And I will bring my people Israel back from exile. They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
- Amos 9:14
When I was in my early 30s, I had a 1983 Ford Mustang GT. Now, while that sounds like an impressive car, the early ’80s GT Mustangs were very much pooches. The ads were fresh and enticing for these cars, but the performance was not. Still, my 1983 GT was fire engine red, with the blacked-out hood, fully loaded, and not in bad shape for an old car. It had cool wheels and sounded nice, but it was still not very much of a performer.
So I went about the task of getting this car a little more oomph in the areas with which I knew how to deal. I’d already replaced the carburetor and breather with an Edelbrock, so a new intake manifold seemed like a natural component to increase the ability to put air into the motor and power on the pavement. As I finished torquing down the last bolt on my side of the motor, I surveyed the shiny new aluminum manifold. Admiring my work, I absentmindedly set the wrench down ... from one battery post to the other. Now, when you work on a motor, you unhook the electrical system from its cables for safety. Not so surprisingly, though, you can still get a snappy little shock out of that battery when you complete the circuit with the aforementioned torque wrench, which you happen to be holding in your hand.
I’ll never forget the look on my buddy’s face when the sparks started to fly, nor the taste in my mouth of my slightly less than tar-tar tongue. I didn’t realize it, but even as careful as I had been, rebuilding something could be very dangerous.
Now, you may not have ever rebuilt an engine and electrocuted your taste buds in the process, but I am willing to bet you’ve had something similar happen to you. Rebuilding anything is never a sure bet. There are pitfalls even if we take all the precautions and are as careful as possible.
I’ll never forget the look on my buddy’s face when the sparks started to fly
Occasionally, those deter us from continuing the process. There’s simply no guarantee that this rebuild will be easy. What I’ve learned is that we face two choices here. The first is if we choose to either keep at it or quit. In that choice, we can plan carefully or carelessly, and we reap the benefits or the breakdowns inherent in that choice. Sometimes we can turn the key and listen to the motor roar to life, breathing much more freely than before. Sometimes we give up. Either way, there are still things we don’t see that can blindside us, which is where our second choice comes to the front burner. How do we deal with the unexpected?
If you rebuild enough motors, you’ll eventually learn to deal with rusty bolts. You will also learn to watch where you put wrenches. None of this comes from quitting, but rather regrouping, marking where you failed and why, and then moving forward toward the goal with a bit more education.
If you ever want to see that goal reached, you have to brave the difficulties; otherwise, you’ll have what you had before, which was a poochy old Ford instead of the zippy little red Mustang with T-Tops and a 5.0 motor that measures a quarter-mile in seconds instead of minutes. More than that, though, you’ll be wiser and more capable for the experience.
Giving up early
We encounter the problem in the process. If you read the first part of Amos and stop the story before you get to verse 14, you would throw in the towel. Just like Hosea, Amos was a contemporary of Isaiah, Jonah, and Micah before the Assyrian exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the subjugation of Judah to the south where Amos set out from to begin his ministry. He was a regular, blue-collar guy, an arborist and a shepherd, from an unknown family. While some might look at Amos and say this man was impoverished, the prophet had a wealth of time and freedom. He was so wealthy in fact that this man from Tekoa could head north and work for God as a prophet. With the fifth and concluding address of his book preceding this prophecy in the ninth chapter, its powerful promise culminated in a comforting conclusion of hope. All of this was God’s attempt to rebuild a relationship with a people who’d made themselves so like the surrounding nations that they were no longer separate, consecrated or holy.
I’ve got to point out the contrasts here with the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah. You remember, it appeared in our Old Testament reading a couple of weeks back. Jesus and John the Baptist both echoed that song in their ministry, Jesus in the Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 22, and John in Matthew 3:10 during a proclamation to the Pharisees. Around 730 years after Amos bookended Isaiah, John and Jesus foreshadowed that vineyard’s destruction, which happened approximately 40 years after their deaths at the hands of the Jewish aristocracy in John’s case, and the Roman government in that of Jesus.
How many of you already knew what I just relayed to you so far about Amos? Or had heard what I said at some point? I’m guessing you may have run across it at some time or another, but probably not in-depth. To give you a small example of what I dig through in any given week preparing Sunday’s sermon, here’s a short listing of resources. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Zondervan’s Archeological Study Bible, Dummelow’s One-Volume Bible Commentary, Benner’s Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible and several others that would bore the daylights out of you. As I mentioned last week, I may have a slight problem with buying books. Selena will keep all of you advised as to whether or not an intervention is in order, but so far she’s supported my desire to install a lot of bookshelves in my house. Then again, perhaps she’s just an enabler? Time will tell.
I’m not going to this length to try to impress you with my knowledge about Amos or Assyrian history or how the Bible connects from an Old Testament minor prophet from a backwater town in Judah to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In conversations about theology with actual experts who have studied all these things, I’m routinely the dumbest person at the table. That’s how I know that I’m at the right table.
The reason I am telling you all this is that, because I read and study the Bible, I can handle those setbacks that are sometimes shocking to encounter.
Shock-proofed by God
Setbacks will occur. We live in a world full of plot twists. We set out with a pretty good handle and maybe even a plan of action. Then, from out of the blue, a torque wrench shaped shock drops in, leaving a peculiar taste in our mouths and a buddy who is stifling a laugh while asking if we’re OK.
Preparing to be shocked isn’t going to help us at all, and knowing the five different testimonies in the prophetic word given to Amos wasn’t going to help the people of Israel when Ahaz deposed Jotham and ascended the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel. On my side of the car, the plot twist of a shock wasn’t amusing, and neither was the plot twist the Israelites underwent in that exile. Those who escaped death were humiliated, humbled, and carted off as slaves. The obvious questions in their lives were, “Alright, why did this happen, and what do we do about it?” Without knowing the things God told them through Amos, it would have been like being shoved into a dark room from which someone had removed all the doors. There’s no way to see anything, and if you could, it wouldn’t matter because there’s no way to get out. Amos’ prophecy of the promise was their way out of that darkness. Scripture is ours.
When we go back to Romans 10:17, we learn that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Let’s break that down a second here. If we as a church require stronger faith, and the ability to live into that faith more freely and fully, then this passage tells us a powerful way to do precisely that. We need to hear the word of God. What is the word? Well, John 1:1-5 tells us exactly what the word is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Studying the Bible is studying Jesus Christ, who according to John, is the Word. God spoke the world into being through the Word that was to become our salvation.
Why does it surprise us that when our spiritual life is suffering, it’s due in part to us not being in the word? Why are we even remotely taken aback by the fact that when our life is dark, and all the sudden we catch a glimpse of Jesus, things brighten up? After all, he’s a Light shining in the darkness that has not been overcome by that darkness. Why is this such a surprise to us? Perhaps it’s because we need to get deeper into the word and open our hearts to what the Holy Spirit has for us there more often.
How often do you read the word? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Do we listen to the word on Sunday and that’s it? Do we study Scripture? Do we even know how to use the most basic of Bible aids like a concordance in our desire to know Jesus Christ more fully? Or do we not need Jesus in our lives because everything is roses and sugar-coated candies? Frankly, if our perception is that the world is beautiful, we need to look outside the window and rethink that perception. “The world is a house on fire, and everyone we love is inside it,” in danger of burning to death. As a church entering a season of renewal in our spiritual formation, we need to dig deeply into every spiritual discipline we have to master it as best we can, bible study included. The only way can genuinely fight the darkness the way a church needs to fight the darkness is by flexing our muscles in prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and communion, and all that comprises those things.
Hot wings for Jesus
Right now, I’m discipling a young man, and we call our discipleship, “wing-scipleship” because we started it off by meeting over some hot wings at a local pub.
No one ever discipled him, and he’s been in the church struggling with his walk for a reasonably long time. His struggle is NOT his fault; it’s OURS. He didn’t fail us by not digging deeper when he didn’t even possess the tools necessary to dig. We failed him by not digging deeper ourselves and then reaching out to teach others to not only how to dig but to give them a shovel of their own with which to do the digging. Discipleship is one-on-one. Life-on-life. And all it takes to disciple someone is to have a little more knowledge than they do and the driving desire to pass it on. The foundation of that knowledge is the Word, the Light that is Jesus Christ. We have a book that can help us see Jesus Christ more clearly in our lives. The strength this young man is finding there will help him to be a better father and a better servant of Jesus Christ. This type of thing makes men and women warriors in a fight that’s been going on for millennia. The strength we find there will devastate the plans of the enemy.
The stronger we get, the faster we move towards renewal. The stronger we get, the more people hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. The stronger we get, the less able the devil is to throw a shock at us to knock us down and keep us down. An intensely prayerful, fasting, studying, worshiping, and communing church is a church God can and will deploy to grow His kingdom, bless the lives of others, and draw all people to Him. An active church is a formidable foe.
Pay close attention to what I am saying here. When this passage begins in Amos, the word “captives” was selected very carefully. It refers to someone who was kidnapped and vanquished to a place of defeat and left there to die. To clarify what that means to us, this state our church has found itself in is not where God ever intended for us to be. We were never designed to be in such a desolate situation. I cannot say this enough. This perception we have of where we are right now was never the purpose for which God created us. Our church has a unique opportunity to rebuild from these ruins, to firmly plant for a future that will yield a tremendous reward. Our church has a powerful promise from God that this can and will happen for His glorification. What’s more is, his commitment isn’t that it will be the same as it was in the future, but rather that it will be better than it ever was in the past. We know this because the Bible tells us that infallible truth.
Being in the Word and studying it gives us a Light in this darkened room. More importantly, it provides us with a doorway to leave this darkness behind, and lead those who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ out that door, right along with us.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.