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Basket of Fruit"
Last week we were studying three visions of the prophet Amos: a vision of a plague of locusts, a vision of a shower of fire, and a vision of a plumb line. Well, we’re not quite done. There is a fourth vision; and it gets worse.
The eighth chapter of Amos continues the sequence of visions begun in the seventh chapter, and the form of the fourth vision is identical with that of the third vision.
But the vison can be confusing, and easy to misinterpret.
The first two visions can be rather quickly and accurately interpreted as violent and destructive. How else can we think of a plague of locusts or a shower of fire? We need not think very hard to realize that these are not pleasant circumstances.
Nevertheless, visions are frequently open to varieties of interpretations, which is why those with the gift of interpreting dreams were held in high esteem in Biblical times.
And one of the first of those dream interpreters was Joseph, son of Jacob, whose dream interpretations at first got him into trouble, but later got him out of trouble and saved the nation of Egypt.
At the opening to the eighth chapter of Amos, Amos tells us, “This is what the Lord God showed me--a basket of summer fruit.” The New International Version replaces the word “summer” with “ripe,” but in either case we have a pleasant picture before us.
Is it possible for us to think of ripe summer fruit in anything other than a positive way? Of course, in Biblical times, this fruit was probably figs or olives. Personally, I like the thought of apples and oranges; but whatever we see in that basket should elicit a positive response from us. Words like “juicy,” “tasty,” “delicious,” should come to mind. I can’t help but think of fruit as that which is colorful and alive.
The very first thing that God said to the humans that he created in the first chapter of Genesis was, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
So, just in case this vision is not abundantly clear, God speaks.
“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; I will never again pass them by.”
You will recall that I said the the New International Version subsitutes “ripe” for “summer.” And in this verse, God says, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”
Last week I warned against a misinterpretation of the words, “I will never again pass them by.” But the New International Version cuts to the bone: “I will spare them no longer.” The evident meaning here is that there will be no more forgiveness.
Maybe that fruit should not have been in a basket. Maybe it should have been hanging from trees, ripe for the plucking. And when God says, “The time is ripe,” in another sense God is saying, “I have run out of patience.” Which is indeed the essence of what God says in the New Revised Standard Version when he says “The end has come upon my people Israel.”
Like I said, the fourth vision gets worse:
“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!”
This verse makes it clear that when God says “the end has come,” God is speaking of death. The “wailings” are funeral songs. The misery will be widespread, with dead bodies “in every place.”
In the Bible we have to wonder about the use of the word “end.” At the time of the great flood in Genesis, God brought about an end. Well, almost. He saved one family and lots of animals, so he could start over again.
And we might also wonder about God ending God’s own people. If God is in charge, why have God’s people failed?
Amos goes on to provide an explanation for the coming tragedy, a reason for God’s wrath:
“Hear this, you that trample the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
In the second chapter Amos proclaims these words of God indicting the people of Israel: “they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.”
You may recall tax cuts of a few years ago. I think we were all supposed with be thrilled with getting checks in the mail. But in a local newspaper a headline at the top of a page read, “Millions won’t get refunds.”
The opening sentence read, “President Bush said Friday that “help is on the way” as the first tax refund checks hit the mail, but more than 34 million taxpayers will get no check--most because the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes they paid don’t count.” Later, the article went on so say, “If the Treasury Department’s projection of 34 million is accurate, it would mean about one in four taxpayers will get no refund check.”
And of course, the very neediest in our land, the ones who make too little money to pay taxes, will also receive no checks.
Those whom God accuses of trampling on the needy, God hears “saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?
“We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.”
For these folks, the observance of sabbath and holy days as days of rest just got in the way of making money. And even when they’re making money, they are cheating at it.
In making the ephah small and the shekel great, they are using containers smaller than they are supposed to be, they are using heavier weights than they should to calculate payment, they are tampering with the balances on the scales, and they are mixing chaff in with the grain.
Greed is overtaking the land. And God accuses these greedy of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
Now, this is a bit difficult to interpret, but it has been suggested that the people being accused here were the wealthy who made loans of grain to the poor, cheating as they did so, in order to make it all the more certain that the poor would be unable to repay the loans and would have to become slaves to debt.
Actually, this reminds me of what some of us do to ourselves with revolving credit. We figure that as long as we can make the minimum monthly payments, we’re okay.
We may buy a car that takes us seven years to pay for, but we figure that as long as we can make the monthly payment, that’s fine. I have a credit card with a credit line of $13,000, and that’s insane!
But if you don’t know any better, what a temptation to only have the pay a tiny portion of that each month. Forever.
But getting back to Amos:
“The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
Now, we’re not altogether clear what is meant by “the pride of Jacob.” In the eighth verse of the sixth chapter, God swears by God’s own self. In the second verse of the fourth chapter, God swear’s by God’s holiness.
When in the eighth verse of the sixth chapter, God swear’s by God’s own self, God declares, “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses.” So is God being bitterly sarcastic?
And what is it that God swears? This is the only time that “not forgetting” is spoken of as a threat. In the Psalms and Lamentations, those who suffer ask why God has forgotten. Usually, when it is said that God has not forgotten, we are reassured of God’s faithfulness. But this is another of Amos’s reversals of the normal use of an expression. Instead of God’s not forgetting divine promises, God says the people’s sins will not be forgotten.
“Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?”
Nature itself becomes an agent of judgment, with what appears to be a comparison of an earthquake to the flooding of the Nile. But although the Israelites probably all knew about the Nile’s annual floods, it’s not likely that Amos had ever seen one.
He would more likely be thinking of flash floods, and he may have experienced earthquakes.
But floods and earthquakes were the two major forms of natural disasters of which the Israelites were aware, and Amos is attempting to create as vivid and dramatic a picture as possible.
However, this is, I think, a bit tame compared to what follows. Earthquakes and floods we have come to expect as impersonal natural phenomena. But when God inserts God’s self into the activity, that’s quite another matter.
“On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.”
What we have described here is a solar eclipse. And, indeed, in the early eighth century BCE, there were a couple of those in Israel about 20 years apart.
Those who were hearing Amos at that time would have known the effects of the darkening of the sun in the middle of the day. But unlike earthquakes and floods, they probably had less understanding of the causes.
I can’t put myself in their sandals, but given their understanding of natural phenomena, they probably rather quickly concluded that the trembling of the earth and the darkening of the sun was a direct intervention on the part of a wrathful God.
And what will be the result of all this?
“I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.”
To expand our emotional feel for this verse, I would like to share two other translations. In the Contemporary English Version we read, “Your festivals and joyful singing will turn into sorrow.
“You will wear sackcloth and shave your heads, as you would at the death of your only son. It will be a horrible day.”
In Eugene Peterson’s translation, we read, “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.”
“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.”
Martin Luther wrote, in his Lectures on the Minor Prophets, “This is the last blow. it is the worst, the most wretched of all. All the rest of the blows would be bearable, but this is absolutely horrible.
He is threatening to take away the genuine prophets and true Word of God, so that there is no one to preach even if men were most eager to wish to hear the Word and would run here and there to hear it.”
The question is raised, “If we ignore the word God has set before us, what more can God do for us?”
Well, I hate to leave a sermon on a negative note, even if that may be what we need to hear.
So I would call your attention to the next and final chapter of Amos, chapter 9. God does not give up on his people.
In the fourteenth verse we read, “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.”
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