Is God speaking?

Text: Amos 7.7-17
(This sermon was given in a Nazarene Church in Frederick, Maryland. References to people and places were to members of the congregation and places familiar to those gathered.)

Has anyone heard God speaking this morning? Did you really? What is he saying? (You don’t have to answer that out loud.)

We walk through these doors week after week. We sit and stand, sing and pray, listen to or sleep through sermons. Once a month we commune at the Lord’s table.

But do we ever really hear him speaking to us?

I don’t know about you, but I hear everything but God all too often. I hear my voice when we sing. I hear my worries when we pray. I hear coughs and kids, rustles and sniffles. I hear questions: “What is to come this week?” What is for dinner in an hour?” “Who did not make it in this morning?” “Why did I wear these shoes today?” “What am I doing on this platform?” I hear random thoughts, to do lists, noises, daydreams, sound system hums, and the soft tick of my watch.

Oh, I do think I hear from God, sometimes—but so little considering the time I say I spend in his presence. I hear God in whispers and snatches—but I wonder too many times whether I am hearing him speak, or just my own thoughts about him. Too often I take action and make decisions, and I wonder if it is something God really wants.

Have you ever wondered, as I have, what it must have been like to hear God like the apostles or the prophets? Don’t you wish you could?

Everything would be perfectly clear, wouldn’t it, if he would just call us to the mountain like Moses and tell us what he wants us to do. Or what if he met us on the road and spoke to us like Paul. We would change our careers in heartbeat and run off to be a missionary then, wouldn’t we?

What if, while we were sitting here today like Isaiah in the temple, God met us and told us exactly what to do and say—burning coals and all? We would hit the floor on our faces and change our attitudes about worship, wouldn’t we? How about if, while were just minding our own business and trimming the trees in the back yard, like Amos, God commanded us to run off to Canada to get the Prime Minister’s attention—we would do it, wouldn’t we?

The Lord speaks clearly, and loudly, perhaps, and we would all have little problem knowing what to do and taking action (or at least we think so). But what if we don’t hear God’s voice that way? How then do we hear what he has to say to us?

I have not heard of or experienced too many direct encounters that rank with those of the prophets and apostles. So what if God chose to send us a prophet?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God’s prophet walked into our church this morning to tell us exactly what is on God’s mind? Wouldn’t it be grand if he waltzed into the our District Superintendent’s office and told everyone where God was really moving? Or what if he appeared at the doors of Nazarene headquarters in Kansas City and walked into a General Board meeting to deliver God’s word to the church?

We would hear God, then, wouldn’t we? We would all take notice, hunger for the Word of God, hang on the prophet’s every phrase…woudn’t we? Surely our DS would recognize God’s messenger and enlighten us as to what God has to say. If not him, of course our General Superintendents would. After all, they are leaders of a holiness denomination—they must already know what God has to say enough to recognize it from his prophet, right?

What would our prophet look like, I wonder. He would be alright, certainly, if he was dressed well. They would listen if he walked in with a nice suit (or at least business casual clothes), his latest book, and a forty day program based on five purposes. Or perhaps he would get a wide hearing if he held a conference on new ways of communicating to a postmodern world. His mixed-media presentation would generate some excitement. We would take notice if he worked in a little “message from the Lord” after the praise band and before the small group break-out sessions.

Or maybe God would send us a great speaker in blue jeans who really knows how to connect with us. Surely we would know he was authentic if he sat on a stool and gave us a real honest talk. We would know for certain that he was a prophet if he read from The Message and made everything understandable and homey.

What would happen, I wonder, if God spoke to Mike this week as he’s building out a new Safeway? He’s still in his coveralls, and his hands are coarse and grease stained from working on the sliding doors that morning. The blood dried where he nicked himself when he changed the circular saw blade before finishing the manager’s office, and he still has the pencil behind his ear, but the Lord said to go. So he grabs something from his tool box, jumps into his truck, and calls Kathy on his cell phone as he drives up to York Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene where the pastors and church leaders for that mission area are gathering to meet with DS.

He gets there a bit late and notices that he hasn’t even taken off his coveralls yet, but it looks like things have started, and he feels the urgency of his message, so he walks into the building and heads off to where he hears the beat of the worship choruses.

He hesitates a bit when he gets to the door. Someone standing at the entrance looks at him a bit askew and begins to ask him why he’s here, but with a whispered prayer and a burst of courage, Mike presses on into the sanctuary (or is it a gymnasium?). He glances from side to side as he walks briskly towards the platform, noticing the puzzled looks, and not a few sneers, from those who notice the dirty carpenter in the coveralls rushing down the aisle.

Several see that he has something in his hand, and that he moves with urgency, so they move out of the rows of chairs to intercept him, concerned about his intentions. By this time, though, he’s reached the platform stairs and has begun to ascend to where the DS, still having a real God moment, has failed to see this new prophet. The pastor notices, though, but before he can move from the glass podium, Mike stops at one of the nearby microphones, nudging aside one of the band members in the process, and holds his right hand high. Dropping from his palm is a small brass weight at the end of a string—a plumb line from Mike’s tool box.

“This is what the Lord said to me,” Mike declares in a somewhat shaky voice. “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of the Church of the Nazarene and its people, as a measure of their faithfulness. I will no longer let them get away with what they’re doing.” The music has stopped and everyone is staring, some bemused, others puzzled, many irritated. “Your largest churches,” Mike continues with a little more confidence, “and your new gymnasiums shall be turned to rubble, and I will rise against your superintendents and your elders. I despise your gatherings, and I take no delight in your worship. Even though you sing and waive your arms, I will not hear you.”

By now the pastor has made it to Mike’s side and tries to gently push him away from the microphone. “Look , sir,” he says. “You can’t just come barging into a worship service like this. I’m not sure where you came, from, but let’s go to my office and talk.” As he’s led off the platform, Mike can hear the DS take charge of the service asking prayer for this obviously disturbed man.

“Go on home,” the Pastor says after he’s heard Mike describe his encounter with God. “I know what you feel God has said to you, but perhaps you should talk to your pastor about it. I know him. I’ll give him a call right away.” When Mike begins to protest he adds, “Look, there are many men of God here, ordained elders and district leaders. If God has such a message for us, he’ll tell us. Now why don’t you go on home, get some sleep, and talk to your pastor tomorrow.”

No one really expects something like that to happen, nor would any of us wish it on a good pastor. And we would certainly hope that God would speak in some other way to church leaders and members who are listening for his voice.

But are we really listening? Would we hear?

Bethel was the center of worship in Israel, kind of the York Stillmeadow of the northern kingdom. When Israel split with Judah to the south, Jerusalem and the temple was no longer available as a place of worship, and the capital in Samaria had no special religious significance. So worship was conducted and sacrifices made in the high places, such as Shiloh, Gilgal, and Bethel, places associated both with Canaanite worship and with the worship of Yahweh in Israel’s past.

It was to Bethel that the humble prophet Amos came at a time when Israel was enjoying renewed prosperity. Bethel was the official place of worship of the King, Jereboam II. After years of fighting between the northern and southern kingdoms, between Israel and Judah, and loss of territory from struggles between the superpowers of the time, both Israel and Judah were enjoying peace. Both kingdoms were regaining territory—in fact they had restored between them almost the full reach of Solomon’s kingdom.

Israel was prosperous, and many considered the king and kingdom blessed by God as a result. We even know from a brief entry in Kings that Jereboam had a prophetic supporter by the name of Jonah (2 Kings 14.25). He likely had the support of the prophetic voices of the court prophets, professionals assigned to the royal sanctuary at Bethel.

Things were going very well indeed, but God calls upon Amos, a shepherd and tree dresser from Judah, to go say otherwise. Let’s read about it in Amos.

This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said,

“O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”

The Lord relented concerning this;
“It shall not be,” said the Lord.

This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. Then I said,

“O Lord God, cease, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”

The Lord relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’ ”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

“Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’

Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’ ” (7.1-17)

Needless to say, Amos was quite unpopular around Bethel, and the word of the Lord, sent through a simple shepherd from the other side of the kingdom border, was not heard. But why so harsh a message when things were going so well? What was so wrong that Amos was sent to contradict the king, his prophets, and his priest?

In chapter five we find out why:

They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.

Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. (5.10-13)

OW! We hear echoes of Amos in John, don’t we, when he says, “Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist” (1 John 2.4); Or in Paul, when he says, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1.16).

Amos comes with the word of the Lord that cuts through the false piety and the lie of Israel’s empty ritual. “Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts,” we read in verse 16 of chapter 5.

”In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation to wailing; in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you,” says the Lord.

“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (5.16-20)

And if that’s not enough, the Lord through Amos continues,

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (5.21-24)

No wonder Amaziah tried to shoo Amos away!

At a time when Israel was quite comfortable, the Lord, through a very simple man named Amos, exposed them for what they were, and made them uncomfortable. Essentially he said,

– You’re not living in obedience to me. Your religion hasn’t penetrated your life.

– You play at worshipping me, and then you betray me through your injustice.

– You talk of truth and righteousness, but you practice all kinds of deceit and trample on the poor and needy.

– You pretend to be my people, to love me, and yet you mock me through your arrogance and your sin, and so, “I will command and shake the house of Israel among the nations as one shakes a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘Evil shall not overtake or meet us’” (9.9-10).

We’re all squirming a bit now. Don’t worry, no need to look nervously at your watches. Let me put your mind at ease. I’m not about to launch into a pointed examination of our spiritual condition.

I’m going to let you do that yourself.

What I would like to do is have us think about how we hear God, as we consider for a moment why Israel could not. Why didn’t Israel listen to Amos (or the many other prophets who came after them)? Why did God fulfill his promised punishment by sending Tilgath Pilesar and the Assyrians upon them?

Was it because:

– They were comfortable and complacent?

– Because they were distracted

…by the demands of their successful lives?

…by their work, their commerce, and their profit?

– Or perhaps because they were deafened by the noise of their own faithfulness

…their happy attendance at worship (even as they looked at the clock and wondered when they could get on with things).

…their singing and feasting, their sacrifices and their offerings (their worship teams and their conferences, their concerts and their programs).

…their obedience of the their rules and forms that kept them from seeing how they were failing to live in true obedience.

It was all of these things and more.

Another time we will consider how God chose to speak his word to Israel. We might at least wonder now if they would have heard if anyone but a peasant from the south had brought the message. And yet, when we look at all the other prophets he sent and all of the times he was not heard, even through nobles and sons of priests, we know the answer: Israel and her king were too wrapped up in themselves to hear and live the word of God, and they paid dearly as a result.

But one more question remains before I let you go to get on with whatever may be more important than being here to hear God’s word.

What about those who do hear? What was to happen to them?

Amos has only a few words of promise, but they are so precious and so full hope. They didn’t mean much, I am sure, to those who wouldn’t heed the warning, for what are words of promise to those who don’t sense disaster?

But the Lord said, “On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its branches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this.

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.

“I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.

“I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God” (9.11-15)

So as you leave this morning and reflect on God’s word through Amos the shepherd and tree dresser, I want you to consider these few simple questions:

– How has God been trying to speak to you?

– How receptive are you really to what he’s trying to say?

– How selective is your hearing?

Paul said to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test” (2 Cor. 13.5)! And so also he said, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5.17)!

I leave you this morning, as you consider whether or not you can take hold of the promise and not fear the punishment with a very simple plea: Hear the word of the Lord!

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