Set with Amos

This then is what the Lord thinks of pretence; this is how He reacts to it; this is His judgment upon it. The essence of pretence is the throwing of a cloak of religion over a life motivated towards self… God and religion were tools whereby self could be secured and life made secure for self.
— J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos
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So often, I feel as if we over-complicate God’s words, allowing ourselves to throw our hands up in frustration, wishing that we could maybe get the same amount of inspiration we get from someone’s positive message instagram post from our time in Scripture, granting ourselves just about the same extent of time to read both. This seems to be even more true when it comes to time in the words of the prophets, the Old Testament chock full of books that seem less than quotable. Although these prophets have spoken to a particular place and time, something that should be understood and known, like most things that seem quite foreign to us, there is always a thread that translates and speaks to our own particular place and time. I’ve heard it said time and time again, although the Bible wasn’t written to us, it is for us. We should pay attention to what’s happening not only in the lives of whom it was written to, but from there move into a contemplation worthy of a check in our own lives.

Much like any of our favorite books, the setting is really important in understanding the story. We need to go back, even before the setting of Amos, to understand what is happening here in our text. History here in Amos’ time has repeated itself, which is irony, because where we flip back to in order to try and grasp what is occurring is also another echoed piece; it looks as if the Israelites do not want to learn what is clearly being taught, even with the consequences being as drastic as they are.

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.
— 1 Kings 12:25-33

Jeroboam, with his new Kingdom of ten tribes after the disastrous split caused by Rehoboam, creates a religion that would have seemed familiar to his people, however, mixed in with his need to have political stability. This not only echoes a different golden calf incident (Exodus 32), but also echoes the same insecurities that the first king of Israel, Saul, had. Out of fear in his heart that he would lose the Kingdom he was given, Jeroboam creates a new way and new places in order for his people to worship Yahweh. His hope was that by ensuring that his people didn’t have to go to Judah to worship God, they wouldn’t leave him entirely; setting up new cultic sites so that his well-being would be secured and that they were still worshipping the God of their ancestors. He is just a verse away from having a man of God come from Judah to confront him. We are face to face with a very forgetful man.

Here we are in Amos’ time, with ironically so another Jeroboam, King of Israel, who needs to hear this message from this very man of God from Judah. This message, similarly prophesied not only in 1 Kings 13, but also in 1 Kings 14, is now watching itself unfold before them, with grace and time seemingly exhausted to the point of exile and death. When our God comes, He makes a difference. It is clear that although worship of God has been happening in this area, it is vain, self-serving, empty.

For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing.” Seek the LORD and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth! He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name; who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress. They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 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. 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. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. 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. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
— Amos 5:4-15

The people that Amos prophesies to are those who have muddled their religiosity together with their politics not in a way that speaks to love others, but to protect themselves. They are a people of affluence, enjoying the blatant exploitation of the poor, and basking in their great profit margins all the while making their regular sacrifices on the altars at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba. They have sought God, because they know He is the one that brings the benefit, the true life abundant, all the while forgetting who this God is that they worship and what His benefits actually call them to. Their syncretism is horrifyingly stark, and I get quite close to laughing and saying the words, “not me.”

Yet, it is me. It is me every time I choose loving myself over the greatest commandments, which I wish wasn’t as often as it was. It is me every time I don’t allow what I believe to actually penetrate into my heart, and bleed out onto the places in which I walk. It is me every time I look over my sins and call them insignificant in the face of a God who is holy and just. It is me every time I do not think that repentance is the way to life, running from the Cross as a sign to what actual abundance is in a world that values the individual over the other. Although I may not be making ritual sacrifices, there are often times I participate willingly in the act J. A. Motyer calls pretense, bowing down to a god I have made with my own hands so that I might not have to actually be dependent upon him.

This I know is not just my story. We are face to face with our very forgetful selves.

So here is our starting point, where we can allow the work of the Holy Spirit to breathe into us a new breath, where we can allow Scripture to do it’s work of correcting and training us up into righteousness, where we can speak words of a prophet of old into our hearts as well as to speak a new language of prophetic witness to others. When our God comes, He makes a difference. May this be true of us as our own lives become different, but also that those who have been called to mirror our God in this world would seek His face and labor for His justice here and now to make a difference.