Amos 7:14-15, Jeremiah 1:5, Ezekiel 3:14
I want to tell you about a preacher named Amos and a few other preachers from ancient Israel. Their stories demonstrate that God rarely calls us to serve him in comfortable ways or ways we expect. And the way they interact with God gives us some insight into ways to pray when God calls us out of our comfort zones and to serve him in ways we don’t expect—and that’s what he always does.
Israel was divided, North and South. Amos was from the South, where they were worshiping God in the temple of Jerusalem. But, God told Amos to preach in the North in the city of Bethel, where they were not honoring God as he had commanded them.
Bethel was a tough crowd. The high priest of the North was there, and their King had his palace there. And God told Amos to preach against the northern King. Amos declared that King Jeroboam would die and foreign nations would take Israel into exile—which is precisely what happened.
Amos wasn’t like most prophets of his day. A prophet was a profession. You could hire a prophet from the local prophet guild to help you make a business deal or tell you if your spouse was sneaking around behind your back. Kings employed prophets to tell them what would happen in their nations and tell them what to do in battle. Not Amos, though. Amos preached against the King because that’s what God sent him there to do.
You could hire a prophet, but most prophets were itinerant preachers. They were treated like entertainers, traveling around cities and villages declaring their god’s will and telling people what might happen. If the people like you, they would pay you, feed you, and house you, enabling you to go from town to town proclaiming your message to others.
Amos prophesied like the other prophets of his day—in the marketplaces and at the city gates—but his message was different. Wishing to be noticed by kings and princes, prophets boldly declared messages of victory in war, expansion of their kingdom, wealth, and prosperity. But not Jeremiah. He prophesied the death of the King and the destruction of their nation—not a popular message.
Amaziah, the high Priest of the North, didn’t like Amos’ message. Amaziah charged Amos to go back to his land in the South and preach his messages there. He told him, “Never prophesy in Bethel again because it’s the King’s sanctuary and temple” (Amos 7:12-13). Amaziah must have thought Amos odd because his message was anything but entertaining. It rubbed against the grain of Israelite society and pushed against their purpose and values.
Amaziah is funny, though. He’s not so concerned about Amos’ message. It’s not causing any problems except that he doesn’t like it. Rather than kill Amos for speaking out against the King like others may have done, he gives some sage advice. ‘Amos, go back to your land and make your living there.’ Right? Amos’ message against the Northern Kingdom would have been popular in the South. It would make him some money in the South. But, not here in Bethel.
Little did Amaziah realize, Amos had more significant reasons for being a prophet. He wasn’t in it for the money. Amos didn’t care about fame or glory. When Amaziah, the priest, told Amos to hit the road and go back to Judah, Amos responded, “I am not a prophet or a prophet’s son. Instead, I am a shepherd and a cultivator of sycamore figs” (14).
Amos essentially told Amaziah he wasn’t a prophet at all. In other words, he’s not a professional. He told Amaziah, “I’m not a prophet or a prophet’s son” (Amos 7:14a). Calling someone a “Prophet’s son” was a way of saying you’re a member of a prophet’s guild. Prophesy was a common enough profession that guilds and factions were formed to identify with kings, cities, and spiritual practices. Amos didn’t claim to be a prophet or a guild member. Like many protagonists in many stories, Amos is a lone wolf. He works alone.
So how did Amos live?
Amos was a bi-vocational preacher. That means he had a day job. He didn’t make his living from being a prophet—partly because he couldn’t in Bethel—but also because he didn’t want to associate with the charlatan prophets of the day. His ministry couldn’t support him, so he worked.
Amos was in agriculture. He was a shepherd, but he also knew plants. He wasn’t a prince or a wealthy landowner, but Amos had a decent career for his time. He was a blue-collar working professional. That meant Amos wasn’t worried whether Amaziah or anyone else liked his message. All he had to worry about was whether God approved his message.
Jesus didn’t care if he had a popular message either. Jesus warned us to “Beware when people speak well of you because that’s exactly how [Israel’s] ancestors treated their prophets” (Luke 6:26). Jesus wasn’t about to change his message to earn his listeners’ affections; he was going to speak the word of God. Amos tended to figs and sheep to free him to do the same.
“I am not a prophet…Instead, I am a shepherd and a cultivator of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from my flock and told me, ‘Go preach in Israel.’” (Amos 7:14). When Amos said flock, he didn’t mean that God took him from his profession as a shepherd to go to Israel. It’s a play on words. God took Amos from preaching to his people in the South to come to Israel in the North.
God called Amos out of comfort into a more substantial mission field. His message was popular in the South, but it was divisive in the North. I wonder how effective Amos’s ministry was at home, though.
I’m sure Amos could have comfortably preached a message about God’s love for his people and about how God wants to bless Judah in the South because they were faithful to the Lord GOD—not like the people of the North who are rebellious and run after other gods. I’m sure Amos would be pleased there, with his people, who believe what he believes and worship how he worships. They knew all the same hymns and liturgies.
But, God called Amos out. And, I think, for this reason.
Churches are planted every day, and churches die every day. Churches grow, and churches fizzle away. Once upon a time, the US was highly influenced by Christian thought, and today it is predominantly influenced by secular thinking. There are two reasons it’s challenging to grow a church of over 200 people. One is that leaders can only carry so much of the ministry on their own. The other is that churches of 200 have the resources to provide culturally Christian programming to their members—but they can only do this in the place of funding mission.
Comfort kills mission, but discomfort generates mission. The text doesn’t say this, but I don’t think Amos went to the North willingly. It’s not the pattern of the prophets to be excited about their calling. When God called the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel was angry and refused to go. He wrote, “The Spirit lifted me and took me away. I went bitterly, angry in my spirit, but the hand of the Lord was against me” (Ezekiel 3:14). God had to pick him up like a child throwing a tantrum for him to move.
The Lord called the prophet Jonah, “‘Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh to preach against it because their evil has become aware to me.’ Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s presence” (Jonah 1.2-3). Jonah said, “Nope!” He turned his back and walked the other way.
Jesus sent out 72 disciples to go to the cities of Israel. He said, “Go now. I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). That’s encouraging!
The prophet Jeremiah tried to deny God’s calling too. He tried to make excuses, “Oh, Lord Yahweh! Look at me; I don’t know how to speak because I am such a young man” (Jeremiah 1.6).
When I talk about serving God, I get two responses. Some people acknowledge that they know what to do, but they don’t take the time to do it. Others are like Jeremiah. Their concern isn’t what to do. It’s not even a priority issue. Christians aren’t serving God with the excuse they don’t know how. That was Jeremiah’s defense. ‘Look at me; I don’t know how.’
But, our knowledge doesn’t change God’s call. The LORD told Jeremiah, “I knew you before I developed you in the womb. I set you apart [for my work]. Before you were born, I established you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1.5).
The Lord told Jeremiah, “Don’t say, I am such a young man. Everywhere I send you, you shall go and everything I command you to speak, you will speak. And don’t be afraid, because I am with you to bring you through it” (Jeremiah 1:7-8).
God’s purpose is to establish his plans through the activity of his people. And there is not one of us that gets to say, ‘I don’t know how.’
But, this is a message about prayer. We’re doing a series called ‘Prayers of the Prophets’ so that we can learn to pray in more significant ways than just ‘to ask.’
Back in the story of Amos, God gave Amos three visions.
In the first vision, Amos saw locusts devouring the crops of Israel, causing famine. In response, Amos prayed, “Lord GOD, please forgive! How will Jacob survive since he is so small? (Amos, 7:2). The Lord relented from the famine.
In the second vision, Amos saw fire devouring the land, causing destruction. In response, Amos prayed, “Lord GOD, please stop! How will Jacob survive since he is so small?” (Amos 7:5). Again, the Lord relented from the destruction.
In the third vision, Amos saw the Lord holding a plumbline against a high wall. A plumbline is a weight on a string. You dangle it to get a perfect vertical line. The wall was Israel, and he was judging them by the law. In this judgment, the Lord said he would not relent.
God called Amos to preach against Israel. And Amos had compassion for them. The Lord gave Israel time to repent. Amos prophesied in Israel for at least five years, but possibly as many as 40 years passed before the judgment of God came upon them. Amos’s prayers for his enemies were effective. God held back his hand of judgment.
Amos didn’t want to be a prophet. He didn’t want to carry out God’s purpose. But, Amos did what God said to do. And he did so, not begrudgingly, but joyfully. Like the Lord loved Israel and yearned to see them come to repentance. Amos, too loved Israel and prayed for God’s mercy on them. You too, like the Lord Jesus loves his church, you love those who don’t know Jesus, and you pray for them to come to know Jesus.
That’s how we pray for our city and our communities. We don’t get angry and take up arms, demanding repentance—shouting on street corners, picketing, and all that. We have compassion for those who are against God and his purposes. We love them as those who have wandered far from their father and have forgotten the love He has for them. And we go to the Lord in prayer to plead, ‘LORD don’t consume them; how can they be saved?’
We know there is a judgment coming, but we are called to compassion while there is still time to repent. God calls us to pray. But, God also calls us to the practical ministries of love and word to go with it. God calls some of you to minister to the lost through the way you live your life. He calls others through prophetic gifting—preaching, teaching, evangelism. But, we are all called to be a part of the mission of God.
We don’t get excuses. There’s no ‘I don’t know how’ or ‘I don’t have time.’ You don’t get to say, ‘I don’t have the resources,’ or ‘I don’t know what God is calling me to do.’ God called you to love as God loves, and I think you can figure out how to do that. There are no excuses.
Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. Discomfort breeds mission.
There’s a way to pray here as well.
- Tell the Lord you are angry about it if that’s how you feel. That’s what Ezekiel did.
- Tell him you don’t know how to do what God wants you to do if that’s your excuse. Jeremiah did.
- Tell God how you feel. He’s a big God. I promise he can handle the criticism.
- But don’t flee like Jonah. Don’t turn your back on God’s purpose for you. Jonah found himself at the bottom of an ocean begging for God’s mercy. Don’t drown yourself in the deep because you’re uncomfortable with the way God’s kingdom works.
Pray. Talk to God.
He is sending you out like sheep among wolves; you don’t need to be happy about it. You can be angry like Ezekiel. But don’t stay there.
- Ask God for peace and joy in the middle of the trial.
- Ask God to make you fearless like Jeremiah.
- Ask him to make you compassionate like Amos.
- Ask him to use you as a tool of mercy and grace to those around you.
A final thought. God made this remarkable statement to Ezekiel. He said, “I am not sending you to people you don’t understand or who speak a difficult language, but to the house of Israel—not to the many nations with different or difficult languages, whose words you can’t understand” (Ezekiel 3:5-6). Ezekiel’s calling wasn’t even as hard as he was making it out to be. He was going to his people. He spoke the same language. He knew their way of life. He wasn’t like a missionary going overseas who had to learn a language and a way of life that’s foreign.
The calling of most Christians isn’t overseas to foreign people. If God calls you to that, he’ll provide the power to endure it, but most don’t need to stress. Right now, your calling is to people you know and to people you already understand. You may not like them or their way of living, but you already know how this world works.
You think you don’t know how to do God’s mission here, but you do. It’s so simple, but it’s easy to miss. Be a good, kind, and compassionate person. Meet needs where there are needs. Be generous. Forgive people when they hurt you. God is calling you to this ongoing, daily ministry.
But what if people reject me? What if they persecute me for trying to love them? Why should I suffer to bless someone who doesn’t even appreciate it?
The Apostle Peter anticipated that question for his church. He answered it with another question, asking, “Who will harm you if you are devoted to what is good?” (1 Peter 3:13). Peter wasn’t worried about it. Most people are going to appreciate anything you do for them. Is there suffering in the Christian life? Yes, sometimes. But, most people aren’t going to harm you or reject you because of what you believe, say, or do. Notice, most people weren’t trying to stop Amos from preaching in Israel, even though they didn’t like his message.
What about the few that will get angry?
Peter anticipated that question too. He said, “Even if you do suffer for what is good, God will reward you for it” (1 Peter 3:14).
Even if we suffer, it pales in comparison to its eternal reward. Sure, suffering isn’t fun, per se, but it’s productive. Remember, comfort kills mission, but discomfort generates mission.
When we do good to people, even if they hate us, it gives us an opportunity for the Gospel. Why do you bless me when I persecute you? Why do you thank me when I’m rude to you? When I steal from you, you give more to me. Why?
What’s wrong with you? What’s different about you?
“So, don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Just honor Christ as Lord. And if someone asks you about your hope, you should always be ready to explain it. But do so gently and respectfully” (1 Peter 3:15–16).
Be about the work your Father has sent you to do.
And by all means, pray for those God has called you to.