This is a version of today’s sermon at Grace Anglican Church.
Today’s reading from chapter 8 of the book of Amos the prophet is pretty gloomy. A lot of the prophets’ material is pretty gloomy, actually, so brace yourselves for another three months of this as the lectionary takes us through more of these prophetic writings.
Amos, like the other prophets, is primarily acting as a sort of “covenant lawyer.” He sees God’s covenant being broken, and is called by God to speak into that situation, applying God’s Law to the situation. By the power of the Holy Spirit he is identifying the problem, issuing fair warning, and declaring God’s judgment for those who do not repent.
Chapters 1 & 2 focus on God’s complaints against various nations, including Judah and Israel. Most of these complaints focus on justice issues like oppressing the poor. Chapters 3-6 narrow in on God’s judgments against Israel, and then chapters 7-9 contain five visions of times to come, plus a promise of eventual restoration. Last week’s reading (Amos 7:7-17) included one vision, a brief historical account of one priest’s negative response to it, followed by another vision in response to that. Today’s reading (Amos 8) also includes two visions: one of the coming end-times depicted by a fruit basket, and one of a famine of God’s word.
The Fruit Basket Vision (8:1-10)
Amos is predicting the end of an era. There a couple ways this fruit basket thing gets translated. One way is to call it “summer fruit.” The Hebrew word is kayits, which sounds a lot like kets which means “end,” so there’s a bit of a play on words here – a common method among Hebrew prophets and writers. Also, the summer is the last season of the Jewish calendar, so summertime and its fruit is an apt symbol of the end. Another way this often gets translated, though, is “ripe fruit.” This allows for a more familiar expression in English: “the time is ripe” – also signifying the ending of something approaching.
What did Israel do to deserve this? Verses 4-6 particularly call out the people of the Israelite kingdom as having been trampling the poor and cheating them. It’s helpful to note that this scorn of the poor can be described as a distinct lack of charity. Charity is just an archaic English word almost synonymous with love, and we know from Scripture that God is love. So it’s no surprise that the Israelite’s lack of charity, concern, or love for the poor in their midst is a direct violation of God’s ways.
Caught up in the midst of this sin is another sin: profaning the Sabbath. While they seemed to be observing it outwardly, their hearts were clearly not in it. They were physically at the worship ceremonies, but their hearts and minds were wandering off towards pursuing wealth. This brings us to a pertinent challenge in our own day – how often do we get distracted when we’re supposed to be worshiping God? I’m sure we’ve all had times when we’re in church supposedly focusing on God, but instead are thinking about the shopping run we need to do later, planning when to go in to work later, hoping that we’ll get home on time for the beginning of the football game, and so on. When “real life” gets in the way of worship, we become guilty of this sort of thing. There’s a great prayer against this in the Prayerbook:
O Almighty God, who pours out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So what is God going to do to them? Their temple will be destroyed, since they’re not really worshiping there anyway, their sin will not be forgotten since they’re acting sorry for themselves instead of repenting, and darkness will fall both literally and spiritually. The kingdom of Israel was destroyed within a century of Amos’ preaching (if I remember my history correctly), so that covers the first one or two prophesied punishments. The darkness prophecy, though, is fulfilled with Christ on the cross: both the noontime sun was darkened, and the festival of the Passover was marred with the death of God’s anointed!
The Famine Vision (8:11-14)
There will be a famine of God’s word. Hearing that phrase today tends to make people think of the suppression of the Bible. But that’s not what Amos meant. In the Old Testament (and for many early Christians also), “God’s word” was the preaching and teaching God and his ways. Specifically that meant the Torah (the Law) in Amos’ day. A “famine” of God’s word, then, means a time when there are no more prophets preaching in the Spirit. This prophesies the “400 years of silence” from Malachi to John the Baptist, in which no prophets preached (and 1 Maccabees confirms).
What is the effect of such a famine? The first and basic result is that people won’t know where to find God or how to hear his voice. They’re left to wander without a guide like sheep without a shepherd. Secondly, this leads to a decline in spiritual health, even among those who might otherwise have been strong. God’s word, in any form, is spiritual nourishment; without it people waste away. Finally, those who obsess over their guilt and wallow in sorrow will eventually die from spiritual starvation.
This offers some important lessons to Christians today. Even now, when we cut ourselves off from God’s word we begin to waste away. God’s word is made available to us in profoundly potent forms: particularly Scripture and Sacrament. Even if we’re spiritually strong, we cannot last on our own. In short, clinging to this world (be it guilt, personal preferences, temporal goals, or whatever else) does not lead to eternal life.