In his vision, Amos saw a plague of locusts. The locusts came, and they ate up all of the grass in the land. Now as all of you know, I have confessed time and time again that I am not a man of agriculture. I plant a sometimes successful garden, but I know nothing of the business of haying. I can only report this information as hearsay. Some of you who are wiser here this morning may know the truth, and you can either confirm or debunk what I am about to tell you. It may be that the second cutting of hay is not as valuable as the first. Years ago, a friend of mine who owns some hay fields, was contracting with a woman one fall for the sale of hay for her horses. She insisted, nay, required that if she was to buy hay from him that it be hay of the first cutting only. Except that’s not exactly how she phrased it. What she insisted on was that she have hay that was cut early. And my friend assured her that yes, indeed, the hay had been cut early. What he didn’t tell her was that it was second cutting hay, cut at 7:30 in the morning.
And so anyway, in Amos’ vision, it was hay, or grass, destined for the second cutting that Amos watched the locusts destroy. Perhaps not a total disaster then, but bad enough, and very poorly timed. Amos tells us that this happened right after the first cutting, just as the new shoots of grass began to appear. He also tells us, I think, that the first cutting was reserved for governmental use; he calls it the king’s mowings, but I’m guessing that all of the horses in the king’s army had to eat something. This sounds a lot like income taxes to me.
And in his vision, Amos could clearly see that even though the taxes had been paid, that there would be no second cutting for the hoi polloi to use. This would not only portend economic disaster, but it would strike fear and uncertainty in the hearts of the people. And so Amos prays: “O Lord, God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” We can’t handle a disaster like this! Times are hard enough already! And God heard Amos’ prayer, and God relented. “It shall not be,” said the Lord.
In his second vision, Amos saw a great and all-consuming fire. And this fire was a disaster of epic proportions. It consumed everything in its wake, perhaps even drying up the sea of Galilee. There was no hope at all in the wake of this fire, all was lost. And so Amos prays using nearly the same words he had before. “O Lord, God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” And again, the Lord relented concerning this. “This also shall not be” said the Lord God.
Please notice that in both of these visions of disaster, that in his prayer, Amos cannot point out any faithfulness on the part of his people, nor can he list any of their acts of repentance. He simply appeals to God’s merciful nature, begging for forgiveness on behalf of his people. I wonder, how many terrible disasters have been averted in our world and in our lives because some godly person prayed? We live in a world that desperately needs these kind of prayers. We need godly people who will commit themselves to praying for forgiveness. We need godly people who will steadfastly and earnestly appeal to the merciful nature of God. For our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment. And beyond all of this, unlike the people of God living in Amos’ day, we need ourselves, to be people of God who are willing to repent, and to live lives of faithfulness. Better to live within the embrace of God’s mercy than to be driven away by God’s wrath.
In his third vision, Amos saw the Lord standing beside a wall built with a plumb line. A plumb line is a tool more valuable to a carpenter than a hammer or a nail gun. There are multiple uses for a plumb line. It is a very handy tool. Primarily, though, it is used to determine the straightness and trueness of a wall. Electricians use them to find a spot on the ceiling that they’ve marked on the floor. Very simple, very accurate. The important thing though, in Amos’ vision, is that the wall that God is standing next to had been built originally by using a plumb line. And so it was a good wall, a strong wall, a straight wall and true wall. In Amos’ vision the wall is symbolic of God’s people, established by the goodness of God, and crafted by God to be straight and true, and pure and righteous. This was a wall and a people that God took great delight in and found great joy in.
But something has happened to the wall. It has gone crooked. It has failed to be straight and true, pure and righteous, and so God has gotten his plumb line out again to see what has gone wrong.
And this time, Amos is not able to intercede on behalf of his people. There is no longer any opportunity to appeal to God’s mercy. God has made up his mind. There will be a great disaster in the land, and the people will be driven into exile. God says to Amos, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” I have been exceedingly merciful, but now, I can no longer overlook, or tolerate the offenses of my people.
And so there’s a double-pronged punishment coming, from which God will not relent. First, but not necessarily in this order, all of the places of worship in the land will be laid to waste, and secondly, God will rise up against King Jereboam with the sword. This is God’s threat of exile. The people will be driven from their land. And 35 years after Amos began to preach this threat, the Assyrians did just that. They invaded the land, destroying it and its people, and then took the remaining survivors into exile, where they served as slaves.
I’m particularly intrigued that in God’s threat, he only mentions that the places of worship will be destroyed. The utter destruction of everything by invading armies in biblical times is well documented. Armies didn’t just bust up places of worship, they busted up everything.
But places of worship are special, aren’t they? They have sentimental value as well as spiritual value. And places of worship are special to God, too. They are where the people gather to meet with God and to adore God and to give thanks to God. But we already know that the wall has gone crooked. And when the wall goes crooked, the worship goes insincere, and then it goes inferior, and then it goes unrighteous, and then it becomes offensive to God. And when it becomes offensive to God, God will remove even the sentimental value that places of worship have, and they will be made desolate and become utterly laid to waste.
When we worship, we need to be very careful that our adoration is sincere and righteous, and holy and straight and true. I have long feared that we are now reaping the effects of two and maybe three generations of insincere worship. The alliance of God and country, while well intended and even sacred sounding, may well have unintentionally distracted us from focusing our worship solely on almighty God. We might even be guilty of idolatry.
In other environments, the followers of Jesus are multiplying even under the threat of persecution and death. We have grown complacent. And yet, there is still time to change that, for we have a God, who while jealous for our worship, is also gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
But with no hope of staving off this third disaster, Amos begins to preach it. And right away he runs into opposition from organized religion. Amaziah is the priest of Bethel, and he cannot tolerate Amos’ preaching. And so he rats Amos out to the king and accuses him of political mischief-making. This is of course, an unholy alliance between religion and the state. Amaziah knows where his bread is buttered, and he’s not about to have a religious radical like Amos threatening his security in the established order.
And so as part of his conversation with the king, Amaziah says, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.”
I find that very ironic. Amaziah believes that Amos’ preaching is a threat to the security of the land itself. Never mind that Amos, by his prayers, was able to stave off two very genuine threats to the land. Amos is not a threat, he’s a prophet. He’s only speaking the words of God. He’s only doing what the Lord has required of him.
This part of the passage speaks directly to me as your pastor, because in many ways, I am Amaziah. I am the representative of organized religion. My position, my status and my income is directly dependent on my being less of a prophet, and more of a priest. In some ways, I know where my bread is buttered, too.
And so Amaziah’s end serves as a warning to me. And it is a powerful warning, because Amaziah did not have a very good end at all. His marriage fell apart and his family was destroyed. Pray for me that I do not neglect the role of the prophet in favor of the role of the priest, but rather that I emulate our Lord Jesus Christ, who is both prophet and High Priest. And to top everything off he is also King.