Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dry stubble before devouring flames

Early thoughts on Amos 7 which I'm preaching on in a month... any comments welcome.

What do you do with bad news. Early on in our time living in Exeter we got a parking ticket for having our car parked opposite our house, because we forgot that it was a time-restricted bit of the road. What should we do with the ticket? Two options aren't there? Face it and pay it, or put it in the bin and hope it goes away. Bad news is never great to face but we know which one is the productive route to take.

Here we find, in Amos 7, two ways to face the problem of God's anger. And it is a real problem. Jonathan Edwards famously put it when preaching 'Sinners in the hands of an angry God': There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God. The threat of divine judgement is deadly serious and not something to be taken lightly. Amos is deeply aware of that as God's word comes again and again to him.

Martin Downes notes: Robert M'Cheyne and Andrew Bonar were once talking about what they had preached the previous Lord's Day. "On Hell," said one, to which the other asked "did you do it with tears?"

1. Avoid judgement by seeking grace

Here, in chapter 7, he is given visions. He sees locusts coming to strip the land clean (v1). He cries out for forgiveness. The cycle repeats this time with the threat of fire. The imagery is shocking and devastating. Amos the shepherd-prophet understandably tries to avert God's judgement from his people. And he succeeds in part. The third cyle does bring an inescapable judgement - the plumb line is hung and there will be no further restbite for them. The idols will be destroyed and the king will fall by the sword. That third cycle triggers the second episode here, but before turning to that return to the first two cycles. See Amos' attempt to avoid destruction.

1. He pleads for forgiveness. Surely this implies that he acknowledges the sin of the people. They need to be forgiven else they die.
2. He seeks forgiveness. That is, he turns to the LORD who is angry for grace.
3. He pleads promises. He asks "How can Jacob survive?". Reading all their prior offenses we might ask - who cares if Jacob survives? - let him be judged. But God has made promises to his people. They must continue. For all their sin, they must survive.

Aside: Did God change his mind? This could be argued - he is said to relent or even repent in response to Amos' prayer. It seems to me that this is a common way of revealing God and his ways to his people. A similar occasion is Exodus 32 after the idolatry with the golden calf. These verses report a non-event. Nothing happens. But, by revealing himself this way we see both the threat of judgement and a way of salavtion which the passing of time would not have shown.

This seems to be the only way to escape judgement, and yet Amos is ultimately unsuccessful. Judgement still comes (v7-9). Only when God sends his Son to be a propitiation will crime and punishment give way to grace and favour. Only then will God's people escape the judgement that they deserve. As we look back on this let us be humbled - confessing that we need God's rescue from his judgement, we have no other hope. We are no better than the people in Amos day, if anything - worse for we live in clear view of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

2. Avoid judgement by silencing the prophets?

The second episode here is another attempt to avoid judgement, but this has a very different flavour. Amos is still on stage, and the LORD continues to be present by his word. And we're introduced to The Priest of Bethel who summons Amos writes to the King to accuse Amos of conspiring to have the King killed. Not the last time a faithful preacher will be accused of speaking against the authorities.

He takes Amos aside and tells him to go away, to prophesy in Judah instead. Go spout your judgement against them!! No more of your gloom and doom talk here, Amos! Amaziah is committed to a crime that Israel have already been accussed of (2v12), of silencing the prophets. Amos responds: I'm just a shepherd - I was no prophet, or son of a prophet, but the LORD sent me to prophesy. So, Amaziah - you will not silence me. And then Amos pours fuel on Amaziah's fire with more words. "You say don't prophesy, don't preach therefore the LORD says judgement on you and certain exile for Israel."

Amaziah is a classic example of a man with itching ears. He hears a word he does not like and so he tries to silence it. Like Amos he tries to avert judgement. But unlike Amos he has not even begun to reckon with the reality of wrath. He wants talk of judgement silenced because he neither likes it or believes it will come. He wants prophets who will speak happy thoughts to him. And so he confirms himself judged by God for preferring his own words to the word of God.
You can't live like that, sending back bills, exam results or medical results that you don't like. And on a vastly more serious scale we can't send back God's words preferring something a bit lighter or more cheery. Edwards: What are we, that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down? Now while there is time let us like Amos seek refuge in God, confessed sinners who seek grace. Let us flee the wrath to come and find life in the LORD who speaks and saves through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.