September 30, 2007
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Timothy Smith
“GIVE FIRST PLACE TO GOD”
A Basket of Ripe Fruit
8 This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. 2 “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. “A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered. Then the LORD said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. 3 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!” 4 Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, 5 saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”— 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. 7 The LORD has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.
GIVE FIRST PLACE TO GOD. That idea should be as natural to us as breathing, as blinking, as drinking water. And we don’t always give God first place, do we. We’re reasonable about it. Sometimes something else takes priority. In an emergency, shouldn’t we put that first? Isn’t that what the sermon was about a few weeks ago when Jesus taught us that the Sabbath was made for man, and that man wasn’t made for the Sabbath?
But giving first place to God means that in an emergency we will do what God has given us to do. Reacting in an emergency by helping out is giving first place to God.
But what about when it’s not an emergency? I counted last week, and I was involved personally in four emergencies. One was when another driver and I here in town had a misunderstanding at an intersection. We both reacted defensively and the moment lasted about three or four seconds. My other emergencies all involved my two-year-old at the stove, with a heavy object, and with an ‘owee’ – total time, about two minutes. So in all of the 168 hours we had last week, for me there were about two minutes and four seconds of emergencies. That still leaves 167 hours and 58 minutes in the week of normal “giving God first place” time.
But we don’t give God first place even then, do we? Even in this hour of worship, this one hour out of the week, we tend to be clock-watchers. Or the mind wanders. Or other things coming up in the day occupy us.
Even in something as ordinary as the way we talk – do we give God first place? How would we size up if we were to compare the number of times in a day we use words like “I, me and mine” compared to “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”?
And what about the other words we use when we talk?
The Supreme Court begins a new session Monday. I was listening to a law professor talk about our Supreme Court justices last week, and as I listened I noticed that the man used the word “literally” so often that I wondered if he knows what it means. He said that this “literally” happens and that “literally” took place so many times that I stopped noting the word “literally” altogether. He was using it for emphasis.
There are people who use foul language in their speaking for emphasis. I’m not going to give any examples either in the pulpit or out of it, but I think we probably all know someone with a bit of a potty mouth. Taking an oath – swearing – should only have a very special place in our lives. Many of our children were reviewing the Second Commandment this week – I know Mr. Scharf’s classroom was – and they were reminded that there are times when it is good and God-pleasing and even necessary to swear an oath. People are expected to swear an oath when they are sworn into office. Or when they get married. Or when they enter into military service. We swear on oath when we are called by a congregation to serve as teachers, staff ministers, pastors or professors. I had to swear an oath in a courtroom when I appeared as a witness one time. And we swear to be faithful in our worship and in receiving the Lord’s Supper at our confirmation.
There are many examples of this correct form of swearing an oath in the Bible. One of those examples occurs right here in our text from Amos chapter 8.
Amos isn’t a book we visit very often (I last preached on Amos 13 years ago). He lived in the eighth century BC, the time of the prophet Isaiah. It was a hard time in Israel. The northern kingdom, to whom Amos was preaching, was about to fall to the Assyrian Empire. Amos wasn’t a professional prophet. He was a shepherd by trade. But God called this man to proclaim God’s law to Israel. Luther said, “Nobody preaches the law like Amos.”
In our text, Amos reports a message from God, who showed this shepherd a basket of summer fruit. Summer fruit is ripe and ready to eat, and God said, “What do you see?” “A basket of ripe fruit.” “Yes,” God said, “and the time is ripe (God is using a pun) – ripe for my people. That’s because of the sins of the people.
Earlier in the book, God used Amos to expose many sins: the people had forgotten God’s deliverance from Egypt. They told prophets to shut up. They brought offerings, but they were not the offerings God commanded and some were offerings God had forbidden (cf. Amos 4:5). Ultimately, the people just didn’t care about sin any more. We’re the Lord’s people, they thought, we have sacrifices, we even have the temple, and what else we do is too little for God to notice.
But God does notice. In all these things, they were putting themselves first. And God rises up as our judge to condemn this sin. So what do we do about our sin? It’s about here that we begin to turn pages in our Bibles to find out the message about forgiving sin – but Amos isn’t done yet. God says more.
My people, God says, don’t put me first. They go to worship, but they can’t wait for the sun to get below the horizon so that they can get back to making money, to “small the Ephah and big the Shekel” (to give less as we sell and to take more as we charge for it) and to bend the scales a little in our favor.” They’re sinning at work, and they’re sinning at worship – but Amos isn’t done yet. God says more.
They even want to sweep up the stockroom floor to fill up the bags of grain. What they were supposed to do was leave some grain standing even in the fields so that people who didn’t own fields could come along to do their own harvesting. And if the harvesters dropped something, they were supposed to leave it on the ground so that poor folks could pick it up. But here, Amos says, not only were they harvesting everything, but they were even sweeping the storage places clean and selling all of it – grain, husks, dust, dirt and all – and cheating at the scales, to boot. – but Amos isn’t done yet. God says more.
The Lord “never forgets” our sins. No – it’s more than that. The Lord proclaims as part of his word that he never forgets these sins. It’s the truth, and that’s bad news for us. But it’s also a quote that can be quoted and quoted. But wait – it’s even more serious than that (how can that be?) – God tells us: It’s not only the truth, it’s not only something God has spoken. It’s something God has sworn: “I will never forget anything they have done.” If swearing should be a serious, rarely done thing for us (and only correct, God-pleasing swearing), then imagine how serious a thing it is for God, who never ever lies, to swear an oath by his own name. Here God calls himself the “Pride of Jacob,” something he does only one other place (Psalm 47:4) – and he’s remembering the pridefulness, the cockiness, the sinfulness of Jacob, of his people Israel.
God did not forget their sins. Some people, a few, were turned to repentance. But many were not. And God overthrew them with the sword of Assyria. Their souls have already been judged. And now, what about us, who have Amos’ words before to ready today?
We can’t stand up against God’s accusations either. We have to stop putting things first in our lives ahead of God.
It starts so small, to say “I’m just going to let this one little thing slip by and put myself number one here.” It’s my day off, after all. I’m doing this, we can, for my health. I’m doing this, we can say, for my kids. I’m doing this, we can, for my friends. I’m doing this, we can say, for my career, so that I can provide for my family.
But we forget that God is the one who provides.
It’s pretty clear by now that there is no sin we can hide from God. None of our little mishaps during the day escapes his notice. We can’t get up in the morning so early that God isn’t already awake. We can’t stay up so late at night that God’s eyelids are drooping. We can’t sneak something in under the clouds that God isn’t aware of. And that should terrify us.
And in that terror of our hearts, as we turn our eyes and hearts and voices to him in repentance, remember what he has done: He took our sinfulness, our slips and tumbles in the mud of our sinful lives, and he washed all of it clean away. He rescued us from our sin by placing us ahead of himself, by taking all of our sins and taking the blame for them. All the things we’re ashamed of, embarrassed about, frustrated over, and terrified of – all of them – and he himself bled for them, and died.
God will never ever forget the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Jesus, who has first place in the universe, set our needs ahead of his own. And for that, we make him first in our lives.
Whatever we have, we give him. Wherever we can, we give him praise. Whenever we can, we give him thanks. However we can, we give him our service. Whoever we are, we have something to give to him.
It’s as natural as breathing, as blinking, as drinking water. We give first place to God, because he gave us the peace of God that transcends our understanding, and that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.