What about suffering? Why doesn’t God do something about injustice? If God is a God of love and power then why doesn’t he stop wars and end poverty?
I wonder if you’ve every asked questions like that.
For some people they’re merely a way of pushing the thought of God away – much as you might wave your hand at a fly. I don’t really what to think about God so I’ll play the suffering-card. This morning we’re going to see that that’s a dangerous attitude.
But for some people those questions are deeply personal and painful. Their question, Is why doesn’t God stop my suffering?
It was a question the people in Amos’s day were asking. Look at verse 18: ‘Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!’
Here are people who long for the day when God intervenes to things right. ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’ they were saying. ‘Why is he just letting things drift and ignoring our problems?’
What’s the prophet Amos’ answer?
God will bring judgment on those who do wrong
Look how Amos 5 begins:
Hear this word, Israel, this lament I take up concerning you:
‘Fallen is Virgin Israel,
never to rise again,
deserted in her own land,
with no one to lift her up.’
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Israel:
‘Your city that marches out a thousand strong
will have only a hundred left;
your town that marches out a hundred strong
will have only ten left.’ (5:1-3)
Israel is going to be decisively defeated. The land will be deserted.
And look at the final verse of the chapter:
‘Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,’
says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty. (5:27)
Damascus was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the superpower of the day. Assyria is going to defeat Israel and Israel will go so deep into exile that she’ll never come out.
And that’s exactly what happened. By this point Israel had split into two kingdoms – ten northern tribes and two southern tribes. Amos is talking to the northern tribes and what he says came true. They were defeated by the Assyrians and carried away into exile – never to return.
So what was their crime? Elsewhere the focus is on other things. But here Amos’ focus is on injustice and corruption. Three times he says, ‘There are those who …’
There are those who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground …
There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
The word ‘courts’ is literally ‘at the gate’. That’s because legal issues were resolved at the city gate. It was their court room. But it was also their marketplace. So Amos is talking about legal corruption and business corruption.
Those are very contemporary issues. Around the world corruption is a big issue and major reason the poor stay poor. But they’re also issues for us. What would Amos say to us? Make sure you do a fair day’s work – not spending work time on Facebook. Make sure you’re honest in business. Make sure you tax return is accurate.
When we see colleagues over-claiming expenses and throwing a sickie, it’s easy to feel we’re missing out. But actually what we’re missing out on is God’s judgment!
God judged Israel for her injustice. It was a judgment in history. But it’s a picture of God’s judgment at the end of history – the final judgment. Look at verses 18-20:
Why do you long for the day of the LORD?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light –
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
It’s the stuff of nightmares or horror movies – fleeing from danger into worse danger, thinking you’re safe only to find things are worse than before. But perhaps that final line is the most chilling. It’s a description of hell: ‘without a ray of brightness’.
I realise people don’t like to think about hell. I don’t like to think about hell! People like what Christianity says about Jesus, but not its message of hell. It seems so ‘medieval’. But the fact is Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. In the Old Testament they were hazy about life after death. It’s Jesus who brings that reality into focus. You can’t believe in Jesus without believing in hell – not the real Jesus.
Now, you may not think there’s a hell. You may find the idea abhorrent. But let me invite you to ponder two things.
First, it’s interesting that so many people do long for justice. The people of Amos’ day longed for ‘the day of the LORD’. We may not use that language, but we still say, ‘Why doesn’t God do something about suffering, war, evil?’ We want justice. And in that sense we want hell – a place where evil is punished. What we don’t like is the idea that we might be accountable for the wrong we have done.
Here’s the second thing to ponder. Suppose for a moment that Jesus is right and there is a hell – an eternity ‘without a ray of brightness’. Wouldn’t it make sense to check that out? To see if it’s real? To find out what you can do to escape? Even if there’s only a slim chance it’s real, it would make sense to look into it.
Amos says the day of the LORD is coming. God will intervene to stop injustice. The problem is that when he comes, he will come knocking on your door and my door.
But Amos also have good news for us.
God offers life to those who do wrong
Amos has three invitations to find life:
Verse 4: This is what the Lord says to Israel: ‘Seek me and live.’
Verse 6: Seek the Lord and live …
Verse 14: Seek good, not evil, that you may live.
It’s the offer of life – eternal life. If you seek God, what you find is life.
Why doesn’t God intervene? What doesn’t he do something about injustice? Amos’ answer is: He will. He will come in judgment and when he comes he’ll knock on your door. But now in the meantime he offers you life. The delay of his judgment is not a sign of complacency. It’s a sign of God’s patience and mercy.
The Apostle Peter faced exactly the same questions that Amos faced and we face. He wrote:
You must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” [God] promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’ … The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:3-4, 9)
God delays justice to offer us life. God is offering you life.
But Amos’ invitation comes with a warning. Don’t confuse religion with God. Don’t think that because you’re religious, you’re right with God. Look at verses 4-5:
This is what the Lord says to Israel:
‘Seek me and live;
do not seek Bethel,
do not go to Gilgal,
do not journey to Beersheba.
For Gilgal will surely go into exile,
and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.’
Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba were the leading shrines in Israel. They were the York Minster and Ripon Cathedral of their day. Just because you go to church, Amos is saying, doesn’t mean you know God. Or look at what God says verses 21-24:
‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
There are four couplets here. Four times God describes what the people do: they attend religious festivals, they bring offerings, they bring choice offerings, they sing songs of praise. But four times God rejects their religion: it stinks (21). I will not accept (22), look (22) or listen (23).
God is talking about religious hypocrites. People who do and say all the right religious things, but it never touches their hearts and lives. And the evidence of this is the corruption at the city gate.
‘Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel.’ The key phrase is: Seek me. God doesn’t want our religion. He wants us. He wants our hearts. God wants a relationship.
We can worship God in everyday life
The flipside of this, the good news, is that we can seek God and know God and enjoy God everywhere and every day. We can seek him at the shrine of Gilgal and at the city gate.
Think about those three invitations to seek: ‘Seek me … seek the LORD … seek good’ (4, 6, 14) Can see how seeking God and seeking good are lined up together? Every time we seek good can be an act of seeking God. Every time we choose good can be an act of choosing God. When you do good you can enjoy a sense of God’s pleasure.
Sometimes when we gather on a Sunday we talk about coming into the presence of God (and there is something special about the gathering of God’s people). But we can enjoy God’s presence everywhere and every day. Every act can be an act of worship.
Or consider again verse 24. God hates their religious festivals. Instead, he says, ‘let justice roll on like a river’. We worship God by loving our neighbours.
The lovely thing is that this elevates everything we do. Everything is an opportunity for worship. Monday morning is as sacred as Sunday morning. Your home, your workplace, your neighbourhood are as sacred as any cathedral.
What we do on a Sunday is kind of re-tune our hearts. We call one another back to Christ. We sing, we pray, we hear God’s word so they are our hearts are captured afresh. And then we go out to continue worshipping God.
The local church is to be a community which is known for fairness and honesty. Think of it like this: We gather on a Sunday to be filled afresh with the truth of God’s patience, the glory of Christ, the joy of the gospel. And then as we go out into Boroughbridge and the villages righteousness flows with us and through us like a never-failing stream. Think of us spilling out of the door into our neighbourhood as a kind of wave of God’s goodness. We spread righteousness throughout the area through our actions and our words. We spread the glory of Christ.