May 16, 2004

Playing Church

Preacher: Randy Smith Series: Miscellaneous Scripture: Amos 5:21–23


Playing Church

Amos 5:21-23
Sunday, May 16, 2004
Pastor Randy Smith

One of my greatest passions before I entered the ministry was coaching football. The first week of the season was always very predictable. The practice field would teem with dozens of young men anxious for an opportunity to experience the glory inherited with the sport. However, a few double sessions in late August made wearing that game jersey on Fridays no longer as impressive. Getting clocked from behind by a blitzing linebacker made many doubt their devotion to the sport. Studying playbooks, practicing daily, maintaining eligibility, observing curfews made the game more work than fun. That helmet that they donned with such pride on day one was nothing more than a reminder of sweat and headaches.

Many at this point begin to question their commitment to the sport. What they originally thought would be easy and glorious actually turned out to an experience of dedication, discipline and hard work. Some quit. Others who should have departed as well, remained affiliated with the team. Consequently, their commitment was weak and their devotion was half-hearted. Often times they hurt the team through their poor example. Many times coaches required these young men to turn in their jerseys for the good of the team.

I've witnessed this same pattern during my years of managing a beach. The glory of being a lifeguard soon wears off when folks truly understand the demands of the job.

The same could be said for many men who enter positions of church leadership. Within a few months after ordination, many pastors and deacons realize: the responsibilities are time consuming, the standards are high, the work is relentless, the appreciation is minimal, the faults are magnified, the heartache is enormous, and the commitment is ongoing. The office of pastor and deacon no longer appears as glorious once the honeymoon has ended and the reality of the work has set in.

Though you may not be a football player, a lifeguard or a church leader, these illustrations apply to all of you as those who profess to be Christians. The first few months were great. You trusted Christ. You were welcomed into the flock. You got baptized. You began reading your Bible. You attended whenever the doors were open. But you failed to consider the cost. Reality set in: persecution, sin from other brothers and sisters in Christ, events conflicting with church activities, daily Bible reading and prayer, repentance of the "little sins," discipleship, loving the unlovable, family devotions, personal evangelism, ministry. You discover that the Christian life expects more from you than you first realized.

You do not walk away from the faith, but you settle into a comfortable position of mediocrity. You go through the motions and appear very spiritual to others, but on the inside your heart has grown cold. You may claim to be a Christian. You may still wear the "game jersey," but your Christian life has become nothing but a lifeless routine. Your passionate relationship with Jesus has become nothing more than an external show of religion. You begin to "play church."

We need to ask the question, how does God feel about this? How does God feel when uncommitted followers come before Him in worship? How does He feel about make-believe worship? Well, through the sufficiency of the Scriptures we have an answer.

Israel suffered with the same problem, and God sent His Word through the prophet Amos. And his comments nearly 3,000 years ago carry the same weight today. They convicted my heart and I trust they will convict yours as well. The objective this morning is to discern God's attitude toward lifeless worship; people who worship the right God, in the right way, but with the wrong heart. The sermon points are entitled: what the people want, what God gets, what God wants and what the people get.

Before we begin, allow me to provide some background on the prophet Amos. Throughout the Northern Kingdom's approximate 200 years of existence God sent numerous prophets to bring forth His Word. Of these many prophets, only two could be considered writing prophets as we find books bearing their name contained in the pages of Scripture. One of them was Hosea who emphasized God's attributes of love, mercy and forgiveness - and then we have Amos. Amos could be considered the most direct and incisive prophet found in the Bible. While the prophets often balanced God's judgment with His blessing, Amos on the contrary uses only the last five verses of his letter to offer any words of consolation and promise.

Throughout the book of Amos we receive a lesson about the character of God so often omitted from many pulpits today. It's a lesson that declares that God is also just, holy, righteous and wrathful. But when we consider these attributes, we must always remember that God in His love and mercy sent His prophet Amos in hopes that the nation of Israel would repent and be spared the coming destruction.

Although Amos was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom, his beginning can be traced back to the small Southern Kingdom town of Tekoa located about 12 miles south of Jerusalem. Amos was not of noble birth. Additionally, we read from his account that his occupation was herding sheep (1:1) with a supplementary income from tending sycamore fruit (7:14). I believe it was the physical work of shepherding and harsh wilderness of Tekoa that prepared Amos to proclaim God's Word before the religious people of his day with boldness and confidence. Amos' name in Hebrew literally means "burden-bearer" and his burden was to declare judgment to rebellious Israel.

Jeroboam II ruled Israel during the time of Amos and had brought Israel to prosperity only second to the era of Solomon. During his reign Israel extended their borders and their economic circumstances were almost ideal. They were a military powerhouse. They enjoyed security from their foes and luxurious living. Surely Israel based on their success felt that God was pleased. "Why should we believe a message of doom from a lowly shepherd?" "Our success is a clear indication of God's blessings." "The other prophets are all proclaiming peace and safety." "Captivity? What nation could possibly attempt to overthrow Israel?"

Little did they know that within three short decades God would raise up the relatively weak nation of Assyria to destroy Israel and lead its people into bondage. Because unfortunately below the strong surface, below the prosperity, below the luxury, Israel was a moral wimp. They with their calloused hearts and spiritually blinded eyesight had violated God's law and were guilty of idolatry, greed, materialism, oppressing the poor, deceit, self-righteousness, and empty ritualism. Their worship was simply going through the motions. God sent His Word through the prophet Amos for Israel and for us this morning.

1. WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT (as it relates to God and religion)

Let's first begin with "What the People Want"

In his book Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof maintains that God in His common grace enables man to desire truth, external morality and certain forms of religion. Throughout the ages we've seen even the most primitive tribe practice some form of religion, some expression of faith toward a "higher power." Man in his core is religious. In the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics we find hundreds of ways people have tried to satisfy their religious cravings. Man is forever seeking answers from a supernatural power, hope from an unknown deity and favor from a pagan god.

Unfortunately, unless God chooses to reveal himself these people are forever lost in their false sense of security. Or as Paul said of the false teachers in 2 Timothy 3:7 "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." But when speaking of Israel, God did call them to Himself as His special possession. Romans 9:4 says to Israel "belongs the adoption of sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises."

In His mercy God chose to have favor on Israel and bless them beyond measure. He desired to be their Father and they His children requiring obedience on their behalf. But we know from the pages of the Old Testament the people would not obey. Even after numerous admonitions (Am. 5:4, 5:6, 5:14), Israel followed in the footsteps of other pagan nations pursuing idols more than their relationship with Almighty God. Even after all God had demonstrated and promised, they at best could only maintain an external form of religion. Therefore, in the second half of Amos 5, God goes for the juggler. He attacks the very hope of Israel, namely the false sense of security they claimed in their election. He denounced their unacceptable worship. You can imagine the surprise

Chapter 5, beginning in verse 18. "Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD, For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you? It will be darkness and not light; As when a man flees from a lion And a bear meets him, Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall And a snake bites him. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness instead of light, Even gloom with no brightness in it" (Am. 5:18-20).

This passage reveals the theology of their day, which apparently believed that the Day of the Lord would be a time when God would act on Israel's behalf. Unfortunately they were mistaken. This Day in which God reveals Himself as Lord over all would include judgment on their heathen enemies, but it will also include judgment on them because of their unfaithfulness. 1 Peter 4:17 says judgment always begins "with the household of God."

Furthermore, their election as a nation was not an automatic guarantee of God's favor either. In vs. 19 God concludes this section with two clear metaphors of Israel's false security and doom. Although they "flee from a lion" thinking they are out of the woods "a bear meets (them)" or though they seek safety "at home" they will be "bitten by a snake." In a nutshell God says, "Why are you longing for the day? It's not going to come in a way that you expect it! As a matter of fact the day will be darkness and not light for you Israel, gloom with no brightness (cf. verse 20)"

In summary: What do the people want? The people want God working by their conditions. The people want a God on demand. The people want blessings without obedience. And the people want religion without a relationship. Is that beginning to sound like the church in America?


Naturally, a low view of God will produce weak worship. That leads us to the second point, "What God Gets."

I believe worship can be defined as a continuous act to bring glory to God through our daily activities. So when we consider Israel's apostate nature throughout the week what makes us think that God would find their worship acceptable on those savored religious holidays. Allow me to read shock number 2.

Beginning in 5:21, God says, "I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps" (Am. 5:21-23)

Israel's downfall began from the conception of their nation, through their first king Jeroboam I. In the account mentioned in 1 Kings 12 we read about his constructing new sanctuaries in Dan and Bethel in a fear that his new citizens would migrate to Judah and their hearts would return to Rehoboam. So in a lack of trust for the Lord he not only erected new sanctuaries, but also instituted new symbols, priests and festivals. All this to be condemned by a prophet of the Lord, opened the door wide open for false, idolatrous and empty religion.

So picture Israel, laden with evil and injustice devoid of any personal commitment to God, going through the motions of public worship commanded through the Mosaic Law (burnt offering-Lev. 1) (grain offering-Lev. 2) (peace offerings-Lev. 3). To the observer they had an appearance of devotion. They felt they were doing what God desired of them, however God told them to stop! As a matter of fact, in verse 21 He said, "I hate, I reject your festivals."

God's hatred was so vehement, that the same Hebrew word "hate" was used earlier in vs. 15 when He told Israel to hate evil and love good. The grammar suggests a strong hostility of divine distaste. Sadly, that hatred was directed toward the Israelites and their religion, the very thing commanded by the Lord that they thought pleased the Lord. Pagan religion fails when it stops short of meeting the true God. But Israel in seeking to meet the true God saw their religion fall short because it aroused the anger of God.

God said He refused to "delight in" (verse 21) their solemn assemblies. Literally this phrase means, "to smell" or to "inhale with delight." It can be contrasted with Genesis 8 when God smelled the sweet aroma and was pleased with the sacrifice from Noah. No part of their worship was acceptable or pleasing to the Lord.

So God says, I close My nose to your sacrifices (verse 21). I cover My eyes to your peace offerings (verse 22) and now in verse 23, I plug My ears to your music.

Music was a substantial part of worship with the Israelites. Even as now, it is a means for the worshipper to express his love and devotion to the Lord. But no matter how beautiful these melodies were to the human ear from the many vocalists and instrumentalists, God received it only as noise, a "clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1) if you will. It would be no different than us ignoring God all week and then entering this sanctuary and singing, "I love you Lord!" As a matter of fact, Amos 5 is the only place in Scripture (as far as I have discovered) where God basically tells His people to unplug the organ, cover the piano keys and fire the choir because He refuses to listen.


We've looked at what the people want and what God gets. Now let's turn our attention to what God wants. In other words, what does God expect from those who worship Him?

Why was God so opposed to the Israelites' worship? The problem was not with God or the institutions that He ordained, but rather the problem was with the heart of the people.

First of all, they practiced these sacrifices for the sole purpose of manipulating God in a desire to receive His favor and blessings. Instead of coming into His holy presence with a clean, humble heart, seeking to do His will, God became nothing more than a tradition or a genie in the bottle. He became the "get out of jail free card." Much like our church today. Sin, make amends for your sin, and continue in your sin without ever a thought of repentance believing that God will still bless you. Their religion made a mockery of everything God expects from His children and everything God has revealed to us about His holy nature.

Second, in their attempt to uphold the law prescribed in the religious ceremonies, they completely ignored the heart of the law, which is a true love for God and concern for others. God expected continual obedience and devotion from Israel not just during the times when they felt like being religious. You see, apart from daily obedience we have no basis to come before God in corporate worship. God knows our heart and nothing is more hateful or despicable to Him than spiritual hypocrisy.

We find this attitude of obedience associated with true worship throughout the Scriptures. Allow me to throw some examples at you from the Old Testament itself.

  • 1 Samuel 15:22-23: "Samuel said, 'Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king.'"

  • Leviticus 26:27, 31: "Yet if in spite of this you do not obey Me, but act with hostility against Me…I will lay waste your cities as well, and will make your sanctuaries desolate; and I will not smell your soothing aromas"

  • Psalm 51:16-17, 19: "For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; Thou art not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise…Then Thou will delight in righteous sacrifices, In burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar.

  • Isaiah 1:11-15: "'What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?' Says the LORD. 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies-- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.'"

  • Jeremiah 7:22-23: "For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, 'Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be my people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you."

  • Hosea 6:6: "For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."

  • Micah 6:6-8: "With what shall I come to the LORD And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?"

I believe at this point we need to ask the question: What was the specific act of disobedience with the nation of Israel that provoked God to refuse their worship? The infraction is explained in one verse yet we see it mentioned throughout the book. Amos 5:24, "But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Generally speaking, the nation needed a reformation in their social order. Specifically, the people were exploiting others by unjust means of bribery, partiality and dishonesty through a spirit lacking any compassion and kindness. Or as one commentator put it, "They were praying on their knees in the temple, and preying on their neighbors elsewhere."

In verse 12 of chapter 6 we read, "Do horses run on rocks? Or does one plow them with oxen? Yet you have turned justice into poison And the fruit of righteousness into wormwood." Righteousness is the condition that makes justice possible. Righteousness can be defined as being upright, morally pure or living a life conformed to God and His Word. Justice on the other hand is a fruit of righteousness defined (in this context) by the fair treatment of others in daily personal and social life. A token, occasional practice of justice and righteousness will not do. In order for worship to be acceptable according to verse 24, justice and righteousness must roll down like the waters of an ever-flowing stream. (The verb use describes a powerful roll of waves or billows)

God expected their justice and righteousness to constantly flood the land. He wanted Israel to be drowned with personal goodness and integrity. Then and only then would their worship be one acceptable in His eyes. God wants His people to know that religious sacrifice is of a small account with God in comparison to our continual moral duties to love God and love our neighbor.

How are we doing as a church which this morning comes before God in worship? Does justice and righteousness flow from the people in this church "like an ever-flowing stream? Has a lack of justice and righteousness in our personal lives made our worship unacceptable before God? Let's go further. Is there anything about us that makes our worship offensive to the living God?

We love doctrine. Do we love one another? Do we enjoy being together, thriving on opportunities for biblical fellowship? Would we willingly lay down our lives for each other or are we more concerned with preferences, gossip, lack of forgiveness and competition? Are we committed to the needy, the poor, widows, orphans that which God calls pure and undefiled religion? Do we have a heart for the lost; those destined to suffer eternity in hell? Do we enter these doors with pure hearts, having confessed our sin to God, with a heart prepared to worship? Is our corporate worship an overflow of our individual worshipping lives? Does the Lord have first-place in all our family decisions? Has our worship become mundane or routine? Do we focus on the Lord during the music and teaching of His Wo His Word or is our mind drifting and consumed with the passing elements of this world? Are we using our gifts to serve this body in a ministry motivated not by compulsion, but rather gratitude? Have we submitted our wallets to God? Are we daily spending time in the Word and prayer? Are we living a life fully yielded to the Lord? Are we committed to spiritual growth? Is Jesus Christ really our first love?

You might be wondering, "Pastor, why are you preaching this sermon. Do you see warning signs that indicate we may be falling away from God?" No, I see actually the opposite. In my estimation, I believe our church has never been healthier. I preach this message for continual self-examination lest we fall into a standard of mediocrity. "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12; cf. Pr. 16:18). Success breeds unhealthy contentment.

It's easy to play the comparison game with other churches. Maybe we look pretty good. Israel looked pretty good when she compared herself to other nations as well. But what does God think about the Grace Tabernacle? What does He think about the people faithfully gathered every Sunday morning? We serve the right God and go through the right motions (just like Israel), but is our worship acceptable or offensive in His sight by the way we conduct our lives throughout the week?


As we move to the final point, "What the People Get," we'll briefly examine the result of those who approach the Almighty God unacceptably.

Verse 27 reads, "'Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,' says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts." God will not allow His people to make a mockery of His name. God is not a game! One commentator said, "True religion touches all life with holiness and obedience to His Word. He will not endlessly live with the stench of false religion in His nostrils, in His nose and in His ears.

Verse 27 was fulfilled for Israel in 722 BC when Assyria conquered the Israel and led the people away from the land of promise and away from the immediate presence of God.

If we take verse 27 in reference with verse 26, God is basically sending the Israelites back to their place of idolatry. He enables them to carry their false religion back to its homeland and return idols to the place of their origin. In other words, they are to go into exile beyond Damascus to the place that their hearts and minds have already strayed.

Today we no longer approach God through the sacrifice of bulls and goats, but rather through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Today, God no longer leads His people into physical exile, but He does lead them into spiritual exile by removing His spirit of blessing from upon the church. Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (Jn. 14:15)." God will not accept the lip service we bring Him on Sunday morning if we have failed to love Him throughout the week with half-hearted obedience. He can't if He remains true to His character as a God worthy to be feared and worshipped.

We have a lot to learn from this lesson in the history of Israel. Have we been faithful? Is our worship acceptable to God? Or are we guilty of playing church? The Lord be our judge and may He have mercy on us.

other sermons in this series