From a Dresser of Figs to Prophet

The texts from Amos and Mark today bring to mind the fact that there are many Christians throughout the world undergoing persecution for their faith (Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29).  Christians, and particularly converts, are hardest hit in the Middle East.  The Copts in Egypt have been the victims of violence for many years now.  Many Muslims are converting to Christianity, and find themselves at risk of death once they do so.  There are many brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world who are persecuted for their faith in countries like Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

I think it’s amazing that one person’s faith can be so upsetting to the authorities and non-Christians in these countries that they would seek to get rid of them.  For the most part, these Christians are not rich, powerful, or famous and yet they have incurred the wrath of the authorities and others simply for confessing their faith in Jesus Christ.  That name, a name above all names, is so powerful that it provokes a reaction.  The Word of the Lord incurs the wrath of a fallen world.

The Old Testament prophet Amos incurred this wrath also.  He lived in the tiny town of Tekoa near Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah around the year 750 BC.  You know a town is small when a small town like Bethlehem is used as a reference point.  It’s like how people from Donalsonville, Georgia use Bainbridge as the closest reference point.  At any rate, this man Amos – from the small town of Tekoa in the south – was called to be a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel to call them to repentance before the Assyrians came and dispersed the people off into captivity.  

In our reading for today, Amos records the vision he was shown by the Lord.  He saw the Lord standing beside a wall with a plumb line.  A plumb line is used to check to see if something is straight and level, to see if it measures up.  Well, the Lord explains that he is setting a plumb line in the midst of Israel.  But they don’t measure up; they have rebelled against the Lord.  So, the judgment of the Lord is that Israel will be made desolate and laid waste and the house of king Jeroboam of Israel will perish at the sword of the Assyrians.

So, Amos proclaimed this Word of the Lord, among others like it, to the people of Israel.  And he encountered opposition in doing so.  Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to king Jeroboam saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel.  The land is not able to bear all his words.”  

Many years previously, when the northern kingdom of Israel split from the southern kingdom of Judah, the kings of the northern kingdom built their own temples so that the people of Israel would not travel to Judah to worship in the temple in Jerusalem.  One of these temples was at Bethel.  The people of Israel had their own temple, their own priests, their own way of worship.  And Amos’ message, his Word of the Lord that he spoke, upset all of this.  The people didn’t like his message, particularly Amaziah the priest, because it went against their self-devised, man-made religion.  They couldn’t bear the actual Word of the Lord in their midst.  Their ears had grown dull.  

It’s the same thing we see in the world today.  Many people and authorities throughout the world do not like the Word of the Lord, because it goes against their own self-devised ways of worship and the gods they have fashioned for themselves.  They can’t bear the Word of the Lord that calls them to repentance.  And they can’t bear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is counter to their self-righteous strivings.  They feel threatened by people like Amos who bring the Word of God into their midst.  So, they want to get rid of them in the hopes of silencing the Word that they proclaim.  Or, they want to confine this Word behind the doors of private homes and out of the public sphere.  

You see, it’s the Word of the Lord that people rebel against.  The priest Amaziah wanted to get rid of Amos in the hopes of getting rid of the Word of the Lord from their midst.  When people don’t want to hear the Word of the Lord, they seek to get rid of the messenger. 

So, Amaziah wanted Amos to leave.  And then we have these great words of Amos in chapter 7, verses 14-16 where Amos responds to Amaziah’s demands by saying:

“I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs.  But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’  Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.”

You see, the Lord called Amos out from the life he once had and gave him a new life, a new commission.  He gave Amos His Word to proclaim, and Amos was never the same again.

Likewise, the Lord called John the Baptist to proclaim His Word.  And John likewise incurred the wrath of the authorities, being arrested and ultimately executed.  And Christians throughout the world since then have often incurred a similar fate for bearing the Word of the Lord before the world – Christians in our own time suffer for their faith.  People who do not want to hear the Word of the Lord take it out on the messenger; they take it out on Christians who confess their faith.  

Stephen in the book of Acts is another one who was killed for his faith; and his words bear witness against those who persecute Christ and his Church.  In chapter 7 of Acts, Stephen is arrested by the Jewish authorities as they persecute the Church.  Stephen says, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53).  

And for this, Stephen was stoned to death.  And yet despite Stephen’s harsh words of judgement against his persecutors, as he was dying at their hands, Stephen cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Stephen prayed for his persecutors, even as Christ himself did when he died and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and even as Christ told us to do when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

You are joined with people like Amos, and John the Baptist, and Stephen – joined together in Christ.  God chose you to be His own and He has redeemed you from sin, death, and the devil through the blood of Christ and made you His own.  So you are now at odds with the rest of the world.  You have been set apart as God’s own people through Christ, and He is the guarantor of your inheritance that has come with the death of Christ.

And yet, this inheritance seems foolish in the eyes of the world, the fact that salvation would come through the cross and empty tomb of Christ.  And yet, in writing to the church in Corinth, St. Paul talks about this and says that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” for the cross of Christ is God’s wisdom and strength.

We see Christians even today confronting the so-called wisdom of the world with the apparent foolishness of the Cross; Christians who may not be wise, or powerful, or of noble birth, yet armed with God’s Word and confounding the wisdom of the world with it.  One little Word confounds all the so-called power and wisdom of the world so much that the world strikes out against it and seeks to silence it.  This Word of the Lord is given to us to bear witness to before the world.  And I think a part of all of us can identify with Amos as he encountered opposition to God’s Word and said, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs.  But the Lord took me…”  

The Lord has taken you, just as you are; and yet, you no longer remain just as you were.  He has made you anew in Christ, just as He took Saul and made him into Paul and just as He took Amos and made him a bearer of His Word.  And the Lord has forewarned you that because of the inheritance of salvation that you have received and because of who you now are as His children you will encounter opposition in the world, because Christ has sent you into the world as his witnesses, and Christ himself endured opposition.  

And yet, you have been called to bear witness to Christ, to bear with the burdens of your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and to pray for those who persecute you so that they – like Saul – may be converted by the power of the Gospel.  Here in our country we are blessed to have relative peace, which may yet be dwindling, just as it has dwindled throughout the world as the Church is very much oppressed, and this oppression may one day also reach our shores.  We have been told to expect this to continue until Christ returns to set all things right.

But, Jesus also tells us, “In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Jesus Christ has overcome the world – this is our comfort and our hope.  The authorities and people tried to get rid of him, and yet he rose from the dead.  They hoped to silence his Gospel, and yet it is proclaimed throughout all the earth.  They hoped to get rid of his witnesses, and yet they sprout up like grass.  They hope to rule forever, and yet Christ is returning to restore all things and reign over all things for eternity in peace.

So, take heart.  The world may persecute the Church and her children, but Christ has overcome the world, and because of this, you have also.  You are joined with the Amos’ and Johns’ and Stephens’ and Pauls’ and Marys’ and Marthas’ and Joannas’ of the world into one body, the body of Christ.  And you share in each other’s sufferings even as you will share in the glory of Christ’s return and the eternal peace that he will bring with him.  So, pray for each other and continue to bear a gentle, faithful, honest, and loving witness to your faith even as you look forward to receiving your inheritance in full at Christ’s return.  Amen.

 

(Image:  Amos, circa 1896–1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot,  http://www.cts.edu/ImageLibrary/Images/oldtest/TissAmos.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8866975