Around 720 BC, the Assyrians swept away the ten northern tribes forming the Kingdom of Israel. Their special relationship with Yahweh having come to an end, they disappeared from history.
Around 750 BC, Yahweh had attempted one last time to call the people of Israel back to their senses. He did this by sending to them the prophet Amos. Yahweh had Amos speak the words his people Israel needed to hear and obey to remain his people:
and I take no delight in your solemn gatherings.
and your grain offerings—I will not be pleased;
a peace offering of your fatted calf—I will not regard.
The melody of your harps I will not hear!
and righteousness like a stream overflowing”
(Amos 5:21-24, my translation).
Israel’s problem: it had religion instead of witness. Religion is all we human beings do to set ourselves right with God. It’s moral-code thinking at its best. Once we have done what we need to do, then God owes us health and wealth here and Heaven hereafter.
From the point of view of the people of Israel, they had been religious enough to secure God’s protection. After all, they had made all the prescribed burnt offerings and grain offerings. They had even demonstrated admirable piety by offering fatted calves. If that weren’t enough, they had made a joyful noise unto the Lord with voices and instruments. To all appearances, then, they weren’t standing on the edge of the abyss; they were resting joyfully in the palm of God’s hand.
Their problem? The people of Yahweh were religious but did not witness to Yahweh. “Woe to those turning justice into wormwood and casting righteousness to the earth” (Amos 5:7). Righteousness is the right ordering of society in relation to Yahweh, one another, and Yahweh’s good creation. Justice is the reestablishment of that right order when it is violated. In 750 BC, Israelite society was not rightly ordered: the rich were getting richer and the poor were dying. Judges were perverting justice by accepting bribes and unjustly favoring the rich in their judgments rather than reestablishing a right ordering of relationships. Yahweh’s word to Israel through Amos: if you choose to identify yourselves as my people, you need to act like it in your relationships with one another. Otherwise, I have no reason to continue having my name identified with you. After 720 BC, it wasn’t.
A word from Yahweh, even a difficult one, is better than no word at all. When we gather on Sundays with others to listen to the words of the Bible, what we want to do is attempt to discern together what Jesus is saying to us today through those words.
We might do well to listen to what Jesus might have to say to us today through these otherwise ancient words of Amos. The Christianity routinely practiced by our Western churches is self-centered religion rather than a faithful, hope-filled, loving witness to Christ. Relationships in our congregations are not rightly ordered. We prefer tranquility to the tension needed to address that disorder. We are too busy with our own distractions, too overwhelmed by our own problems, too resentful of others, and too immersed in the painfully Olympian media to rightly witness to Christ between ourselves let alone to those outside our church.
Our society is post-Christian because our conventional churches are just as Olympian as it is. The Olympian gods, like Pluto the false god of money, just as happily disorder relationships in our churches as they do in our society. The dramatic decline in church membership shows that Jesus is just as willing to let go of conventional churches today as Yahweh was to let go of conventional Israel in 720 BC despite our religiosity and theirs. May we learn from their lesson and allow Jesus to call us back to our senses with his life-transforming word. May he grant us all the wisdom, strength, courage, and good cheer we need to hear and obey him.
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