Amos 8:4-12 – A Spiritual Famine

Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak,
    you who treat poor people as less than nothing,
Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming
    so I can go out and live it up?
How long till the weekend
    when I can go out and have a good time?”
Who give little and take much,
    and never do an honest day’s work.
You exploit the poor, using them—
    and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.

God swears against the arrogance of Jacob:
    “I’m keeping track of their every last sin.”
God’s oath will shake earth’s foundations,
    dissolve the whole world into tears.
God’s oath will sweep in like a river that rises,
    flooding houses and lands,
And then recedes,
    leaving behind a sea of mud.

“On Judgment Day, watch out!”
    These are the words of God, my Master.
“I’ll turn off the sun at noon.
    In the middle of the day the earth will go black.
I’ll turn your parties into funerals
    and make every song you sing a dirge.
Everyone will walk around in rags,
    with sunken eyes and bald heads.
Think of the worst that could happen
    —your only son, say, murdered.
That’s a hint of Judgment Day
    —that and much more.

“Oh yes, Judgment Day is coming!”
    These are the words of my Master God.
“I’ll send a famine through the whole country.
    It won’t be food or water that’s lacking, but my Word.
People will drift from one end of the country to the other,
    roam to the north, wander to the east.
They’ll go anywhere, listen to anyone,
    hoping to hear God’s Word—but they won’t hear it. (The Message)

Four hundred years of silence….  That’s how long it was between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In that period, there was no word from God. No prophets sent by God. No divine message, at all, of either judgment or grace. There was complete silence from the Lord… until the fullness of time, when the incarnation of Jesus changed everything. Why so long to hear from God?

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to God’s people about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. Those in positions of authority and power in Israel merely 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. A famine was coming – neither about hungering for food in short supply, nor about thirsting for clean water. Instead, there will be a scarcity of hearing words from God. Folks can search far and wide just to get a wordy tidbit or even a crumb of a message from the Lord, but they won’t find it.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some. Justice is the responsibility of everyone, and not just a few.

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

Mother Teresa

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

We live in a day when the poor are often disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact.  In other words, very few people take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. After all, we are busy making money and checking our stocks, and…. 

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

God identifies closely with the poor, distressed, and needy. The Lord listens to the lowly. So, we as God’s people, are to share this same concern.

God will rescue the needy person who cries for help
and the oppressed person who has no one’s help.
He will have pity on the poor and needy
and will save the lives of the needy. (Psalm 73:12-13, GW)

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished. (Proverbs 17:5, NLT)

Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the Lord, and the Lord will fully repay them. (Proverbs 19:17, CEB)

If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13, NRSV)

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who turn a blind eye will be greatly cursed. (Proverbs 28:27, CEB)

Give your food to the hungry
    and care for the homeless.
Then your light will shine
    in the dark;
your darkest hour will be
    like the noonday sun. (Isaiah 58:10, CEV)

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1, NIV)

 Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21, CEB)

 If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. (1 John 3:17-18, GNT)

We already have words from God. What will we do with them?…

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 in this season of anticipation.  Amen.

John 4:31-38 – Real Food

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus, the saying ‘One sows, and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (New International Version)

Today’s Gospel narrative reads something like the stereotypical mother concerned for her son saying, “Sit down and eat some of Mama’s pasta. You need some food!” As if preparing and serving a meal will make everything better.

Food has both the power to bring us together, as well as separate us. A meal can create the conditions for fellowship, acceptance, and enjoyment. Eating can bond people together through hospitable love. On the other hand, sitting down to eat can also be a way to avoid painful emotions. In this manner, eating becomes an obstacle to giving and receiving love.

It seems Christ’s disciples were doing the latter. They were uncomfortable and perhaps a bit stressed. Looking to fill up with food instead of with God, the disciples’ sense of unfulfillment was coming out sideways by opening the refrigerator, poking through the meager leftovers, and putting the emphasis on feeling better.

I know we can be hard on the disciples in the Gospels. Their ups and downs from faith to fear and back to faith again can be weird. Yet, through it all, I believe their hearts (excepting Judas Iscariot) were in the right place.

Jesus could see through the entire scenario and put the focus off eating. He addressed the disciples’ soul hunger through putting the spotlight on doing the will of God. Deep within they were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Paying attention to our vocation and discovering our humble work in the service of God, rather than a vacation to the pantry to cover our unwanted feelings, is the essence of Christ’s interaction with his disciples.

People are much more ready for the gospel of Jesus than we think. There are times we can become so insular, and lost within our own heads, that we are then unable to see the world as ripe for a harvest of people who are actually eager to be gathered into the community of the redeemed.

Jesus just had a significant interaction with the Samaritan woman. Back in that day, you just didn’t have dialogues with half-breed Samaritans – an unholy mix of Jewish and hated ancient Assyrian Gentile blood – let alone a man talking with a woman of disrepute who experienced several failed marriages.

Christ had a way of doing the will of God, despite conventional thinking of the time. And a lot of people got their undies in a bundle from it. The disciples, having a front seat to most of Christ’s shenanigans, did a few too many palms to the forehead, believing their Rabbi’s un-orthopraxis was going to make him unpopular. They feared no one would follow him.

Looks like the disciples didn’t quite get that one right.

The Samaritan woman received Jesus as Living Water, having her ultimate needs met by the penultimate Lord of all. The disciples hadn’t quite caught up to this, so fell back on their old ways of physical food and drink to assuage the weirdness happening inside them.

The woman was gushing over with Living Water, becoming a wellspring of good news to her community. Whereas the disciples (eventually becoming an incredible fountain of the gospel after Christ’s death and resurrection) are here nothing but an annoying drip from the kitchen faucet.

A non-descript ethnically suspect woman of dubious character coming to faith was meant by Jesus to open the disciples’ eyes to a new reality: The good news of Christ is meant for the world, not just Jewish men.

The disciples were given the opportunity to participate in the world’s takeover – a mission of bringing the love of God where love wasn’t present, of helping all kinds of people awaken to the deep spirituality within them, of lifting their downcast faces of guilt and shame to see the Living God wanting to bless the world with the body and blood of Jesus.

For this is real food and real drink.

Many believers in Jesus today think they are working hard for the Lord by seeking people for their churches. Yet, the real work is being done by the triune God – the heavenly Father who scans the world and seeks spiritual misfits to bless; the gracious and truthful Son who put hands and feet to that blessing; and the wild Holy Spirit who moves in unpredictable ways – are working infinitely harder for our churches, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

All of our work, no matter how big or small, is made possible by the pre-work of the Holy Trinity. The great Three-in-One has done all the preparations of chopping the onions, mincing the garlic, slicing the carrots, and peeling the potatoes so that we, his followers, can make a savory stew of diverse people sharing a common pot of God’s love and hospitality.

This is the food we know nothing about, and that God knows intimately.

O God, you made us in your own image, and you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of the Last Supper

Micah 5:1-5a – The Shepherd Leader

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

Jerusalem, enemy troops
    have surrounded you;
they have struck Israel’s ruler
    in the face with a stick.

Bethlehem Ephrath,
you are one of the smallest towns
    in the nation of Judah.
But the Lord will choose
one of your people
    to rule the nation—
someone whose family
    goes back to ancient times.
The Lord will abandon Israel
    only until this ruler is born,
and the rest of his family
    returns to Israel.
Like a shepherd
    taking care of his sheep,
this ruler will lead
    and care for his people
by the power and glorious name
    of the Lord his God.
His people will live securely,
and the whole earth will know
    his true greatness,
because he will bring peace. (CEV)

In Micah’s day there was no peace on earth, goodwill to all. In the eighth century B.C.E. the powerful Assyrian Empire came and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting many of the people and re-populating the cities with their own.

The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles but had a large impact on the southern kingdom of Judah.  All of Judah and Jerusalem were in extreme duress.  Even though Judah had not been conquered and was intact, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians to keep them at bay. 

The problem became even more exacerbated because the leadership of Judah sought to maintain their power and lifestyle.  The leaders neither looked to God for help nor looked out for the interests of the people.  Instead, they expected the already burdened poor to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians.

What is more, thousands of refugees from Israel flooded into Judah and Jerusalem.  So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink. Those in authority, the ones with resources who could make something of a difference, ended up taking advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth.  In some cases, they leveraged their power by simply pushing people of their land and taking it over. It was anything but a time of security, peace, and actions of goodwill.

Into this terrible situation of hardship and survival, Micah prophesied judgment upon the leaders who were oppressing the poor and displaced.  Micah’s message of hope was that a new kind of leader will come from humble origins, just like the common oppressed people of Judah.  The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion.  He will feed and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures.  This leader will serve the people instead of the people serving the leader.

Christians see Jesus in Micah’s prophecy. Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of the leader who will come again using his power for security, peace, and goodwill.

Christ’s authority is different than earthly politicians and officials.  Israel and Judah had been so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership over the centuries that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of a different kind of rule. So, Jesus called his disciples together and said:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-43, NIV).

The people of Micah’s day needed to see beyond their terrible circumstances to hope of better days with food, peace, and protection.  We, too, feel insecure and anxious. We want leaders to be wise and just toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the displaced.  But while we look to our politicians and election cycles for our hope, the prophet Micah is jumping up and down, pointing us to a different leader – a shepherd leader.

Micah said the shepherd leader will come from Bethlehem.  When Micah proclaimed this, King David, the original shepherd king, had been dead for nearly three-hundred years. The people immediately made the connection between the coming leader and David.  There would be restoration and renewal!  A benevolent kingly reign is coming! 

Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus the Bread of Life

“Bethlehem” is two Hebrew words put together: beth (“house”) and lechem (“bread”) thus being “House of Bread.” God was communicating that the coming shepherd leader would provide abundant food and care for them. God wanted, and still wants, a society that does not feed on itself, but is a house of bread for others. Jesus is the Bread of Life. Christ feeds us so that we will become a people who offer bread to others – both physical and spiritual bread.

Jesus is the bread for all the hungers we have in this life. We hunger for security in our world; satisfaction in our daily work; loved ones to be healthy and happy. In short, we hunger for peace. Our spiritual stomachs growl with hunger for spiritual food.  Many are spiritually starving because they are searching for peace and goodwill in places without food.

Satisfaction, contentment, and peace have come from the most unlikely places of Bethlehem and Nazareth. Can anything good come from villages in Judea that do not even show up on most maps of the ancient world?  Peace, hope, and goodwill can and do come from the least expected places and people. 

Christ was not born in the halls of power. Yet, through him there is peace, in the complete sense of the word. Jesus is the One who brings a full-orbed wholeness and wellness to life, no matter the situations around us. Jesus is our peace:

Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:11, CEB)

“Yes, I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to a place of rest. I will search for the lost sheep. I will bring back the sheep that were scattered and put bandages on the sheep that were hurt. I will make the weak sheep strong, but I will destroy the fat and powerful shepherds. I will feed them the punishment they deserve.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16, ERV)

 “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen. I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd.” (John 10:14-16, MSG)

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger.” (John 6:35, NKJV)

When Jesus originally said those words, it was scandalous, unheard of rhetoric. So, Jesus, the stinker he could be, pressed it even more:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man… you have no life in you. (John 6:48-51, 53, NIV)

We are to ingest Jesus – to be filled with him. We need Jesus because he is our house of bread, our peace, our shepherd, and our king. Believing in him is to give our lives to him. The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.

Lord Jesus, I have strayed far from your flock and taken matters into my own hands. I have chosen to feed in pastures that will never take care of my real hunger.  I need Your forgiveness. I believe You died on the cross for all the things I have done and left undone.  You rose from the grave to give me life. So, I want to stop going my own way and start going yours. Amen.