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"A Bowl of ripe summer fruit"

When you pray, does God always listen?

When you listen for God's voice, does he always speak?

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” So says Psalm One Hundred and Forty Five. Ezekiel says, “God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his sins and live.” Unlike us, God is not willing to write off a person, or a nation, after one offense, or at the slightest provocation. Instead, he gives opportunity for repentance and reconciliation.

But, when we come to passages like those in the middle chapters of Amos, we see the point where God’s patience has finally come to an end. God’s anger accelerates slowly, like a forty ton truck, but when it finally does gather speed, its momentum is awesome. God is not quick to punish, but the window of gracious opportunity has now closed for this people in Amos chapter seven and eight. They have reached the point of no return. For though God is merciful, they have rejected his offer of mercy.

This is the message from God that Amos brings to the northern Kingdom of Israel in the middle of the eighth century BC. God is standing over them to see if they are true to Him. Look at verses seven to nine.

7 The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the LORD asked me, ‘‘What do you see, Amos?”

‘‘A plumb line," I replied.

Then the Lord said, ‘‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”

When a builder wants to check his work, he uses a weighted string called a plumbline to see if it's true to the vertical. The plumbline which God used to measure Israel’s commitment to him was the Law of Moses. Throughout Amos, the prophet holds up what they had promised to be as God’s nation, against the reality they had become, and he found them crooked. They were supposed to be a light to the Gentiles, showing the way to the only True God. They had become darkness, and worshipped the gods of the nations. They were supposed to be loving and kind. There was to be no poverty or want in Israel. But they were oppressing the poor. Look at the charge of Amos in verse four of chapter eight:

“4 Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, ... — skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, 6 buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.”

They were self-centred, greedy, materialistic, more interested in making money than in right relationships with God and Man. They used people and loved things, instead of the other way round. Their moral and social ethics were shot.

And after the plumbline - this image of a bowl of ripe summer fruit.  Summer fruits are delicate fruits, they perish quickly in the hot sun of the late summer, they will certainly not last until winter. That is what Amos has in mind - the people are going rotten, they cannot last as a community of the people of God.

And Amos has an uncomfortable picture of God to share with the people.  He tells them that God has lost his patience, that God will tolerate them no more.  This God sounds very much like the God who lost patience with the wicked people of Noah's day.  It is uncomfortable, because it is not the picture of God we are expecting.

I guess that most of us are much happier with the God who always gives us one last chance. Hywel regularly asks me for one last chance when I threaten dire punishments, Emrys is wiser - he asks for 10 more last chances!

But I guess your understanding of this passage will depend very much on which side of the fence you sit.  It depends very much on whose voice you think God really listens to.

Think back to the time of the Exodus.  The Hebrew people are being mercilessly exploited by the Egyptians.  Moses encounters God in this vision of a burning bush, and God says this: "I have heard the cries of my people, I know their sufferings."  And through a series of horrific plagues, culminating in he drowning of great numbers of Egyptian Army charioteers, God saves his people, leading them out into the freedom of the wilderness.

Later in Israel's history they are persecuted by the Philistines - God gives the Philistines a good going over.  They are attacked and oppressed by the Midianites - God gives the Midianites a good kicking.

I have never read any objection that God did not give Pharaoh one last chance - or the Philistines, or the Midianites - God seems to have lost patience with them all, preferring to listen to the voice of those who were persecuted and oppressed.

For years Israel enjoyed God's favour - they seemed constantly to be under threat of persecution and oppression from one nation or another.  Until now, that is.  Amos brings them up sharp.

"God has heard the voice of those crying out in suffering and pain - those who are persecuted and oppressed.  But this time it is YOU, you the people of Israel who are the oppressors, it is you who are the persecutors.  God has lost patience with YOU."

“4 Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, ... — skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, 6 buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.”

Of course it isn't a popular message!  The priest tries to silence Amos in the name of the King:
12 Then Amaziah said to Amos, ‘‘Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. 13 Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”

How often the church has used its position of power to silence someone who is speaking out for truth and justice; how often the world has used power to silence the voice of truth and justice - Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, Steve Biko was imprisoned and killed, Ghandi was shot as was Martin Luther King as have been countless others for speaking out in a disturbing way about the demands of love and truth and justice.

But this priest gets more than he bargains for.  He may have the power and the authority to silence Amos, but he discovers that in doing so he also silences God.  Amos pronounces God's awful judgment.  As well as the normal stuff about being conquered by surrounding nations, the Temple being destroyed, earthquakes and stuff, a far more terrible future is drawn.

Amos proclaims that there will be a famine.  Not a famine of grain or a drought - nothing like that,

11 ‘‘The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘‘when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. 12 Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.

There will be a famine of God's word.

This isn't the first time we meet this idea.  In chapter five we hear something very similar:

"How I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts - I won't even look at them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs and harps, I shall stop up my ears.

But let justice roll down like rivers and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

God is threatening not to speak to them and not to listen to them!

And what's more, this isn't the first time that God had done this.  Remember Eli who was priest and guide of the people of Israel through times of great injustice and oppression, just before the famous incident when God calls the boy Samuel as he sleeps, it is stated:

"the word of the Lord was rare in those days; and there was no frequent vision."

It seems that sometimes God is so fed up with us that he cannot bear to speak to us or to listen to us; sometimes God despairs of us so much that he doesn't think we are worth speaking to or listening to.

So, I'm going to ask you once more the questions I asked at the start:

When you pray, does God always listen?

When you listen for God's voice, does he always speak?

My guess is that if each of us is honest and not too bothered about giving the answer we think we should give, then we would admit that there are times in our lives when we seem to lose touch with God completely.  When we pray it does not seem like God is listening and when we listen for God's voice there is a deafening silence.

How often do we attribute it to technique?  Perhaps we aren't praying properly...perhaps I should read a few more prayer manuals...perhaps my posture isn't right...perhaps I'm too distracted...perhaps I should try a different time of day...

Well how about this - perhaps God really isn't listening, perhaps he has stopped up his ears. Perhaps God really isn't speaking, perhaps he has turned his face away from us.  Perhaps God is fed up of our empty words, our songs and our prayers that are not borne out in the way we live our lives.  Perhaps God sees us as the oppressors, perhaps he sees us as the ones who are acting unjustly and trampling on the poor, persecuting the weak.

Perhaps God is doing what he has always done - perhaps he is listening to the poor and the oppressed, the lost and the abandoned.

If this is true, then what is the answer?  If this is true, there is only one answer - we will not hear God's voice until we are walking with the poor, until we get alongside the oppressed, until we are seeking the lost, until we are embracing the abandoned.

I wonder, has God listened to one word of our worship today?  Have our hymns fallen on deaf ears?  Have our prayers gone unheeded?

What do you think?