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Worthless Religion

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  For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
          Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

This is our 5th look at the prophet Amos – He lived and prophesied between 790 and 740 BC.  The key date is 722 – the year that Israel, the northern kingdom, was devastated by the Assyrian Empire – and many of its people deported. 

However, at the time of Amos’ prophecies, all was well in all of Israel – both north and south.  The military was strong, as was the economy.  In such a time, it is very hard to warn people of impending calamity.  They don’t want to hear it.

But such a time was just around the corner, and Amos’ words were largely ignored by Israel.

Chapter 5 – we’ll look at the first 13 verses – continues a major section which began at chapter 3.1 where the theme is indictment and judgment on Israel. This section is his 3rd oracle. 

The theme of this chapter is Israel’s false security in its religious practices. 

Getting back to Shakespeare, in chapter 5 we have our rotting or festering lilies - and when you set their behavior against the holiness of God, which they were to emulate, the lily – Israel – looks far worse than the surrounding weeds – the pagan nations around.

Even their gatherings, or perhaps especially their gatherings for worship, there was an absence of any real interest in the words of the Lord, and in any sense of his transcendence.

Is that not true of us as well?  People were just playing at their meetings.  They didn’t mean anything. 

I remember running into a friend one Sunday morning at a drugstore.  His eyes were bleary, his shirt was wrinkled, and his tie was sort of draped around his neck – he could only say – “I made it.”  By that he meant he had made to morning mass at the local Catholic Church after a long night – with another long day and night in front of him. 

It’s easy to point fingers – I’m not sure if I had even been to worship that day.

But, you get the point.

The literary form found in this section is called a lament – you can see that from Chapter 5.1Amos 5:1 (ESV)
1 Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:

It is a funeral dirge.  Only 1 thing.  Israel is alive and well!  But Amos addresses them as if they were dead!  They were good as dead, given the direction they are headed. 

Look at 5.2

Amos 5:2 (ESV)
2 "Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up."

A characteristic of Amos is despite his stern warnings, there is always evidence of God’s affection for Israel, seen here in his use of the word “virgin Israel.”  Israel, in the prime of her beauty and vitality would fall suddenly.

In this section of Amos, there is a Lament – 2-3; An Appeal in 4-7 and a Test in 8-13.

Point One:  The Lament:  2-3

Amos uses the term, Virgin Israel to personify Israel.  Such a term emphasizes her youth and vitality, implying that like a young girl in the prime of life, she is about ready to enter the most exciting time as a wife and mother.  But, instead, he predicts her death.

The once virgin Israel now lies helpless, without any hope of revival.  She is forsaken, deserted by family, friends and God, and now she is without anyone to care for her.

Further, the devastation of Israel will leave no family untouched. 

The land, once promised to Abraham, has now become a grave.  Once a refuge; now a grave. 

Amos is shocking his hearers out of their complacency.  Or has he? 

Point Two:  The Appeal:  4-7

Amos 5:4 (ESV)
4 For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: "Seek me and live;

Notice next:  Do not seek Bethel
                        do not enter into Gilgal
                           or cross over to Beersheba.

They will not find the Lord in the shrines – they think, apparently, that if they go these places, that is tantamount to coming to the Lord.  It is not.  God wants a relationship not just ritual.

Bethel: This is the town associated with Jacob.  Once he came there when he was a homeless wanderer without any uncertain future; the other on his way back to Israel; a chastened man now, and with a great family.  But at Bethel, God spoke to him, and he became a new man there. 

Don’t go there!

Beersheba:  A town associated with the greats:  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Abraham paid his first visit in the promised land there, and it was there that he learned God is with you in all that you do.

Isaac heard this in his sojourn at Beersheba:  fear not, for I am with you (Gen 46:1-4)

But – like Bethel, they are not to go there.

Gilgal – this was the first place the people of God came to when there entered into Israel on their sojourn out of Egypt.  It was the site of Joshua’s first encampment.  Gilgal was a shrine which proclaimed the inheritance and possession of the promised land according to the will of God. 

But, Amos says do not enter into Gilgal.

Those 3 shrines symbolized promises of God made to his people.  But, no place, no matter how sacred can impart the promises it makes, or as in these places, the promises which they symbolize.

They cannot bestow what they express, the living companionship of the Lord. 

Notice again what the Lord says:  Seek me and live, then in verse 6 Seek the Lord and live; and again in verse 14, Seek good and not evil that you may live, and so the Lord, the God of hosts will be with you as you have said.

They did not take God seriously.  Do we?  Is there not a real danger for all of us to go through the motions today, and not humbly confess our sins without a real willingness to change or to be changed by the Lord? 

Point Three:  The Test – verse 8-13

The remaining verses in our section set out what should be the evidence of a people loving the Lord their God and loving their neighbor as themselves. 

Verse 8 reminds the people of God who God is. He is the Lord over creation.
(The rising of the Pleiades before daybreak heralded the arrival of spring and the rising of Orion after sunset signaled the onset of winter—Tom Constable's Notes on the Bible)

He is Lord over all history
Amos 5:9 (ESV)
who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

It is interesting in the placement of this doxology (praise to God).  It connects the worship of God with life God calls us to.  Or put another way, we are not truly worshipping God if we are not walking in his ways, obeying his teaching and his laws.  We praise the Lord not only with our lips, but in our lives…

Further, there is more evidence presented here of the person who follows the Lord truly – evidences which are absent from the people of God.

  • The First mark is the truthAmos 5:10 (ESV)
    They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.  This is in stark contrast to those who hate and abhor the ones who speak God’s truth to them.

    Think of Psalms 119:97 (ESV)
    {97} Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.  Their character and lifestyle were opposite the word of God. 

And this rejection of the word leads to oppression of the poor.

  • Rejection of the Poor – 2nd mark of the rejection is seen in Amos 5:11 (ESV)
    {11} Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.

How different this is from the example and teaching of Jesus – as in

Mark 10:45 (ESV)
{45} For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Or another writer says that this refusal to submit to the one another within the fellowship of God’s people.

  • Third Mark:  Seeking God’s Approval – Amos 5:12 (ESV)
    {12} For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.
  • Corruption Rife:  Life had become so corrupt that keeping quiet about these abuses of power had become the only prudent thing to do. If a person spoke out against them, he could count on feeling the wrath of the powerful—Tom Constable's Notes on the Bible

The social climate was such that persons refused to raise a word of protest and so they were silenced.  It was a society which encouraged wrong-doing and discouraged standing for principle. 

The people of God have a false security in their religious practices since they are unchanged by their encounter with God; for there has not been a real encounter with the Living God.

When there is:  there will be a relationship with God, which comes through trusting his Son; the Lord Jesus Christ.  Of course Christ is not named in this letter, but we now know how God has in these last days spoken to us – in the OT through the prophets, but now in and through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Hebrews 1:1-3 (ESV)
{1} Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, {2} but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

We are in the last days, by the way.  And when we sincerely surrender our lives to Christ, we don’t automatically become perfect, but we become new:

2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)
{17} Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.


And, as Christians we should also be constantly changing

2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
{18} And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

If we are playing with religion, as the people of God were in Amos’ time, we should stop it.  The acid test of a people genuinely desirous of living as Christians will be a people seeking God; and a people serving others through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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