As you read through the Bible you will find people who unexpectedly met God and they never forgot that moment for the rest of their lives. I can only imagine what it would be like to suddenly be summoned by God. To be minding your own business and then suddenly see a bush on fire and hear a voice calling, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5 NIV) Moses hid his face. I think I might have run for the hills. Or, how about you are heading towards your destination when out of nowhere a brilliant flash of light is followed by, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4 NIV) Saul was blinded by the light, but he was also blindsided by the Lord. Saul would be changed forever. There are others that we read about in God’s Word whose encounter with the Lord didn’t involve the “special effects” of burning bushes or flashes of brilliant light, but they met God and their lives were never the same again.
In Genesis 16, we read about a woman named Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Hagar and Sarah got crossways and Sarah had Abraham show Hagar and her son, Ishmael, the door. Sitting alone in the wilderness with no food or water and waiting for her son to die, God intervened in Hagar and Ishmael’s life. After her encounter she said, “You are the God who sees me…” (Genesis 16:13 NIV)
In Luke 1 the angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and we read that Mary was “greatly troubled.” The Greek word which is translated, “troubled,” the word, “??????????” (diatarasso), can mean “to agitate greatly, trouble greatly, or to be confused.” Mary was caught off guard. She wasn’t agitated or angry. She was bewildered, she was perplexed, she was awestruck and confused; as I am sure we all would have been given her circumstance.
In Genesis 32 Jacob wrestled the angel and after the final buzzer sounded, Jacob named the “wrestling mat,” the place where he wrestled the Angel of the Lord, “Peniel.” Why “Peniel?” Because Jacob said, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (Genesis 32:30 NIV) Jacob limped away from Peniel a changed man.
Each of these stories, and many more, prove the point I am trying to make—when a person meets God it is an opportunity for a complete transformation of the person’s life. There is another side of “meeting God” that is filled with utter dread and sheer terror. In Amos 4, after many, many years of being blessed by God and counseled to repent of their sins, change their ways, God’s people were told, “Prepare to meet your God!” The Israelites had met God at many times and in various ways in times past throughout their history, but this meeting would prove to be altogether different. It would not be a day of deliverance, but a day of judgment. Let’s read our Scripture for today and see what we can learn.
1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” 2 The Sovereign LORD has sworn by his holiness: “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks. 3 You will each go straight out through breaks in the wall, and you will be cast out toward Harmon, ” declares the LORD. 4 “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years. 5 Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings– boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,” declares the Sovereign LORD. 6 “I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 7 “I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up. 8 People staggered from town to town for water but did not get enough to drink, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 9 “Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 10 “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 11 “I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 12 “Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel.” 13 He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth– the LORD God Almighty is his name. (Amos 4:1-13 NIV)
Amos, in chapter four, shows us that a misguided faith leads to a misguided lifestyle. The people of Israel were very religious. You can see that from reading through the verses that we have just read aloud. They were going to church, observing religious festivals, and bringing their offerings, but Amos makes it very clear that their worship was not pleasing to God when he says, 4 “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more.” (Amos 4:4a NIV) Their misguided, self-styled worship of God led to their misguided, self-pleasing lifestyle.
Amos was not a politically correct preacher. He wasn’t trying to win the hearts and minds of the people. He didn’t engage in a public opinion poll or organize “focus groups” before he delivered his message. When God called him to speak to the people of the northern kingdom Amos made sure that he delivered the message that had been given to him regardless of the response it would elicit from the people. You only need to read Amos 4:1 to see what I am talking about. Amos says,
1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (Amos 4:1 NIV)
You read that right. Amos called the women of Samaria “cows.” He said, “Hey, listen up you heifers.” Bashan was famous for its fierce, fat bulls. (Deuteronomy 32:14; Ezekiel 39:18) Needless to say, Amos had the attention of all of the women in the congregation. I attended lots of classes in Seminary and I’ve been to church conferences, but I’ve never had anyone tell me that calling the women of the church, “fat cows” or “heifers” is a good strategy for building the church. I don’t think that would work. It didn’t work in Amos’ day either. Amos wasn’t attempting to build the church. He wasn’t interested in gaining a following; he was delivering a message from God.
Why was Amos critical of the women of Samaria? Well, just read on in verse 4. They were oppressing the poor, crushing the needy, and demanding that their husbands provide whatever they needed so they could live their self-indulgent lifestyle. We’ve already learned from our study of Amos that the people of God were so busy gathering more and more for themselves that they were willing to take advantage of the poor to get even more. Amos doesn’t say that the women of Samaria neglected the poor or didn’t have time for the poor; he says that they oppressed the poor, they crushed the needy. They were willing to take advantage of the poor if it would serve to enhance their opulent lifestyles.
You have to remember, these were not some pagan women that Amos was addressing, these were the women of God who donned their Sunday best and frequented the king’s sanctuary on a regular basis. These were God’s women who had been called to be His hands and His feet in their community…and they were crushing the needy? What a stark contrast these women of Samaria were when compared to the godly woman of Proverbs 31. In verse 20 we read,
20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. (Proverbs 31:20 NIV)
Now that is a woman of God. The women of Samaria were not only oppressing those who were poor and needy, but they were demanding that their husbands do whatever they had to do to provide for their lavish wants. Amos’ language is ironic. You can’t see it in your English Bible, but in Hebrew the irony jumps out at you. The word which is translated, “husbands,” in your Bible is really, “Lord” or “Master” in Hebrew. There was little doubt who was the lord and master of the homes in Samaria and it wasn’t the men of the house.
Misguided worship leads to the living of a misguided life. The people of God had time and time again met God and had the opportunity to hear His word, change their ways, and live as His people, reflecting His heart to those in their community. Rather than heeding God’s counsel and changing their ways, they sought to change God. Take a look at Amos 4:4-5 with me.
4 “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more. Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years. 5 Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings– boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,” declares the Sovereign LORD. (Amos 4:4-5 NIV)
What is truly tragic about Amos’ call to “go to Bethel and sin” and “go to Gilgal and sin yet more” is that these sites had been two very important meeting places with God in the past. Jacob, when he was on the run from his brother, Esau, stopped to rest for the night. In the night he had a dream. In the dream he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway that reached all the way to heaven. In Genesis 28:13-15 we read,
13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15 NIV)
Jacob woke up from this dream and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it…”How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17 NIV) God reassured Jacob and reaffirmed the covenant that God had established with Abraham. Jacob took the stone that he had used for a pillow and made an altar out of it. He called that place “Bethel,” the “house of God.” Later, in Genesis 35, when Jacob was coming back from his trip, he stopped at the place where he had met God and remembered. It was a holy place.
Gilgal, the place where the Israelites in Amos’ day where sinning “yet more,” was a place where the Israelites had witnessed the mighty hand of God. God had led Joshua and the freed Hebrew slaves across the Jordan River on dry ground. In Joshua 4, after they crossed the Jordan, Joshua had the people set up 12 memorial stones so that future generations would know the mighty acts of God.
How did Bethel and Gilgal, the place where God’s people had met God in an unmistakable, life-changing way, become a place of sin, a place destined for destruction? Two hundred years before Amos walked up the steps of the king’s sanctuary at Bethel; Jeroboam set out to redefine what it meant to worship God. Read 1 Kings 12:31-33 with me.
31 Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. 32 He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. 33 On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings. (1 Kings 12:31-33 NIV)
I want you to notice that Jeroboam didn’t do away with the place of worship; he didn’t disband the priesthood, or abolish the offerings. He just put a slight twist on everything God had told His people. “It’s not that important that you worship in Jerusalem, you can worship in Bethel, or Gilgal, or Beersheba. It’s not important that you be a Levite to be a priest, we will open up the priesthood to everyone.”
Jeroboam created his own religious festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month which replaced the Feast of Tabernacles which was to be celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. (Leviticus 23:33-34) The Feast of Tabernacles was the most joyous celebration of the year for the Jews. It commemorated Israel’s living in temporary shelters while they were journeying through the wilderness. It was also a celebration of the last harvest of the year. It was a time when all Jews would go to Jerusalem to celebrate. Jeroboam probably substituted his own celebration because it would have had a wider appeal to the masses. God’s celebration included the last harvest of the year, but Jeroboam’s celebration coincided with the end of the Canaanite agricultural year.
In order to appeal to the broader population, Jeroboam also set up golden calves for the people to worship at Bethel and Dan. The golden calves had long been a part of the worship of the Canaanites, the people that were in the Promised Land before God’s people ever arrived there. The golden calves were substitutes for the temple of God in Jerusalem. In 1 Kings 12:28-29 we read,
28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. (1 Kings 12:28-29 NIV)
Substituting his own priesthood, his own temples, and his own religious festivals was a matter of convenience for Jeroboam. He said, “It’s just too much to ask of you to go all the way to Jerusalem to worship. Not to worry. We’ve fixed the problem. It is far more convenient for you to worship here at Bethel, or Dan, or Gilgal.”
I want you to notice something else about the feasts, celebrations, and offerings of those at Bethel and Gilgal. In verse 5 we notice that the people were bringing “thank offerings” and “freewill offerings,” but there is no mention that they ever brought a “sin offering.” There is no need to bring a sin offering when sin has been abolished, when all things have been deemed permissible, right?
I’m sure that Jeroboam and his successors who continued the changes that Jeroboam had implemented felt like many of us feel today. It’s not that what God has done isn’t good. God does good work, but we just need to tweak it, fine tune it, embellish it, and make it more appealing to a wider audience. We need to make God more accessible for more people. The basic program God has set forth can serve as a good starting point for us, but let’s get honest for a minute; we live in a different time than those who have gone before us. Times have changed. People have changed. Can you see how we get into trouble?
When I was in college I read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. It’s a classic. For those of you who have never read the book, let me give you a little background. Uncle Screwtape is a senior devil and big shot in the dark recesses of Hell. Screwtape’s nephew, a young devil named, Wormwood, is just getting his start in the diabolical business of leading people away from the One they call the Enemy (God). The book is a series of letters written by Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood has just been given his first assignment, a young man recently converted to Christ and working in a munitions factory during the war. Screwtape writes letters to Wormwood, giving him advice on how to lead the young man astray. In Letter 12, Screwtape writes,
You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
Your affectionate uncle,
The people of Bethel were still gathering for worship, they were still bringing their offerings. They may have changed the date of the celebration God had given them, but they did it for good reasons, they wanted to attract more people. We look back and read about the changes that Jeroboam and the people had made and we are astounded at what they did, but I’m sure at the time that the changes were made it all made perfect sense. “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one…”
Let’s leave Amos standing on the steps of the king’s sanctuary in Bethel and jump forward in time to the year 2011 in good ‘ol Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Are we as guilty as the people of Amos’ day? Have we substituted what we want for what God commands? Have we tweaked things so that they are more accessible to a broader population of people? Have we given God a makeover by only preaching or studying portions of God’s Word that cast Him in a more compassionate, more caring light? Have we dismissed some sections of God’s Word as only being relevant to a different people in a far removed culture? Have we synthesized the teachings of God’s Word with the teachings of other faiths or other philosophies? Have we, modern-day followers of Jesus, lowered the standards of God and began to call “good” what God calls “evil?” God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and said these words to His wayward people.
20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. 22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, 23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. (Isaiah 5:20-23 NIV)
Society may change. People may change. Societal norms may change. You can mark this down my friend—God never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The morality of our society has dramatically changed since I was a teenager, but God’s morality has never changed. We, if we are God’s people, are called to be “set apart” people. We are not to even attempt to fit in with our society and neither are we to adapt to the societal norms of an ever-changing society. We are to be the light in the midst of darkness so that others might see the hope that is found in Christ alone.
If we, like the people of Bethel, refuse God or continue to say that we are God’s people, but make the necessary changes to God’s commands so that we can go on living our lives as we see fit, then God will say to us as, He said to the people of Bethel—“Prepare to meet your God!” Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote these words 140 years ago, but they are as relevant this morning as the day he wrote them.
Think awhile upon Who it is that you have to meet! You must meet your God—your God! …That is, you must be examined, by unblind Omniscience. He who has seen your heart, and read your thoughts, and jotted down your affections, and remembered your idle words—you must meet Him. And infinite discernment you must meet—those eyes that never yet were duped. The God who will see through the veils of hypocrisy and all the concealments of formality. There will be no making yourself out to be better than you are before Him. You must meet Him who will read you as a man reads a book open before his eyes. (C.H. Spurgeon, Prepare To Meet Your God, March 27, 1870)
You and I can meet God and forever be changed or we can meet God, hear His voice calling us from darkness to light, and yet choose to live in the shadows. God’s patience has so freely been poured out upon us, but God will not be patient forever my friends. If you hear His voice calling you this morning then I urge you, I plead with you, to turn to Him in repentance and surrender.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
February 27, 2011