Have you heard the story of a young man who is planning a compromising night with his girlfriend, and he goes to the local Chemist and explains that he needs the appropriate protection because he says to the Chemist ‘after the family dinner tonight, I am planning to have an excellent time’.
And surprisingly at the family dinner, he asks if he can say “Grace” which he does for a very long time until his girlfriend leans across and whispers to him “I didn’t realise you were so religious” and he whispers back to her “I didn’t realise your dad was a Pharmacist”.
I’ll explain that to your after if you completely missed it!
And I am making use of that story this morning because it’s a great example of false religions. It is an excellent example of pretence piety. Putting on a religious front which is sadly something we are all capable of and some people make it a regular habit.
Now you will be pleased to know I think that there is a small book in the Old Testament which lifts the lid on religious hypocrisy. There is a book called Amos in the Old Testament. It’s towards the end of the Old Testament, and we are, looking at chapters 5 & 6, and it is directed to the sort of person who is happy to have some distance from the living God and it is a wonderful thing that there is this small prophet called Amos directing his attention to people who would tragically separate themselves from the living God.
And so if you dislike hypocrisy, and I am sure you do, you may like the little book of Amos. Now we haven’t picked a particular sermon for this pre-school service – we just follow what we are doing anyway and we are following the book of Amos so if you thought you were going to come this morning and get 10 minutes on “Seven Snappy Tips for Raising Pre-Schoolers” or “How the Manchester Family Successfully Raised their Kids” or something like that – it’s not going to happen – we are staying with Amos, and this is our third look at the little book of Amos.
The only problem with looking into the book is that it lifts the lid on religious hypocrisy – it lifts the lid on us. In the end, humanity and hypocrisy are much the same. They are almost synonyms – humanity and hypocrisy because the whole human race is inconsistent. There is nobody who practises what they preach. I hope you know that Christians are not people who walk into a building like this pretending that they are superior, consistent, significant or anything good but come in knowing that they have fallen short and failed the living God. They’re so grateful that God has provided somebody called Jesus who gives forgiveness and adoption into the family and strengthens his people to be just a little more consistent – that’s the background to this particular study.
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So Amos had powerful things to say to the people of God in the Old Testament. Amos also has very powerful things to say to us in the 21st Century.
If you find this particular sermon today relentless, remember that this is God who is lovingly relentlessly seeking his people. This is the shepherd who just keeps going for his people and won’t give up on them – that’s what makes this book so enjoyable.
Well, Amos was a straight-talking farmer. He came from the South, and, he was directed to go up to the North, and, he was directed to challenge the people of God in the North to get back to God.
If you were to combine thinking of the personality of Amos – RM Williams, Sam Kekovich and Billy Graham – the three of them combines to make the personality of Amos.
And we could summarise the letter so far in two sentences.
1. God has roared like a lion against the hypocrisies of the world and the hypocrisy of the church.
2. God is planning to visit his hypocritical people in an attack type style if they don’t return to Him.
That’s where we have got to so far.
Obedience is not the way to get into the family of God, but it is often the way to get on in the family of God. You don’t “obey” to get into God’s family. You confess to him that you don’t obey and then he extends to you through Jesus, and you enter his family by grace. And you stay in the family by grace and grow in the family by grace, but obedience will bless the relationship.
Just as when you pile your children into the backseat of the car for family holidays, their obedience is not the key to their security. But their obedience is often the key to the happiness of the journey. And we are going to follow Amos chapters 5 & 6 – and chapter 5 is God’s Appeal to the people to return and Chapter 6 is The Announcement that he is going to act because they are not returning.
So their religion is false, their rebellion is real, and I hope as you look at this section with me this morning you will see that Amos is a brilliant communicator. You don’t need some gifted preacher today to come up with clever stories or phrases, Amos is a genius, and he is under the inspiration of God, and we are going to follow these chapters.
The first point chapter 5 God’s Heartfelt Appeal. Look at verses 1 & 2. This is what Amos does because the people are looking so bleak and the situation is so bad he begins a Funeral Hymn.
“Hear this word, O house of Israel, this lament I take up concerning you: Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her land with no one to life her up”.
This is as if Amos would stand on the street corner and start to sing in a loud voice “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come” and he would act like he is beginning a funeral for the people of God. And then in verse 3, he announces that the people who are 1000 are going to turn to be 100 and the people if they are 100 is going to be 10 – in other words, the tragedy is that 90% of Israel is going to be removed.
I hope you know that within 40 years 90% of Israel was removed. The Assyrians came to do the will of God, and of course, the Assyrians may have assumed that the God of Israel was powerless and that they were powerful. Maybe Israel even wondered whether God was powerless, and Assyria was too powerful, but God was not powerless at all – God was just keeping his promises.
We see the church in the West shrink. As it is shrinking, the world may look on the shrinking church and think – poor God, you know he’s desperate for friends. Or maybe the church thinks – poor God he doesn’t seem to be able to cope with secularism. The shrinking church may just be a very powerful God at work sifting his church – looking on a relatively faithless church in the West and examining it powerfully. Because the World Wide Church is increasing, the church is growing in many parts of the world, but in the West, it seems to be weak and shrinking. Maybe the church in the West needs to take the message of Amos seriously which is to return as individuals and as a local church to the living God and not play a distant game.
Now the solution is set out in verses 4-6 which I don’t think is too much for God to be asking where he says “Seek Me”. Don’t seek the religious places – Bethel, Gilgal or Beersheba which were very famous sites for the believers of the Old Testament. Don’t go through the façade of going on your pilgrimages to these places – seek me. There is no point in going on a pilgrimage to church or Rome or some special religious site – there’s no point in doing this if your heart is closed and switched off.
This is the sort of thing that a spouse sometimes says to their partner when the partner is present but not present! When they are just going through the basics, and sometimes the husband is tempted to say to the wife or the wife to the husband – “I wish I had you around again, I wish you were back, I just don’t want your duty and the essentials, I want your heart back”. And that is something of what God is saying to his people – “I want you back”.
And the reason that we ought to take this seriously is that he not somebody to play with (verse 4). Seek me and live, without me you die.
Verses 7-10 – you may turn good into bad, you may turn good things into bad things, but I (verse 8) control the planet, says God, I run the seas, I destroy cities, and I am not the sort of God you should mess with. So God can love his people like a spouse, but he’s also infinitely powerful.
In verse 11 he says – you who seek your plenty but you don’t care who you trample and you who ride over people (verse 12) causing (verse 13) people to be terrified to speak. Those of you who are committed to injustice and intimidation, says God, you’ve only got one hopeful future and that is (verse 14) if you return to me, seek good not evil, hate evil not good. That’s your only hope and perhaps (verse 15) God will have mercy and if not (verse 16) there’s just going to be the wailing of a funeral.
I don’t know if you realise how powerful your heart is. The human heart is incredibly powerful. I sometimes think the human heart is the most powerful thing in all creation because you and I have the ability to steel our hearts to the position where we will not have anybody anywhere at any time stop us from doing what we want to do – we are capable of that kind of steeliness.
But we are also capable of surrendering our heart to the living God and finding that he uses us and blesses widely in ways that we could never even imagine. And we are almost at a sort of a fork – will the heart be steel for its selfish good or will it be surrendered into the hands of God.
One of the strangest aspects of the heart is that it can sort of treat God like dirt and then just insanely expect that everything will be fine. I think this is one of the great marks of Atheism today – that Atheism is such a convenient way, isn’t it, to say I am going to exactly what I want to do because there is no God to bring me to account – how convenient. Or think of the way people avoid God and then at a funeral when the loved one has come face to face with God suddenly everything becomes so fine and positive and we hear sentences like:
“Best is still to come.”
“They have gone to a better place”
“They are at peace” no doubt about it – don’t say anything to contradict me
“They are just in the next room.”
“All is well.”
And Amos says in chapter 5 verse 18, this is a delusion. Don’t imagine that coming face to face with the Lord is going to be fun if you are at war with him, or if there’s no transformation in your life because he says using brilliant language –
It will be like running to meet a bear (verse 19)
Or suddenly coming face to face with a snake (verse 19)
Or meeting the darkness (verse 20).
Now Amos was talking about the coming of the Messiah. Which they were theoretically looking forward to but people today can assume that when they come face to face with God, it will be all rosy, when it could be terrible. One of the ways we can test ourselves is to work out whether it’s going to be a joyful thing to come face to face with the living God is to ask yourself – do I in the present like getting near to God or do I prefer wherever possible to slip away and be myself?
Because you see, if you are going to come face to face with the living God one day (and it’s going to be good, and it’s going to be fellowship with him), so ask yourself whether you like that today because if you don’t like that today you won’t like it tomorrow.
And religion is not the solution (verse 21) – these are very shocking verses aren’t they? Where the Lord says, I hate the religion that you are doing at the moment –
I hate your sacrifices and your feasts.
Imagine somebody standing up the front this morning and saying
“I actually hate this service –
I speak to you in the name of God I hate this service –
I hate your Communion Services –
I hate the Conventions that you go to –
I hate your prayer meetings –
I hate the Pre-School Service –
But God is saying I hate it when it’s pretence and what he wants (verse 24) is that there would be real hearts engaging with him. You see the question (verse 25) “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings O Israel when you wanted in the desert”? And the people would say ‘well of course we did, we brought you sacrifices on a regular basis’ and I think the question behind the question is “Is that all that you brought me?” Did you bring yourself? Did you bring your heart? Or did you just bring a sacrifice?
So these people have got divided hearts, and if you look at verse 26 they have started to play with the Assyrian idols. They have started (verse 26) to fiddle with star worship even though we know that God rules the stars (chapter 5 verse 8). And so Amos says because you have started to move the way in your heart from me to Assyrian gods, it’s not going to be long if you keep in that direction before your body moves to Assyria as well.
I don’t want you to think for a minute that God is speaking heartlessly when he speaks like this. These verses are full of warning, but they are full of great love for his people. Every parent knows what it is like to try and warn and love and get the balance right. God gets the balance right, and when you become a parent, you appreciate God more as you become a parent because you begin to realise that we parents can outdo our children in waywardness. I am sure you find, as I do, sometimes I am praying for my children to be faithful and I am praying from a not particularly faithful heart that they will be faithful and I am rebuked by the way that I am treating my heavenly Father even as I ask him to make my children faithful.
So there is great concern from God here, this is full of heart-felt concern, and it reminds me when Jesus rode into Jerusalem and he looked on the city, and he warned the city, but he also wept for the city. So that’s God’s heart-felt appeal.
Now the second chapter (chapter 6) is where we move to a fearful announcement and last week we saw Amos give the word to the complacent women and here in chapter 6 verse 1 he gives the word to the successful men. And he challenges the successful men in chapter 6 and verse 2 “Go and look at some of the other cities and ask yourself – are they better off than you are?” You who live in the Jerusalem capital, you who live in the Samaria capital – go and look at some other cities and ask yourself – are you better off than they are?
And the real answer is YES – we are better off. God has been good to them but if you look at verses 1-7 it’s not going to be this way for long because the worldliness of these Old Testament believers is killing their faith. They love luxury from verse 3 –
Beds inlaid with ivory
Choice lambs to eat
Strumming away on harps
Drinking wine by the bowl full
And what Amos is saying is that sadly you don’t have the inward faith to cope with the outward success. The outward success is killing your faith.
Some people do have the ability to cope with outward success. I remember talking to a Christian in the UK called Mike Farmer who had risen right up to the very top of the business world in the city of London. I said to him – how do you manage to sort of keep things in perspective? And he lifted his hand up like this and went ………….he said, it will all blow away, it’s all temporary, it’s only the Kingdom of God which is going to last.
And God had given him a conviction, a faith which enabled him to cope with great success but a less mature man won’t cope with great success and that’s one of the problems that Amos is facing. The people have become spiritually cold. And you see (verse 7) “you’ll be the first to go into exile – you are No.1 in the city, yes, and you’ll be No.1 in exile”. It’s very strong and sober comment.
Alex McTeer says in his Commentary on Amos “when Israel eventually went into exile in 722BC was it because Assyria was so strong? Was it because Israel’s leaders were so bad? Was it because there were a few ‘bad apples’ in the bunch? In the end, the answer is in verse 8. It was the pride of the nation. Pride is a very ugly inappropriate quality for God’s people. It’s a very, very unattractive thing to believe in the living God and to be a proud person. And to stand in a kind of a scoffing position – it’s a very, very ugly and dangerous position.
And you’ll see in verse 9 that eventually things would be so bad that there would be not enough places to live in – 10 men in a house – great devastation and a fear (verse 10) even of speaking of God.
And finally, (verses 12-14) Amos again uses clever riddles to make his point. He says “Do horses run well on rocks, do oxen plough well on rocks?” Obvious answer is No. But you, says Amos, have done the impossible, you’ve turned God’s blessings into unfaithfulness and pride, and God now must go to work to bring you back because you won’t come back and so God will do it the hard way.
Now Amos speaks again and again in his book of God bringing fire and fire is a loaded word as you know. Sometimes it means ‘judgment’ and sometimes it means ‘purification’ where God will remove the dregs or the dross and leave behind the real gold.
I find as I read these chapters and in a sense, I come reluctantly to this particular sermon which I have now finished because I think to myself – wouldn’t it be great if we were just coming with something that was sweet and nice and friendly but this is nice and friendly. And I find myself unable to criticise Amos and I can’t get upset with Amos is saying – I am not critical of him – I don’t have anything negative to say about Amos at all because although the words are relentless, it’s not the relentlessness of a tyrant, this is the relentless of a perfect Father.
And if we don’t like the book, the problem may be us not him. These are the words of a parent or a king or a lover who we know from the rest of the Bible would pay any price in the universe to get his people to come home. That he would pay any price at all to make sure that we were protected and safe even sending his Son to endure the punishment and the exile for us. And that’s what Jesus did when he died. He took the punishment and the exile so that we might be spared.
And that’s what God does to get people home and then he looks and then he waits for that cry that goes up from the heart which says in the words of Luke 18 “Have mercy on me, a sinner”. Or like the Prodigal Son coming back down the road “Father, I have sinned heaven again, and against you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son/daughter. I’ve put separation between you and me. I’ve put distance between you and me. I’ve been hypocritical, please have my heart back”. And we know from that wonderful story the way God responds –
that he runs down the road,
throws his arm around that person,
starts the feast,
puts on the cloak and the ring
and rejoices because that person is alive again which he what he longs for.
So let’s be grateful that that’s why God is like.
Let’s be grateful for a faithful prophet like Amos telling us that God is not prepared to put up with games and pretence and façade and hypocrisy
but he’s really serious about us
and he loves us
and he is committed to us
and he wants us to be in close fellowship with him
and let’s ask him to help us to respond to him
and then respond to him.
Let’s pray –
Our Father we thank you this morning that you are a very gracious and patient and persistent God. We thank you for sending a prophet like Amos to warn your people to return and not to drift away. We thank you especially for sending the Lord Jesus to make it possible that we might return and for telling us that you are a God who runs to meet the one who does return.
And we pray that you would incline our hearts that are so wilful and wayward to return to you with all mind, heart, soul and strength.
And we pray that we might enjoy the fellowship which you have bought through your Son and we pray that you would help us to rejoice as we walk with you and to be an example to the world around us and to bear testimony to your goodness and to walk with you all our days.
And we ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.