Lament for the Living Dead

I know it’s only June, but it’s never too soon to start thinking of Christmas is it? Remember Charles Dickens’ play, A Christmas Carol? There’s Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley and Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim. Ebenezer Scrooge was a heartless  man. His business partner Jacob Marley had died a few years before. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge went home and Marley’s ghost came and visited him. Indeed Scrooge is visited by three ghosts that night—the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present and the ghost of Christmas future.  During their visits, he sees himself as he really is. He sees the love and kindness of those he mistreated. And sees his own death. He wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man. He has seen the bleak future of his wicked life and determines to change his ways. What would happen if we could see our own funeral before it happened? How might we change our ways now? In our passage tonight, God inspires Amos to preach at their funeral while they’re still alive. He preaches a funeral for the living dead. This passage is an example of what’s called a lament. A lament is a poem of mourning connected to the death of a loved one. A lament wasn’t known for celebrating the life of a loved one like many Christian funerals are. Instead, it was known for its words of grief, regret, sorrow and pain.

The most obvious example of this kind of poem in the Bible is the book of Lamentations. It was written by Jeremiah as he lamented the destruction of Jerusalem when they were carried off into captivity. The thing about a lament is that it is always given after the fact—kind of like a funeral. That makes sense—you can’t lament someone who hasn’t died yet. That was always the case, except here in our passage tonight. Here God laments Israel as if they had died. Amos is prophesying in what was still a prosperous country. The economy was booming. The military was strong. Everything was great in Israel. And here comes this poor, working class outsider lamenting their death. I imagine they reacted the way old Scrooge reacted to Marley the first time. Tonight, as we look at this funeral lament for Israel, I want us to heed the warning they ignored. For God is sovereign and only when we seek Him can we live. Now before we begin, just a word about the structure of this passage. This lament is an example of Hebrew poetry.

I never did very well in English in school especially when it came to poetry. I didn’t get it. But the Jews loved poetry and apparently God does too, because Scripture is full of it.

This particular poem was written with a very common Hebrew form called a chiastic structure. Don’t get hung up on the term. Just take your pen and put an A next to verses 1-3. Then put another A next to verses 16-17. Put a B next to verses 5-6.

Put another B next to verses 14-15. Put a C next to verse 7. Put another C next to verses 10-13. Finally put a D next to verses 8-9. That is how a chiasm is structured. The two outside parts are parallel. The next two are parallel, etc. The beauty of a chiasm is that it was written that way to put all the focus of the poem on the middle section. Imagine an Oreo cookie and the way the two biscuit halves sandwich the most important crème filling in the middle. Our four points tonight are those three parallel sections and the middle section. Now that we know about the poetic structure of our text, here is the outline.

1. Destruction is coming (5:1-3; 16-17)
2. Hope is waiting (5:4-6; 14-15)
3. Evil is abounding (5:7; 10-13)
4. God is reigning (5:8-9)

1. Destruction is Coming

“Hear this word, Israel, this lament I take up concerning you: “Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up.” This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Israel: “Your city that marches out a thousand strong will have only a hundred left; your town that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left… Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says: “There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail. There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.” (Amos 5:1-3; 16-17)

The first point of God’s funeral for the living dead is that destruction is coming. Look how God pictures Israel. He describes her as a young virgin. There are very few things more tragic than the funeral of a young person. Full of potential. Her whole future ahead of her. Remember that Amos was giving this prophesy to Israel. In all their prosperity, they had forgotten God. Well, they hadn’t really forgotten Him, they just tried to remake Him in their image. They wanted Him for blessings. They wanted Him to make their lives easy. They didn’t want His justice. They didn’t want His righteousness. They wanted God to obey them instead of them obeying God. And because of that, their destruction was imminent. So much so that Amos reported it as if it had already happened. The word that’s translated “deserted” in verse 2 literally means abandoned, cast away, rejected. It’s the same word that’s used to describe a field that lays fallow. Unused, deserted, abandoned with none to raise her up. She would never be fulfilled. Her primary purpose would never be accomplished. God’s wording of the destruction in verse three is interesting. He moves to a picture of the nation in combat with high casualties. See, in all of Israel’s prosperity, what was one thing they forgot? That all they had was the gift of God, But what are they crying for in verse 16-17? It reminds me of when kids get in trouble and start crying. Are you crying because you’re sorry for what you did? Or are you crying because you got caught? Israel was crying because they got caught. They were crying for the things they had lost. The vineyards, the farms, the stuff. The prosperity. They weren’t weeping over their sin. Even in the midst of all the destruction, they still wouldn’t mourn in repentance. They were more worried about their comfort and their stuff than they were with their God. And because of that, God said He would pass through them. Those words immediately brought their minds back to a time when that same God delivered that same nation from her oppressors. Over 1000 years earlier, God’s death angel passed over Israel as He struck down all the first born in Egypt. Now, instead of passing over, He was going to pass through. Because of the way Israel had responded to God, destruction was coming. The first point of God’s funeral for the living dead is that destruction is coming.

2. Hope is Waiting

“This is what the Lord says to Israel: “Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.” Seek the Lord and live, or he will sweep through the tribes of Joseph like a fire; it will devour them, and Bethel will have no one to quench it…Seek good, not evil, that you may live.  Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.” (Amos 5:4-6; 14-15)

The second point of God’s funeral for the living dead is that hope is waiting. God is righteous and just and will not tolerate sin and rebellion, but He is also gracious. His grace is just as much a part of Him as is His holiness and perfection.

Even as He laid out the curse in Genesis 3, He made a promise to send a Saviour. God always preserved a remnant. Even in the darkest times of human history, God will not leave Himself without a witness. Look at Noah. Look at Elijah. Look at Jeremiah. Look at the two witnesses in Revelation. The testimony of history in Scripture tells us that when a remnant sought God, they lived. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Ezra, Esther, Nehemiah. They sought God and survived as a remnant. Even in the darkest times of church history, when a remnant sought God, they lived. Despite the awful persecution from the Roman Empire during the first two centuries, the early church survived as a remnant. Throughout the dark ages of Catholic Church oppression and repression of the Bible, our Reformer forefathers sought God and survived as a remnant. Look at the house churches in China, in Iran, in Iraq. God is never without a witness. Even in the midst of destruction and chaos, His call remains the same—seek Me and live. Even though destruction is coming, hope is waiting. Hope is waiting for those who seek God. But how do we seek God? Well, we don’t seek Him in Bethel and Gilgal. Remember, those are the places where they tried to combine God worship with other worship. We can’t seek God by mixing Him up with the gods of our age. Gods like entertainment, self-fulfillment, personal peace and prosperity. God will not mix. He stands alone and will be worshipped alone, in His holiness. But what about Beersheba?

Beersheba was just over Israel’s border in Judah. It was a place of great tradition and rich history. For Israelites, Beersheba was “the old time religion.” Things never changed with the times in Beersheba. The problem was, when the Israelites went to Beersheba, they sought God in the tradition. They sought Him in the good old days. They forgot to seek God for Who He is. Instead they sought God for how He used to make them feel. And God won’t put up with that either. But instead, He wants us to seek Him by doing His will.

“Seek good, not evil, that you may live.  Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.”

The first point of God’s funeral lament for the living dead is that judgement is coming, second, that hope is waiting. The third point is that evil is abounding.

3. Evil is Abounding

“There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground…. There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,  you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” (Amos 5:7; 10-13)

They had so much wealth, they built houses they didn’t even live in. They had so much extra produce, they just wasted it. They just let their extra grapes hang on the vine and rot. Meanwhile, they didn’t even consider the poor. Except to steal from them. Sound familiar? Our fast food places waste enough food to feed all of our hungry and homeless. That doesn’t include what we waste in our own homes. But surely we don’t steal from the poor? Well we sure do exploit them. Look at the National Lottery. Who buys most of the lottery tickets? How many lottery tickets do you think the Prime Minister buys? But every time I go in the post office, I end up behind somebody buying a stack of tickets. If that isn’t exploitation of the poor, I don’t know what is. And what do the good people do? Just like the Israelites did in verse 13. They keep their mouth shut. They’re not bothering me, so I don’t bother them. As long as they leave me alone, I leave them alone. The prudent keep silent for it is an evil time. God’s funeral for the living dead is pronouncing that judgement is coming, hope is waiting and that evil is abounding. The final point is that.

4. God is Reigning

“He who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns midnight into dawn and darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land— the Lord is his name. With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold and brings the fortified city to ruin.” (Amos 5:8-9)

The final point of God’s funeral for the living dead is that God is reigning. Remember how I told you that this kind of Hebrew poetry works? It works like an Oreo cookie. All the stuff on the outside points to the most important stuff in the middle. Well, this is the crème filling. Everything points us to the living God. Who He is. His nature. His character. He is the One who created the heavens and the earth. All of our so-called scientific advancement. All of our computers and telescopes and microscopes. All of our genetic research and microbiology.
All of that and we still can’t even figure out how to make the common cold go away. We have the power to create giant skyscrapers and build huge bridges. We can create bombs that will utterly destroy everything within miles. But we can’t kill one microscopic virus. We can create nuclear power plants that can generate enough electricity to power entire cities. But we can’t harness the emotional power of a single tear. But God can.

He is the only One who is powerful enough to turn something as tragic as death into something as beautiful as new life. How do I know? He did it. On that first Good Friday over 2000 years ago, God poured out His wrath on His only begotten Son. His Son who willingly endured the pain and death of a Roman crucifixion. He endured that kind of cruel death so you wouldn’t have to. And the day was made dark as the night. But three days later, God turned that shadow of death into morning as Jesus rose from that grave. That’s how powerful God is.

He is powerful enough that even though evil is abounding, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know that  hope is waiting. He is powerful enough that even though destruction is coming, because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, we can have hope for the future. Because God is reigning, you can know that even when things look bad, when you seek Him, you can live.

1. Destruction is coming (5:1-3; 16-17)
2. Hope is waiting (5:4-6; 14-15)
3. Evil is abounding (5:7; 10-13)
4. God is reigning (5:8-9)

So… if like Ebenezer Scrooge, you had a dream tonight in which the Lord gave your funeral sermon, what would he say?

What will others say about you when you are gone? What do you want them to say? More importantly, what do you want the Lord to say? Then make the changes tonight because there may never be another tomorrow.

“This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4)

“You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)

Let us pray.

 

With grateful thanks to Jim Drake over at sermoncentral.com  who did all the hard work in preparing this sermon. I simply refined, pruned and contextualised it.

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