this their discussions with like-minded peers, people they admired, clever people who chose to manipulate opinion as they sought to deconstruct the Church and rebuild it in their own image. These dynamics, combined with a hidden thread of pride, had led the archbishop to the conclusion that orthodox Catholicism was simply no longer feasible, could no longer function as it had for two millennia. Primitive Christianity, such men believed, must evolve into something inclusive, nonjudgmental, and nonconfrontational. Above all, it must never offend. –Father Elijah in Jerusalem

Wikipedia history of Judah and Israel is not bad… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Judah


A Washington Post story on the mining of cobalt in the Congo. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/batteries/congo-cobalt-mining-for-lithium-ion-battery/?tid=ss_fb

Outstanding VAC claims, CBC 3 Oct 2016:


Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink because he’s probably a self-righteous sort, a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time. Some of them are good men, but in the name of goodness, they cause most of the suffering in the world. They’re the judges, the meddlers. And, son, never trust a man who drinks but refuses to get drunk. They’re usually afraid of something deep down inside, either that they’re a coward or a fool or mean and violent. You can’t trust a man who’s afraid of himself. But sometimes, son, you can trust a man who occasionally kneels before a toilet. The chances are that he is learning something about humility and his natural human foolishness, about how to survive himself. It’s damned hard for a man to take himself too seriously when he’s heaving his guts into a dirty toilet bowl.
― James Crumley (A non-Christian source, but colourfully relates the need for humility nicely. One of the reasons I clean bathrooms and cat litter boxes, it reminds me of my proper place in the world.)

[1] Referenced in Gustav von Hertzen, “The Challenge of Democracy”, January 2009, p. 93.

[2] This idea is partly taken from a series of podcasts by Ravi Zacharias titled ‘Character Counts’ that I’ve integrated with some other sources.  The five podcasts are well worth listening to, as he starts with the kings of Israel as an example of character failure because of a lack of integrity in Christ.    http://rzim.org/just-thinking-broadcasts/character-counts-part-4-of-5-2/


Written by sameo416

October 22, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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