Sermon preached on Amos 4:6-13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/5/2017 in Novato, CA.
“Yet You Have Not Returned To Me”
With the recent fires in Northern California, people have naturally been asking the kinds of spiritual questions that come when a calamity strikes. Both Christian and non-Christians have asked why these things happen and what is God’s role in all of this. It’s often during a tragedy like this that you can find at least one TV evangelist claiming that the disaster is God’s judgment upon that community for their sin. Often such a TV evangelist will even be very specific. They’ll often say that for such and such specific sin, this disaster has happened. Yet, in times like this, we must remember Deuteronomy 29:29. That verse basically says that there are secret things which belong to God and there are revealed things which belong to us. I wish those TV evangelists would remember that verse. In other words, Deuteronomy 29:29 means we can’t declare more than what Scripture reveals to us. If Scripture hasn’t told us that a specific disaster happened upon a city as a judgment for some specific sin, then we shouldn’t proclaim that. The secret things belong to God, and he has not revealed the specific reasons for why he does everything that he does. Sometimes in in the past in the Bible he did reveal why he sent a certain disaster upon a certain place. But when he hasn’t revealed that, we shouldn’t presume to speak on God’s behalf. That being said, the question is still there. Of all that God has revealed to mankind about such calamities that come upon us, is there something we can say about why such things happen and God’s involvement in them? The answer is yes. The Bible does contain teachings on this subject. It doesn’t give us all the details we want for any and every specific calamity. But the Bible does speak about them and give us insight into them.
Today’s passage certainly contributes to this discussion. As we’ll see, however, we need to take care in applying this passage to our own circumstances. What we know about why God sent certain calamities upon Israel is somewhat different than what we know about why he allowed these recent fires here in Northern California. And so first we’ll look today at why God sent these calamities here in Amos against Israel. Then, secondly, we’ll think about calamities in general according to the Bible. We’ll make applications from there.
So then, let’s begin by seeing what God says here to Israel about the calamities that came upon them. God lists here seven calamities that he sent upon them. God sent them as a chastening upon the people for their disobedience. These should have been wake up calls for Israel and they should have repented of their sins when these calamities came upon them. But they did not. And here’s what is especially important to understand here. God is basically saying that Israel should have recognized this. Israel should have recognized that these calamities were God’s judgment upon them.
Why should they have known this? Again, thinking of Deuteronomy 29:29, it’s because God had already revealed this specifically too them. Remember, Israel was the covenant people of God. God had entered into a special covenant relationship with Israel during the time of Moses. In that Mosaic covenant, God told them something very specific. God said that he was bringing Israel into the Promised Land. God gave them his law which was supposed to govern that Promised Land. And God then very specifically told that that if they didn’t keep the law they’d suffer the curses of the covenant. God went into great detail on this point. He listed all the many kinds of blessings they’d get for obedience. He then listed all the different kinds of curses for disobedience. It was certainly a lesson about righteousness that he was conveying here. You can find these covenantal blessings and curses listed in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. So, this is why these calamities should have been a wakeup call for Israel. This is why they should have seen them as God’s punishment for their sin. It’s because God had specifically told them that in the Promised Land he would bring covenantal blessings and curses of these sort based on their adherence to the law or lack thereof.
Let me walk through these seven calamities to demonstrate my point. The first calamity is in verse 6: famine or hunger. There will be no bread. That’s what cleanness of teeth means; they are going hungry so that is why their teeth are clean. Well, Leviticus 26:26 says a covenant curse would be God cutting off their supply of bread. That’s the curse we see for example coming upon Israel all the way back during the time of the Judges, as we see in the opening chapter of the book of Ruth; there was no bread in the House of Bread, Bethlehem. The second calamity is in verse 7: drought. Leviticus 26:19 says a covenant curse will be God making the heavens like iron; Deuteronomy 28:23 says that the heavens will be like bronze. In other words, drought was a covenant curse for Israel.
The third and fourth calamities are in verse 9. There it talks about destruction of crops via blight and mildew; and also via locusts. Deuteronomy 28:22 says a covenant curse will be blight and mildew. Deuteronomy 28:38 says a covenant curse will be that they will harvest little because the locust will consume the harvest. The fifth and sixth calamities are mentioned in verse 10. There its describes death by both plague and by the sword or war. Well, again we find these as covenant curses in Scripture. Leviticus 26:16 and Deuteronomy 28:22 speaks of how God would visit the people with wasting disease and fever as a covenant curse.
The seventh and final calamity is mentioned in verse 11. It speaks of God overthrowing some of them in the way he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. Notice verse 11 goes on to use the language of fire. Recall how God completely destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with sulfur and fire from heaven. Well, this too is something mentioned as a covenant curse. In Deuteronomy 29:23, God speaks of how at the end of all the covenant curses coming upon the people, the land would be left like this: Deuteronomy 29:23, the whole land burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why? Why would this happen? Two verses later it says, “Because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD.” Because they forsook God and went after idols and broke covenant with God. Deuteronomy 29 goes on to explain this overthrowing like Sodom and Gomorrah as how the people would ultimately be destroyed and uprooted from the land and brought into exile out of the land.
Those are the seven calamities mentioned here. If anyone should have connected such calamities with God’s judgment for sin, it should have been Israel. Why? Because God specifically revealed this to them. He said that their special covenant relationship in the Promised Land would hold out either blessing or cursing in the land. You see the Promised Land was supposed to be a foretaste of heaven for them; a place of milk and honey where the ordinary curse of this world was lessened. As God’s redeemed people, that’s what they would enjoy; unless they forsook God and his covenant. For God also revealed to them that if they broke the covenant, this land would end up being more of a foretaste of hell; that the curse of this world would be experienced in abounding measure.
Notice the grace of God here for them. If you read over these calamities, the scope of the destruction was not complete. There are several references here that show this. Drought in some cities but not all. Young men died with plagues and sword but not everyone. God overthrew some of them in the manner of Sodom and Gomorrah but not all of them. The land wasn’t completely overthrown yet. There wasn’t a complete removal of the people from it yet. Why? Because in God’s grace toward them, he was trying to awaken them to their sin. They were supposed to connect the dots and see that just as God told them, he was cursing them for their disobedience. That meant there was yet time for them to recognize this and to repent and return to the Lord. Yet, five times it is mentioned here that the people didn’t repent. Five time it is stated here, “’Yet you have not returned to me,’ says the Lord.” How sad at their hard-heartedness and spiritual blindness. They ignored God’s chastening and warnings.
So, we’ve seen here with Israel, that they should have made a connection between their calamities in the Promised Land and their sin. We turn now to consider this more broadly. Is Israel’s situation the case in general? Should every calamity be understood as God’s judgment for a specific sin? What does Scripture tell us? Well, the answer is a little more complex than just a simple yes or no. On the one hand, Scripture is clear that God sometimes sends a calamity upon someone as a specific judgment for sin. That was the case with Israel and the covenant curses in the Promised Land. In our text we also see it here too with those who are not in covenant with God. It mentions the plagues of Egypt in verse 10. It mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 11. God brought calamity upon those pagans who weren’t in the kind of covenant relationship with God that Israel was in. So, yes, there are examples of God sending calamity on people as a judgment for specific sin. On the other hand, you have, for example, the man born blind mentioned in John 9. There, Jesus’ disciples asked why the man was born blind, if it was because of the man’s sins or his parents. Jesus’ response was neither, but rather he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Jesus then proceeded to heal him. In that case, the man’s sickness had nothing to do with a specific sin, but rather God ordained it, so he could heal him and teach the people about Jesus through that healing.
I can’t emphasize enough the contrast between those two things. Yes, calamities can come upon people for a specific sin, but sometimes they aren’t related to a specific sin. We ought not to declare that a calamity is related to a specific sin unless God’s Word has told us. Otherwise we are speaking for God where God has not spoken and that is called false prophecy. There are secret things. God has not told us why he specifically ordained these fires to affect Northern California. So, we can’t speak where God has not spoken.
That being said, Scripture does give us a more general teaching on the nature of calamites that must be considered as well. I refer you now to Luke 13. The Galileans who suffered under Pilate or the eighteen people killed when the tower fell on them; was it some specific sin which caused these things to happen to them? Jesus doesn’t say. But he does say this. Do you think that they were worse sinners than everyone else? Jesus says no. Jesus says therefore we should all repent.
Here’s the point. We can’t say that a specific calamity is because of a specific sin. But we can say that existence of calamities in general is at least because of sin in general. Think about it. If mankind had never sinned, there would be no death. There would be no curse. The creation wouldn’t groan for its redemption. But mankind did fall into sin. Adam and Eve did choose disobedience. God cursed them and therefore us at that time. And God also cursed the world at that time. Ever since then, mankind has been living as fallen creatures in a fallen world. The Shorter Catechism says that the fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery. This is life here and now. An estate of sin and misery. So, regardless of whether or not a specific calamity is because of a specific sin or not, all calamity boils down to the fact that we live in a world affected by the fall. So, what does this mean? It means that every calamity can and should be a wakeup call to remind us of man’s fallen nature. It reminds us that sin does deserve God’s judgment. It reminds us of what Jesus said in Luke 13, that everyone needs to repent, because everyone is a sinner. Every calamity is a reminder that we need to repent of our sins and find forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ.
The biggest reason for why we need such forgiveness is brought out very clearly in the last two verses. This brings us to our last point for today. We see here that God tells Israel to prepare to meet their God. You see, in verse 12, God basically tells Israel that since they’ve not heeded all these initial covenant curses, he’s going to bring a final judgment upon them. These curses that have come upon them will come upon them in the full. It won’t just be partial and incomplete in scope as they had been up to this point. They will come upon then in the full and they will meet their maker. Then the final verse explains a little bit about that maker. He is mighty and powerful and over all. He can take the newness of day and make it black. He commands hosts of armies who do his bidding. This is the one they are about to meet. So, when God tells them to prepare to meet their God, that’s not a good thing in context.
And yet here there is yet veiled hope. Could they yet prepare to meet their God in a good way? Meeting God is good if you are right with God. But just like when Israel met God at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19, there is a danger of death if you meet the holy God in an unprepared way. How could they be prepared to meet their God in a good way? Well, the answer was implied in those 5 repeated statements here. They need to return to the Lord. That’s language of repentance. They need to repent of their sins and turn back to the Lord. Remember elsewhere in Isaiah 40 when it talks about the comfort God’s people would have when God himself comes to them. But that chapter says the people would need to prepare for God’s coming. How did God prepare his people for his coming; his coming in Jesus? Historically it was through John the Baptist. And what did John the Baptist due to help the people to prepare? He called them to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. Do you see the consistent message here? Repent and look upon your God who hung in the darkness of judgment yet rose in the light of dawn on that Easter Sunday. Repent and trust in Christ and you will be prepared to one day meet your God face to face and it will be for your good and for your blessing.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I point us to the end of Romans 8. Romans 8 says that the Christian can have a different perspective on such calamities now that we’ve become a Christian. Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Shall calamity keep us from God’s love for us in Christ? Is calamity for God’s people a sign of us being under judgment any longer? No! For “in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” In even the calamities, we are now more than conquerors in Christ. For we know that even if we die and meet our maker, it is for our good. Yes, we live in a sin cursed world and these things will befall humans now in varying measure. Yet we can have a peace about it that the world can’t, because we know it is but a temporary affliction in comparison to the eternity we will have with our Lord in the new creation. And so, Christians can and should have a larger perspective of peace and hope amidst the horribleness of such calamites. Christ transforms the Christian’s relationship to calamity!
And so then for those around us who don’t yet share this hope that transforms how we respond to such calamities: let us help them to see that each of these is a wakeup call for that very lesson of Luke 13. Repentance and turning to the Lord is always a right response. We want them also to have that same Romans 8 perspective that we have. That they too would never be separated from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Let us keep preaching Christ amidst whatever calamity or trouble that comes in this world. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.