9th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 24.07.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week we explored the highpoint of the Israelite nation, particularly in the reign of David. But from the middle of Solomon’s reign onwards we begin to see the steep decline and fall of the kingdom. On Solomon’s death the kingdom of Israel split in two, with the ten tribes in the north refusing to follow what they perceived as the southern bias and capital city focus of the king in Jerusalem. The united kingdom broke in two, with two separate governments, armies and places of worship.
The Old Testament account of the next two to three hundred years is a sobering one, with king after king failing in their duty to govern well, exploiting the poor and being unfaithful to Israel’s God. Into this context, came prophets, people called by God to speak God’s words of warning of where such unfaithful behaviour would lead, and words of love, reminding them of the God who longed for his people to return to him.
One such prophet was Amos. Amos was a prophet who spoke to the northern kingdom shortly before it was uprooted and destroyed by the brutal Assyrian empire. He spoke in the lull before the storm. Israel was surprisingly prosperous, the product of large amounts of international trade passing through its borders. The new-found wealth had stimulated a religious revival of sorts – the Temple was full, the great shrines were full of worshippers, the feasts and fasts were observed with great gusto, and there was a general belief that these good times must be a sign of God’s blessing. Things were good, and because of God’s blessing, things could only get even better.
He declared that Israelite society was rotten to the core. Though many were rich and prosperous, others were penniless or oppressed (Amos 8:4-6). People were having to sell themselves into slavery because they could not repay even trivial debts. The rich were feasting and playing in idle luxury while others went hungry and homeless.
Therefore Amos issues some stark words: the day of God’s return, so eagerly anticipated by those who simply expected further blessing was in fact a day of judgment, and the day was coming soon. True worship, Amos urged, is about living lives of justice. As Amos’ contemporary, the prophet Micah put it: “what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
We’ve seen numerous times in our Old Testament series how the way we treat those poorest and most marginalised in our society matters enormously to God. The prophets consistently spoke the bold message: you cannot offer meaningful worship to God if at the same time you exploit the poor.
As a church I am pleased to see that we do give generously to others beyond ourselves, but we can always be asking what more can we do. And as individuals too, looking seriously at our own lifestyles and asking what more can I do to make a difference for those who have so little in other parts of the world.
The prophets kept asking those uncomfortable questions. We should feel free to do so of one another and of ourselves too.
Israel failed to heed Amos’ warnings. It was destroyed by the Assyrian empire, its people carted off into exile and dispersed across the Far East. This left the southern kingdom of Judah immensely vulnerable.
Imagine the scene for the people of that southern kingdom. A major military super-power that had totally decimated their neighbour to the north, was twenty miles from their capital Jerusalem, and was already exacting tribute and annexing land. Thousands of refugees were flooding across the border, that had to be fed and housed. People were struggling to think beyond their own immediate personal needs: the wider social, economic and moral fabric of society was beginning to break down. So was the religious context. People were still making sacrifices to God, the Temple and the shrines were still full, but they were offering worship to Assyrian and Canaanite gods too.
In the midst of such crisis, their response was to hedge their bets. God’s people rarely, if ever, totally gave up on worshipping God. It was just that they regularly sought additional insurance policies. People were willing to worship whatever seemed to “work”, whatever seemed to give them prosperity and security. If God didn’t make the rains come, maybe the Canaanite God, Baal would. If God wasn’t strong enough to win a battle for them, maybe the Assyrian God Marduk would. For some people this was genuine belief. For others it was simple politics: acknowledge Canaanite and Assyrian gods and one may stave off military invasion and national catastrophe.
The temptation to hedge our bets, a temptation Israel wrestled with throughout its long history, is one that confronts us too. Who really do we trust? We trust in God to be sure, but what other things are we in danger of turning into idols. For some, it may be the old hand of luck that points down from the national lottery, offering the mirage of immediate life transformation and salvation. For others, it may be our own hard work and competency. If I work hard enough, make enough shrewd decisions, get the right job, do everything I can to get the best for my child, then things will be OK. Or maybe we trust in our health insurance cover or the kindness of friends and family to help us through in our old age.
None of those things may be wrong in themselves – indeed most (apart from the lottery) make a lot of good sense – but the challenge of faith is that we can come to rely on them more than we come to rely on God. We put all our energy into those things and neglect to pray. We worry, even obsess about how we are going to make things work, but we forget to offer the situation into God’s hands.
The people of Israel began to forget to have those conversations. They began to forget to seek God’s help. They failed to pray. God was not looking for polite worship; he was looking for honesty, no matter how rawly, indeed angrily at times, such prayers would be expressed. And indeed, as we will see next week, the Psalms, that great prayer book of the people of Israel who remained faithful to God, were full of such anger and honesty.
The prophets cried out for the people to be honest with God, to tell him their needs, their crises, their challenges. To not just abandon faith when the chips were down and seek help somewhere else. Let us heed the message too.
The warnings of the prophets were ignored yet again. Jerusalem was reduced to rubble and the Temple ransacked and destroyed. People were carted off into exile in their thousands and the monarchy was deposed never to return. The destruction of the Temple and the following exile was the most traumatic event in Israel’s long and troubled history. More than Vietnam for the Americans, or the fall of Paris in the Second World War to the French, this was an event that was to leave an enormous scar in the psyche of a nation. Politically, economically, socially, the Israelite nation had been totally broken, never to fully recover. And spiritually, it was in crisis. Where was God? Indeed who was God? For the exiles had been transplanted into the heart of an empire that ruled the known world, whose ziggurats soared into the sky, a feat of technological brilliance and a sign of utter ruthless power and efficiency. In the face of such dominance, it seemed almost churlish to claim that the God of Israel was the true god. The god of the Babylonians was surely greater – the evidence was for all to see. And so the people of God were doubting, complaining, convinced that their own God had forsaken them.
Into such an unpromising context the prophet Isaiah (in chapters 40-55) speaks, and speaks in the most inspiring and beautiful of ways. Here is a message without judgment – the people have suffered enough. Instead he offers comfort and hope. “Do not fear for I am with you” God says through him. God carries them like a shepherd his sheep, or a mother her child.
Israel’s God, our God, Isaiah asserts, is the creator of the universe, not some puny deity limited to the confines of one nation. He is infinitely greater than the divinity claimed for the gods of any other nation. He is also so much greater than any human power. Isaiah leaves us in no doubt that even Cyrus, the all-conquering Persian emperor, is indeed only an instrument of God. Despite all appearances, God remains the God of all.
When I was younger I used to go to bed clinging to my teddy bear. Brown and floppy, it provided me with comfort and security. Now as an adult I have grown out of such things. I find a duvet, chocolate and a good book do the job instead.
The people of Israel were tempted to treat God in the same way as I viewed my teddy bear– as someone who could give emotional support at times of crisis, but was as powerless to actually change things. Isaiah’s words to the exiles were that God is a God of comfort, but he is infinitely more than. He is the God of all peoples, the God of the universe. Lift up your vision. He will redeem. He will make all things new. I need to beware of reducing God down to my adult comforts. God is infinitely more than this. He is the one who redeems the past, transforms the present, creates the future.
As the people of Israel descended from division into absolute disaster the message of the prophets remained consistent throughout: live justly, place your trust in God, and know that he is God of all. Its a message for us all in these troubled times too.