Ash Wednesday (Amos 4:6–13)

Lenten Midweek Service: Return to the Lord, Who Does Not Tire of Calling You

Text: Amos 4:6–13

 

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“Prepare to meet your God.” Those words hit you like a sledgehammer. It’s what you hear a movie villain say before he ends his victim’s life. But it’s no villain that speaks those words to you. The shepherd-prophet Amos delivers the Word of the Lord who says, “Prepare to meet your God” (v 12). The Lord is no villain, but message is clear: Judgment!  Judgment is coming quickly.   We don’t want it to happen because it will expose all those things we thought we could sweep under the rug.  You know, those sins you won’t tell the pastor about, the ones you try to hide from your spouse, the ones you swear you can take care of privately.  God is not so easily fooled.

 

The tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. If only God’s people would listen and take His Word to heart, things would turn out so much differently. But what does the Lord do?  He will not keep silent and allow us to go the path of destruction, simply because we plug our ears. He is incessant in his seeking after us. The Lord longs to forgive you, so he is tireless in calling you to repentance.

 

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Amos chronicles five ways by which the Lord calls his people to repentance. And just as many times, His people do not listen. Each time the Lord ends with the same phrase, “yet you did not return to me.” You can hear the exasperation in the Lord’s voice.  He simply will not give up on you. He has been wronged, but instead of pouting, instead of plotting his just vengeance, he instead works to win back his people. He so longs for his people to be forgiven and reunited with him that he will not stop.

 

First, you hear him say, “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me” (v 6). Teeth are clean when they have no food to get stuck between them. While the Lord taking food from his people should get their attention so that they repent, it is also a reminder of the Lord’s provision. He graciously provides for all his people’s needs. When the people abandon him, it is just and right for them to lose the benefits that come from the Lord. Even more, his people should remember what a privilege and joy it is to have such a Lord. With the Lord, there is a bounty of his goodness; apart from him there is an absence of that goodness—and that should naturally drive his people back to him. But even hunger does not drive God’s people either to remember him or to repent.

 

Because his people will not listen, the Lord calls again. “I also withheld the rain from you . . . yet you did not return to me” (vv 7, 8). Drought not only cuts off crops but also strikes at them economically.  So again, the Lord is calling his people to remember how he supplies life. He does not do it begrudgingly. It flows naturally from his love as he provides rain that his creation might drink from his goodness.

 

Yet throughout Israel’s history, there was a constant temptation to trust in a false lord, Baal. Baal was the false god of Israel’s neighbors, supposedly the god of the sky, of lightning, and of rain. Supposedly this Baal was the one who caused ground and womb to be fertile.  If you were on Baal’s good side, then you were supposed to receive rain aplenty. The Lord is not shy to tell his people that if they want to trust in Baal, they should see just how much rain he provides. None. It’s insanity to trust in Baal, who is nothing more than a figment of the imagination.

 

But . . . we do it all the time too. Our idols don’t go by the name of Baal. We bank our security not upon Baal’s rain, but on a bull market. And when our financial prospects go from bullish to bearish, we should be able to see the foolishness of these idols of ours. But in our sin, we are blind to this. We double-down on our idol even as the Lord is calling us to return to him, for in him alone is there life.

 

Two calls did not work, so perhaps his people will listen if the Lord calls them a third time. “I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me” (v 9). When God brought his people to the Promised Land, he told them that they would eat from vineyards that they did not plant. Such is the abundance that the Lord delivers. Look at how tremendously generous He is! The Lord delights to provide for his people. But our heart is far from him and we set our hopes and dreams in the tangible—in degrees and jobs, in cars or clothes, and in houses and buildings.  But when our heart withdraws from the God who richly supplies, why should he not withhold from us?

 

Since they have forsaken him, the Lord tries to get his people with yet one more physical loss. Leaving him means leaving his good gifts. His people of old needed to learn this lesson; so do we. It is not blight and mildew that worries you; nor is it the locust. It’s other disasters that cause us worry. When a hurricane brings devastation, it’s not our place to figure out if God is mad with those who are displaced. It is a call for us to repent. In the disasters that happen in your life and to your family, God is calling you to repentance knowing that apart from his providential care, something far worse would befall you.

 

Still the Lord’s people will not listen! The Lord so loves his people that he will not give up, so he tries a different tactic. He’ll remind them of his history of salvation, how he’s worked mightily with an outstretched arm to deliver them. Surely, then they’ll listen and recall how blessed it is to live under the Lord’s care. So he says, “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me” (v 10). Remember everything the Lord did to Egypt that his people might be saved? Not only did he send the ten plagues, including pestilence, but Pharaoh’s army was swept away in the sea. All this that the people of the Lord might be delivered. There’s no doubting his love, his dedication, the salvation He works for his people. So when their abandonment of the Lord causes those very acts of judgment to be visited upon them, certainly they’ll listen. They’ll remember that it’s good to live in the shadow of his grace. You remember, don’t you? So why do you return to slavery? Slavery to sin.

 

Still there’s no repentance, so the Lord utilizes a second historical reminder of how he’s acted for his people’s salvation. Maybe, just maybe, this will finally be enough to get through to their hard hearts. He says, “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me” (v 11). Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown because of the depth of their evil. Their evil was so pervasive that when Abraham bartered with God to spare them, he could not even find ten righteous persons in Sodom to justify sparing it. He’s saying that’s now the same case with Amos’ contemporaries.

 

And he calls us to repent as well, because it’s true among us also. What justification can we give for God to spare us? Are we righteous and pure? Or will you find bickering and quarreling among us? Are there evil thoughts that pit one believer against another? The Lord is justified not in sparing us but in condemning us. Yet he speaks of his people being a brand plucked out of the burning. The Lord works to pluck us out of disaster. Though we don’t deserve to be spared, the Lord does spare us, because that’s the kind of God he is. He delights to withhold just punishment. His fervent desire is that you not receive the just reward of your sin, but grace upon grace. Still, in spite of such grace being extended, the Lord says, “yet you did not return to me.”

 

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How could they be so obtuse? Five times that struck directly at their physical needs and that recalled God’s actions in history for their salvation, each reminding them of God’s goodness and grace for which it’s well worth returning, and still they refuse. What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with us? How can we be so obtuse? We pass off our sin as inconsequential, but all sin is an abandonment of God. All sin leads him to his tireless call that we return to him and his goodness. Yet we continue to sin. We deserve to be judged. He gave us every chance. He did not tire to call us to repentance, but we have not given an ounce of energy to leave our sinful ways.

As much of an obstacle as our cold, sinful hearts are, the Lord is all the more acute in his actions to save us. Even when you tire of returning to the Lord, he does not tire of calling you.  Compared to human desire to forgive the erring, the Lord says, “I do not say to you, [that you should forgive] up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  That’s just how dedicated the Lord is to saving sinners.  That’s why it’s called “steadfast love.”

 

Judgment does loom on the horizon, but it comes differently than you have a right to expect. The same tireless zeal of the Lord to call you will drive him to spare you the coming judgment. There is no undoing judgment for your sin. The only thing that can be done is to take the judgment away from you and place it upon another.

 

Judgment looms on the horizon. This is what happens as we journey ever closer to Jerusalem. There will be judgment for your sin. Yet the judgment will not be meted out upon you. It will be visited upon the Lord himself. In one last effort to call you to return, the Lord takes your punishment and puts it on full display as he pours it out upon his Son. This one will be effective to bring you back home. Now, you will return. The Holy Spirit will call, gather, and enlighten your darkened heart.  All because you meet your God as he hangs on a cross for you. How could it come to this?

Because he does not tire of calling you, the lord will not rest until he has delivered you. Amen.

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