Amos 8:1-7 – A Prophet’s Perspective on the Powerful and the Poor

This is what the Almighty Lord showed me: a basket of ripe summer fruit.

He asked, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A basket of ripe summer fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “My people Israel are now ripe. I will no longer overlook what they have done. On that day, the songs of the temple will become loud cries,” declares the Almighty Lord. “There will be dead bodies scattered everywhere. Hush!”

Listen to this, those who trample on the needy
and ruin those who are oppressed in the world.
You say to yourselves,
“When will the New Moon Festival be over
so that we can sell more grain?
When will the day of rest—a holy day, be over
so that we can sell more wheat?
We can shrink the size of the bushel baskets,
increase the cost,
and cheat with dishonest scales.
We can buy the poor with money
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
We can sell the husks mixed in with the wheat.”

The Lord has sworn an oath by Jacob’s pride:
“I will never forget anything that they have done.” (God’s Word Translation)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them. The books of the prophets make it quite plain that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”

Kofi Annan

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.

The bald fact of the matter is that few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Oh, my, perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all.  Amen.

1 Peter 4:1-8 – Holy Saturday

The death of Christ, Holy Hill, Hubertus, Wisconsin

Christ suffered here on earth. Now you must be ready to suffer as he did because suffering shows that you have stopped sinning. It means you have turned from your own desires and want to obey God for the rest of your life. You have already lived long enough like people who don’t know God. You were immoral and followed your evil desires. You went around drinking and partying and carrying on. In fact, you even worshiped disgusting idols. Now your former friends wonder why you have stopped running around with them, and they curse you for it. But they will have to answer to God, who judges the living and the dead. The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God.  Everything will soon come to an end. So be serious and be sensible enough to pray.  Most important of all, you must sincerely love each other, because love wipes away many sins. (CEV)

I haven’t been a confessing Christian my entire life. I can relate to Peter’s exhortation. I still remember what it feels like to live my life without any thought to God or spiritual matters. The thing about partying and immorality is that it’s a life filled with constant movement. Slowing down only makes one come face-to-face with what is truly inside the soul. 

If someone has an empty vacuous soul, or a damaged spirit, or a broken heart, then attempting to drink or work away the inner pain makes sense when there’s no regard for God. The last thing I ever wanted to do was suffer, yet until I had my spiritual awakening, it seemed I could never outrun the hurt no matter how hard I tried, even with all the constant locomotion.

Today is Holy Saturday – a quiet place sandwiched between the ignominy of the cross and the celebration of resurrection – a day of solitude, silence, and stillness. This is something of a lost day for many folks. In fact, many Christians haven’t had a thought that Holy Saturday could have any significance. Yet, this very day has its place in the scheme of the Christian life.

There cannot be resurrection and new life without death and dying to self. There must be suffering before there can be glory. Whenever Christians quickly jump to triumphal language about victory and speak little-to-nothing about suffering, then we are left with a cheap grace which has been purchased with the counterfeit currency of velocity. 

Today is meant for us to get out of our heads and wrap our hearts around the important reality that Jesus Christ was in the grave. It was real suffering on Good Friday. It was a real death on Holy Saturday. There is no movement. All is silent and still. Jesus is in the solitude of a dark tomb. There’s no getting around it. If we want a Resurrection Day with all its celebration and glory, then we cannot circumvent Holy Saturday. 

To put this in the spirit of the Apostle Peter: Are we ready to follow Jesus and suffer as he did?  Are we willing to stop our striving, manifested through constant movement, and embrace the Holy Saturday of solitude, silence, stillness with its contemplation and embrace of suffering?  Will you and I have sense enough to pray?  Will we practice a Christian counter-cultural shift and face the ridicule of friends so that we might take some much-needed time to be with Jesus in the tomb?  Or are we so antsy and anxious that we just want to leap into Easter with no solidarity with our Lord in the grave?

You may think I’m being a bit too hard or harsh or cold…. That’s because Jesus is cold. He has a bonified cold dead body. It’s no fake death. There’s no “swoon theory” here, as if Christ only passed-out and did a weird divine fainting spell. Nope. He’s dead. And if you and I want to live with Jesus, we must die with Jesus. 

Anyone who tries to promise new life apart from journeying with Jesus into the grave is a spiritual charlatan.  Only through death can there be life. 

On this Holy Saturday, let’s intentionally slow down, do less, give ourselves a large chunk of unstructured time, and put aside routine matters. Fill the time with unfettered access to God in Christ. Slowly read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death and burial. Read the book of 1 Peter. Allow prayers to arise from the careful and mindful reading of Scripture. Feel the solidarity with Jesus, journey with him along the way from life to death… so that there might be a truly glorious resurrection filled with abundant life and flourishing – a life that doesn’t need hedonism and workaholism to feel happy and significant.

May you die well so that you might live well.

Loving Lord Jesus, today all is silent. You died a horrific death and gave incredible mercy from your wounded heart. Now you rest in the tomb as the soldiers keep vigil. I also keep vigil, although in a quite different way. I know this day doesn’t last forever; there is tremendous glory coming. Yet, for now I sit quietly mourning your death. Assist me, God Almighty, to enter the sorrow and the silence of this Holy Saturday. Today, help me to wait patiently and to sit with this constellation of emotions swirling around my heart. As I keep this sacred vigil, fill me with hope – not only looking forward to the celebration of your Resurrection – yet also to anticipate the hope of my own share in the new life you offer, as you lay lifeless and still. May your rest transform the brokenness of my own soul, my weaknesses, and my sin. I express my trust, O God, in your mighty power to do all things through Jesus Christ, my Lord, your beloved Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Hebrews 11:23-29 – Taking the Long View

Enslavement of the Israelites

By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (NIV)

Faith looks ahead and sees as clearly as is right now in front of your face. Taking the long view of life, the mature person of faith can set aside temporary pleasure to attain a future hope. Moses, held up as such an example, refused to identify himself as the daughter of Pharaoh. He chose to be mistreated in solidarity with his fellow Israelites, instead of having a good time with his high position in the most powerful empire of its day. Moses knew that the treasures of Egypt were not as wonderful as what he would receive from suffering for the Messiah, and he looked forward to his reward.

It is an understatement to say that our contemporary society assumes practicing instant gratification. We want to feel good, and we want it now. Impulse control may just be one of the best life skills that kids (and adults!) need to learn today. A Psychology Today article effectively demonstrates through some classic and current research that “one of the most effective ways to distract ourselves from a tempting pleasure we don’t want to indulge is by focusing on another pleasure.”

For the Christian who desires to follow Jesus in all things, looking ahead to a future heavenly reward which will be shared along with all God’s people needs to be kept at the forefront of our thinking. If we only consider today, there are scant resources for responding to the temptations and fluctuations of life. However, if we will put some energy into clarifying and embracing our most cherished values, we will then let those values inform everything we do, or not do. In the scope of eternity, suffering a bit now is nothing compared to what Christ has yet in store for his people.

Deferred gratification causes us to live differently. In a twist of irony, folks who orient themselves toward the next world are able to effectively impact and change the world they currently reside within – whereas those who focus solely on this present world find themselves falling woefully short with their short view of life. We need the wisdom which faith provides us:

We are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. We live by faith and not by sight. We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord. So, our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home. We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:6-10, CEB)

Future hope, fueled by faith, gives shape to how we live today. It enables us to live in solidarity with those who suffer and are mistreated. It ennobles us to live above short-sighted desires and act on behalf of the common good of all persons in the here-and-now.

Lord God Almighty, the One who is and was and is to come, may we, along with your servant Moses, see the plight of all those who suffer in our midst. Give us courage and compassion to live in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, and all who live with misfortune and misery. May our hearts, burning with love, bear the burdens of all in our care. And may our loving example ignite the hearts of others to accompany the vulnerable in their affliction. We ask this in the gracious name of Jesus through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Philippians 4:10-15 – Generosity is Like a Warm Bowl of Grits

Jethro Bodine
Max Baer, Jr. playing the incomparable country as corn flakes Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only. (NIV)

In the English language, the words “you” and “your” can be either singular or plural. Unless, of course, we go with the southern “y’all.” But for a northerner like me, I’ve got to determine which by looking at the context that it’s in.  In the language of the New Testament, Greek, we know which words are singular and which are plural because, well, they’re different words which aren’t spelled the same.  It’s important to know in the book of Philippians that all the “you” pronouns are plural.  That’s important because the theme of unity and solidarity runs affectionately throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi. In fact, for Paul, the reason he gibbers on so much about joy in his letter is because it’s only realized when unity is around. Unity really dills Paul’s pickles.

The entire Philippian church and not just those two really caring parishioners like Uncle Bundlejoy and Cousin Cozysweet, shared in Paul’s troubles with him. The whole kit-and-caboodle partnered with him through financial resources, prayer, and ministry.  Paul had confidence that every need the Philippians had would be supplied just as sure as God put worms in sour apples.

They learned a valuable lesson from Paul: that unity through generosity brings contentment in all circumstances and eases anxieties. The Philippian believers got a glimpse of the paradox that through giving they become rich. When tightwad believers are around, a church frets so much they could worry the horns off a billy goat. But when generosity settles in, people are more content than a flea on a pup.

Folks who only care about their personal needs and independent wealth aren’t right in the head – their cornbread’s not done in the middle. God wants everyone to know the blessing of working together in a worthy common cause.  Generosity and contentment go together like bacon and eggs. A charitable spirit in a group of people leads to more joy and happiness than a gopher in soft dirt.

Hoarding makes a church more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If we want to be free of backbiting and worry, then we need to be wild about generosity. Give like the sun and the whole world grows tall.

Be generous with your money, generous with your words of encouragement toward others, and generous with your gratitude to God. Besides, giving is more fun than a sack full of kittens. And if you do give till you laugh, maybe you’ll see good ol’ Paul standing there grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato.

Generous God, your storehouse of grace and mercy is infinite and unending.  Help me to partner with you in a way that makes my generosity flow in the same direction yours does so that Jesus Christ is glorified, and his church is edified through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.