There’s probably nothing much prettier than a basket of summer fruit. In those fancy magazines that show pictures of those lovely houses that obviously no human being has ever set foot in, there’s always a basket or a bowl of fruit sitting ever so prettily on the kitchen counter. We know that no one has ever lived in these houses because the kitchens are completely devoid of dirty dishes, wadded up paper towels and empty cans of cat food. And in the living rooms there are no empty beer cans on the coffee tables. Need I say that in the bedrooms the beds are always neatly made, with the pillows artfully and playfully arranged? And who hid the dirty socks?
When we were in Puerto Rico, we were always blessed, every day, to have a tray of fresh-cut fruit at meals; tropical fruit, tasty fruit. In most contexts, a basket or a tray of fresh summer fruit is a very good thing. But not so much here in the book of Amos. As pretty and lovely as a basket of summer fruit is, there is also something very ominous about it. It is dead. Deader than a doornail. Plucked. No longer connected to the life-giving vine, and absolutely 100% destined to rot. It will assuredly decompose, and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. It cannot be resurrected. And this is exactly what God wants Amos to intuit when God shows Amos the basket of summer fruit. God has no intention that Amos will think that the basket of fruit is pretty or lovely. God intends for Amos to understand that the basket of fruit is dead, and that it is destined to rot its way into destruction.
“This is what the Lord showed me–a basket of summer fruit. He said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, A basket of summer fruit.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel’…” And listen to how frightening that that end will be: “The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day, says the Lord God; the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”
Like the pretty basket of summer fruit, cut off from the vine and destined to rot, God’s people are about to be cut off from God’s loving and caring protection, and they will be carted off into exile into a strange land, and far, far away from the land that God had given to them as a promise and as a gift. And just as the basket of summer fruit has no option but to rot, the coming judgment and destruction is inevitable. It will surely come. But why will it come? It will come because God’s people have, in fact, already driven themselves into exile. They have deliberately abandoned the God who loves them. They have cut themselves off. And they did it long before God got around to doing it. Don’t miss God’s mercy.
God’s people, ancient and modern, have always had it very good. They have always had the promise of God’s love, protection and grace. After living many years in Egypt as slaves, God raised up Moses. And through Moses, God accomplished the greatest salvation event in world history to that date. The people were redeemed from slavery, rescued from the oppressive reign of the Egyptians, and God gave them a new land to live in, in which they were free to live and free to glorify God. That should sound very familiar to God’s people in all ages. This is our God.
This land was called the “Promised Land.” It was a land with sufficient resources to fulfill the needs of an entire nation. It was a land that was intended by God to be a constant reminder to the people of God’s goodness and care for them. It was a land that was intended to bring thanksgiving and joy to the hearts of the people, but above all else, it was a land intended to inspire faithfulness to God, and to evoke the heartfelt worship of God.
And for a while, it worked. All of that stuff happened. The people were lavish with their gratitude, they worshiped God with full hearts. They were obedient to God’s commandments. They nurtured a loving relationship with God and with one another. But over time, things changed. The people began to develop a sense of entitlement, and stubborn individualism. And greed crept into their hearts.
Greed is perhaps the most subtle of all sins, because it seems to be so right and so proper. It really makes a lot of sense to be greedy. We believe that we own stuff because we have earned it, and therefore we deserve it. We sincerely believe that our possessions are the result of our hard work and diligent labors. On the other hand, it is counter-intuitive and quite silly to believe that everything that we have is a gift from God, intended to evoke our gratitude and worship of God. And yet, from God’s point of view, we own nothing. We are the possessors of nothing. Everything that we hold in our hands is simply something that God has entrusted to us. Ask any dead person how much stuff they have.
When greed and a sense of entitlement crept into the hearts of God’s people, they began to resent the holy days. They didn’t want to worship anymore. The holy days became inconvenient to them. They were an intrusion, a glitch in their lifestyles. The new moon and the sabbath were both very important holy days. The new moon came once a month, and the sabbath came weekly. And the problem with these two holy days was that they were set aside for rest and for worship. No commerce was to be conducted, no business was allowed, and that was bad because the holy days were cutting into potential profits. And the merchants were wailing, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?” Let’s get done with this business of having holy days. We want one day to be just like another!
But, if God’s people are resenting the intrusion of the sabbath and the new moon, they are also resenting the intrusion of God into their lives. One cannot be offering much meaningful worship to God, when one is wishing that one was somewhere else, doing something else. When the act of worship becomes something that is burdensome, those who experience that burden choose themselves to become like that basket of summer fruit. Pretty, of course, but cut off, dead and destined to rot.
There are ways to work around this troublesome intrusion of the new moons and sabbaths, and God’s people got quite clever about it. If we can’t earn money on the holy days, we can certainly cheat our customers on all of the other days. We’ll use crooked scales. We’ll make the ephah small and the shekel great. In those days, the shekel was not a coin, it was a weight that went on one side of the balance, and the food to be weighed, or the ephah, went on the other side of the balance. If the shekel weighed less than it should, then less food would be weighed out every time, and nobody but God would be the wiser. And by the way, let’s throw in some wheat dust that we’ve swept up off the floor, so that we can do an even better job of cheating.
And what if the poor people can’t pay the prices of our trumped up weights and inferior products? Tough luck for them. We’ll make them our slaves. If they want food, they’ll have to sell themselves to us. Please try to imagine the grief and the sorrow and then the anger that God experienced, when he saw his own people, people he had rescued from slavery in Egypt, as they instituted the practice of enslaving one another. That is the Hebrew equivalent of spitting on Jesus.
Do they not understand what God has done for them? Do they not get it? Do we understand what God has done for us? Do we get it? Do we have a deep sense of gratitude toward God, that draws us, impels us, to worship with joy and gladness, or would we rather be doing something else? When we reject God, we will always worship something else. This is the nature of the beast that we have always been. Human creatures must worship something. God’s ancient people were worshiping profits. They were neglecting and abusing the poor. They were using the free gifts of God to gain illegitimate profit for themselves. All of this is idolatry and false worship.
I want to close our time together this morning with what is happening in verses 11 and 12. Here’s what God has to say: “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.” That should be horrendously frightening to every one of us here this morning. And this is exactly what happened to God’s people, when they were carried off into exile. They lived in a strange land, with a strange language; they were confronted by strange customs, but worst of all they were surrounded by worshipers who participated in strange religions. They were totally separated from God. And God kept his silence. He did not speak. And for 60 years the people lived in a complete spiritual vacuum, devoid of all that had once comforted them and nourished them spiritually. This is what becomes of people who believe that they have no need for God. God almost always answers the prayers of those who want to be left alone, even if they don’t express that desire with words.
There is nothing more frightening than to suffer from the silence of God’s word. Yet too many on this planet choose just that. Many disconnect themselves from God’s word and then, inexplicably, wonder why God is silent. It seems rather obvious to me, but I’m ancient enough to know that if the stereo is unplugged, then there will be no music.
But God has done a wonderful thing. He has sent his son into our midst in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the living and the very word of God. We need never fear the silence of God. God’s word thunders loudly through him. Jesus is the source of our salvation, our hope and our eternal life. He is the life-giving vine to which we must be connected. Let us never imagine that we can step away from him, even for a moment. Let us never become that basket of Summer fruit.