Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Prophetic Witness - Micah's Story

What’s in a name?

Micah has within it a powerful question that goes to the heart of a faith that is focused on God.

‘The name “Micah” is itself a vigorous affirmation of YHWH in the form of a question: “who (mi) is as (c) Yahweh (ah)? To which the implied answer is, ‘no one’ (Walter Breuggemann, An Introduction to the OT page 233)

That play on words comes into the climax of the book of Micah

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over the transgression
of the remnant of your possession?
He does not retain his anger for ever,
because he delights in showing clemency.

Micah is a contemporary of Isaiah and faces the same issues and major problems that Isaiah faced.

The word of the LORD that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.

I think sometimes if we are to navigate our way round the Bible it’s useful to have some landmarks to look out for. Lots of those landmarks are easy to spot – the five books of the law, the former prophets – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings. The latter prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.

I for one begin to get a bit lost when I get to those minor prophets who make up the book of the Twelve.

One helpful way to get your bearings in those prophets is to associate three of them with each of the three great prophets.

Isaiah of Jerusalem carried out his task of speaking truth to power in the Eighth Century. The three minor prophets you associate with Isaiah are Amos and Hosea in the Northern Kingdom, and Micah in the Soutthern Kingdom. Those four prophets Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah are often known as the great Eighth Century Prophets.

Micah comes from a small rural village, Moresheth, just to the South East of Jerusalem. He is located in the southern kingdom. And he speaks God’s words during in the days of King Jotham, King Ahaz and King Hezekiah of Judah. It is in that period that the northern kingdom, often called as here in verse 1 Samaria, fell to the Assyrian power.

Micah has that rhythm you expect in the prophets – of stern critique of what’s going wrong in the powers that be, judgement, and also of hope.

It’s the stern critique that comes to the fore as so often it does in the former prophets of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the latter prophets too.

It’s intriguing to reflect why that should be.

The story of the people of Israel is the story of the Kingdom of Israel under Saul, David and Solomon. Read their story and each comes in for heavy criticism and stern critique in Samuel and Kings. Following the death of Solomon, the kingdom divides and the sotry of the divided kingdom makes sorry reading. Most of the kings come in for stern cricitism.

And we will find it in Micah too.

I think that’s worth reflecting on.

As soon as we see the word ‘kingdom’ living in our culture, in the United Kingdom, we cannot help but think of kings. There is something particularly in the way English history is taught that holds up the kings and queens of our history and looks at them with adulation. There are those rulers that list the kings and queens. Some historians tell the story as the story of kings and queens. But actually the people from one reign to the next don’t change – another way of telling the story is through the experience of people. Take a village – Kibworth – and tell the story of the people who make up that village and the history of the land emerges as well.

It is interesting that the people who put together Samuel and Kings and told the story of the Kings of Israel land Judah did not hold their punches. They are immensely critical.

Interestingly – the Bible does not contain the annals of the kings – the state archives are now lost. What the bible contains are the writings of the people who stood their ground over against the kings and held them to account in the name of God.

Those are the prophets.

You can argue that it is not so much the story of the kings as the story of the people who in Gos’ name hold the kings to account – the prophets that takes centre-stage in the Bible.

Jesus lays claim to being in the line of the prophets and fulfilling the prophets.

So when he ushers in the kingdom of God what Jesus is doing is not returning to the golden age of the kings – there was no such thing. He is, rather, shaping the kingdom in the way the prophetic voices of dissent through the Hebrew scriptures called for.

It is fascinating to see the role that ‘dissent’ played in the life of the prophets and in the kingdom of God as Jesus ushered it in.

We should be wary of a Christian faith that lines itself up with the powers that be. An authentic Christian faith will find itself in mould of the dissenter and will speak out against the powers that be.

What shape should such dissent take?

The critique we have to offer our society has a great deal to learn from the critique of these prophets, not least Micah.

There is critique of society as social evils are denounced in chapter 2.

Micah provides a study of the corruptions that come from power. 2:1ff-

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.

This is not just those in power do …

Chapter 3:1ff is an indictment of wicked rulers and also of those tame prophets who don’t stick their necks out and who are too compliant with the powers that be …

Listen, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Should you not know justice?—
you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin off my people,
and the flesh off their bones;
who eat the flesh of my people,
flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a cauldron.

Micah has a vision of the way things should be. He describes the kind of shape the kingdom will be that is worthy of God … this is the kind of vision taken up by Jesus in his talk of the kingdom of God …

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

What’s fasincating is that this is the shape of the kingdom that Jesus himself models and is recognised in Jesus too …

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

This is the vision of peace we will be looking to as Christmas approaches.

But that gives rise to a practical question.

If that is the vision. If this is the shape of things as they ought to. What must we do about it?

It is the Jurgen question – when Jurgen was with us he wanted to add into preaching the practical question – what should we do then?

That’s exactly what Micah does in chapter 6.

‘With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

That’s the verse to underline in Micah.

That’s the one to remember.

And that is the practical thing we must seek to do in the week that lies ahead.

What does the Lord require of you,
But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

Do justice. Justice is at the heart of what we are about as Christian people. Issues that we must comment on.

And we are to love kindness. We have heard a lot of criticism of hospital provision for older people. But you also see wonderful care. And I’ve seen it this last couple of weeks. People have made a point of telling me in this last few weeks – the care they have received in hospital – the kindness of nursing staff, often over-worked. What act of kindness can we do?

And then to walk humbly. The humility that honours God, and withdraws is a humility to look out for and to live by.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

What it takes to rule God's way - Isaiah's story

Isaiah has got everything!

There is that wonderful vision Isaiah has in Isaiah 6. It locates Isaiah firmly in the Southern Kingdom, in Jerusalem. It is in the Temple that he has that remarkable vision.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;

And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

But that was not entirely the beginning. He had already had something to say while Uzziah had been alive. In 2 Kings Uzziah, King of the southern Kingdom of Judah gets only a qualified commendation. He did what was right … Nevertheless … Jotham reigned for 16 years and gets the same verdict – the tell-tale Nevertheless has an ominous ring to it. About Ahaz the former prophetic writers in II Kings 16 have no doubt – he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord God.

It will come as no surprise that in Isaiah as in Amos and Hosea there is a rhythm of quite severe critique – the book opens in that ominous fashion as Isaiah speaks out against the wickedness of Judah

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the LORD has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.

In Isaiah 5, Isaiah sees the southern kingdom of Judah as a vineyard, it is much loved by God … and yet it is over-run with weeds.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
why did it yield wild grapes?

The reason is given from 5:8 – the social injustice of the people is condemned – the amass houses and fields, they squander all they earn on strong drink – people are bowed down, everyone brought low.

The Lord of hosts is exalted by justice,
And the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness (verse 16)

But the people call what is evil good, and what is good they call evil, what is darkness they think of as light, and they regard the light as darkness.

Isaiah has an indictment to make against the people. And what is worse, something else is happening on the borders of the land. For it is in the reign of Uzziah, of Jotham and of Ahaz that the great Assyrian power is on the move. And by the time Hezekiah comes to reign in Jerusalem calamity has befallen the northern kingdom. The Assyrians have swept down, like a wolf upon the fold, and destroyed the northern kingdom, taking away its inhabitants to far off Assyria and populating its cities with Assyrians and other foreigners.

Hezekiah comes to rule in Jerusalem over the tiny rump of the southern kingdom, Judah, and things are under great threat. The verdict given by those prophetic historians in II Kings 18 is that he did what was right in the sight of the Lord.

But events on the world scene are moving quickly. Much remains that is wrong in Jerusalem and Judah. And King Sennacherib of Assyria turns his attention on the people of the southern kingdom of Judah.

This is the point at which we reach the first really incontrovertible archaeological evidence for what is described in the Bible. II Kings 18:13ff describes the Assyrian attack on Lachish. Lachish has been excavated … and even more remarkably, the Assyrians made a detailed record of their conquest of Lachish, of the overthrow of its people and of the way they herded them into exile. The reliefs that told the story were discovered in Nineveh, and in the 19th century removed to the British Museum … and in my book they are even more exciting than the Elgin marbles.

Under the Assyrian onslaught, the Southern Kingdom of Judah is forced back to little more than the area immediately around Jerusalem. This is a crucial time for the southern kingdom and Isaiah plays a crucial role. Anticipating the threat of a siege Hezekiah builds a tunnel to bring water from a spring just outside the city to the Pool of Siloam inside the city wall – and some of the group I was with three years ago walked the length of Hezekiah’s tunnel - discovered by the archaeologists.

The collapse of Jerusalem does not happen. Something else is going on instead. Assyria is facing the rise of another, even mightier empire … and they are beginning to be overstretched.

And so as Hezekiah’s final illness nears its end Isaiah comes up with his final words of warning.

II Kings 20:16-19

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the LORD: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’

So significant is this close-knit relationship between Isaiah and King Hezekiah that in the Book we know as Isaiah this narrative from II Kings is reproduced almost word for word in chapters 37,38, 39.

The final words of Isaiah 39 are the words I have just read … finishing with the commendation of the King

Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’

The Book of Isaiah has the same rhythm of stern warning and then the promise of hope that we have come to expect in the Books of the Prophets. The Book of Isaiah is akin to that Book of the Twelve in that within this one book, it would seem that there are the words of more than one prophet. Between Isaiah 39 verse 8 and Isaiah 40 verse 1 much happens. Hezekiah is succeeded by arguably the worst of all the kings of Judah, Manasseh, there is momentary respite under Josiah, but then the calamity happens. Babylon pushes Assyria out of the way, and the southern kingdom collapses.

Isaiah 40 is written after the fall of Babylon – and there is hope from that point on in the book, hope in exile. And that prophet we will come to later.

But for now I want to stick with Isaiah of Jerusalem.

For there is one thing more this prophet does. And what he does impacts on us as Christians immensely. And it impacts on what we do in our world today.

For Isaiah is not just negative. He presents the kings he speaks to with a pattern for their reign. Isaiah outlines in some of the most memorable passages in this first part of Isaiah what it takes to be King.

First, for a king to be worth his salt, God must be with him. Even in the reign of Ahaz, Isaiah has confidence that such a king would be born … indeed, arguably, Hezekiah fits the bill.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel

Immanuel, God with us – that’s the first thing you look for in a King.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

You recognise in a king worth his salt one who is a wonderful counsellor, in whom God’s presence is felt as Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. One with authority who brings real peace. And whose kingdom is built on those twin foundations of justice and righteousness.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

In the words of Isaiah 11 he will have
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

And his kingdom will be a kingdom where the peacemakers are blessed …

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
They will not hurt or destroy
on all God’s holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

As Isaiah speaks he has so much to be critical of Judah, of the surrounding lands. But he is clear – this is what it takes to be King in the way God wills.

And he is confident it will come to pass.

Chapter 32:1

See, a king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule with justice.
Fleetingly kings were seen who rose to this challenge.

But not for long.

Calamity came with the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

And even when the people return, they are under subjugation first to the Persians, then to the Greeks, then to the Syrian Seleucids, then to the Egyptian Ptolemies. Momentarily Mattathias and his sons most notably Judas Maccabaeus establish a kingship – but as you can see in the apocryphal books of I and II Maccabeus they do not have what Isaiah knows it takes to be king.

And then comes Jesus, whose birth we will before very long be celebrating …

And all this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah,

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel. God is with us.

Jesus comes with a simple message – The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news (Mark 1:15).

And he knows full well what shape that kingdom will take, and what shape his kingship will take too.

It’s defined by those passages from Isaiah that come Christmas we will be reading once again.

But the words of the Prophet Isaiah speak through those Kings he was addressing way back in the 8th century BC, they speak through Jesus Christ 2000 years ago to our day and our age.

For this is what it takes to rule in God’s way in God’s world. These are the things we should be looking for in those who offer to rule over us.

We should look for those of whom it could be said God is with them, we should look for those in whom the wise counsel of a mighty God who is an everlasting father and a prince of peace can be seen.

The twin foundations on which any rule must be built are justice and righteousness.

Anyone seeking a position of authority, be it in government or any position of responsibility would do well to seek the spirit of the Lord, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. It’s vital that you don not judge by what the eyes see or simply by what the ears hear, but with righteousness stick up for the poor, decide with equity for the meek, and use the power of the word, not the power of the sword.

Righteousness and faithfulness gives rise to a peace that is founded on justice and righteousness.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Facing the Consequences - Righteousness, Justice, Steadfast Love and Mercy - Hosea

This week I took a group of prospective parents around Pittville School.

They remarked, as have all the parents I have taken round in recent years, on the atmosphere of calm that pervades the school. Ten years ago when I started as a Governor it was not like that. Thanks to a very effective discipline policy, honed and developed over the years discipline is very strong.

It’s a system called Behaviour for Learning.

It is built around rewards and NOT punishment, but ‘consequences’.

Youngsters have built into them the notion that there is a consequence to wrong doing that they have to face.

I had offered to take parents round on Thursday as well, but that wasn’t possible as about half the school were at Drayton Manor Park – they were all those who had kept a clean sheet through the whole year.

That’s a pretty good record.

The writers of the Bible use a language of judgement, punishment and the wrath of God. What they are talking about, however, we would understand as ‘consequences’.

There is a framework within which God wants us to order our individual lives, our relationships, our family life and society at large. Break that pattern and we will face the consequences.

Understand the language of punishment, judgement and the wrath of God in that way and so much of the Bible makes such sense.

So much of it is about analysing carefully what’s gone wrong in individual lives, in relationships, in families and in society at large. And then identifying what needs to be done.

That’s the business the Prophets are in.

Prophets speak truth to power.

It’s such a shame that our English translations muddy the waters of the Hebrew sequence of books.

Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – the four books of the former prophets are balanced in the Hebrew Scriptures by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve – the four books of the latter prophets.

Lamentations is not one of the Hebrew Prophetic Books, neither is the Book of Daniel.

The earliest of the twelve prophets who inspired the Book of the Twelve was Amos, from the South, but speaking truth to power in the Northern Kingdom.

The mantle of the prophets is taken up by Hosea after Amos. Hosea stands as the first of the Book of the Twelve.

You can intertwine the former prophets especially in II Kings and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and at least six of the latter prophets – you make sense of the prophetic books by setting them against the background of the story that unfolds in II Kings.

Hosea’s work of prophecy spans the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, all Kings of Judah, but it is set in the Northern Kingdom initially when Jeroboam, son of Jehoash was king of Israel.

That’s the time of Amoz.

It’s a time of prosperity – but a time also of deceit and treachery, where the King disobeys God and abandons the ways of God. II Kings 14:23-25

Hosea speaks against a backdrop of prosperity, but prosperity that is marred by treachery –

Amos 2:8

Of that northern kingdom of Israel, under Jeroboam, Amos is quite clear: She would never acknowledge that I am the one who gave her the corn, the wine, the olive oil andall the silver and gold that she used in the worship of Baal.

The People of Israel were like a grapevine that was full of grapes. The more prosperous they were, the more altars they built. The more productive their land was, the more beautiful they made the sacred stone pillars of worship. The people whose hearts are deceitful must now suffer for their sins, for God will break down their altars and destroy their sacred pillars. 10:1f

But Amos’s words reach beyond Jeroboam – “Hosea also lived through the turbulent time that followed Jeroboam’s reign, in which kings succeeded each toerh rapidly, often by intrigue and murder (2 Kings 15). The dynasty of Jehu came to an end with the short reign of Jeroboam’s son in 746-5 (2 Kings 15:8-12). This is recalled in Hosea 1:4 which refers to events recorded in 2 Kings 9-10.

Here Hosea proclaims punishment on the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel.

The last king of Israel, Hoshea, also came to the thone by conspiracy andmurder (2 Kings 15:30). Hosea’s comments in Hosea 7:7 and 8:4 probably reflect this. Gordon McConville Exploring the OT Volume 4: The Prophets p 135)

In the heat of their anger they murdered their rulers. Their kings have been assassinated one after another, but no one prays to me for help 7:7

My people chose kings, but they did it on their own. They appointed leaders, but without my approval. They took their silver and gold and made idols — for their own destruction.

What’s happening as all of this is taking place is going to prove calamitous for the northern Kingdom of Isrrael.

One of the great ancient empires is on the rise. Assyria is going from strength to strength. Their armies are amassing in this period. The threat is growing day by day. There is already something of an inevitability of the collapse of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

What Hosea has to say and the book that is associated with Hosea reflects this whole time.

He undertakes an analysis of the times and all that is wrong. He challenges first Jeroboam IInd and then those who in quick succession follow him. And he challenges the people.

It’s the same kind of indictment that Amos levels at the people.

There is a pattern.

It’s fascinating that in these books of the prophets there is a pattern.

One the hand, there is condemnation of the wrongs that are going on and of the way the rulers and the people abandon God’s ways of righteousness and justice.

But then there is a shaft of light in the midst of the darkness. A hope that God will remain with his people and restore and renew and revive them.

There is very much a rhythm to the Prophets that we can tune into.

If politics is about shaping the society you live in then what the proiphets have to say is intensely political.

Last week I found myself quoting Desmond Tutu. This moning he was on the radio, being interviewed about his powerful criticism of the ANC in South Africa. How can you turn on those you have supported he was asked? In his response he went straight to the Bible – and said this is where I take my stand and always have done. The Bible I read he says is on the side of the disposed, the poor, wherever they may be.

It was powerful stuff from Desmond Tutu. And this is where you see why he takes the stand he does.

Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Book of the Twelve are all about ordering society, how people live together. And time again we are confronted with the justice of God.

Nowhere is that more evident than here in the Book of the Prophet Hosea.

There is something tragic and yet moving in his personal story which is told in chapters 1-3. It involves marriage, divorce and marriage again. Exactly to whom and why and what is going on is the subject of debate among those who study these things. But one thing can be sure there is sadness and there is hope in his personal experience.

It is that personal experience that he then draws on in speaking of all that has gone wrong among the people of that Northern Kingdom.

And what he has to say comes to the fore in the most moving of ways in the second chapter.

This chapter encapsulates the rhythm of these Prophets.

In the first part of the chapter there is condemnation – awful consequences follow on from the abandonment of God’s ways of righteousness.

My children, plead with your mother — though she is no longer a wife to me, and I am no longer her husband. Plead with her to stop her adultery and prostitution. 3 If she does not, I will strip her as naked as she was on the day she was born. I will make her like a dry and barren land, and she will die of thirst. 4-5 I will not show mercy to her children; they are the children of a shameless prostitute.
2.4-5 the children of a shameless prostitute; or as shameless as their mother, a prostitute.
She herself said, “I will go to my lovers — they give me food and water, wool and linen, olive oil and wine.”
6 So I am going to fence her in with thorn bushes and build a wall to block her way. 7 She will run after her lovers but will not catch them. She will look for them but will not find them. Then she will say, “I am going back to my first husband — I was better off then than I am now.”
8 She would never acknowledge that I am the one who gave her the corn, the wine, the olive oil, and all the silver and gold that she used in the worship of Baal. 9 So at harvest time I will take back my gifts of corn and wine, and will take away the wool and the linen I gave her for clothing. 10 I will strip her naked in front of her lovers, and no one will be able to save her from my power. 11 I will put an end to all her festivities — her annual and monthly festivals and her Sabbath celebrations — all her religious meetings. 12 I will destroy her grapevines and her fig trees, which she said her lovers gave her for serving them. I will turn her vineyards and orchards into a wilderness; wild animals will destroy them. 13 I will punish her for the times that she forgot me when she burnt incense to Baal and put on her jewellery to go chasing after her lovers. The LORD has spoken.

The second part of the chapter then has the hope of restoration.

This is one of the finest statements of that covenant relationship that God has with his people and that he promises to restore. It is a wonderful vision.

So I am going to take her into the desert again; there I will win her back with words of love. 15 I will give back to her the vineyards she had and make Trouble Valley a door of hope. She will respond to me there as she did when she was young, when she came from Egypt.
2.15: Josh 7.24-26
16 Then once again she will call me her husband — she will no longer call me her Baal.
2.16 BAAL: This title of the Canaanite god means “Lord”; another meaning of the word is “husband”.
17 I will never let her speak the name of Baal again.
18 At that time I will make a covenant with all the wild animals and birds, so that they will not harm my people. I will also remove all weapons of war from the land, all swords and bows, and will let my people live in peace and safety.
19 Israel, I will make you my wife;
I will be true and faithful;
I will show you constant love and mercy
and make you mine for ever.
20 I will keep my promise and make you mine,
and you will acknowledge me as LORD.
21-22 At that time I will answer the prayers of my people Israel.
2.21-22 ISRAEL: The Hebrew text here refers to Israel as Jezreel (see 1.4, 11).
I will make rain fall on the earth,
and the earth will produce corn and grapes and olives.
23 I will establish my people in the land and make them prosper.
2.23: Rom 9.25; 1 Pet 2.10
I will show love to those who were called “Unloved”,
and to those who were called “Not-my-People”
I will say, “You are my people,”
and they will answer, “You are our God.”

Verses 19 and 20 go to the heart of the matter.

19 Israel, I will make you my wife;
I will be true and faithful;
I will show you constant love and mercy
and make you mine for ever.
20 I will keep my promise and make you mine,
and you will acknowledge me as LORD.

I will take you for my wife
In righteousness and in justice
In steadfast love, and in mercy
I will take you for my wife in faithfulness;
And you shall know the Lord.


What is new and wonderful in Hosea is the way he links Justice and Righteousness. with steadfast love and mercy.

We sometimes do Jesus an injustice when we think of him as Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

He didn’t get called a Prophet, one who speaks truth to power for nothing.

Look at what he has to say when the 70 return from their mission and you find there the very same pattern that you find in the Prophets.

There is intense analysis of what is wrong in his day and he outlines the consequences of what will follow on when people abandon God’s ways of righteousness and justice.

“How terrible it will be for you, Chorazin! How terrible for you too, Bethsaida! If the miracles which were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, the people there would long ago have sat down, put on sackcloth, and sprinkled ashes on themselves, to show that they had turned from their sins!
10.13: Is 23.1-18; Ezek 26.1—28.26; Joel 3.4-8; Amos 1.9-10; Zech 9.2-4
14 God will show more mercy on Judgement Day to Tyre and Sidon than to you. 15 And as for you, Capernaum! Did you want to lift yourself up to heaven? You will be thrown down to hell!”
10.15: Is 14.13-15
16 Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
10.16: Mt 10.40; Mk 9.37; Lk 9.48; Jn 13.20

But then comes a real hope as the 70 return. And there is great joy. Because great things are happening. The kingdom is being proclaimed, people are being healed

The 72
10.17 72; some manuscripts have 70 (see verse 1).
men came back in great joy. “Lord,” they said, “even the demons obeyed us when we gave them a command in your name!”
18 Jesus answered them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Listen! I have given you authority, so that you can walk on snakes and scorpions and overcome all the power of the Enemy, and nothing will hurt you.
10.19: Ps 91.13
20 But don't be glad because the evil spirits obey you; rather be glad because your names are written in heaven.”

Then Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit – this is the promise

22 “My Father has given me all things. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
10.22: Jn 3.35, 10.15

And then comes a very telling comment –

23 Then Jesus turned to the disciples and said to them privately, “How fortunate you are to see the things you see! 24 I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but they could not, and to hear what you hear, but they did not.”

Jesus recognises and echoes the rhythm of the prophets. But he is the one in whom the prophets are being fulfilled.

How many prophets and kings desired to see what those 70 had themselves seen – but they did not see it, and to hear what they hear, but did not hear it.

Jesus it is who shapes for us a way of being under God’s rule that looks to righteousness and justice, to steadfast love and mercy … and like Hosea he calls us to a life of faithfulness as we shape all we do according to his word.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Amos - a Prophet for our Time

Distance may lend enchantment, but in reading the Old Testament in our English translations it muddies the waters.

Read the story of Elijah and Elisha in I and II Kings and you see how their story is set against the background of a succession of Kings in The Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The stories of the Kings follow a set pattern – their reign is dated very precisely with reference to the king in the other kingdom. Turn to page 380 of the church Bibles and we have arrived at Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom of Israel – in these few verses you can see the set pattern.

alongside the reign of the king in the other kingdom, a verdict is given on their reign – practically all of the Kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel are condemned as doing evil in the sight of the Lord. And then,
Turn to page 380 of the church Bibles and we have arrived at Jeroboam II of Israel …

First the date …

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Amaziah son of Joash as king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash became king of Israel, and he ruled in Samaria for 41 years.

Second, the verdict

24 He sinned against the LORD, following the wicked example of his predecessor King Jeroboam son of Nebat, who led Israel into sin.

It’s a qualified verdict in this instance because under Jeroboam II there are extensive conquests, the suffering of the people is alleviated and there is considerable prosperity.

And third, remembering that Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are regarded as Prophetic writings in the Hebrew scriptures, those interested more in history than prophecy are directed to other works of history

Everything else that Jeroboam II did, his brave battles, and how he restored Damascus and Hamath to Israel, are all recorded in The History of the Kings of Israel or as the NRSV puts it a little better – The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel.

Then in II Kings 15 the prophetic historian moves on to King Uzziah of the Southern Kingdom of Judah …

Date in verse 1, much better verdict, though not without critisim in verse 3-5 and the cross references in verse 6

What a pity that these books are so far away from the later prophets of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew Scripture they are nicely balanced – the four books of former prophets Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are followed by four books of later prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve.

What’s fascinating when you read through those later prophets is that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and at least six of the Book of the 12 can be linked into the story.

Turn to page 363 of the church Bibles at the end and you can see this works in a time chart.

The first of the writing prophets is one of the best known names from the Book of the 12 shorter prophets, Amos.

Verse 1 gives us the precise location for Amos, the Prophet’s words.

These are the words of Amos, a shepherd from the town of Tekoa.[which is in the Southern Kingdom of Judah} Two years before the earthquake, [which sadly cannot be dated, but with the Arabian tectonic plate sliding past the African tectonic plate on either side of the Jordan rift valley this is an area prone to moderate earthquakes] when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel, God revealed to Amos all these things about Israel [that must be after the 27th year of the reign of Jeroboam II and so you can date these words of Amos somewhere between 756 and 743 BC]

Go to the British Museum and from that kind of period lavish ivories have been found that indicate a level of prosperity that is hinted at in II Kings and spelled out by Amos in 3:15 where Amos speaks of people having winter houses and summer houses and lining their walls with ivories.

No cost was spared as houses were furnished ostentatiously with luxurious couches (6:4, 3:12) and people indulged in feasting at every turn, feasting on veal and lamb (6:4) Obesity is a problem among the women as well as men and there is a major over-indulgence in alcohol (4:1) and as for perfume: an obscene amount of money is spent on cosmetics (6:6).

“On the other hand, the poor were really poor and were shamelessly exploited: they suffered from property rackets” and sexual abuse

They sell into slavery honest people who cannot pay their debts, the poor who cannot repay even the price of a pair of sandals. 7 They trample
down the weak and helpless and push the poor out of the way. A man and his father have intercourse with the same slave woman, and so profane my holy name. 2:6-7)

“they suffered from legal rackets (5:12)

know how terrible your sins are and how many crimes you have committed. You persecute good people, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts. 13

“And they suffered from business rackets 8:5)

You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our corn. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and tamper with the scales to cheat our customers

“Money-making and personal covetousness ruled all: the men lived for the offices, the women lived for excitement, the rulers lived for frivolity.”

The task of the prophet is to speak truth to power. He knows the society he is speaking to inside out. He does not hold back. More than that, he knows what’s going on in neighbouring countries. And he speaks out powerfully.

By now you cannot have avoided spotting the connections that it’s possible to make with society today. There is something un-nervingly up-to-date and relevant as you read the words of the Prophet Amos. In pointing the finger at the neglect of the poor at a time when the excessively wealthy get even wealthier he is pointing the finger at our society. These words speak across the centuries to us.

You people hate anyone who challenges injustice and speaks the whole truth in court. 11 You have oppressed the poor and robbed them of their grain. And so you will not live in the fine stone houses you build or drink wine from the beautiful vineyards you plant. 12 I know how terrible your sins are and how many crimes you have committed. You persecute good people, take bribes, and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts. 13 And so, keeping quiet in such evil times is the clever thing to do!
14 Make it your aim to do what is right, not what is evil, so that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty really will be with you, as you claim he is. 15 Hate what is evil, love what is right, and see that justice prevails in the courts. Perhaps the LORD will be merciful to the people of this nation who are still left alive.

But lest we feel complacent, Amos turns his attention to those in his day that are religious. And what he identifies should give us pause for thought. He noticed that religious people were very religious. This was a period when people did attend worship, when they did carry out their sacrifices. But something was not quite right, for Amos it was significant that the worship was centred on shrines that had been put in place by the wicked Jeroboam 1st as the king had bent religion for his own purposes and power. But more un-nervingly for us he points the finger at a worship that uses all the right words but is not lived out.

The LORD says, “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them!
22 When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. 23 Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. 24

Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.

That, for Amos, is the nub of the matter. That is what must make us sit up and take notice.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

When Jesus lays claim to have fulfilled the whole law and the prophets this is what he is laying claim to. In his indictment of the religious in Matthew 23 he homes in on exactly the kind of justice envisaged by Amos as the very heart of the law …
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
The parable of the Rich fool gets to the nub of the matter and homes in on the selflishness that is concerned only to build up wealth.

The challenge is for us to live out our faith and put it into practice. But thee is another challenge too. There is still a place for ‘prophets’ in our day – who analyse the ills of society and appeal for justice and righteousness, and we in the church need to take those challenges very much to heart.