Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (C)
July 15, 2007
The Boundary to God’s Mercy
A poet said, “There is a line by us unseen that crosses every path, the hidden boundary between God’s patience and His wrath.” Could there possibly be a limit to the patience of the eternal God? Could infinite mercy prove to be finite after all?
A series of five visions came to the prophet Amos. They speak of this tension between the mercy of God and his righteous judgment. There does come a time when the God of great mercy might say of His own people, “I will spare them no longer” (Amos 7:8). There is a wideness in God’s mercy, but even the mercy of God may end. And when it ends, it’s really all over!
1. There is wideness in God’s mercy (7:1-6).
Two visions opening this chapter speak of God’s great mercy. First, the prophet saw a vision of swarming locusts sweeping over the land just at harvest time. Such devastation most of us can hardly imagine. In 1889 what may have been the greatest swarm of locusts in recorded history crossed the Red Sea, blackening an area of two thousand square miles. The swarm weighed an estimated forty million tons. Amos saw such a horrible judgment stripping his land clean. “Sovereign Lord, forgive!” he begged, “How can Jacob survive?’ So God spared the land that judgment (7:1-3).
In a second vision, the Lord called for judgment by fire. “It dried up the great deep, and devoured the land” (7:4). Again the prophet begged for mercy, and again the Sovereign Lord relented: “This will not happen either” (7:6).
Well do we sing the old hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy/ Like the wideness of the sea” (F.W. Faber).
2. But God’s mercy is tempered by His justice (7:7-9).
In a third vision, the Lord is standing by a wall built true and straight. The mason’s plumb line is in his hand to attest that it conforms to the standard. But do God’s people fare as favorably against His standard?
A measuring line used for building may also become a symbol of destruction. Manasseh, the wicked king of Judah, was guilty of more evil than the Amorites, so the Lord declared: “I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab” (2 Kings 2:12b). We must not share the flippant attitude of the man who said, “It’s God’s business to forgive.”
3. When God’s mercy ends, it’s all over (Amos 8-9).
In the last two chapters of Amos come two more visions. Vision number four is a basket of ripe and ready summer fruit. It must be harvested immediately. Ominous words come to the prophet: “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer” (8:2). God’s mercy is limited by two things: by His righteousness and by our ripeness for judgment. Whoever goes on and on in sin, presuming on God’s great mercy, is only ripening for judgment.
The fifth vision opens the final chapter in Amos. The prophet saw the Lord standing in the temple courtyard beside the altar. He heard Him pronounce judgment from the place one might expect to find mercy. The whole temple quaked all the way from the ornamental capitals on top of the pillars down to the foundation stones. “No one will get away, none will escape” (9:2). There is no hole deep enough, no mountain high enough, to hide from the wrath of the Judge of all the earth.
Once upon a time there were eight lambs feeding in a meadow. Also there was a very ferocious and hungry lion near by. As lions are prone to do, he selected one of the lambs for his dinner. With a terrifying roar he leaped on the lamb, which was completely without defense. The next day the lion returned and took another little lamb home for dinner and another and another as the week went by. But one little lamb began to think, “This is too bad, too sad, but it will never happen to me.”
At the end of the week that little lamb was left all alone. The next day Mr. Lion returned and roared upon his newest victim whose last words were: “Oh, no! There must be some mistake!” (Austin B. Tucker)