Amos iv.12. "Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel."
We read to-day, for the first lesson, parts of the prophecy of Amos. They are somewhat difficult, here and there, to understand; but nevertheless Amos is perhaps the grandest of the Hebrew prophets, next to Isaiah. Rough and homely as his words are, there is a strength, a majesty, and a terrible earnestness in them, which it is good to listen to; and specially good now that Advent draws near, and we have to think of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and what His coming means. "Prepare to meet thy God," says Amos in the text. Perhaps he will tell us how to meet our God.
Amos is specially the poor man's prophet, for he was a poor man himself; not a courtier like Isaiah, or a priest like Jeremiah, or a sage like Daniel; but a herdsman and a gatherer of sycamore fruit in Tekoa, near Bethlehem, where Amos was born. Yet to this poor man, looking after sheep and cattle on the downs, and pondering on the wrongs and misery around, the word of the Lord came, and he knew that God had spoken to him, and that he must go and speak to men, at the risk of his life, what God had bidden, against all the nations round and their kings, and against the king and nobles and priests of Israel, and the king and nobles and priests of Judah, and tell them that the day of the Lord is at hand, and that they must prepare to meet their God. And he said what he felt he must say with a noble freedom, with a true independence such as the grace of God alone can give. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, who was worshipping (absurd as it may seem to us) God and the golden calf at the same time in King Jeroboam's court, complained loudly, it would seem, of Amos's plain speaking. How uncourteous to prophesy that Jeroboam should die by the sword, and Israel be carried captive out of their own land! Let him go home into his own land of Judah, and prophesy there; but not prophesy at Bethel, for it was the king's chapel and the king's court. Amos went, I presume, in fear of his life. But he left noble words behind him. "I was no prophet," he said to Amaziah, "nor a prophet's son, but a herdsman, and a gatherer of wild figs. And the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and said, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel." And then he turned on that smooth court-priest Amaziah, and pronounced against him, in the name of the Lord, a curse too terrible to be repeated here.
Now what was the secret of this inspired herdsman's strength? What helped him to face priests, nobles, and kings? What did he believe? What did he preach? He believed and preached the kingdom of God and His righteousness; the simple but infinite difference between right and wrong; and the certain doom of wrong, if wrong was persisted in. He believed in the kingdom of God. He told the kings and the people of all the nations round, that they had committed cruel and outrageous sins, not against the Jews merely, but against each other. In the case of Moab, the culminating crime was an insult to the dead. He had burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime. In the case of Ammon, it was brutal cruelty to captive women; but in the cases of Gaza, of Tyre, and of Edom, it was slave-making and slave-trading invasions of Palestine. "Thus saith the Lord: For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they carried away captive the whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom. But I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, which shall devour the palaces thereof."
Yes. Slave-hunting and slave-trading wars -- that was and is an iniquity which the just and merciful Ruler of the earth would not, and will not, pardon. And honour to those who, as in Africa of late, put down those foul deeds, wheresoever they are done; who, at the risk of their own lives, dare free the captives from their chains; and who, if interfered with in their pious work, dare execute on armed murderers and manstealers the vengeance of a righteous God. For the Lord God was their King, and their Judge, whether they knew it or not. And for three transgressions of theirs, and for four, the Lord would not turn away their punishment, but would send fire and sword among them, and they should be carried away captive, as they had carried others away. But to go back. Amos next turns to his own countrymen -- to Judah and Israel, who were then two separate nations. For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, the Lord would not turn away their punishment, because they had despised the law of the Lord, and had not walked in His commandments. Therefore He would send a fire on Judah, and it should devour the palaces of Jerusalem. But Amos is most bitter against Israel, against the court of King Jeroboam at Samaria, and against the rich men of Israel, the bulls of Bashan, as he calls them. For three transgressions, and for four, the Lord would not turn away their punishment. And why?
Now see what I meant when I said that Amos believed not only in the kingdom of God, but in the righteousness of God. It was not merely that they were worshipping idols -- golden calves at Dan, and Bethel, and Samaria, at the same time that they worshipped the true God. That was bad, but there was more behind. These men were bad, proud, luxurious, cruel; they were selling their countrymen for slaves -- selling, he says so twice, as if it was some notorious and special case, an honest man for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes. They were lying down on clothes taken on pledge by every altar. They were breaking the seventh commandment in an abominable way. They were falsifying weights and measures, and selling the refuse of the wheat. They stored up the fruits of violence and robbery in their palaces. They hated him who rebuked them, and abhorred him that spoke uprightly. They trod upon the poor and crushed the needy, and then said to their stewards, "Bring wine, and let us drink." Therefore though they had built houses of hewn stone, they should not live in them. They had planted pleasant vineyards, but should not drink of them. And all the while these superstitious and wicked rich men were talking of the day of the Lord, and hoping that the day of the Lord would appear.
You, if you have read your Bibles carefully and reverently, must surely be aware that the day of the Lord, either in the Old Testament or in the New, does not mean merely the final day of judgment, but any striking event, any great crisis in the world's history, which throws a divine light upon that history, and shows to men -- at least to those who have eyes wherewith to see -- that verily there is a God who judges the earth in righteousness, and ministers true judgment among the people; -- a God whom men, and all their institutions, should always be prepared to meet, lest coming suddenly, He find them sleeping. If you are not aware of this, the real meaning of a day of the Lord, a day of the Son of Man, let me entreat you to go and search the Scriptures for yourselves; for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of the Lord, of that Eternal Son of whom the second Psalm speaks, in words which mobs and tyrants, the atheist and the superstitious, are alike willing to forget.
In the time of Amos, the rich tyrants of Israel seem to have meant by the day of the Lord some vague hope that, in those dark and threatening times, God would interfere to save them, if they were attacked by foreign armies. But woe to you that desire the day of the Lord, says Amos the herdsman. What do you want with it? You will find it very different from what you expect. There is a day of the Lord coming, he says, therefore prepare to meet your God. But you are unprepared, and you will find the day of the Lord very different from what you expect. It will be a day in which you will learn the righteousness of God. Because He is righteous He will not suffer your unrighteousness. Because He is good, He will not permit you to be bad. The day of the Lord to you will be darkness and not light, not as you dream deliverance from the invaders, but ruin by the invaders, from which will be no escape. "As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him." There will be no escape for those wicked men. Though they dug into hell, God's hand would take them; though they climbed up into heaven, God would fetch them down; though they hid in the bottom of the sea, God would command the serpent, and it should bite them. He would sift the house of Israel among all nations like corn in a sieve, and not a grain should fall to the earth. And all the sinners among God's people should die by the sword, who say, "The evil shall not overtake us."
This was Amos's notion of the kingdom of God and His righteousness. These Israelites would not obey the laws of God's kingdom, and be righteous and good. But Amos told them, they could not get rid of God's kingdom. The Lord was King, in spite of them, and they would find it out to their sorrow. If they would not seek His kingdom and His government, His government would seek them and find them, and find their evil-doings out. If they would not seek God's righteousness, His righteousness would seek them, and execute righteous judgment on them. No wonder that the Israelites thought Amos a most troublesome and insolent person. No wonder that the smooth priest Amaziah begged him to begone and talk in that way somewhere else. He saw plainly enough that either Amos must leave Samaria, or he must leave it. The two could no more work together than fire and water. Amos wanted to make men repent of their sins, while Amaziah wanted only to make them easy in their minds; and no man can do both at once.
So it was then, my friends, and so it will be till the end of this wicked world. The way to please men, and be popular, always was, and always will be, Amaziah's way; to tell men that they may worship God and the golden calf at the same time, that they may worship God and money, worship God and follow the ways of this wicked world which suit their fancy and their interest; to tell them the kingdom of God is not over you now, Christ is not ruling the world now; that the kingdom of God will only come, when Christ comes at the last day, and meanwhile, if people will only believe what they are told, and live tolerably respectable lives, they may behave in all things else as if there was no God, and no judgments of God. Seeking the righteousness of God, say these preachers of Amaziah's school, only means, that if Christ's righteousness is imputed to you need not be righteous yourselves, but will go to heaven without having been good men here on earth. That is the comfortable message which the world delights to hear, and for which the world will pay a high price to its flatterers.
But if any man dares to tell his fellow-men what Amos told them, and say, The kingdom of God is among you, and within you, and over you, whether you like or not, and you are in it; the Lord is King, be the people never so unquiet; and all power is given to Him in heaven and earth already; and at the last great day, when He comes in glory, He will show that He has been governing the world and the inhabitants thereof all along, whether they cared to obey Him or not: -- if he tell men, that the righteousness of God means this -- to pray for the Spirit of God and of Christ, that they may be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect, and holy as Christ is holy, for without holiness no man shall see the Lord: if he tell men, that the wrath of God was revealed from heaven at the fall of man, and has been revealed continuously ever since, against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, that indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish will fall upon every soul of man that doeth evil; and glory, honour, and peace to every man that worketh good: -- when a man dares to preach that, he is no more likely to be popular with the wicked world (for it is a wicked world) than Amos was popular, or St Paul was popular, or our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave both to Amos and to St Paul their messages, was popular. False preachers will dislike that man, because he wishes to make sinners uneasy, while they wish to make them easy. Philosophers, falsely so-called, will dislike that man, because he talks of the kingdom of God, the providence of God, and they are busy -- at least, just now -- in telling men that there is no providence and no God -- at least, no living God. The covetous and worldly will dislike that man, for they believe that the world is governed, not by God, but by money. Politicians will dislike that man, because they think that not God, but they, govern the world, by those very politics and knavish tricks, which we pray God to confound, whenever we sing "God save the Queen." And the common people -- the masses -- who ought to hear such a man gladly, for his words are to them, if they would understand them, a gospel, and good news of divine hope and deliverance from sin and ignorance, oppression and misery -- the masses, I say, will dislike that man, because he tells them that God's will is law, and must be obeyed at all risks: and the poor fools have got into their heads just now that not God's will, but the will of the people, is law, and that not the eternal likeness of God, but whatever they happen to decide by the majority of the moment, is right.
And so such a preacher will not be popular with the many. They will dismiss him, at best, as they might a public singer or lecturer, with compliments and thanks, and so excuse themselves from doing what he tells them. And he must look for his sincere hearers in the hearts of those -- and there are such, I verily believe, in this congregation -- who have a true love and a true fear of Christ, their incarnate God -- who believe, indeed, that Christ is their King, and the King of all the earth; who think that to please Him is the most blessed, as well as the most profitable, thing which man can do; to displease Him the most horrible, as well as the most dangerous, thing which man can do; and who, therefore, try to please Him by becoming like Him, by really renouncing the world and all its mean and false and selfish ways, and putting on His new pattern of man, which is created after God's likeness in righteousness and true holiness. Blessed are they, for of them it is written, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." Even Christ Himself shall fill them. Blessed are they, and all that they take in hand, for of them it is written, "Blessed are all they that fear the Lord, and walk in His ways. For thou shalt eat the labours of thine hands." "The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works. The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him, yea, all such as call upon Him faithfully. He will fulfil the desire of them that fear Him. He also will hear their cry" -- ay, "and will help them."
Happy, ay, blest will such souls be, let the day of the Lord appear when it will, or how it will. It may appear -- the day of the Lord, as it has appeared again and again in history -- in the thunder of some mighty war. It may appear after some irresistible, though often silent revolution, whether religious or intellectual, social or political. It will appear at last, as that great day of days, which will conclude, so we believe, the drama of human history, and all men shall give account for their own works. But, however and whenever it shall appear, they at least will watch its dawning, neither with the selfish assurance of modern Pharisaism, nor with the abject terror of mediaeval superstition; but with that manful faith with which he who sang the 98th Psalm saw the day of the Lord dawn once in the far east, more than two thousand years ago, and cried with solemn joy, in the glorious words which you have just heard sung -- words which the Church of England has embodied in her daily evening service, in order, I presume, to show her true children how they ought to look at days of judgment; and so prepare to meet their God: --
"Show yourselves joyful unto the Lord, all ye lands: sing, rejoice, and give thanks.
"Let the sea make a noise, and all that therein is: the round world, and they that dwell therein.
"Let the floods clap their hands, and let the hills be joyful together before the Lord: for He cometh to judge the earth.
"With righteousness shall He judge the world: and the people with equity.
"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
"As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."