1. “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land — not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.”
A famine is a terrible thing and they were dreaded by the people. It was not just a shortage but it meant a change of life lasting for years for everyone. A famine forced Jacob and his sons to go to Egypt in the first place. People went to find food wherever they could – they uprooted themselves and did whatever was necessary to survive. It was not simply a temporary shortage of food.
But this is a special famine. It is the disappearance of the word of the Lord. It is worse than hunger. It means the presence of The Lord will be withdrawn and nowhere to be found. There will be no prophets. No one to tell the truth. No one to call people to fairness and justice. The nation will be overcome by lies and corruption. When truth disappears it does not leave a vacuum. It is soon inhabited by lies and by men who love to lie for the lie itself.
In a paper titled “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue” Ezra Zukerman at MIT’s Sloan School of Management describes the case where blatant lying actually makes a candidate more appealing to supporters. The flagrant lie that no one – even the supporters – believes is applauded.
Moreover, the greater his willingness to antagonize the establishment by making himself persona non grata, the more credible is his claim to be his constituency’s leader. His flagrant violation of norms makes him odious to the establishment, someone they must distance themselves from lest they be tainted by scandal. But this very need by the establishment to distance themselves from the lying demagogue lends credibility to his claim to be an authentic champion for those who feel disenfranchised by that establishment. By constrast, someone who does not flagrantly violate publicly-endorsed norms should not provoke the same negative reaction from the establishment and is thus less obviously committed to challenging it.
Ironically, it is possible to be in a famine for the word of the Lord and not even know it. We can be so inundated not by outright lies but by “God words” and partial truth that we do not realize we have not heard the actual word of the Lord in years. Talking about God can become like wallpaper. We live in a world that is so saturated with “God words” that are not the same as the word of the Lord. The Christian retail industry is a $5 billion business enterprise. There are 7,500 new Christian book titles every year. With 350,000 churches, radio stations, programs and products we can hear more religious content in a year than an Old Testament person heard in a lifetime – and it can create a numbness to God. God becomes Muzak. He is background. We hear but we do not have to listen. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We have not silenced him but made him common instead of recognizing him as omnipresent.
It could be said in our culture that God chatters but he does not speak. If you are on Twitter you are familiar with the format of 140 characters until recently being the most you can use to say anything. That has a tendency to reduce everything to a short phrase or formula. For instance, these are typical Twitter quotes from Christian authors: “Let what is, be.” “Plant hope, harvest joy; plant fear, harvest doubt.” “Love each other now like you’re the warm up band for eternity.” “Anger is a symptom of soul anemia.” “Prayer is the hand of faith on the door knob of your heart.” None of these are bad – they just create a taste for what is short and quickly evaporates.
I read an article by a linguist that makes some sense. We assume that primitive people have primitive languages that are not complex. He says it may be just the opposite. “Once a group gets civilized or modernized, the structure of the language undergoes simplification, often massive simplification. The more civilized or modernized the language, the simpler and more dumbed-down the structure of the language is. The reason is that in a modern society, everything is rush rush rush, and people want to get concepts and whatnot across in the simplest and quickest manner.”
We don’t have time to genuinely communicate and our language deteriorates into a series of words and phrases – but not sentences and paragraphs. Think about conversations you have with people. Think about how we like our ideas packaged, refined and reduced to make them easily consumable. Have you been reading about fake foods? Producers are adulterating their products with cheap substitutes that might not be perceptible but they are cheapened products. That is what happens when people take the Word of God and cheapen it. There is artificial taste but no nourishment.
The Word has become a commodity. There is not a famine of quantity of God words but a famine of quality and truth. It is far too much work to hear the word of The Lord unless it is entertaining and quickly absorbed. Donald Miller writes that our brains like simplicity that will not use up energy trying to understand complexity. Our souls can become the same. We want things packaged for easy consumption.
We have become sophisticated about so many things – investments, brands, online shopping, education – but less sophisticated about our understanding of God. We want it more simplified and formulaic. We want inspiration – not saturation. We do want a word from The Lord but that is literally what we want – a single word.
2. What is a world without the Word of The Lord? What does a famine of truth look like?
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles…Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
First, they suppressed the truth of God wherever they found it. They put pressure on those who spoke it and encouraged them to leave. Nothing violent – yet – just a sense of creating discomfort and encouraging them to go somewhere else. That is what the chief priests did with Amos here. There was no threat of persecution – just a strong suggestion that he leave and find a place that would be more compatible to his beliefs. “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.” Not the temple of the Lord but the temple of the kingdom – the house of Jeroboam. The place of corrupted power.
Second, they exchanged the truth of God for a lie – and exchanged the source of truth as well. There was no ultimate right or wrong – only what they determined themselves. An effective lie does not tell us what we cannot believe. It does not tell us what is impossible for us to imagine. A lie tells us what we desire to believe is true. Hitler discerned what Germans wanted to believe about themselves and fed it to them in increasingly distorted forms. Lies grow best in the soil of partial truth. The goal of a lie is to create false comfort. Isaiah 28:15 “For we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.”
We need to be careful that we do not exchange the truth of God for a partial truth. We have our own desires to believe what is convenient and appealing. We have talked in the past about Americans wanting to believe that God is interested mostly in our being happy and well-adjusted. He wants us to be nice most of all. We can fall into the trap of selecting the words we want and reduce the Word of The Lord to partial truth that fits easily on a plaque or a greeting card. We’ve turned it into a motto or a screen saver.
I looked up the five most popular Bible verses and they are words that encourage and inspire but when lifted out of context they are misleading.
Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things..”
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world..”
Psalm 23:4 “I will fear no evil..”
Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good..”
Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you..plans to prosper you..”
It would be easy for us to treat the hard sayings like “sell everything you have, give to the poor and come follow me” like Thomas Jefferson treated the miracles in the New Testament. He simply took a sharp knife and cut them out. His Bible was no longer the complete word of God – simply some of the words of God that fit his interest and bias. That is what Amos hears God say when he writes, “This is what the Lord showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” “A plumb line,” I replied. Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.” When we only focus on the partial truths we are building walls that are leaning and will collapse.
Walker Percy said, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition, so that one never recognizes oneself, the deepest part of oneself, in a bad book.” Only the full Bible tells the truth about the human condition and does not gloss over the hard parts. If we only pick the parts that encourage or make life simple we are cheating and exchanging the truth for a lie.
Third, they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God. They created a world in which God was no longer necessary to explain or to maintain things. They created a world with no standards or guardrails – only doing what was right in their own eyes. A couple of years ago we read a passage from Lord Moulton that described what happens in a society that cannot obey the unenforceable. It either descends into chaos or it becomes necessary to legislate and make laws about everything because people will not discipline themselves. There is no bond of common assumptions about what is right and wrong any longer. That is the world Paul is describing here. They no longer need a knowledge of God and it does not take long to see the results. It is a world without a compass. A world without forgiveness – only law. A world without compassion – only transactions. A world without mercy, integrity, grace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. It is the world described in Genesis before the flood: corrupt and full of violence. Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time. They loved the lie.
I read H.R. Niebuhr’s “Social Sources of Denominationalism” this week and while the language makes it sometimes necessary to read a passage more than once he speaks to the result of substituting a partial truth for the plumb line:
“..the modern world is atomic, confused, divided. It is in conflict with itself, for it knows of no supreme value to which it can subordinate the selfish desires of its groups and individuals and by means of which it can integrate its interests. The values to which it gives the greatest veneration and which it pursues with greatest abandon are values which inherently lead to strife and conflict. They are political and economic goods which cannot be shared without diminution and which arouse cupidity and strife rather than lead to cooperation and peace. Civilization, which has always in the past depended upon its religious faith for the discovery and assertion of its values, cannot produce out of itself the devotion to a common spiritual end which will unite rather than divide it. It pins its hopes on education and science but discovers that, while these are effective in propagating ideals previously accepted and in devising means for the attainment of acknowledged values, they are ineffective as methods for the revelation of ends or for securing for the supreme value the devout loyalty the people.”
3. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul talks about a world moving toward a famine of the word of The Lord. It doesn’t happen suddenly. It doesn’t happen without the knowledge of people or without their cooperation. It is not a forced takeover.
2 Timothy 4:2-5:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
It’s worth reading Calvin’s commentary on this: “The madness of men will be so great that they will not be satisfied with a few deceivers, but will desire to have a vast multitude; for, as there is an insatiable longing for those things which are unprofitable and destructive, so the world seeks, on all sides and without end, all the methods that it can to contrive and imagine for destroying itself; and the devil has always at hand a sufficiently large number of such teachers as the world desires to have. The world will have ears so refined, and so excessively desirous of novelty, that it will collect for itself various instructors and will be increasingly carried away by new inventions.”
The role of those who preach and teach the word of God is clear then. They are, like Joseph, to prepare people for famine. Just as The Lord says in Amos, “There is a time coming.” so Paul says here, “There is a time coming.” and we have a responsibility to “correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction.” That is not quick work. The role of the teacher is to prepare people for famine – not just stimulate their thinking. It is to stay with people for the long term. It is work done over years – not with phrases and catchy slogans – but with a long horizon. It is not the work of a revivalist or itinerant speaker. It is not spectacular but cumulative. The teacher is to plant, cultivate, prune and then harvest. It is work that requires time. In a sense, it is not to prepare people for success but to prepare them for hardship and to live in a world that has exchanged truth for a lie.
4. But famines come and go. They are not permanent and that is what God assures us in the final verses of Amos.
This is The Message version:
“Yes indeed, it won’t be long now.” God’s Decree. “Things are going to happen so fast your head will swim, one thing fast on the heels of the other. You won’t be able to keep up. Everything will be happening at once—and everywhere you look, blessings! Blessings like wine pouring off the mountains and hills. I’ll make everything right again for my people Israel: They’ll rebuild their ruined cities. They’ll plant vineyards and drink good wine. They’ll work their gardens and eat fresh vegetables. And I’ll plant them, plant them on their own land. They’ll never again be uprooted from the land I’ve given them.”
God, your God, says so.”
We will not be drowning in false words and cheap phrases. We will be feasting on the everlasting and true word of the Lord.