God’s Patience Has Its Limits
The Church of the Good Shepherd
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Text: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 15; Hebrews 12:3-13; Luke 10:38-42
It has been said that God’s defining characteristic is encapsulated in the Hebrew word “chesed.” The word means steadfast love. God’s love for us is unfailing. In fact, He loves us despite ourselves.
However, the vision given to the prophet Amos in our Old Testament lesson suggests that no one should think that they can exploit God’s love like children sometimes do when they betray their parents’ trust and, then, expect no harm to have been done to their relationship.
I recently happened upon a saying that captures the message of Amos’ vision. It reads: Just because I love you unconditionally does not mean that I’m going to co-sign your behavior unconditionally. Put in terms of Amos’ vision, this caution would read: Just because God loves us steadfastly does not mean that he’s going to condone our mis-behavior steadfastly.
When Amos received his vision of a “basket of fruit,” the behavior of the Hebrews in the Northern kingdom known as Israel had sunk to a new low. It had declined so sharply, in fact, that God gave Amos not one vision, but four. In the first vision, locusts devoured a harvest just as it began to sprout. In the second, a shower of fire scorched the land. In the third vision, as Ross noted in his sermon last week, a plumb line appeared to measure whether Israel had been straight and true – a very high standard that the psalm reading this morning captures quite well. In the fourth vision, though, Amos saw a “basket of fruit.”
Now a “basket of summer fruit” may not seem like much in comparison to a horde of hungry locusts, a raging fire or a plumb line to measure our righteousness. But it would not have been regarded as such by the Israelites. The term “summer fruit” was associated with the produce harvested at the end of the growing season, that time of the year when the return on the Israelites’ cultivation of their crops became evident.
The message of Amos’ vision was, then, that the harvest of the Northern kingdom’s actions was in and, unfortunately for the Israelites, the harvest of their actions was found wanting. As God explained to Amos,
The Israelites had trampled on the needy,
and brought ruin to the poor of the land,
They had asked, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain;
and when will the sabbath be over, so that we might offer wheat for sale?”
The Israelites were eager to get on with their sales because they had recalibrated their scales so that the portions that they measured out would be underweight and the prices for those shorted portions higher than they had previously charged. If that were not enough, the Lord observed as well that
The Israelites were buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling them only the sweepings that were left-over after their
fields had been harvested.
God’s love for the Israelites may have been steadfast, but He was not about to love their disreputable practices.
You may recall that a message akin to this is to be found in the eleventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. There Paul wrote that not all of Israel had accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consequently, God had ingrafted Gentile believers into those He elected to be saved.
However, Paul cautioned the Gentiles that the same arrangement that God had had with the Israelites was now operative for the Gentiles. God’s love for the Gentiles was just as steadfast as it was for the Israelites. But that did not mean that He would steadfastly love unfaithful behavior on their part because, as Paul warned, their ingrafting could be reversed.
The steadfast love of God is a two-edged blessing. God wants what is best for those that God loves. But what we do is not always what is best for us or our neighbor, and when we try God’s patience with our misbehavior, consequences are to be expected.
What kind of consequences can we expect? In the 8th chapter of the book of Amos, God explains the severe consequences that Israel was about to face:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)
When the Northern kingdom of Israel overstepped God’s patience, God brought a famine upon them. This was not to be a natural famine like a failed harvest or a prolonged draught. No, God would withdraw the hearing of His Word. Like the “basket of fruit” in Amos’s vision, this may not seem like much of a calamity! At least, it does not seem so until we recall that when God brought forth light into this creation, he did not make the light. He simply spoke, “Let there be light, and there was light.” And when God separated the dry land from the waters that covered the earth, he did not make the dry land. He simply spoke: “‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.”
In God’s Word is His power. According to the scriptures, God’s Word set the creation in motion, sent Abraham on a journey, inspired the prophets to prophesy and moved the psalmists to sing. In fact, according to the gospel of John, God’s Word was actually made flesh and dwelt among us so that all humanity might find the way, know the truth and enjoy eternal life.
The Word of the Lord is not just sounds transmitted over the airwaves from God’s mouth to human ears. It is not just ink scratches spread across the printed pages of scripture. God’s Word is His power, the power that gives human life direction, meaning and hope.
We humans cannot live without water. In hot conditions like those that we have experienced of late, dehydration sets in within an hour, and in the best of situations, we cannot live without water for more than twelve days. But ask any people who find all roads before them leading nowhere, and they will tell you that a thirst for water pales in comparison to the thirst for a trustworthy guide who knows the way forward.
We can live without food a bit longer. But ask those who see no reason to continue living, and they will tell you that the search for food is the least of your worries when life has lost its meaning and the future seems equally hopeless.
A famine of God’s Word saps the soul of its direction, drains life of its purpose, and extinguishes the hope that, at journey’s end, eternal life awaits us.
Thankfully, nowhere else in the scriptures did God threaten to visit such a horrendous famine on His people again. But the writer of the letter to the Hebrews does caution us that God will, on occasion, discipline those who overstep God’s patience with misbehavior that harms either us or our neighbor. For this reason, the letter to the Hebrews counsels
“Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him, my Child;
for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.” …
Discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time,
but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who have been trained by it.
God does discipline those whom God has adopted as His own. But this is because God loves us steadfastly despite our sinful selves. God’s patience can certainly be overstepped. God’s patience has its limits. But the good news is that God’s patience can no longer be exhausted because of the sacrifice of His Word made flesh in Jesus Christ!
The remarkable lengths to which God will go in order to call back his prodigal daughters and sons is evident in Paul’s letter to the Romans and in the gospel of John. Paul told the Christians in Rome that God’s love for the Israelites was so passionate and so enduring that God ingrafted the Gentiles not just for the salvation of the Gentiles. No, he ingrafted them also in order to spark a jealousy in the Israelites that would lead them to accept the good news of the Word made flesh for their salvation.
John’s gospel carries the same message only he applies it to every mother’s child in the whole creation. John writes:
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. [No,] God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
God may not co-sign for our iniquitous behavior. God may even discipline us for a time when we fall into the habit of such iniquities. But even when God’s discipline is visited upon us, God’s loves us still. And because God loves us without fail, God will offer us a way back if we will only repent and follow the path that His Word made flesh has set before us.
My friends, heed the warning in Amos’ visions! Take to heart the counsel of the letter to the Hebrews and the promise in John’s gospel! But please don’t also miss the lesson to be learned from Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel. Martha allowed herself to get so distracted by preparations for her visitors that she missed entirely that God’s Word in the flesh was in her midst. Mary, her sister, was more perceptive. She recognized that Emmanuel – God with us – was actually present in her home. So, Mary did not busy herself with putting food on the table. No, she sat at the feet of the Word made flesh in order to hear his good news. God was indeed present in Mary’s home, and God is present in this house as well. Manifestations of His presence among us and His sacrifice for us are set before us each week in the eucharist.
Don’t allow yourself to be so distracted with putting food on your table and a roof over your head that you miss the fact that God is in the midst of us still. Follow Mary’s lead! Kneel before the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ for it is because of the sacrifice that we celebrate at this table that God’s patience may be tested, but never exhausted for any who will repent their sin and attend to His Word.
Let us pray:
Lord God of Hosts, we give thanks for your Word spoken by the prophets, sung by the psalmists and revealed in your Son. Give us ears to hear and the will to obey so that we might test your steadfast love no longer, but instead follow the path of righteousness, mercy and self-sacrificial love that it sets before us. In the name of your Son, your Word made flesh and our Savior, we ask this. Amen.