July 18, 2010 - Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
We love strawberries at our house. Joanna blends them into smoothies. I like to cut them up on my granola in the morning. A few weeks ago Beth and the girls were driving by a local strawberry farm and decided to stop in. They picked and brought home berries that were incredibly different from the usual buy grocery store variety. Smaller, but ripe, red all the way through, tender and full of flavor. Nothing like the crisp, golf ball size, red on the outside, white on the inside, irradiated berries that come from California or Florida.
Here’s the thing about that box of berries from the local grower. We didn’t want to let them sit around in the refrigerator for a week. They were ready to eat right then. Wait and they would be mushy and spoiled. Those berries were ripe.
Last week, we saw Amos’ vision of a plumb line dangling from God’s hand. This week as we go on to chapter 8, the vision is of a basket of ripe fruit. In verse 1, God uses the same simple question to make sure Amos—and you and I—are paying attention. God shows the prophet a basket of ripe fruit and asks, “What do you see, Amos?” The answer in verse 2 is simple and obvious, especially for a man who we learned last Sunday was a keeper of fig trees, “A basket of ripe fruit.”
The little object lesson with ripe fruit leads up to God’s announcement that, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.” Literally what God said was, “The end has come,” because in Hebrew the word for “ripe fruit” sounds like the word for “end.” Ripe fruit is “end fruit.” As with the plumb line, the point is that God will not wait for Samaria any longer. The northern kingdom of Israel has not shaped up. The time is ripe, the end has come.
So verse 3 turns to a brief, intense description of what will happen on the day God brings the end for the ten tribes of the north. It’s filled out later in verse 10, but as the Lord already said in chapter 5, He’s fed up with Israel’s phony festivals, with their supposed devotion that covers evil behavior. When the murderous Assyrians arrive, the hymns and praise songs they are singing will turn into wails of pain. And as you’d watch if you went to see “Predators” at Valley River, “Many, many bodies—flung everywhere!” Who needs action flicks when you’ve got the Bible flinging bodies around?
Yet the last word of verse 3 is the abrupt, single command, “Silence!” As this text unfolds we see that part of what angers and pains God is that no one in Israel is listening. There is no quiet space, no still, noiseless moment when His people wait and listen for His Word. Even the songs they sing are just so much more noise deafening them to their Lord’s voice. So the silence to come will be the ghastly quiet of still, lifeless bodies flung around the land.
With verse 4, God speaks into the silence, addressing the divine complaint we heard last week, a judgment on those who ignore people in need and fail to do justice, “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land…”
The first part of the complaint in verse 5 is the hypocrisy inherent in Israel’s worship. Yes, they come to the temple and sing, yes they maintain the religious holiday of New Moon and the weekly observance of the Sabbath, but the whole time their minds are elsewhere. Like many of us come to church—I’ve felt it too—they simply can’t wait for it to be over, so they can continue what really matters to them. In this case, business, buying and selling, making a profit.
It’s hard not to think that twenty-first century America is much like eighth century Israel on the score of verses 5 and 6. We call it worrying about the economy these days, but the basic idea is that, as a country, business is our main business. The thought is far even from Christians that buying and selling, profit-making, and productive work should actually slow down or take a holiday for the sake of listening to God.
Some of us remember when many stores and gas stations closed on Sundays, when good church people would not shop at the ones that stayed open. But here on the west coast that seems long ago and far away. It’s like a story from National Geographic to hear someone two weeks ago talk about the fact that you can’t buy liquor on Sunday in Minnesota. We assume that Fred Meyer and Applebees and the Regal Theatre at Valley River will be open when church lets out and that we will shop and eat and be entertained on Sunday afternoon. Our family does it too.
There was a restaurant owner in our church in Nebraska who used to say that he would close his café on Sundays and come to worship… if it weren’t for all the Christians that wanted to come and eat there after church.
Are we much different from the Israelites sitting there wondering, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” Even as we seem to make time for God, urgent business is on our minds—groceries to buy, lawns to mow, homework to finish, papers to grade, television to watch, spreadsheets to analyze, and, for most of us now, e-mail, text messages and voice mail that absolutely must be answered.
Can we sit still long enough to hear God? Can we have spaces of silence in which we are not connected to anything but His voice? Or will the beeps and ringtones and blinking lights of all our gadgets keep us from hearing and seeing what the Lord wants us to hear and see? Do we have so much to do that we cannot do what God asks of us? Those are the questions Amos asks us this morning.
As for the rest of verse 5, beginning with “skimping on the measure and boosting the price.” Where have you seen that before? Have you bought a box of cereal or a candy bar or a “half gallon” of ice cream that’s really only 12 ounces lately? Charging more for less seems like business as usual in American stores as much as in Samaria’s markets.
More serious is verse 6’s statement that shady salesmanship in Israel exploited the poor and the needy. Lotteries are standard fare in almost every state in our country. They boost state income and provide funds for schools. Yet that fountain of cash for education and state programs comes mostly out of the pockets of the poor. A study showed that lottery ticket sales rise markedly during the weeks Social Security, disability, ADC and other checks are distributed. The elderly and poor and poorly educated with limited incomes are the ones buying most of the tickets. Amos says we are “buying the poor with silver.”
Whenever profit becomes paramount and prices rise and corners are cut, it is the poor who suffer most. It’s an old story that our own American corporations are guilty. Back in the 1970s Nestle Corporation was boycotted because it aggressively marketed baby formula in poor nations around the world. Uneducated, poor mothers were being convinced that a white powder was better than their own milk. But in those countries the formula was being mixed with dirty water, and women who couldn’t read the directions were watering down the mixture to make it go further. Babies were sick and malnourished all because their mothers were conned into spending the little money they had on a product they didn’t need. Amos says that we are “selling even the sweepings with the wheat.”
It’s a hard to know just how much you and I are part of it all. That was certainly true in Israel as well. Most of the farmers and shop keepers wouldn’t even realize or think about how their business affected those in need. The same is true for us as we shop and sell and invest in companies whose dealings we don’t know or understand. Yet the question is whether we are listening. Are we able to stop doing business long enough to wonder if our business is fair or just? Are we able to sit still long enough for God to talk to us about the way we spend or invest our money? Will we take the time to hear what God’s Word says?
The consequences for not listening are enormous. The next three verses declare God’s intent not to let His people get away with neglecting His words and standards. In verse 7 He says, “I will never forget anything they have done.” God’s not going to just overlook our failure to care for those in need, our failure to listen to His Word. Verse 8 says, “Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn?” Isn’t the mess on the Gulf Coast a sign of the very earth trembling because of the relentless greed in which we all share?
Verses 9 and 10 repeat the warning that in Israel even supposed worship is going to be turned into wailing. God says, “I will turn all your religious festivals into mourning and all your singing into weeping,” and “I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.” The prospect is terrible for those who fail to hear God’s Word.
Yet the last part is an even more terrible prospect. Verses 11 and 12 predict that, for those who fail to listen to the Lord, the time will come when they won’t even be able to listen. In verse 11 the Sovereign Lord says, “I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.”
At our recent meeting of the Covenant Ministerium in St. Paul, our Executive Minister of World Mission got up to read Scripture. But he didn’t hold a book in his hand. He read the text from his iPhone. Many of you have probably downloaded a Bible onto your own portable device. God’s Word is incredibly more available in our time than in any time in history, but are we able to listen? As the Bible becomes more and more accessible, people read and listen and understand it less and less.
God’s Word is getting lost and drowned out in the midst of texts and voices and images coming from everywhere and everyone else in the world. We live right now in a famine of the Word of the Lord, not because it can’t be found, but because in the middle of everything else we are doing, it can’t be heard.
Beth and I went to the Hult Center to listen to Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” last Sunday afternoon. For the first time there in a concert hall, I heard a message that’s common in movie theatres. The sound of a ringing phone came over the Hult’s sound system and then a request to silence all cell phones and portable devices. We needed to be quiet to hear Elijah sing the first words of the oratorio, God’s declaration that He would judge Israel with a drought. Turning off our cell phones there was a parable of contemporary life. We live in a drought of the Word of God until we stop and are quiet enough to hear Him speak.
Our Gospel for this morning, the story of two sisters who loved Jesus, Luke 10:38-42, dovetails with our Amos text. This little domestic tale is the great message for our time as it holds up hearing the Lord as the one priority over all the other important business of life.
Yes, I know that some of us identify and sympathize with Martha and even want to defend her here. Somebody had to get dinner ready. It’s all very nice for Mary to have her quiet moment with Jesus, but everybody was going to get hungry. And Martha has her own moment of spiritual profundity in John 11:27 where she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. So, O.K., yes, Martha is not a spiritual midget despite her concern for getting the pot roast in the oven and the table set. But if we make that story all about defending Martha, we totally miss the point. Mary is the example Jesus gave us for an age when we all have way too much to do, whether it’s work or play, to sit for a few moments and hear what our Lord has to say.
We’ve made for ourselves a famine of hearing the words of the Lord because we are drowning in words. It’s like those famous lines from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which men lost at sea are dying of thirst, “water, water everywhere, nor not a drop to drink.” Words, words read off pages and screens and billboards, words heard from phones and films and tiny MP3 players, words everywhere, but our ears are hungry, are ears are thirsty for the Word that really satisfies, that brings life.
So yes, meals need to be prepared. Physical hunger is urgent and you can’t study the Bible for long if you have no food. Yet what’s the point of eating and living if you are dying spiritually? Food is necessary, but the physical life it sustains comes to an end. Only spiritual life nourished by God’s Word will carry us into the resurrection for which we hope in Christ. Otherwise we are starving, living in a self-imposed famine.
Valley Covenant Church has existed for thirty-five years because our congregation has wanted to hear and be fed on God’s Word. We began in 1973 with Bible studies meeting weekly in people’s homes. We became a church in June of 1975 because thirty or so people wished to insure that the Bible would continue to be taught and that men, women and children would be able to listen to what God says to them.
It’s still why we’re here. It’s why God kept us together and helped us pay the bills and keep the lights on. We are here each Sunday to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen with all our hearts to what He says. It’s why this fall we want to renew that first and seminal ministry of small Bible study groups. We’ve got hungry ears. They are hungry for the voice of our Lord.
Our aim here is the same that God had for Israel as He spoke through Amos. He doesn’t want us to starve. He doesn’t want a famine of His Word. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we read the end of chapter 1 in which Paul celebrates the Gospel, the Word that was hidden for generations, but is now revealed in the Church to everyone who will listen, the mystery which he says is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
That’s why we’re hungry, that’s why we want to hear and be filled with God’s Word. That Word is Christ. That Word is the hope of glory. We end our reading of Amos today with chapter 8, but that’s not where his prophecy ended. At the close of the book, after all the destruction, after all those bodies flung everywhere, God says He will restore them.
In chapter 9 verse 13, the Lord says, “The days are coming when the reaper will be overtaken by the one who plows and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from the hills.” That’s the glory we aim for as we teach and learn and listen to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, a time when there is more than enough to eat, both physically and spiritually, for everyone who is hungry. That’s why we’re here as Valley Covenant Church. We work with our Lord to end the famine. We are here to feed both hungry ears and hungry stomachs.
My hope today is that you and I will feel hunger, hunger for God’s Word. May we feel our need to stop, be quiet and be nourished by Bible study and teaching that fills us with the life of Christ. Yet I also hope we will feel the hunger of our community and of our world around us, a world of people famished both for the eternal food of God’s Word and for simple physical food to sustain their bodies.
In a few minutes as we begin to prepare the anniversary meal in which we will share today, may we remember the great meal to which we and all people are invited, the Feast of God in Jesus Christ, the living Word. That’s the meal we want to serve every week, that’s the meal to which we want to invite everyone we possibly can. Let’s join our Lord in bringing an end to famine. The time is ripe.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj