My opening sermon in a sermon series on Amos was entitled ‘Awesome God’ and is on Amos 1 and 2. The book that I found most helpful when preparing this was Teaching Amos by Bob Fyall. It was preached at the end of May 2011. Later in the same series, I also preached on Amos 7 and 8.
Awesome God; Reading: Amos 1:1-2:3
Countries in the Middle East are struggling under the oppression of their rulers. But, at the end of long reigns those rulers are still trying to hold their rule together, while their countries are burning and sliding into chaos and destruction. That’s what we’re seeing today and have seen over the last few months. After years of oppression and cruelty people are rising up against rulers who oppressed their people, took captives, waged wars and were brutal with internal repression. Amos looked at the countries around him, and with God’s eyes saw the same cycle that we see today happening over 2 and half thousand years ago. We know that Amos was right; just as he said, those kingdoms were destroyed.
This is the first sermon in our new series going through the book of Amos. Amos was prophesying in the 8th century BC, which was a time of relative peace and prosperity. But, it was an uneasy peace, punctuated by conflict and with the looming shadow of Assyria growing in power and strength to the east. Think of Europe between the wars perhaps.
Amos was prophesying two hundred years after the division of the kingdom of King David into two; Judah in the south, with its capital at Jerusalem, and Israel in the north, with its capital at Samaria. Amos, although from Judah himself, was prophesying in Israel.
Amos was also the first prophet who wrote down, or had someone else write down, his prophesies in a book. We know about the earlier prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, not through books of their prophecy, but through books of history. Amos was the first prophet whose prophetic words we have as a stand alone book, like we’re perhaps more used to from the prophets of Isaiah and Jeremiah that we use more frequently.
And because the book of Amos was about recording his prophecies, we don’t actually know very much about Amos the person. As we heard in the first verse, Amos was a shepherd. We know from later in the book that he also tended sycamore-fig trees. So, he wasn’t particularly learned, or in a position of power. He was probably just an ordinary person in an ordinary job. We don’t know a lot else; we don’t have any mention of Amos outside his book of prophecy. And yet it was this ordinary person who, God revealed his thoughts to. We often misunderstand what prophecy actually is. I think that we often think that prophecy is about telling the future. It might be, as it is in these first couple of chapters of Amos. But, prophecy is actually about telling us what God is thinking about a certain situation. It’s a bit like seeing things through God’s eyes.
And that’s the first thing that the book of Amos, like much of the rest of the Bible, tells us. It tells us that God speaks. God speaks through his prophets and messengers, through the written word of the Bible, and also directly into the world. This is the basis of these prophecies against the nations. The understanding found throughout the Bible is that, although God also speaks directly to his people, he also speaks directly into the world. For example, Psalm 19 begins “The heavens declare the glory of the God”. Paul also talks about the same thing in his letter to the Romans.
This was also a great rabble-rousing way to start Amos’ prophesy off. Draw the people in by telling them what they already think anyway. The surrounding nations are going to be destroyed – great! The nations are going to be punished for the wrong that they have done. The nations are going to see the power that the God of Israel actually has.
The nations are condemned for breaking what we might today want to call universal human rights. The nations have not responded to the God whose image they see in every individual, and whose image they see in the world around them. The declaration of universal human rights is a modern recognition that humans are all equally valuable.
In other words, a recognition that we are all equally made in the image of God. And actually I’ve noticed this when I’ve been trying to tell off my daughter. Discipline is currently about trying to make her understand that other people feel the same as she does; that they can be hurt too.
So, this could be the point in the sermon where I decry the many wrongs of modern society. The rising divorce late, the high level of abortions, the sexualisation of children, the corrosive effects of militant secularism, and so on. And those are all causes for concern. But, Amos hasn’t finished with his oracles against the nations yet.
Reading: Amos 2:4-16
Amos’ audience would have been with him up to this point. Decrying the many wrongs of the societies around him would have been popular – his audience could see that those godless pagans had failed to follow God’s law. As Paul was to write to the Romans hundreds of years later “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, so that people are without excuse”.
Even decrying the sins of Judah would have been welcome. As I said earlier, Amos, although from the southern kingdom of Judah himself, was prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel. So, his audience would have loved hearing this Judahite calling down God’s wrath on his own kingdom.
But, Amos didn’t stop there. He carried on, prophesying against Israel as well. And this is where things would have got considerably more tricky I guess. Most of the time most of us are usually fairly happy to hear about what other people have done wrong – that’s why tabloid newspapers sell so well. But, we’re a lot less happy to hear about what we’ve done wrong – that’s why superinjunctions were created. The problem is, as Amos’ audience found out, you can’t slap a superinjunction on God.
Notice the major difference between Amos’ oracles against the other nations, and his oracles against Judah and Israel. The other nations were condemned for things that we instinctively feel everyone should think is wrong: the breaking of universal human rights, the denial of the image of God in human beings.
But Judah and Israel were condemned for the specific sins of falling away from God: for rejecting the law of the Lord, and for idolatry. Amos lists the specific ways in which particularly Israel have rejected God’s call on their lives, have chosen to live for themselves and not for God, and have also corrupted those who attempted to remain faithful to God. The Nazirites were people who had particularly dedicated their lives to God and who had vowed to live lives of purity. The prophets obviously were people who were chosen by God to tell others how God saw the situation they were in.
So, we’ve heard that God, speaking through Amos, reversed his most serious charges for those who knew him most clearly. It’s perhaps easy for us to look at the corrosive effect that secularism is having on our society, to decry the many other things that are now available to pull people away from church on Sunday, to see the normalisation of things that we regard as immoral.
But, whose fault is this? We complain about the shrinking Christian influence on our society’s morals. Well, that’s because there’s a shrinking number of Christians within our society. We note the decline in church attendance. Well, that’s because people have found things that they think are more interesting and relevant to do. If we want to combat secularism, if we want to have a greater influence on the society in which we live then its up to us. And the best way to do this?
The more people who meet with God, who realise that God is relevant to them, the more people who realise how much God loves them, who start to live in the way that God calls them to, then the less that we will have to worry about the other issues.
We have an amazingly positive message to hear for ourselves and give to others. Amos called the surrounding nations to account. Jesus called the whole world to account. And, through Jesus, we can come to God and know his love, and know that he can transform us.
Amos called the surrounding nations to account, because they had fallen short of God’s plan for creation. The moral understanding that humanity shares was used to condemn them. We are all made in God’s image, we all reflect, in some way, God’s eternal qualities. And, God calls us to account for failing to reflect those eternal qualities as far as we know them.
But, God, through Amos, called to account his chosen people far more severely. They were condemned for putting themselves above God, for not allowing their past encounters with God to shape their future, for not living lives dedicated to God, for not listening to what God has to say to them. So, Amos asks us, in what ways are we not doing those things?
This question reminds us of our need for a Saviour, a need for someone, for God, to help us. And, of course, through Jesus, that is exactly what we have. The superinjunctions that are hardest to lift are the ones that we’ve placed on ourselves, both as individuals and as a church. Let us ask God to help us see those areas where we are falling short. And then, the great promise of God is that, with his Holy Spirit, God himself will help us become more the people he created us to be. Amen.