Warning Shots: Is Anybody Listening?
- 2007 9 Feb
“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me,” declares the LORD. (Amos 4:6)
It is painful to read the minor prophets of the Old Testament. They may be small in volume, but there is nothing “minor” about their message. In chapter after chapter the prophets of God cry out against the sins of His people, indicting their ease and luxury, their indifference and even outright scorn for the Law of God, and their easy compromises with the surrounding pagan cultures. They warn of judgment to come if the people do not return to the Lord and His Word.
It’s not as though the people of Israel and Judah weren’t religious. Indeed, they were very religious, attending faithfully to their sacrifices and services of worship, and keeping all the required feasts. Sure, they abused the Sabbath with all manner of commercial and private concerns, but only after they had participated in worship. What did it matter what they did with the rest of the day?
But God despised their worship and sent His prophets to tell the people that He was not pleased and did not accept their self-centered offerings to His holy name (Amos 5:21-23). Israel’s problem was that it never learned to love God supremely; the people simply could not find contentment with God as their chief possession. With but a few notable exceptions, they were unable and unwilling to nurture heart-felt passion and zeal for the Lord and His Law. Thus, they were easy prey for whatever diversion or distraction appealed to their baser natures.
So God raised up prophet after prophet to confront the people with their sin and call them to revival and renewal in Him. Their messages are harsh, even frightening, and filled with all the kind of dire stuff that contemporary seeker-friendly preachers steer away from with all their might. Most of the prophets of the Old Testament, after all, were not very popular, either with the people or with those in power.
But the prophets were not the only warnings God sent to His people. By means of a wide variety of circumstances God sought to get the attention of His wayward people and turn their hearts to Him again. Even God seems astonished, as we listen to Him speaking through Amos, at Israel’s failure to heed these many warnings.
God's Warnings to Israel
In Amos 4:6-11 we can discern four different kinds of circumstances that God sent to His people in an effort to call them back to Him. In God’s mind, each of these should have been sufficient to get the attention of the people. Apparently, however, no one was listening.
Want (v. 6): The first circumstance by which God sought to call Israel back to Himself was want. “Cleanness of teeth” and “lack of bread” fell on every city. There just wasn’t enough food to satisfy the appetites of the people, who either went hungry or learned to feast on dung or their own children. Over and over God had testified to His people that He was the Lord of the harvest, the Provider of all their abundance. He had warned them, way back in Moses’ day, that, should they ever depart from Him, He would hold back His blessings from their flocks, fields, and barns. Israel’s periodic bouts with famine were intended to evoke repentance and return to the Lord, but nobody seems to have been listening.
Unequal blessing (vv. 7, 8): Occasionally, God would distribute His blessings to the nation unequally, sending rain to one city while allowing others to experience drought. Then the rain-drenched cities would be overwhelmed with thirsty refugees, with the result that there would not be enough to satisfy anyone, and everyone went thirsty. God meant His people to understand that He who controlled the rains and the floods was trying to get His people’s attention; but nobody seems to have been listening.
Economic hardship (vv. 9, 10): Take away someone’s means for making a living and you’d think that person would begin to look up to the heavens, wondering what to do next. God struck the crops, vineyards, and orchards of Israel with blight and mildew, so that they would not produce fruit. He sent pestilence on the whole nation and destroyed the young generation through foolish wars instigated by arrogant kings at the advice of false prophets. He even allowed all the horses of the nation to be taken captive as spoils of war, leaving the people to pull their own plows and cart their own goods, thus slowing down the economy at every level. Through these economic hardships God meant to get the ear of His people; but nobody seems to have been listening.
Overthrow of the mighty (v. 11): As a final warning shot to His wayward people, God overthrew some of mightiest cities in the land—including the capital, Samaria. He exposed the folly of wicked rulers and false prophets by having them carried away captive and having all they had trusted in— fortified cities and elaborate rituals—reduced to rubble. Even at this the nation did not return to Him. Nobody seems to have been listening.
The Warnings of the Prophets
These warning shots did not come without accompaniment from bold and faithful prophets. Like lions let loose upon prey, the prophets of God had roared out warnings of judgment, calling the people to forsake their sinful ways and return to the Lord (Amos 3:1-8). But a people distracted by the allure of wealth, ease, power, and religion-as-you-like-it only learned to hate those who stood firm on the Law of God and spoke the truth of God into the nation (Amos 5:10). The people preferred the soft and comforting words of the false prophets, who told them over and over again that God loved them, that He was not offended by their idolatry but, rather, was honored by the clever and relevant ways they had managed to incorporate even pagan and worldly elements into their liturgy, and who taught them that they could trust their political rulers to bring them to even greater levels of luxury and largesse.
Who wants to listen to the dire warnings and legal indictments of a handful of putative spokesmen for the Lord when all the other religious and political leaders are crying “Peace, peace!”? No one in ancient Israel, that’s for sure.
But what about in the churches today?
Is God firing warning shots across the bow of the Church in our day? Is He trying to get our attention? Warning us that our wealth and ease, neglect of our mission, cavalier attitude toward His law, and indulgence in worldly ways are putting us in danger of judgment? If we extrapolate Israel’s experience into our own time, we can see that God may well be joining the witness of our circumstances with the witness of many faithful prophets to call His people to seek Him so that we may be revived (Amos 5:4).
Want: Spiritual malnutrition is evident on every hand in the contemporary Church. Even pastors in the most outwardly successful churches describe their congregations as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Books, retreats, conferences, and seminars on spirituality and spiritual formation are the latest rage, and people are lining up at the troughs to find some real substance for their souls. Apparently there is little in the way of “meat on the table” in most of our churches.
Unequal distribution: In our day a handful of churches are getting all the attention. In the community of faith, “everybody knows” where the blessings of God are most to be found. These churches have thousands of members, grand and spacious facilities, large budgets, and an abundance of leaders and programs to meet everyone’s need. The showers of blessing seem to be raining on them without end. Meanwhile, inner-city, neighborhood, and rural churches are drying up, and members continue to drift from the dry spigots of their familiar churches to drink from what seem to them the refreshing waters of the mega-church across town. But it’s a mirage. They aren’t there very long before they begin to feel thirsty in their souls. Most Christians today are not satisfied with the state of their walks with the Lord, and this includes those who attend the mega-churches about which we hear so much. God’s design is for all His churches to be fountains of living water. This unequal distribution of His blessings should warn us that something is out of whack in the Body of Christ.
Hardship: America’s churches may not be experiencing economic hardship. Indeed, most of them seem to be doing just fine, and the mega-churches, of course, are utterly flush with funds. But what about our social, moral, and cultural impact? Not only are we failing to prosper in this area, but, as some believers have it, life’s getting downright tough here in the good old U.S.A. Some American Christians are even beginning to use the language of persecution, incredible as that may seem, to describe the situation of evangelical churches. Not only are we failing to have an impact in our culture and society in profound and lasting ways, but we feel like everybody hates us—especially the media—and wishes we would just shut up. Is this shriveling of our social and cultural impact yet another warning shot from the Lord?
Overthrow of the mighty: The downfall of Ted Haggard is just the latest in a disturbing series of overthrows of Christian leaders and superstars. These are people we looked up to, trusted, and admired, people who were models for a rising generation of preachers and church leaders. Their moral failures and shameful exposés have become almost commonplace. It no longer surprises us when someone “outs” yet another evangelical superstar or Catholic priest as an adulterer, con-man, pedophile, or just a jerk. What is the Lord trying to say to us?
Is Anybody Listening?
The shift in the American political mood—which is only just beginning—would seem to be yet another call for the Church to take stock and consider what the Lord may be trying to say to us through these confusing and even troubling circumstances. God may well be firing warning shot after warning shot across our bows. But if nobody’s listening, it won’t make one bit of difference.
Do you have any sense of God’s warning you about your relationship with Him? How might you expect Him to do that? How will you respond?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of seventeen books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics, (Waxed Tablet). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.