Has your church ever evaluated your worship services? How do you know what is good worship and what is not? What metrics do you use? Quality? Excellence? Professionalism? Attendance? Growth? Better yet, what metrics would God want you to use? As we continue our study this week on affordable housing, surprisingly perhaps, one Old Testament prophet says we need to talk about worship services. Why? Well it relates to a story I learned years ago in Chicago.
In 2010 my church spent a week with our sister church in Chicago, and there we heard about babies in the water. Yup, you read that right. Babies in the water. It is a profound story that helps us understand the difference between justice and mercy. I have told the story before, but it is worth hearing again. You can read it here.
The story shows how our lives need to be characterized by a passionate pursuit of justice and mercy. We heard this from the Old Testament prophet Micah in the previous post, and now in today’s post we’ll read how another Old Testament prophet spoke against injustice.
If you’d like to follow along, open a Bible to Amos 5. While this chapter includes a famous verse that Martin Luther King Jr. used when combating the injustice of racism in his day, it also says something you’d never think you’d hear coming from God. MLK quoted verse 24, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” I want us to back up, however, and start at verses 21-23, the prelude to the verse MLK mentioned. You might be shocked at what you’re about to read.
God hates worship services? Really? What do you think about that? I have to admit, as I’ve studied this passage I found myself wondering, “Lord, how do you feel about our worship services here at Faith Church?” What you do think God would say about your church’s worship services? Churches arguably spend most of their time and energy on this thing that happens for an hour or so on Sunday mornings. Think about it. All the staff salaries, all the planning, the cleaning, the building cost. All the volunteers. All the meetings. How often have we asked God how he feels about our worship?
Clearly he wasn’t too happy about worship services in the nation of Israel when Amos was alive. Perhaps if we can learn about what was going on then, we might find some transferable principles to apply to our situation. What made God so upset about their worship?
First of all, we need to understand the context into which Amos is writing. At the time Amos prophesied, the nation of Israel was not practicing justice. For example in verse 2:6 and also 8:6 the Lord says that they “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Today we would call this bonded slavery. In 2:7, the Lord says that “they trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.” God says that judgment was coming because the people were not practicing justice.
Next, look at chapter 4:1. The women, arrogant in their wealth, were mistreating the poor and needy. But look at verses 4-5 where the prophet points out that these Israelite women were gravely mistaken thinking they could practice religious ritual and everything was okay. In verse 12 he concludes, “prepare to meet your maker.” Whew. Ominous, right?
It wasn’t just the women. There is a matching section that starts in Amos 5:18. Now the Lord turns his gaze on the men. Once again, YHWH’s rebuke is strong. Where they have been thinking that religious rituals (ie. worship services) are good, read what God says to them in verses 5:21-24. God wants justice and righteousness, not ritualistic worship. This section has some “woes” (see 5:18; 6:1). A woe is an oracle of judgment, proclaiming disaster on people. Imagine that! God declaring impending doom on his people, and why? Not because he is mean-spirited, but because they were being oppressive and unjust, and his heart beats for the oppressed!
As we saw above in Amos chapter 4 about the women, YHWH finishes with strong words for the men. For these people who have, as he says in Amos 6:12, “turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness,” he promises he will turn the tables (see verse 14), and allow another nation to oppress them. The oppressors will be oppressed.
What we learn from this passage is that the people in Amos’ day thought that God was only concerned about the small part of their lives the occurred during worship services. In other words, if they attended worship, went through the motions of sacrificing, singing, praying, and the like, that was all that mattered to God. Then the rest of the week, they could live like they wanted. As they looked around their world, it sure seemed like God was blessing them because of the wealth and prosperity they enjoyed.
Amos comes to them and upends their thinking. When the rest of our lives are not in line with God’s will, then our participation in worship services is detestable to God.