God’s Spiritual Spotter, Amos 8:4–7, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20), September 22, 2019
A new engineering graduate from Michigan State University had the opportunity to do some work for General Motors at their assembly plant. They have to make changes to their assembly lines every year because of the new model changes. At the time, they were redoing out about six miles of newly installed overhead conveyors that moved car bodies from one area of the plant to another. As was usual, they were behind schedule and in order to save time, they would often have crews removing old equipment, at the same time that others were installing the new. Sometimes they worked pretty close to one another.
It was this engineer’s job to supervise a group of workers and make sure the equipment actually worked the way it was supposed to work. The first time he walked into the area around one of the work stations, he was walking along minding his own business, when someone grabbed him and yanked him back. He was very unnerved, but only for a short while and a few seconds later he was very very thankful.
You see, he was busy looking at the work station and he was not looking up. He didn’t know it, but about twenty feet over his head a team was taking down a very big piece of equipment with their handy-dandy cutting torches. A couple members of the team were walking around down on the main floor as safety observers. These safety observers were called spotters. They were watching for people just like the surprised engineer. About two seconds after one of the spotters grabbed him, a forty foot long I-beam, with about twelve inches of webbing, dropped down from the ceiling. If that spotter had not grabbed him, that I-beam would have ended his life instantly.
To this day, he says he can still remember experiencing about a dozen different emotions, all at the same time. He was a little dazed and shocked. He was grateful to be alive. He was thankful for the quick actions of the spotter. He was frightened at the thought of what that I-beam could have done to him. He was also a little embarrassed. He felt stupid that he had not been more aware of his surroundings, it was a construction zone after all, and he was wearing a hard hat for good reason. He should have been more careful. So, he made a mental note to be more careful in the future.
Did you know that the Bible also has spotters in it? Some of the spotters were called prophets. Others were called apostles. Both prophets and apostles act as spiritual spotters who warn people when they are about to get into spiritual danger. Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the writings of one of those spiritual spotters, a prophet named Amos.
Israel was on the edge of disaster. In 930 BC, King Solomon died, and the kingdom was divided. Jeroboam, king of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, built a temple in Dan (in the far north) and in Bethel (near the southern border of his kingdom), so the people will have a place to go to worship without having to travel to Jerusalem, in the Southern Kingdom. For 180 years, the Lord sends prophets to Israel, warning of the idolatry in these temples, calling the people to repent, and threatening destruction if they refuse.
Now here comes Amos, the year is 750 BC. He comes to Bethel preaching against the people’s idolatry, warning them of the destruction that we know was only twenty-eight years away, for the Assyrian army would destroy Israel in 722 BC. Amos stands on the edge of disaster and preaches. His message: only repentance will turn away God’s wrath.
In the verse right before our text, Amos threatens that the music of the temple will stop and the new songs sung will be “So Many Dead Bodies,” “They Are Thrown Everywhere,” and “Silence!” Imagine if we were singing those hymns in church!
Amos was called by the Lord to denounce the obvious covenant violations that were rampant in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, especially among the higher classes in the northern centers. The warnings of our text could have been delivered in the marketplace to the unscrupulous merchants themselves. It may have been the time of the Feast of Booths, in the early fall, when token offerings of the harvest were to be brought to the Lord in thankfulness.
The five visions of Amos revealed that Israel was ripe for the Lord’s judgment. The Day of the Lord would not bring peace and prosperity, but destruction. Israel had already received warning signs of impending judgment in nature: frightening sun eclipses. Even an earthquake would occur two years after Amos’ initial proclamation. Then the northern kingdom of Israel would be conquered by Assyria some 35 years later.
However, the worst punishment of all would be a “famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:11) is a withdrawal of His means of grace, utterly abandoning the people to the catastrophic forces of evil, both natural and human. God’s absence would be as terrible as His presence in active punishment, for it would mean excommunication from His mercy.
You see, Israel was not using its wealth to help and serve the neighbor, but rather as an occasion to boast. The people were greedy, and worse, they reasoned that the Lord had blessed them for their faithfulness. Israel did not recognize its own idolatry. They despised the poor as forsaken by God, similarly to the logic of today’s health-and-wealth preachers. They made a show of their riches as proof of God’s grace. In this way, they demeaned the Gospel of its true value and marketed it as just another investment for its hearers.
These greedy Israelites couldn’t wait for church to be over so they could go back to fleecing the poor. Their greed had a theological basis; they took their wealth as proof of the Lord’s love. But they were deluded. In twenty-eight short years, all their wealth, everything they had, would be taken away.
Amos does not condemn wealth in itself, but rather, the greedy, unjust means of acquiring it. They would rather despise God’s Word and be rich in worldly terms than to receive the benefits that only God can supply: forgiveness, life, and salvation.
The Lord opposes the proud but exalts the humble. Israel’s pride is about to come to nothing. “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds” (8:7). This is bad news. Their deeds were bad, and the Lord’s memory of them is also bad. Sinners would long for the Lord’s forgetfulness. But for the Lord to overlook His people’s sins against the weak, would deny both His own glory and His covenant with them: He alone is the norm for their behavior.
God chose Amos to warn Israel and other countries. He didn’t really want to be a prophet. He didn’t really want to be the one who told Israel what kind of danger they were in, but God chose him, and he couldn’t do anything about that. He was God’s spiritual spotter.
All of our readings today tell us that there is a very obvious difference between the spotter who saved the life of the engineer in that Michigan factory and spiritual spotters. The engineer was very grateful to that spotter who kept him from walking under that I-beam in that factory. By the time he recovered from seeing that big old I-beam crash in front of him, the spotter was gone, but he was very thankful that he was there at the time.
Spiritual spotters, on the other hand, often get no respect. The Israelites in the Old Testament wanted to send Amos into exile. The reward for warning someone of the danger to their soul may be verbal, or even physical abuse, or even death.
God told Amos to proclaim the many consequences of staying in their current situation. Yet, instead of listening to the warning that God gave through Amos and moving to the safety of God’s salvation, they decided that Amos had to go. They suggested that he go to Judah and prophesy there.
However, being one of God’s spotters can also be very fulfilling, as well as being very dangerous. People don’t always appreciate the service that spiritual spotters provide for them.
Thanks be to God, He still sends spiritual spotters to watch over His people. God still uses spiritual spotters today to warn people of spiritual danger and then tell them about the only place of spiritual safety. Jesus said, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47)
In order to proclaim repentance, one must tell people about God’s law, and then tell them how they break it. A spiritual spotter sometimes has to tell people that they are wrong and that the penalty for being wrong is eternity in hell. This is done in love because the ultimate goal is we want to make people aware of their spiritual danger and move them to a place of spiritual safety.
After people become aware of their spiritual danger, we have the wonderful opportunity to proclaim forgiveness. There is a place that is safe from spiritual danger. That place is at the cross of Jesus Christ.
The rulers of His day conspired to commit a crime of violence against Jesus. They tortured Him and then nailed Him to a cross. His death on the cross did something. Jesus had lived a perfect life. He had not committed one sin. His death on the cross was totally and completely undeserved. Because Jesus died in total innocence, His death takes away the sins of the whole world. That means He died for your sins and He died for my sins. Those who place their faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins are safe from the eternal damnation that our sins deserve.
A spiritual spotter also reminds us of the good news of the resurrection. He reminds us the news that although Jesus died for our sins, He did not stay dead. Jesus is true God and death cannot hold Him. He rose from the dead and lives and reigns forever more. Christ’s resurrection opens up the door to eternal life in heaven for all who believe in Him. What a tremendous joy it is for spiritual spotters to proclaim the victory of Christ, which gives us the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.
Spiritual spotters have lives that are full of great contrasts. They want all people to be in that safe place at the cross of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, many people still refuse to listen to the warning and remain in their trespasses and sins, this can cause tears at the end of the day. In other cases, the Holy Spirit works faith in people and puts them in the safety that comes with faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. It is then that the spiritual spotter rejoices with the angels in heaven over the sinner who has received salvation.
Spiritual equivalents of heavy I-beams are falling all over the place. This world is full of sin. When one of God’s spotters gives you a warning, he is only doing what God has called him to do. He is warning of the danger of sin and proclaiming the safety of faith in Jesus who died on the cross for you and then rose from the dead. The warning of a faithful spotter is an act of love and not an act of judgment. He only wants you to abide forever in the safety of Jesus Christ. Amen