Monday, October 15, 2012

Proper 23 of Series B (Amos 5:6-7, 10-15)

“Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the prophet Amos. Dear friends in Christ, imagine a prosperous nation. This nation enjoys relative peace, although it does have violent enemies. It has an economy that is booming, that even despite the ups and downs that any society experiences provides to its people a quality of life rarely experienced before. The people of this nation build big houses to dwell in, they plow fertile fields and enjoy the fruit of the harvest. The rich receive the full benefits of their labors, and even the middle class live in prosperity. Broad roads, grand palaces, and huge barns dominate the landscape. This is a nation that has struck gold—the good times have come, and now there is little left to do but sit back and enjoy them to the fullest.

This nation of prosperity is filled with religious people. In fact, they believe that it is because of their faithfulness to God that they have been given such riches. The great speakers of the day reinforce this. Preachers speak to thousands, declaring that their great wealth is a sure and certain sign of God’s favor. To know with certainty that God approves of them, they need only to look at the prosperity they enjoy. Politicians speak of the nation as being ‘exceptional,’ a one-of-a-kind place uniquely blessed by God. It is the manifest destiny of this nation to be prosperous, to thrive and expand. God has blessed this nation, He is with them, and the proof is in the pudding: prosperity is the sure sign and seal that God Himself has given them. And so this nation’s wealth becomes more than simply abundance, it is God Himself smiling upon them, it is their religion. And everyone is going to church—in their big houses, bigger fields, and amongst their many possessions.

Into this nation of prosperity comes a prophet. He declares, “Seek the Lord and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!” Their prosperity hasn’t led to faithfulness, it has led to laziness. Their wealth hasn’t bred justice, it has caused oppression. This is the dark side of prosperity. Material goods bring selfishness, wealth brings jealousy, and justice is sacrificed at the altar of earthly treasure. This society has everything that anyone could ever want, except justice and care for others. And they don’t want to hear anything about it. “They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.” The prophet is persecuted, who calls out the nation on its selfishness. Those who seek to bring justice, those who speak the truth, are hated.

Therefore the poor don’t find justice. In the gate, in the courtroom, in the womb, the poor and vulnerable aren’t protected, they are exploited. The gate is where justice was to take place, where the poor were to be protected from the assaults of others, but in this nation of prosperity, the gate is where injustice occurs. Those who have exploit and burden those who do not. Those out of the womb persecute and even kill those within it. The rich forget or ignore the poor. They say, ‘let the government provide,’ or ‘let the church provide,’ forgetting that they are commanded by God to provide for their neighbor in need. God is a God of justice and care for the downtrodden, and He calls on His people to show that same concern. The prosperous nation may not see, they may not comprehend the injustice that is all around them, but God does. “I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.” They are serving not God, or their neighbor in need, but themselves. This nation thinks that its prosperity comes from a unique blessing of God, but the prophet declares that if they do not turn from their injustice and seek the good of their neighbor, that prosperity will come to a terrible end. “Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted a pleasant vineyard, but you shall not drink their wine.”

Amos is speaking against the wickedness of the nation of Israel, as it enjoys the greatest prosperity in its history. And Amos is speaking against you and me, who despite a struggling economy are living in prosperity never before experienced by any people in the history of this planet. His message is simple, it is clear: Repent! “Seek the Lord and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel.” Seek the Lord and live! Do not love riches, your material possessions more than God! That was the tragic error of the rich young man in our Gospel lesson. Jesus called on Him to renounce his idolatry, to cease clinging to his things, and this was his response: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” He loved his things more than the Lord. That young man’s great possessions were to serve his neighbor, so his refusal to give up his wealth was not only the sin of idolatry, it was also the sin of selfishness, of injustice. One sin leads to the other, and Amos calls us to repent of both. Seek good and not evil! Do not love your riches, your material possessions, more than you love justice! Seek to serve your neighbor with the material blessings you have been given. Repent of your lack of concern, repent of your selfishness, repent of failing to speak up for the poor and vulnerable.

“Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.” The prosperous nation claims to have God’s favor, its people declare that God is with them, but they are deceiving themselves. Amos calls to his people, to you and me this day: Repent! Repent and wait on the Lord. “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” It may be that God will show grace. It may be. God is not obligated to save us, He is not obligated to show us grace. He is not a candy machine, where we put in some repentance and He gives us some grace. God’s decision to save or not, to have grace or not, to forgive or not, is His own, otherwise, it wouldn’t be grace at all. God doesn’t have to deliver us.

But yet He does. In the midst of man’s injustice, God will establish His justice, He will bring His righteousness upon the earth. Sinful man is incapable of perfect justice, and so Jesus Christ took on our human flesh to establish God’s justice. He comes to establish God’s justice by suffering man’s injustice. He spoke the truth, He proclaimed God’s stern Law against man’s rebellion, and the Gospel remedy that could only be found in Him. But as Amos declared, “They hate Him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor Him who speaks the truth.” Their hatred drove them to nail an innocent man to the cross in the greatest miscarriage of justice this world has ever seen. The One who committed no sin is condemned as a criminal; God is put to death by His creatures. But in this act of injustice, Christ brings forth God’s justice. 

For God’s justice is nothing like the world’s. God’s justice is that sinful, corrupted people are just and righteous not because of anything in themselves, but because they have been given the righteousness of another. God declares through the prophet, “I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins.” He knows our sins, He knows our injustice, He knows our greed and selfishness, the idols we make out of our possessions, and yet He justifies us. Christ’s justice is that you should be clothed in His righteousness. Christ’s justice is that He should die for sins you committed. His justice is that you should be declared righteous by virtue of His death and resurrection. Jesus wasn’t obligated to show grace to you—but He did, He was gracious to the remnant.

That is who you are by grace: the remnant. You are the remnant, that poor, harassed, persecuted band, separated out from the world and despised by it as insignificant. You are the remnant, the baptized, glorious, justified band, esteemed by God because you have been redeemed by His Son. The remnant isn’t those who are perfect, it is those who are forgiven, who daily die to sin in repentance and rise to Christ in faith. The remnant isn’t guaranteed physical safety in this sinful world. God didn’t relent over the disaster that was coming upon Israel, and we may find our own nation chastised for its injustice. But what we are guaranteed through the cross and empty tomb is our eternal salvation. We are guaranteed heavenly treasure, far above that of this earth. We are guaranteed that this remnant will endure despite all of the injustice of the world, for this remnant is protected by Christ Himself, it is His own nation.

This is a nation of prosperity, perfect prosperity. To the world, it appears poor and weak, but its wealth and strength is not found according to the world’s standards. This nation has no need of an economy, for the One who provides for it gives all that it needs. All the people of this nation dwell in big houses they didn’t built, they enjoy the fruit of a harvest they didn’t plant. This is a nation that has been shown grace. This is a nation that has heavenly, eternal treasure, for it has Christ, the One who gives forgiveness, life, and salvation through His death and resurrection. It is a nation that possesses this treasure right now, but will not fully experience it until He returns in glory. This nation is the remnant, this nation is your home, this nation is the Church, which will endure for eternity as a place of justice, God’s justice, for Jesus Christ is the one who makes you, me, and all believers just, now and for eternity. In His holy and precious name, Amen.

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