Sunday, June 29, 2014

MICAH: “Keep It Simple, Saint"

A Sermon Based Upon Micah 6:1-8
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   June 29, 2014

The name Ben Powers may not be familiar to you today.  But, several years ago, he made headlines around the world.

In 1987 the ill-fated Challenger blasted off for outer space.  This was a special mission which included six astronauts and one school teacher, Christa McAuliffe. The astronauts were to carry out scientific experiments and Christa was to teach some special science classes from the Challenger once they were in orbit.   As you know, 73 seconds into launch, an O-Ring failed. A startled world watched in shock as the Challenger exploded and seven astronauts died, including the young school teacher.

Ben Powers is a NASA expert in solid rocket design.  He risked the wrath of his supervisors and the scientific community at NASA when he gave his testimony before the Presidential Commission investigating the disaster.  Ben Powers was the only NASA engineer who had opposed the launch.  He was the only NASA engineer who had expressed concern about a launch in cold weather.  He was the only NASA engineer to appear before the Presidential Commission and say that the order to launch had been a bad decision.    Because of his testimony, several key supervisors have been replaced at NASA and Ben Powers is treated like a "leper" by those with whom he works.  He broke the code of silence, and former friends and colleagues now keep their distance.  

In an interview, Ben Powers was asked by a reporter if he thought he and his family had paid too high a price for his testimony.   Powers was silent for a moment and then he said, "My commitment to Jesus Christ is the most important factor in my life. I did what God expected me to do."

Have you ever asked yourself, "What does God expect of me?”  Micah 6:8 is one of the most important verses of the whole Bible because here the prophet Micah answers the question, "What does God expect of us?"   According to Micah, it’s not that complicated as he asks:  ... and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?   Here, God’s most basic standard of righteousness, goodness and morality, are broken down into just three simple, short Hebrew words:  Mihspat.  Hesed, and Hasnea.   These words are so important that I want you to learn to say them in Hebrew with me?  Mishpat!.... Hesed….!. Hasnea....!   Now, let’s think about what they mean, not just for Jews, or just for Christians, but for the whole world.

LIFE CAN GET TOO COMPLICATED
Before we examine these ‘simple’ words, let’s understand the prophet’s words still matter?   I begin with an observation in the form of a question:  Is your life getting more complicated these days?  Need I ask?  Carl Schenck says every he knows in Missouri lives a more complicated life.  It’s not just Missouri.  We live in a very complex world, and it grows more and more complex every day.  Regardless of what your work is, it is probably complicated.  Whether you work in an office or teach at a school or whether you rear children in a home or whatever your daily work is, it is probably full of complexity.  It does not matter if you are white collar or blue collar or no collar at all; work is obviously complicated.  Every form of work has its paperwork, its rules and regulations. Every situation of work has its relational difficulties with co-workers, bosses, employees, customers, clients and students.  Work is complicated, and it seems there is a new complexity that is introduced every week to our daily work sites.

Our families are also complicated. Families are, I suppose, busier now than perhaps they have ever been.  Most couples are made up of two working persons, arranging for two jobs, two careers, and the demands of those work responsibilities.  It gets very complicated. If there are teenagers in your home, then you know what complication really is all about. Their schedules and the demands on their time are every bit as great as those faced by adults. Transportation, boundaries and relationships in families can become very, very complicated.

We would like the church to be simple, and we all have, in our minds, an idealistic picture of a little brown church in the vale; but almost no one goes to the little brown church in the vale anymore.  Most people are going to larger and more complicated churches.   But even small churches are more complicated too.   Any church of any size at all is bound to have people with different priorities, different spiritual needs, different tastes and preferences. It gets complicated.  If you add to that the complexities of buildings and budgets and all of those things, the desire to have the little church in the vale like it used to be is just not possible in a complicated world.  Church is also complicated.

If those personal levels of our life-work, family, church are complicated,  it gets even worse when we begin to look at our society, as a whole.   There are a lot of very smart people in Washington, and they cannot figure out how to balance the budget, and it is not because they aren’t smart enough to do it.  It may at times have to do with their particular self-interests, but often it has to do with the complexities of the problem.  How do we, as a society, balance our generational obligations?  How do we, as a society, balance the obligation we have to the older generation for their care and at the same time seek to be faithful to the children that come along?  Think about what kind of society and what kind of national debt we pass on to our children. It is not simple.

In our own communities, even in our own largely rural counties of Yadkin and Iredell, there are growing issues of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, racial tension, on-and-on they go, and they complicate our lives.   You could say that this complexity can easily become a form of darkness.  This does not mean that all complexity is evil,  but all the complexities, challenges and changes going on at once can put us into situations where we very frequently cannot see clearly which way we should to turn. Life goes out in so many different directions at once that if we wiggle over here, we may negatively affect someone over there.  It is tough to live in these days, and we certainly cannot see all the outcomes, all the effects, all the implications of a decision or an act or a direction in our lives.   When we cannot see or know which way to go, what to believe, who to trust or what we should do, we can quickly edge into darkness.  The complexities of our lives make it harder and harder and harder find the light so that we can walk and see in the dark.

THE GENUIS OF SIMPLICITY
When days were simple, but hard, it was the person able to invent something to make to make life easier, who was seen to be a genius.   Just think about Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin.   Henry Ford and the Automobile.  What about Thomas Edison and the light bulb or Alexander Graham Bell and the Telephone?   In those simple, but hard times, these feats of invention were ‘complicated’ to accomplish, but these ingenious people made life easier  and made work more efficient.   That’s how it was in the good ‘ole days.  

Now ‘a days, as life has become complicated, almost too complicated for most of us, it is the person who can make something simple, who is seen to be the genius.   Think about Steve Jobs who created Apple Computers.  If you saw the recent movie about Jobs,  he wasn’t a very likable fellow, and he really didn’t created or make anything, but what he did was to take a simple idea of making a complicated computer easy to look at and to operate.  It was his marketing simplicity that made Steve Jobs such a respected creative genius.   Or also, think about Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, who took of the simple idea of ‘ecommerce’ and made it a reality with Amazon.com.   We all knew it would happen.  Amazon.com is nothing really new, expect that he combined computers, shopping, and mail order, so that he moved every department store to the click of a mouse and then to your own front step.  It made shopping just that easy.  Maybe, too easy.

Perhaps this is a great symbol of where religion and faith need to go, if they want to matter in a world that has gotten too complicated.     We need to realize again that the Christian faith was never intended to make faith in God more complicated, but it was to make it easier.  This is why Jesus reduced all the law and prophets down to two simple commandments: Love God with all your heart; and love your neighbor as yourself.    But before Jesus there was another religious Genius, the prophet Micah, who reduced everything God required of humanity into three simple actions:  Mishpat: Do Justice!   Hesed: Love Kindness, and Hasnea: Walk humbly with God!   

This is how is should always be when you have true faith!   True faith should always make religion and morality simple.  It should get it down to the “Nitti-gritty” or to the ‘brass tacks’ or where ‘the rubber meets the road’ as we say.  This is exactly where Micah wants to take us in this text.  Look closely.   The people of Israel, for some reason or other, made a very simple religious faith much too complicated.   Instead of being a faith of living in simple covenant and agreement with God, it became a complicated faith of “Don’t do this, or don’t do that” and it became a faith of ‘you must do it this way, or you must do it that way’, or you’re not doing it right.  That’s the kind of religion that was not only designed to keep others out, but it’s also the kind of religion that wants to make you it look you’re doing what you’re really not doing which is the thing you should be doing.  It’s like a big ‘smoke screen”, and I mean that literally.   Listen to how the prophet Micah describes a lot of ‘noise and smoke’ but very little substance: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  

Most of us will never worry about a ‘burnt offering with year old calves’ nor will be raising up “thousands of rams” or pouring out ‘ten thousand rivers of oil”, nor “giving our first born”, or sacrificing “our own body” to God, but the truth Israel wasn’t doing this either.  What Micah is saying is that there is no kind of ‘sacrifice’ that will make God happy.   A complex, complicated religion’ is just a cover up to keep us from doing the very simple things we are supposed to be doing all along.  Life should not be as complicated as we have made it and true religious faith should make better, not worse.

A RELIGION THAT ACTS AND DOES
So, what is an uncomplicated, simplified, true faith?   It’s not a faith that figures out what it believes about some nuanced matter (like which version of the Bible do you read, or which kind of End Time scenario is coming) and then tries to force that belief on everyone else.  True faith is not a faith that spends all it’s making sure others jump through the same hoops.   No, true faith, is a faith that does what is supposed to do.  Not only that, true faith is the kind faith that does what every human being is supposed to do, whether they are religious or not.   True faith is just as simple as these three words: Mishpat, Hesed, and Hasnea.   

Before I speak very briefly about what these three word mean, notice what they each are; they are verbs.  Do justly!  Do Kindness! And Do Humility with God!  Each word makes true religion something you do, not what you talk about, think about, or pray about.   A great example of making your life about being that is about doing comes from the life of a South Carolinian named  Dan Dyer.   Dan is a maintenance man for Roper Hospital in Charleston, SC. Until 1989 Dan had been responsible for the hospital heating and air conditioning for 8 years " and yet the hospital staff was oblivious to Dan's existence.”   Dan was usually out of sight in the boiler room or some such place, and his contribution to the healing of sick and hurting people just wasn't all that obvious.

In September of 1989, though, Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston.  Electricity went out all over town. Roper Hospital was reduced to a system of backup generators, and for some reason the diesel pump for the generators was not pumping the needed fuel to them. That threatened to leave a large hospital and its intensive care unit (The unit where patients are on life-support systems) with no electricity. It was in the midst of that crisis that Dan Dyer made 5 trips out into a hurricane to hand-pump diesel fuel back to the small tank that fueled the generator. Every trip through the high-velocity winds, water, and crashing debris was a risk of his life to safeguard the lives of the patients in the hospital. After that night, nurses, the hospital administrator, and even the governor of the state knew who Dan was. Dan Dyer became a bit of a celebrity and was recognized from that point on as the man who keeps Roper Hospital running.    It's ironic, isn't it?  For 8 years Dan Dyer faithfully performed functions vital to a large hospital, but until a crisis occurred, the other hospital personnel didn't have a clue as to who he was.   But all along, Dan is an example of true faith: Doing what matters when it doesn’t seem to matter and also doing what matters, even if it might kill you.  Just do it!  Do what?

MishpatDo Justice!   So what is doing justice?   It is really simple; living your life in such a way that you seek out and try to live rightly each and every day.   It means playing fair.  It’s not judging what others do or don’t do, but it’s making sure that you are seeking, listening, learning, and trying to live the right kind of life that you already know to be right (and most everyone else does to).  It is also a life of being who you say you should be, not just being right for your own sake, but it is doing right for the sake of others who need your justiceyou’re your fairness, just as much as you need theirs.

And what is loving kindness?   Hesed: Loving Kindness is what happens when your view of what is ‘right’ and someone’s else’s view of ‘right’ is not exactly the same, but you are determined to be loving and kind to them anyway.   The problem with the smartest, brightest, best people is not that they fail, but they are often unkind in their ‘rightness’ and they don’t have a place in their lives for people who differ with them.   You show that you love kindness when you love people who are trying to be fair, and just, as you are trying to do what is fair, just and right.

Finally,  Hasnea: Walk Humbly with God!   This is what enables you to love kindness and do justly, even in a complicated, scary world.  When you walk humbly with ‘your’ God, you will have the humility even to walk with someone who’s view of God differs.  Do you trust God that much?   Since there is only one God, it is not God who gets things wrong, but it is our own human views of God that come up short of understanding how big of a mystery of love God is to each and every one of us.  We need to remember that being Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian or whatever we are, is not because our forefather’s got it wrong, not because they got it right.   Of course, we need to know people who gave shape to religion and denominations meant well, but we humans still get it wrong, even when we try to get it right.  Our differences are proof that we make things too complicated.   The true mystery of God is only revealed to us through humility, loving kindness, and doing justice.  When we figure that out, if we ever do, there will be no religious difference, but only cultural differences, and these cultural differences will only matter if they all point to the same ultimate truth:  the God who has revealed himself as the one who reveals justice, shows loving kindness, and has ‘humbled’ himself to be ‘for us’ and not ‘against us’ in Jesus Christ.    

Are you able to humble yourself enough to simply trust that God is for us, and is never, ever against us, no matter what happens or we fear might happen?   This is what ‘faith’ always means, that we trust.  Only when we humbly trust in such a God will we love kindness and do justice.   Let me explain.  John Claypool tells of a missionary who went out years ago to teach in a school in China. She had begun the whole venture with a deep sense of God's calling. However, in the long voyage over the Pacific by boat, all kinds of fears began to crop up. Just like Peter, who had begun in confidence but then took his eyes off Christ and let the winds drive him to terror, she too was beset by anxieties: "How will I provide for myself? Will I be able to learn the language?  What will be the response of the people?" One night she went to sleep deeply troubled by all these uncertainties, and she had a vivid dream. It was as if she were standing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean all by herself with nothing but a two-by-four supporting her at the surface of the water. In that condition, a voice said to her, "Start walking to China." She answered back, "But I can't. I'm not able to walk on water. If I leave this secure standing place, I will surely drown." But the voice insisted, "I said walk. Start walking toward China." With fear and trembling, but in obedience, she lifted her foot and put it forward, and just at the moment that it was touching the surface of the water, another two-by-four, like the one on which she had been standing, appeared out of the depth. Every step she took was met by support emerging from the deep. She woke with a new sense of confidence and trust in God.

At times in our lives all of us will be in deep water.  Life can get complicated and frightening fast.  At such times can’t do justice or know kindness unless we humbly trust in God?  Like that missionary on the ship, we will want to turn back from doing what needs to be done, and showing the love we need to show, unless we humbly trust to keep walking with God. 

 How are humbling yourself to walk with God today?   Where will you put your trust?   Will you trust in your keen intellect?  Will you put your trust in your health? Will you put your trust in your stocks and bonds or in the equity of your home?  There may come a time when all of these will fail us.  If we only put our trust in ourselves, only in our accomplishments, in our possessions, in our investments,  there will come a time, regardless of how much we have accumulated, when we will stare into the darkness and feel the waters of defeat and death rise around us.   But if we humbly put our faith in God now, if we confess that our strength and our ability are inadequate but that God's strength and God's ability never fails, then we can stay focused on the simple truth of life,  that life is about doing justly, and life is about loving with kindness, and that is all life is about,  no matter how complicated it might seem.  Amen.  


Sunday, June 22, 2014

“ISAIAH: Ducking Worship”

A Sermon Based Upon Isaiah 6: 1-8
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   June 22th, 2014

Jesus said, “Those who worship God must worship him in Spirit and in truth” (John 4).   We know what Jesus said, but what did he mean?   Of course, we say we worship God every Sunday, but how can know we have truly worshipped God in the Spirit?   

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish pastor and Christian philosopher from the 18th century was so deep and profound of a thinker and way ahead of his time, his thought is still important today.  He was also so simple and practical sometimes, that not just philosophers could gain from him, but so could the average Christian.   Kierkegaard loved to tell stories and give truth in parables.  Once he told parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher.   The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly.  With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go, there was no God-given task the ducks could not accomplish.  With those wings they could soar into the presence of God himself, if they wanted to.   Shouts of "Amen" were quacked throughout the duck congregation.  At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left, commenting on what a wonderful message they had heard -- and waddled back home.   They talked about flying, but they never flew. (http://www.ldolphin.org/Provocations.pdf.).

Now, listen carefully:  Do we duck worship by having “Duck Worship?”   Do we sometimes waddle away from worship in the same way we waddled in -- unchallenged and unchanged?  Week after week, we come to the same place and sit in the same pew, following an order of service we know by heart, while listening to a sermon (and often not listening) because we wrongly assume the message is primarily for someone else.

I wonder what would happen, if something really happened.  It could be dangerous, couldn’t it, if we took the worship and the sermon seriously.  Anne Dilliard, a Christian writer once wrote:
  Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”  (Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41).

Do we ‘get it?’  Can we really get beyond ‘duck worship’?  

AN INVITATION TO SEE DIFFERENTLY
Isaiah did.  Isaiah was a very professional prophet of the court of Israel who was used to going through the motions and playing the professional games, doing what was needed for him to keep his job and get ahead in the world, then something incredible happened.  It was, as our text says, In the year that King Uzziah died” (Isa 6.1).   Imagine being on the President’s cabinet and then having a new president from another party get elected.  The death of a good King was an even greater concern when most Kings were not good.    It was the kind of concern that would bring a person to their knees.

When I was a Baptist pastor in Germany, as the congregation arrived for worship, they would often find their seat, then bow on their knees and say a prayer to prepare to worship.   Perhaps that was their custom learned during the time of Communist rule and oppression.  You would worship differently when you are being oppressed, don’t you think?   Barbara Taylor says, you only learn true faith when you 'walk in the dark.'   What brings you to your knees in worship?   Something eventually will.   It could be a diagnosis, a new awareness of your mortality, a broken relationship, or you may be facing some insurmountable problem in your life.  We often forget about God when things are going well, but then, something happens that brings us back.  

True worship is often born out of human need as we realize our own vulnerabilities and our very real limitations.    Sometimes, such realizations come slowly, but others times its more sudden.   Our need for God comes unplanned, unrehearsed and uncontrollable.   That’s certainly how it was for Isaiah.  In a ‘low’ moment of deep despair he ‘saw the LORD seated on a throne, high and lifted up….’.    Through a moment of true worship, Isaiah received a ‘new’ and encouraging way to see God, to see his life and to view the world.   I guess you could say he had been ‘waddling from worship’ most of his life, ducking the true God, ducking his real self, and ducking the kind of worship that could change his life, but now everything becomes different when Isaiah “saw the LORD seated upon a throne.”

Let me you about a time I began to see some things differently.  It was the time when Henry Blackaby was going around the country talking about his Bible Study, “Experiencing God”.  He can come to the mission learning center outside of Richmond to help prepare missionaries for work overseas.  During his study, he taught a 7 point method for getting closer to God.  I was skeptical.  It sounded too much like Babel, where people were building a tower to try to reach God.  I was not impressed with any method that reduced spiritual life to a human approach.

That was then.  About 5 years later, we were having Mission Meeting in Europe and guess who the main Bible Study leader was?  It was Henry Blackaby.  I didn’t want to go, but it was required.  I tried not to listen to what he was saying, because I’d heard it all before.  Even though I agree with most of the insights Blackaby had, the whole approach just seemed to contrived and artificial.   Then we came to the end of our session and Blackaby started to led our prayer time.  It was during that time of preparing for prayer that I began to see everything about Henry Blackaby differently.   Before we prayed, he asked if any of us missionaries had special needs.  One missionary stood and began to share his concern about a son who had just gone through a divorce and was very depressed and living alone in Alabama.  Instead of going on with a prayer,  Blackaby asked if there was anyone there who could help ‘answer’ this prayer of need for that ‘son’.   A missionary spoke up and said that he knew the pastor of a large church in that town and he would get on the phone immediately and  have that pastor or someone from that church visit the missionary’s son.  

With this ‘connection’ before us, Blackaby commented on all the had taught,  “Now, this is how you experience God.  First you must get involved in the things God is doing, and amazing you’ll then see how quickly you start to experience God.”    It was in that moment, that I saw God in Henry Blackaby, when he moved teaching us, to calling us to our knees in prayer.  It was the kind of life-changing prayer that took away our distance from each other and from God, and opened us up our own needs and the needs of others so that we would share them and care for them.  That was real prayer, the kind of prayer might even enable you to see a religion that matters---both to you and to God.  

SEEING OURSELVES DIFFERENTLY
What brought Isaiah to see differently was not just a fresh vision of God’s care, but it was also a moment of new understanding about himself.                      

“Know thyself.”  “Let me to my own self be true” are too great sayings of wisdom in the ancient world.   They are also part of what happened to Isaiah when he ‘saw the LORD’.  If you see God as he is, it’s not long until you see yourself as you really are.   But don’t let it happen the other way.  Don’t try to see yourself, until you catch a vision of understanding about a loving, caring, God or you could be in for trouble. 

A very high charged story is told in the recent book and Movie, Philomena.   It’s based on the true story of a woman who was taken in my catholic nuns into a girl’s home, when she accidently became pregnant.  The home was very strict, and sometimes harsh, as they often sold the babies to wealthy Americans in order to pay expenses.  Philomena’s son was suddenly seized from her without notice, and then sold so that she never saw him again.   After Philomena was retired, she wondered what happened to her son.  A news reporter heard of her situation and wanted to help her and do a story on the outcome of her search.   Philomena does find her son identity, but unfortunately he is deceased.   She wondered if he ever thought of her.  Ironically, in the end, she discovers that his body was returned to be buried at the home where he last saw his mother. 

The story is powerful alone, but what makes it even more powerful is that Philomena never loses her faith in God, nor does she ever lose respect for the nuns, even though they did not treat her fairly.  The reporter, who is an atheists, has no respect, but comes to question his own values (or lack of them), and even comes respect faith.   During the story, the situation calls them both to take a serious look at themselves and their attitudes toward faith and toward others.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2431286/.)  

Sometime or other, life has a way of forcing us to take the longest walk we will ever take, from our head to our hearts.  We all must, each one, come to grips with who we are, how we relate to others, and what kind of person we are, and also, to consider what kind of person we should be.   Life in our world has many ways to try to insulate us from the most important truth, but God has a way of showing up, getting through, and helping us come to grips with our true self.   This is exactly what happens in Isaiah’s vision, for no sooner does he “see the LORD high and lifted up”, but in the vision, his own life and living is challenged by the revelation of God’s holiness, and he must admit that he is “lost” and is “a person of unclean lips” and that he ‘lives among a people of unclean lips” (v.5).   Interestingly, we never really see who we are, until we first see how loving, graceful, and merciful God is.  Our sin is never fully revealed until we know that God loves us and forgives.   As an old song goes, “The one who knows me best, loves me most.”   This is the second thing Isaiah sees.  He not only sees the Lord, but when he sees the LORD as he is, he begins to see himself.    He no longer can ‘duck’ seeing himself as God sees him.

SEEING THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY
When you see God as he is, then come to see yourself as you really are, you will then begin to see life and the world very differently too.  

This is exactly what the president of World Vision, Richard Stearns, suggests in his book,  “The Hole In Our Gospel”, when he asks, “Is our faith just about going to church, studying the Bible and avoiding the most serious sins---or does God expect more?”   When you see God, then see begin to see yourself, and it isn’t very long until you start to see that there is ‘more’ to the gospel than you originally thought.   You not only begin to see yourself differently, but you also begin to see the ‘world’ differently.

In this vision, after Isaiah sees the Lord and finds himself in need of cleansing, in the very next moment with the ‘cleansing of his lips,  heaven comes calling with a great question: “Whom Shall I send, and Who will go for us?”  To this heavenly call Isaiah answers in the affirmative, “Here am I Lord, Send me!”   Although in this text we have the unmistakable story of the ‘call’ of this prophet, we also have a picture of the voice of God that bears a burden for the world and this holy, loving, and compassionate God who asks us to carry that burden too.   For this is not only a call to be a preacher or missionary, but it is also a call to see the world as God sees it, in need of someone who “will go” and bring God’s message of love, redemption and hope.

When I was preparing to go on the mission field, I overheard my father having a question put to him, “Why does your son want to go overseas?”  My Father responded that he did not know.  Interesting, my Father was the finest man I’ve ever known.  He was a faithful Christian, deacon, Sunday School teacher with a men’s class larger than my first church.  Everybody loved my Dad.  My Dad was caring and compassionate, but he did not ‘understand’ why I was going overseas.  Ironically, I can’t say I understood it all either.   All  I know is that on a short volunteer mission trip to South America, something happened.  When I saw those poor children, and the faith of those people who were living in the slums, but having much more faith and enthusiasm for God than I’d ever seen in the U.S., something hooked me, caught me, or should I saw, was in some ways came to me in a way that was not unlike a ‘call from heaven’.   It made me see the world from a completely different angle. 
Jesus saw the world from this very different angle.  While the religion of Jesus day was stuck trying to figure out what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’, Jesus basically showed them that all religion was wrong, unless it had a love, appreciation, and mission to the world.   As Mother Teresa once said,  “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”   That’s right.  We are not the message, and we don’t ‘write’ the message, but we communicate it.  “When we understand that, we might actually become useful to God.”    As another Teresa has written, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out; your are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and your are the hands with which He is to bless us no.  (Both quotes in “The Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearn (2010).

I find it interesting, to think about how this ‘calling of Isaiah’ , this calling to see and respond to needs of the ‘world’, changed Isaiah’s views and perspective about true faith and true religion.  In Isaiah 58, we read how God is not pleased with the religious ‘fast days’ of his people, but God encourages a whole different kind of religious activity:  
6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
 9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
 11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.   (Isa 58:6-11 NRS).


Unfortunately, I still hear some people saying that we should not be about a ‘social gospel’.    But when we truly get our hearts right, we not only see differently, but we do differently.   And the ‘different’ thing we do is to love our neighbor as we love God.    So, according to Isaiah, and to Jesus, the only true gospel is a ‘social’ gospel that loves God whom we haven’t seen, by loving our brothers and sisters we do see.   There is no true religion, without there also being a religion that causes us to see the world differently, just as we've come to see ourselves and the God who created us all for his glory.   Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

“HOSEA: God’s Amazing Love”

A Sermon Based Upon Hosea 1: 1-11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   June 15th, 2014

One of the most popular nursery rhymes we learned as children was: 
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. 
All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.”
 One of our favorite sing-along games was “London Bridge”:  
“London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. 
London Bridge is falling down, My fair lady!”
Or it was the other one:  “Ring around the rosy a pocketful of posies,  "Ashes, Ashes"   We all fall down!

Some those songs we were rather morbid for children, don’t you think?   It is thought that “Humpty Dumpty” was the code name for a canon placed on a wall at St. Mary’s cathedral during the English Civil War just before 1650.  “London Bridge” was sung as far back as the middle ages, perhaps because of the difficulty of building a bridge across the river Thames.   It is believed by some that the game-song, “Ring around the Rosy” goes back to the horrible death and dying during the great plague of Europe.  But no matter the exact origin, these songs all speak to the ‘breakable’ ‘fragile’ nature of life.   These are the harsh, hard realities of life that children must face and come to grips with, if they want to become functioning adults.  Things break.  People break.  Life falls apart.   You can fail.  Very often, if not much too often, the things that fall apart can never be put back together, ever again.      

As we speak of things irreparable, we’re talking about much more than Grandmother’s favorite antique lamp.   Relationships, our most precious human commodity, can become so fragile that they may be lost in one wrong move.   For example, when you hear the name Anthony Weiner, I bet the first thing that comes to mind is not his political skills, nor his faithfulness as a husband.  And all you have to do is broadcast someone’s misconduct, whether deserved or not, and their career and reputation can be completely destroyed.   To quote the Berenstein Bears children’s book, "Trust is something you cannot put back together once it is broken."

Marriage is one of the foundational areas of human relationships that is becoming more difficult to justify in our untrusting world.   When I lived in an apartment building in eastern Germany, my 4 year old daughter often played with our neighbor’s four year old son, Max.   Max’s father was a surgeon and his mother was a biology teacher.   We got to know each other through our children and once during small talk I asked Max’s father how long he and his wife had been married.   “Oh, we’re not married”, he responded.   “Well you sure look married,”,  I answered.   When I inquired the reason two people much in love with two sons weren’t married,  the answer was shocking:  “We’re not married because everyone who gets married ends up divorced.   We’ve decided not to marry and to try to stay together.” 

You know how the traditional vows go, "I, John, take you, Mary, to be my wife, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, 'til death us do part."  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than eight people per every thousand make that promise each year; and four to six people in every thousand break it through divorce.  Was Max’s father right?  Is it better to live without making promises to each other rather than to end up breaking the ones we make?  Apparently many people think so, and for good reasons, not bad ones, cohabitation has become the new normal.

BROKEN LIVES
The fragile nature of human relationships makes Hosea seem very personal.   In a rather strange turn of events, God tells the prophet to go "Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom”  (Hos 1:2 NRS).   Why is God writing the story of the prophet’s life in such a heart-breaking way?  Hosea tells that he must marry such a person, because the story of his life is also story of God’s own life.  

There all kinds of undesirable, unwise, or simply stupid Hosea makes, that I would never recommend.    Even if you did marry a person who’s character is questionable, I would most definitely suggest you should wait to have children.   But Hosea not goes out and marries a woman who would not be a good mother, he brings children into the world with her.  Worst of all, he says God told him to have these children because God already had names picked out.  Prophetically they are to be named: Jezreel, meaning "cast away"), Lo-ruhamah ("not loved, or pitied"), and Lo-ammi ("not my people").  Fleming Rutledge has laughingly suggested to would be very strange when the mother took the children to the market, to hear the mother say,  “Not loved, put those (apples) back!”  Who would dare give a child names like this?  Who would marry a prostitute whom you know to be unfaithful?  And who would dare marry a woman named “Gomer”?

When you read through this prophecy, nothing God tells Hosea to do makes any good sense at all.   What Hosea does only makes sense to God, because this is how God sees his own people, as his being his own ‘wife of whoredom’.  Why do people, even God’s people do some of the very ‘stupid things’ that even some of the smartest people do?   Why does a very smart Bill Clinton have an Affair with intern Monika Lewisky?  Why does an Anthony Weiner from New York or a Mark Sanford from South Carolina, throw their political careers and relationships away?   What made a “Bernie Madoff” make off with other people’s money, even though he was already rich?  And why would not a few Catholic Priests or even a beloved football coach in Pennsylvania, or even a whole school administration, look other way when harm was being done to vulnerable young children?  The people in our day are just as stupid and senseless as God’s command for Hosea to do a such a very stupid thing.   God is not trying to set precedent, but God wants to make a point.  As Hosea says later,  My people, “Ephraim, is like a dove, silly and without sense.”  As the movie character Forest Gumps mothers said:  “STUPID IS AS STUPID DOES”.   No matter whose people you are, even if you are God’s people, if you live, act and do stupid things, you are stupid.

What were the stupid things God’s people were doing, that made them look as stupid and senseless as anyone else?    Images of the broken lives of God’s people are scattered throughout Hosea’s prophecy.  Their lives had become self-destructive in that their ‘lack of knowledge of God’ lead to lives of ‘swearing, lying, killing, stealing and committing adultery’.   This is why ‘the land mourns’, he says (4: 1, 2).  “My people (says the LORD) are destroyed, for a lack of knowledge.”  (4:6).  You can name our own children the children of Columbine, Sandy Hook, or Virginia Tech; and they all die for a lack the same knowledge.  It is a ‘knowledge’ that no only kills our ability to know but kills us as our society self-destructs.   We live in a time, not unlike Hosea’s, when people intentionally sow evil deeds to the ‘wind’ and think they can avoid ‘reaping the whirlwind” (8.7).   But how can we avoid such destruction when the primary altars we build today are more like ‘altars to sin’ rather than altars to our salvation (8.11). 

Aren’t the sins of the world also the sins of the church?   Harold Warlick, who used to be chaplain of the University at High Point, tells of a church congregation in Vermont who was having difficulty with some of their preacher’s sermons.  He had lambasted the lack of racial equality, the high property taxes, the insensitivity of merchants, and the lack of caring among families.   This was just too negative and too much, so an ad hoc committee was formed to quickly tell the Preacher what he was doing wrong.  The chair began, “Preacher, we are a little worried about the effect of your preaching on our congregation.  When you rail against materialism, the bandkers and the merchants are uncomfortable.  When you talk against the television preachers, many of our elder are hurt, for they send money to support them.  And when you start talking about family values,  many of our people have to make long commutes to work and have little time for anything else.  Most of all, you make us feel bad about being white and wealthy.  Can’t you find something else to preach about?  
Totally exasperated, the preacher asked, “Well, what is it that you want me to preach about?”  From the back of the room came a clear voice: “Why don’t you preach about the communists?”  “But we don’t have any communists in our town, nor even in Vermont,” the preacher answered.  “Exactly.  Preach about them!”   (“The Human Condition In Biblical Perspective”,  Harold C. Warlick, p. 42).

Hosea is preaching about his own people and God’s own people.  He’s preaching about how things really were, and why people should pay attention to how they are living, what they are doing wrong, as well as, what they should be doing right.   Can anyone preach on the kinds of things people really need to know, instead of preaching what people want to hear?   Up in Kentucky, recently, some Baptist churches calculated that if you give away 60 guns you can grow your church by over 600 people (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/gun-giveaways-kentucky-baptist-churches-lure-men-christ-article-1.1710291.).    Why not give away guns and have hunting parties at church, if it works?   Isn’t it more fun to preach what people want to hear?  Isn’t it better to get a church fired up about what’s wrong with the world, with the Muslims, with the gays, or with the atheists, than what needs to change in our own lives?    As the people said in Hosea’s day, “The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad…..” (9.7).  The prophet is the one who needs to change his sermon topics, not we and our ways.

BROKEN LOVE
We could make a long list of Israel’s specific sins, or we could try to figure out our own, but the problem is that still won’t connect.  As Hosea writes: “Were I to write…my laws by ten thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing….”  (8.12).   Instead of looking at each other and trying to figure out what we are doing to create the world we know,  we still won’t have a clue because the things we are doing seem to right to us.   Our broken lives can only be understood when we understand it as broken love.

I have had couples in my office for counseling and most often they come to me after things get so bad they can’t be fixed.   But when we still try, most couples will hit a snag over small little things, not the big ones.  They get hook on whether or not the husband or wife is doing is fair share around the house, or whether the other is spending too much money, or working too late at night, or whether either can hear what the other is saying.   When it gets down to these significant, but small things, the problem is normally not what they are doing wrong, but what they are now missing.  They stumble over all the little things that they can’t fix, because what is really broken is their love for each other.   When love is still in a relationship, almost anything can be worked on and corrected.   Weren’t we all stupid when we got married, but we were so much in love?    But when love is loss, absent, or non-existent, even the smallest things, like socks left on the floor, or dishes left in the sink, whether to have shared or separate bank accounts, can become landmines that blow up in everyone’s face and make life unbearable.   It all becomes unbearable when love is lost.

The same was true for God’s people.  It was not simply the ‘sins’ or failures that were destroying Israel’s relationship with God, but it Israel’s loss of love and the lack a living, caring relationship was destroying their lives.   Listen to how Hosea diagnoses the real problem:  “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.   The more his fruit has increased the more altars he built; as his country improved he improved his pillars.  Their heart is false…..”  (10.2).   “The land commits great whoredom…” (1.2).   “She said,  “I will go after my lovers…..” (2.7).   

The story of Hosea’s broken marriage is the story of Israel’s broken relationship with God.  Israel has lost her love for God.   God does not at all want to give up on Israel, but Israel has alrady given up on God.   While God is saying, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?” (10.8), we learn from Hosea how God still feels for Israel.   But what does Israel still feel for God?  Nothing!  “My people are bent on turning away from me….”  “I am the LORD your GOD…..It was I who delivered you.  It was I who knew you in the wilderness.   It was I who fed you and made you full.   But now that you are “filled and your heart lifted up, you forgot me….” (13: 4-6).   “When Israel was a child, I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.  (But) the more I called them, the more they went from me...(11: 1-2).

BROKEN LOYALITY
 Again, the story of Hosea’s broken love life is nothing less than the story of God’s broken love life.   This broken love is a broken loyalty for which there is no immediate cure.  No matter how much Hosea cares for, pursues, or tries to bring Gomer back, she keeps wandering off.  She does not love Hosea.  Perhaps she cannot love Hosea because, as she now is, she cannot be loyal to only him.   This is also the “story” of how God’s people keep wandering away, no matter what God does to try to bring them back.  The people’s lives are broken, because their love for God is broken, and their love is broken, because they have no loyalty, no trust, no faith, and no commitment to the God who still loves them.

A life that is full flows out of loving relationships.  Loving relationships flow out of trusting relationships where loyalty and faithfulness to each other is most important.  Broken love is always due to broken loyalty.   Years ago, a pastor friend of mine I went through seminary with was divorced from his wife.  It was heartbreaking.   I asked him what had happen.  He said she committed verbal adultery.  What is that?  I asked.   He told me that she kept meeting with a man in a restaurant and they talked to each other for hours at a time.  They became soul mates.   When he confronted her, she told him their marriage was over.   When he asked whether or not there was someone else, her shocking answer was that there had always been someone else, for their marriage had been over for many years.   He had never had time for her.  He had never made her the center of his world.  He had never talked only to her.   He had not included her in his life.   Love was gone a long time ago, because loyalty to each other had been non-existent.  

In Israel’s case, as it was with my pastor friend, Israel had not only gone after other lovers (2.5), but God says his ‘controversy with his people’ is that there is “no faithfulness, no kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land.” (4.17).  God’s people are no longer joined to God, but they are ‘joined to idols”  and they have ‘turned to Ba’al’ (7.14) as they have broken ‘their covenant (loyalty) and transgressed God’s law’ (8.1).   It’s not that the marriage was over, it’s as if there was only a wedding and never was a marriage at all. 

There is no soap opera or romance novel more dramatic than what Hosea wrote, and it is very surprising how all this ends.    Israel’s life is broken.  Israel love for God has been lost.  Israel has been disloyal to the God who remained loyal to them.   The divorce will be enforced (Jeremiah 3.8), but it is not final.  Even as early as the opening lines, God still holds out hope: "In the place where it was said to them, 'you are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God' " (v. 10).    Even when Israel rejects and wanders away, God is determined to “allure her, bringing her into the wilderness and speaking tenderly to her….I will betroth (remarry) her in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love, and in mercyI will betroth (her) to me in faithfulness, and (she) will know the LORD.  (2.14, 19).  Beyond all the betrayal and the heartache is God’s undying commitment "to love, honor, and cherish" his people, even when that love has been scorned and abused.  


Where does such amazing love and grace come from?  It only comes from the heart of a God who forgives and loves unconditionally.  The God who will take the fall for sin on the cross.  The ‘brokeness’  nor divorce will never be final as long as one person has the desire of ‘steadfast love’“I desire steadfast love” God says.   Will Israel reciprocate?  Will Israel return?   Some did.  Others didn’t.  God still calls: “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God…. Accept that which is good….  I will heal.  I will love you freely…..  You shall return and dwell under my shadow, and you shall flourish as a garden and blossom as a vine….Whoever is wise, let them understand….   Whoever is discerning let him know the ways of the LORD are right… The upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.”  (14: 9).   Which one are you?  Only love knows.  Amen.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

AMOS: A Famine of the Word

Sermon based Upon Amos 8: 1-12
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
June 8th, 2014  (Prophets 1/10)

Some years ago there was a widow in South Africa. Her husband had died and had left her with eight children to raise—no easy feat, considering the fact that she poor, making only about two dollars a week as a seamstress, and considering the fact that she was black in a country where the apartheid system meant that blacks had virtually no rights. But by working long and hard, she eventually was able to save up enough money to buy 400 bricks, enough bricks to fix up the dilapidated house that she and her children were living in.

But when the truck pulled up to deliver her bricks, the man unloaded only 250 bricks. Right away the woman asked when she would be getting the rest of her bricks—after all, she had paid for 400 bricks. But the man told her to bug off, that 250 bricks were all the bricks she was going to get from him. The woman stared at him and said, "I will never forget this. But that’s okay, you don’t have to worry about the bricks. The God I believe in is the protector of the widow and the fatherless. And somehow you’re going to know that."

Two weeks later that same man pulled up in front of her house and unloaded the 150 bricks he owed her. "What are you doing?" the woman asked. The man explained that two other houses he was building had mysteriously burned to the ground, and he was worried that perhaps God had something to do with it. As far as that man was concerned, God really was with that widow, even if he might not have thought so at first. (Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics: Beyond "Religious Right" and "Secular Left" (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995), 187-88.

The God of the Bible is a God who cares, but he is also the God who brings judgment on those who don’t care.   The renown Jewish scholar Abraham Hershel once wrote,  “The things that horrified the prophets are still now daily occurrences in our world.  There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply.(The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Herchel, p. 3).  

Prophets like Amos are important to us today because they were ‘truth tellers.’   It is wrong to think of the prophets as fortune tellers, or predictors of the future, but they are ‘forth-tellers’ and their words came true in the future because they told the truth.   It is also important to remember that the prophets were unpopular and practically unnoticed when they first preached.  Almost no one liked them.  Few listened to them.  Hardly anyone wanted them around, until long after they were dead.   Even though disliked and detested then, we still read the prophets because they told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

JUDGMENT:  THE GOD WHO ROARS
At the center of prophetic preaching was a message of coming judgment or punishment sent by God.   These words, more than anything else, were words of warning.   The ‘judgmental’ preaching of the prophets was not merely an opinion from the prophet, but it was declared as ‘the word of the Lord”.   Even though our first prophet, Amos, opens by saying “The words of Amos…..” (1.1), the ultimate heart, soul and source of his message is made clear in verse 3 as “Thus says the LORD”….”  There is no more important phrase repeated throughout Hebrew prophecy than to come to understand what the LORD has to say about the matter.   Amos makes God’s message more graphically clear, saying that when God speaks, “The LORD roars (like a lion) from Zion….” (v. 2).   Worse than that, Amos says that when they try to run from this roaring ‘lion’ they only “run into a ‘bear’ (5.19).   You can run, but you can’t hide.  

Few want to hear negative words like ‘judgment’.   As one person told me once after the worship service, “I come to worship to be lifted up, not put down.”  

In one church, after I suggested we might have more people remember our announcements if we put them at the end, one lady said she didn’t like it because she wanted to leave the worship service on a high note, with a positive message ringing in her ears.   Of course, she had a point with which most of us would agree.  When we come to church, we want to hear optimistic words of faith, hope, and love, and not negativity, judgment or pessimism.  We would rather have the preaching of someone like Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer than the preaching of an Amos or Joel of the Bible.   Recently, a Huffington Post article told of a pastor who dared name Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer false prophets.  Their versions of ‘prosperity gospel’ overlook the prophetic aspects of Scripture.   Speaking of the unobvious fallacy in the preaching of Joyce Meyer, Rick Henderson writes: When I first heard her tell her story I was deeply moved and impressed. She is an amazing example of overcoming hurts and abuse. She will forever have my admiration and respect in that regard. Furthermore, she gives spectacular advice. If my wife or if one of my daughters went to her in a moment of crisis, I believe they would return with magnificently helpful advice. If they went to her for teaching, they would return with deadly heresy(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pastor-rick-henderson/osteen-meyer-prosperity-gospel_b_3790384.html).

The most dangerous heresy is not whole lies, but half-truths.  In fact, a Yiddish proverb rightly says that ‘a half-truth is still a whole lie’.   What’s so dangerous about ‘half-truths’ is that tell us lies making us think we are hearing the truth.   This is why people did not like prophets: they told the whole truth.   

The prophecy of Amos opens with God’s people with gladly listening to the truth about the sins of other nations and the promise that God will eventually rain down judgments upon them:  “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment…..”  (1: 3).  The same goes for Gaza, for Tyre, for Edom, for the Ammorites, for Moab, and even for Judah.  But then, after Amos names the sins of people surrounding Israel, he concludes by informing God’s own people in Israel that the worst judgment is about to rain down upon them.  It’s hardly any wonder religious leaders told Amos, “Go home, prophet” (7.12).  It was then Amos reminded them that he was ‘not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet’ (7.14), but just a ‘cornfield preacher” who came to tell God’s people the truth they didn’t want to hear.

The truth no one wanted to hear was simple and direct: Remember Sodom and Gomorrah?   “I will do the same to you.  Prepare to Meet Your God, O Israel! (Amos 4:11-12)…. The day of the Lord is coming! (5.20; 8.9ff).  Most Hebrews thought the day of the LORD was the day in the future when God would send the Messiah to deliver Israel from all her enemies.   But because of Israel’s unacknowledged and unconfessed sins (5.12), Amos envisions the day of the LORD as a day in the not too distant future when God will deliver Israel into the hands of her enemies.  As Amos  8:9 says:
“On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.   The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it (Amo 8:9-12 NRS). 

Judgment is coming, but this is still not what God wants.  In the opening verses of chapter 7, Amos says that God has attempted several times to plea before God on Israel’s behalf (7: 2-3; 5-6), but Amos now informs them with visions of a plumb line (7:7-9), a basket of summer fruit (8: 1-3) and an altar where people are struck dead on the spot (9: 1-3), Amos is convinced that God has had enough.   Israel is so out of line, so spoiled, and become so blind to what is good (3:10) that there is no way to avoid the destructive judgment (9.10) that God is about to release upon them.

JUSTICE:  THE GOD WHO RULES
The ‘grounds’ for God’s coming Judgment upon Israel is not what you think.  It is not because Israel does not worship, nor is it that Israel fails to be sincere in her worship of the true God.   The religious festivals, the solemn assemblies go on, and the offerings ‘plates’ are full.   The music of worship still fills the air  (5.21-23). Still, something most important is still missing.  

The most important word from Amos is not judgment, but justice.  The world we live in is a ‘moral universe’ that demands that follow the rule of justice.  We will not keep breaking this moral law and live, but these moral rules of life will finally end up breaking us, if we do not follow them.  There is an ‘ought’ built into the world and if we try to avoid the things we must, should or ought to do, we will not be able to avoid the God’s righteous justice.  As one writer has put it,  “God is the good we are supposed to do”.  The truth of God may be more than what is just, fair and right, but the truth of God is never less than doing the just, fair and right we should do.   God proves that he still rules this world, because his moral laws cannot not be ignored nor taken for granted without consequences.  

In his Les Miserable, Victor Hugo gives a graphic description of the battle of Waterloo, indicating how the Duke of Wellington won this battle, not by his superior generalship and not by his greater resources, but by the unexpected and uncontrollable course of events.  One of several possible explanations for Napoleon’s defeat is single out by Hugo: “Was it possible that Napoleon should win this battle? We answer, no!  Why?  Because of Wellington?  Because of Blucher?  No, because of God. For Bonaparte to be a conqueror at Waterloo was not in the law of the nineteenth century.  Another series of facts were preparing in which Napoleon had no place.  The ill-will of events had long been announced.  It was time that this vast man should fall….  Napoleon had been impeached before the infinite and his fall was decreed.  He vexed God.  Waterloo is not a battle; it is a change of front in the universe.”  (Quoted from Joseph M. Getty’s in “Hark the Trumpet”, p. 79).

In the same way, we can wonder why Adolf Hitler escaped so many attempts on his life from many Christians and at the hands of many other moral leaders who realized he had to go.  They tried so many times to take him out, but it always failed.  Why did God allow so many innocent people to die, and such an evil tyrant to continue to live until the final moments of the war?  Why would God allow that?  What we often forget to calculate into the picture is how Hitler’s own role had been part of the will and wish of the German people themselves.   People always obtain the kind of leader they want.   It was the Germans themselves who voted and wished that madman into power.  Only when God’s judgment fell down fully upon all those who put Hitler into power, did God allow Hitler to finally take his fall.   Before Hitler could fall, Germany had to fall.  Before Germany fell, it had to be completely judged to have failed.

As we contemplate the strong, stern and sharp words of Amos, we must remember that the real danger of becoming deafened by the noise of this world that we will not only cease to hear God’s word, but we will cease to care to hear it, until it is too late.    Amos’ word is that: Our God, the God of the Bible, is a God who cares for those who are widows, for those who are poor, and for those who are powerless.   “They sell the righteous for silver and they sell the needy for the price of a pair of shoes” (2.6)   In their accumulated wealth and luxury Israel has become the very people they used to hate.   The prophet thunders: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream  (5.24).   

In Amos’ time, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. The divide between rich and poor got wider and the whole economic system became corrupt.  As people became more and more obsessed with money, they paid less and less attention to God.   Do you think there’s any parallel between what was going on in Amos’ day, some 700 years before Jesus, and what’s going on in our society today? Back in Amos’ day, it was all about money, money, money.  Back in Amos’ day, it was all about greed, greed, greed.  Back in Amos’ day, fewer and fewer people really seemed to care about God.

Edward Bowen, tells how several years ago a husband and wife went on vacation to the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca. One warm afternoon they felt like taking a break from their sight-seeing, so they sat down at a table at an outside café and ordered something cold to drink. A table or two away from them they noticed another American couple. At one point, they saw the man motion for some nearby children to come over to their table. The little ones were somewhat dirty and rather malnourished, and they were in the square trying to sell gum and small souvenirs to the tourists in hopes of bringing in at least a little bit of money for their impoverished families.

The American tourist at the other table proceeded to make the children this offer. He told them that he would pay them so many pesos for every lap they ran around the square. So off the children raced. Even though it was a very hot, humid day, they raced frantically around that square, sweat pouring from their faces. All the time, the tourist kept laughing at them and yelling, "Faster! Faster!" As long as they could last, the children raced around and around the square because they and their families needed money—they needed money to survive from one day to the next—and that was the only way, they figured, they’d be able to get it. In the end, after quite some time had gone past and the man finished making fools of the children, he tossed a couple of American dollars in their direction and went on his way.

Bowen continues:  "In our day, just like in Amos’ day, we so often assume that getting more and more money for ourselves is our number one priority in life.  We often assume our only true responsibility is to look out for ourselves and to use our money to satisfy our own pleasures, to satisfy our own desires.  In our day, just like in Amos’ day, we so often assume that if someone is poor, if someone has less than we do, then that’s their problem—we don’t see the needs they face as being of any real concern to us."  

But the message that Amos brings to us, the message that God wants us to hear, is that there is a limit to God’s patience.  There is only so much greed, there is only so much mistreatment of the poor that God is going to stand for.  If we don’t change our ways, God says, then we need to be prepared to suffer the consequences.  The consequences are going to be perhaps more devastating and earth-shattering than anything we ever imagined.  So let’s hear and heed the word we know is true, and let justice come down."  Amen.