Religion as the Enemy of Worship

A SERMON FROM AMOS 4

Introduction

In Amos 4 & 5, we look at God’s take on Israel’s worship. For us, worship is a subject of some confusion. When we speak about worship in the church, people are always very quick to point out that worship is not just singing, it’s our whole life. This is good and true, but the fact that it is necessary to have such a dictum reveals that we know that we’re often confused.

And of course, even when we remember that worship is a lifestyle, there’s still the question of what part our music and our church ceremony plays. For example, consider these two book titles:

  • Prophetic Worship – Releasing the Presence of God
  • (Winning Edge Min.) Worship Music in 3D: How to Sing Down the Presence and Power of God

Does our worship achieve this lofty end or not? Does God really need our permission to be ‘released’ or ‘present’?

And then what about lifestyle? We might say that our life is worship, but how widespread is this idea, and how seriously to we take the challenge?

Someone from Yahoo Answers: (i cant believe ive resorted to ask yahoo for the answer to this..) i dont go to church on sundays, i believe in tarot, spirits, etc. i pray to god every night and went 2 prep/ccd and i disagree with the bibles ideas on homosexuality and the husband is in charge if the house and im not exactly wearing a promise ring, does all this make a good/bad christian?

Does God demand a worshipful lifestyle or not?

Man for Man – Worship as Social Justice (4:1)

We find out in Amos, mostly through his criticisms, that worship of God cannot be divorced from our relationships to one another. God’s people live in service of others as part of their worship of God. This is what I’ve labelled man-for-man (as in mankind). Our worship is for the benefit of others.

In Amos we see the opposite of true worshippers receiving criticism. Amos addresses a very particular group: the ‘Cows of Bashan’, a group of wicked rich women, but this is because they stand as token representatives of the whole nation. They represent a society that is upside down.

Firstly, these women order their men around, which shows a reversal of God’s creation order. Men are given the responsibility to lead, and women to adopt a complementary role. That Amos thinks women placing orders is a problem is not to suggest that if men were doing the ordering around, everything would be fine. It is unloving behaviour whoever’s doing it, but it is particularly indicative of disorder in relationships.

Secondly, in a nation without order, what is the order of the day? They’re ordering drinks! They’re drunk and disorderly! Drunkenness stands as a picture of lack of control; an untidy life. These women who symbolise the nation are disorderly in their relationships with their families, and disorderly even within their own persons.

Thirdly, these women are oppressors of the poor and needy. Amos doesn’t explain how this oppression takes place, but Israel was supposed to be a land of fairness, hospitality and mutual care. The poor and needy were vulnerable and their well-being was the responsibility of the rest of God’s people. Indeed, in the NT, James makes care of defenceless, needy Christians (in has case widows and orphans) central to the definition of true religion.

Rather than protecting the needy, these Israelites took advantage of them for their own enrichment. So, when it comes to some of their official worship practices, it is their social justice that gets God’s attention:

Amos 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a neverfailing stream!

So, Amos picks on this group of women, because they illustrate the general disorder and social injustice that pervaded Israel, but why are they called cows of Bashan? Alec Motyer says,

‘What are they but prime beasts from that great cattle country, Bashan, living a purely animal existence, fattened for slaughter?’

The tragedy of these worshippers is that their lifestyles proved that they had no spiritual life. They’re like cattle, and worse than that, like cattle set aside for slaughter.

Judgment – Man against Man (4:2-3)

Israel’s injustice meant that instead of being for one another, man was against man. Fittingly, then, God’s appointed judgment takes the form of man against man too. It comes in the form of war and exile at the hands of Assyria.

Interestingly enough, this verse probably forms the background to Jesus’ metaphor of ‘fishers of men’. Jesus put a positive spin on the idea, but here the fishers of men are Assyrian soldiers who will rip them from their secure restful cities like unsuspecting fish taking a bite of dinner only to find themselves torn from the water. Unfortunately, the Assyrian fishers of men are good at their jobs too! They’ll ensure that every last Israelite is pulled out of their cities and led away. There will be no escape.

God’s land was supposed to be holy. All of the laws were directed at making Israel noticeably different to, and better than, the watching world. So, when Israel begins to resemble the world around it, expressing oppression and injustice, v2 says God has sworn by His holiness that He will expel the unholy from residence in His Holy Land.

So, a major component of worship in Israel was social. Our relationship to our fellow man is taken very seriously by God.

God for Man – Worship as Turning to God (4:4-5)

The second component of worship is the one that we usually think of, that is, the relationship between God and man, which I’ve labelled God for man. Although I might justifiably have labelled this kind of worship as Man-for-God, because worship is something we offer to God, Amos shall soon remind us that we can direct all sorts of things Godwards without ever being worshippers.

What is important for our worship is the recognition of who God is and what He’s done for us. True worship is possible only when God occupies the proper place within our hearts and minds.

“Soaking Worship” is an example of a modern religion of experiential worship that has all the language of heartfelt worship, and all the sentimental attachments of deep relationship, but seems to have none of the characteristics of Christian faith. Here are some samples:

Embark on an Intimate Journey…
The Secret Place is not just a listening experience, it is a journey of soaking worship. It is a place of intimacy with the Father, a place where the heart longs for His touch. I encourage you to draw aside and soak in the secret place of His presence. May your hearts’ deepest longing be fulfilled…

Ushering in the Presence of God – How to bring down the presence of God
God reveals Himself to those that earnest seek Him. If we want to walk in the presence of the Lord, then we need to be practicing the presence of God. One of the major ways we can do this is through worship. By placing ourselves before Him in a place of adoration, we make room for Him, and through focusing our attention on Him, increase our awareness of being in the Presence of God in our lives. Learning how to soak in God’s presence through worship is one of the most valuable things we can do with our time. God has promised that as we draw near to Him, He will draw near to us and we will experience Him with us in ever increasing measures. This how to abide in the presence of God, by abiding in worship.

There’s nothing more inviting than a room filled with the sound of beautiful worship – especially when that music also invites the Presence of the Holy Spirit Himself!

“It is so anointed by the Lord, and has served to help bring me into the presence of the Lord in a mighty way!!! I keep the music on as I “soak” in His presence… the Holy Spirit becomes so real and present during those sweet times.”

“I am a facilitator for a Soaking Prayer Centre in our church … I prepare the sanctuary to become a resting place for the Lord as people come to soak in His presence.  The lights are turned down, there are candles, and the atmosphere is that of intimacy. … For three hours we seek His face together and listen to music like yours which invites His presence to come… It is anointed and I have had some awesome visions of angels and God’s glory while worshipping with it in the background.” 

When did YOU last experience the Father heart of God? Spend some time in His presence today!Experience His power and anointing. Listen online …

Look now at Amos 4:4-5: We discover that Israelites made holy pilgrimages, they offered sacrifices and tithes, they burned offerings and made personal acts of devotion. Their religion was intact. They were doing what they were required to do ceremonially, but only on the surface of it. When you look at what God thinks of their religion, it’s scary:

  • Their pilgrimages to holy cities, occasions to give some of your time to God and to devote yourself to dedicated worship, were considered to be sin.
  • Their sacrifices and tithes were offered like clockwork, but as the example of their thank offerings brings out, in which they burned leavened bread, there is something perverted about what they’re doing. Law in Deuteronomy prohibited burning leaven, but again, the specific example surely stands for a more general problem. Leaven (yeast) keeps popping up in scripture as a symbol for impurity, for sin that works its way through the whole community, just as yeast infuses the whole batch of dough. Even the sacrifices that the Israelites bring are shot through with their rebellion and sin.
  • And then there’s the example of their acts of personal devotion. Freewill Offerings were not compulsory sacrifices. They were made by people who wanted to express gratitude to our Lord. They are acts of voluntary worship. However, the Israelites had ironically made these special devotional gifts into occasions for bragging. It became all about the giver, and had nothing to do with God.

In general, their worship was directed at God with their lips only, and yet their hearts were far from Him. What God wanted from wicked Israel was not religion, but ‘return’; repentance. In verses 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11, it is this alone that God bemoans. All He was looking for was something that would indicate that their worship originated from the core, and that their worship understood who He is. Idolatry is always about ‘worshipping’ a god that is under your control, a god that we can pack away when not needed, and we can label such idols with Christian names too.

Does it sound like worship of Yahweh to be worshipping a God whose power can only be released when we call down his presence from above through the energy of our songs and our correct meditative state? Is it too harsh to call that idolatry? If it’s not the God of the Bible (and that certainly isn’t), then what god are they talking about?

Look at 5:4-5 

“Seek me and live, do not seek Bethel…”

The Israelites were comfortable with religion (Bethel), but they were not interested in God. Yet it is the inward and not the outward that matters to God. What God wanted from Israel was repentance. He wanted them to turn to Him, to the real Him, and to keep their hearts inclined towards Him in love and obedience.

Judgment: God against Man (4:6-11)

Once again, God’s judgment against Israel fits the crime. Where true worship is God-for-us, and us-for-God, worshippers who are actually against God find Him working against them.

Firstly, Amos outlines seven judgments that God sent as warnings to His people. God sends disasters upon His people in His land of blessing. Given that this was the Promised Land, when the land itself rose up against its people, it ought to have been a strong hint at God’s displeasure. God repeats again and again: ‘yet you did not return to me’.

The Book of Job warns us that it’s never so simple to say that disaster definitely means God is angry with you. Pain isn’t always judgment on us. Sometimes we don’t get told why bad things happen, because they’re part of a larger plan that we’re not able to see. Nevertheless, pain should always be cause for us to reflect upon our relationship with God, as it was in Job.

For more on this important subject, read The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis, but not the Shack!

God With Us (4:12-13)

So, Israel’s worship might have been regular, and who knows, they might have danced and cried and knelt as they sang their worship songs in the temple. But none of this impressed God, and eventually He told them to keep the noise of their songs away from Him. They were actually against Him, and God sent seven warning shots up into the air to let them know.

As a climax, in v12-13, God repeats an Emmanuel promise: ‘God with us’. If the people won’t return to Him, He will come to find them.

So, in a sense, Israel’s worship did call down the presence of God. But what will the nature of the visit be?

As Christians, we assume that being in God’s presence will be the ultimate good. Right? And if you are right with God, then that’s true. However, what is it like to be in God’s presence if you’re not right with Him?

V13 speaks of turning dawn to darkness. Surely it should be darkness to dawn (that’s what happens after night time)? Either translation is possible, and perhaps this section is meant to be read either way. Will God be turning Israel’s darkness to light when he comes, or will He be bringing judgment? Maybe it’s something of an ultimatum: Maybe it’s saying ‘choose whom you will serve. The real God or a fake?’ Will Israel worship God through repentance rather than ritual? Choose wisely, because the real God is coming to settle accounts.

But, almost certainly for this Israel, God’s coming will not be a dawn. Look at 5:18-20. The Day of the Lord will be night!

Amos in the Modern Church

So, Amos’s message about worship focuses on relationships within society, and our relationship of repentance, love and obedience towards the real God. What remains for us is to translate Amos into our language.

But I can’t do this translation accurately, because it would require me to know you, and I think it would require the gift of prophecy too. So, you will need to think very hard about your own life and your role in this church body.

What adds difficulty to this translation is that Israel lived in an earthly Promised Land and before the coming of Jesus. We live in an exile of sorts, awaiting the second coming of Christ. So, we need to be careful not to make careless applications.

So, a lot of the forms of worship will have changed, but I think that we can easily learn lessons from Israel’s spiritual condition. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day suffered the same criticisms as these, and I think our day is no different.

True Worship

So, let’s glance quickly at the NT idea of true worship, and then I’ll close with some general applications to stimulate your thinking.

I’ve already mentioned James who affirmed social justice (caring for widows and orphans) as NT worship. It is true religion, because it reflects love given to people who cannot possibly give anything in return.

Rom 12:1-2 is a NT definition of worship. The OT had carefully regulated sacrifices. In the NT, we ourselves are living sacrifices, and so worship is a carefully regulated life of sacrifice to God. We need to die to self; get rid of the selfish concerns that we have, silly ambitions for things that are passing away, pet sins that we don’t want to quit. Paul says dying to self to live for Jesus is the least we can do.

Secondly, Paul tells us that worship means that we are not to fall by default into the patterns of our culture around us, and then cobble out a Christianity that fits this culture. Instead, true worship requires of us that we live with renewed minds; minds transformed by the Spirit. We must be changed by God and His Word; we must never try to change God and His word to fit into our patterns of life.

So, what God looks for in worship is in fact evidence of orderly, loving relationship, whether it is with others or with Him. A truth that we often miss is that love for God and love for neighbour stand as a summary of worship too.

The most important worship activities concern those things that the Spirit uses to renew our minds, which I think are firstly scripture, prayer & meeting in worship with other Christians.

So, let me close with some brief thoughts for application.Firstly, how are your interpersonal relationships? When you run through your family members, are those relationships characterised by love and service? At the very least, can you say with St Paul that in so far as depends on you, you are living at peace with everyone?

When you consider social justice relationships, we are tasked first with seeing to the needs of the church and then if we’re able to the needy outside. Social needs are overwhelming here, and so we must be realistic. But, do we pay workers or servants under our care what they deserve? Are we silent when we come across practices that amount to exploitation, whether it is of natural resources, or especially of other people? We don’t need to have met someone to exploit them.

We can even apply Amos introspectively. The cows of Bashan were drunkards. How are we disorderly in our selves? Are our lives truly worshipful, or are we characterised by an endless stream of insatiable desires?Not only are our desires and addictions a sign of an untidy life, but sometimes the things that we’re taught to covet can be idols that even threaten our relationship with God. Our money and our reputations and our entertainment are particularly powerful idols in modern life.

And finally, Romans warns us against resembling the world around us. It is so easy for us to settle into the mould of our culture. We live in a success-obsessed world, and so every other Christian book is about making you mark on history, or how to be rich or powerful. We live in a postmodern world, and so the latest fad is to become a postmodern Christian in the emergent church, as is taught in books like A New Kind of Christian, or The Shack.

Rather than being transformed by the garbage of our world, we need to be saturated in the mind of God in the revealed Word, and by the Spirit. Then we will know God for who He is, we will see the world for what it is, and we will start being true worshippers, however badly we might sing.

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