Going Deeper 9-23-19

The first and last verses from our Old Testament reading from the prophet Amos… Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land… The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.  Thus far our text.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
The creative tensions continue.  This morning I’d like to consider one of the creative tensions which exists in our understanding of God as revealed throughout the Scriptures.  Is God an angry God who both hates and punishes sin or is God a kind and loving being who no longer pays any attention to our sins.  As you might expect, I would stay away from an either/or perspective and urge us to opt for both/and.  Beware of the heresy of the false alternatives!
And this is a consistent tension throughout.  In the very beginning God is revealed as both a holy and just God who declares in Genesis 2: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”  And yet when Adam and Eve do eat of the tree, God extends grace to them by covering their nakedness with animal skins and expelling them from the Garden rather than immediately putting them to death.  
In His justice, God declares that the woman would have severe pains in childbearing, and the man would need to deal with thorns and thistles and hard labor to produce food from the soil.  But at the very same time God promises to send a seed of Eve who would crush the evil one.  Both judgment and grace.
In the next book of the Bible, Exodus, God reveals Himself to Moses as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  A similar declaration comes from the prophet Joshua in Number 14: "The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.”  A God of both judgment and grace.
In story after story throughout the Old Testament, this creative tension is in play as we read of Israel’s repeated failures to respond to God’s goodness and grace with faith and obedience.  Instead, they consistently prove to be stubborn and rebellious, repeatedly breaking covenant and chasing after false gods.  The cycle of sin-punishment-repentance-restoration is repeated over and over and over again.
Question: of all the sins we read about throughout the Bible, which draws the most wrath from God?  It may very well be idolatry, the following after false gods.  But there’s another sin that seems to be a close second: the exploring and ignoring of the poor and needy in both the courts and the markets.  The prophets consistently attack idolatry and ignoring/exploiting the poor. 
That is what Amos is addressing.  Prophesying in a time of relative peace and prosperity (at least for some of the people), Amos warns against such things as making “the ephah small and the shekel great, and practicing deceit with false balances,” which has to do with ways of cheating others—especially the poor—in the market place.  The rich businessmen couldn’t wait until the Sabbath was over in order to get back to their crooked work of exploitation.
Again, these are consistent issues throughout Israel’s history, and the cycle never seems to come to an end.  At least not until the coming of Jesus, the Messiah/Redeemer.  Then things change.  Sin and rebellion and calls for repentance continue.  But what changes with the Gospel is that when we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, forgives our sin and cleanses us.  What happened on the cross was that the punishment and death we deserve was placed upon Jesus, and His status as child of God was placed on us.  All as a gift called grace.
Yet, as we know, even as children of God we continue to sin.  Just like the people of ancient Israel, we too often continue to run after false gods, and we can too often exploit—or at least ignore—the poor and the needy.  As a result, we continue to need to hear the words of prophets calling us to repentance and to change.
But here is the big question all of this is leading up to, here is the main point of this message: in the ongoing process of transformation, of changing and growing as children of God, what best inspires and empowers the change?  Yes, I must say that the Holy Spirit has to be involved… we simply will not and cannot change without His help.  But as the Spirit works to bring about the change, what works best-- threats and fear, or encouragement?
As you know, I regularly point to the importance of our ongoing need to be aware of the depth of our sinful brokenness.  After all, if we do not perceive our need for a lot of forgiveness, then how can we truly come to appreciate the truly amazing beauty of God’s grace.  As I quote often, the one who has been forgiven much loves much.  And we want and need to love much!
That is all good, right, and necessary.  But there needs to be a creative tension here as well.  We also have a very real need to be reminded that we are not only forgiven and loved in spite of our sinful brokenness, but that we are also incredibly beautiful and gifted as children of God.  We need to be more consistently reminded of the truth that we were created in the very image of God.  And according to Paul, in Christ we are now a new creation.  Everything old has passed away.  We are new again.
An old maxim adopted by teachers and parents is that children will either live up to or down to our levels of expectation.  If we believe a child is a low-achiever with limited potential, they are unlikely to exceed that expectation.  But if we believe they are capable of excelling, they have a much better chance of doing so.
We can think of our Abba Father as looking upon us and others as low, miserably broken creatures, hoping we might get to a point where we don’t make too big of a mess of our lives and of our world.  Or we can perceive that our Abba is not only very fond of every one of us, but knows that as beings created in His image, we are capable of living excellent, fruitful lives.  And not only is God more aware that we are of our great potential, He also offers the gift of His Holy Spirit to inspire and empower us to live lives.
Never, ever forget these words of our brother, Jesus: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  Don’t let the devil, the world, or your sinful self fool you into thinking that they are in charge of your life.  If they do, they will make you feel like trash, as being unredeemable and hopeless.  That, my friends, is a very large and harmful lie.  You and I are beloved and gifted children of God.  Amen.