The Thorns of Being Self-Centered
Sermon Text: Amos 4:1-13
Sermon Theme: Be watchful to escape the snares of being self-centered — self-absorption, self-deception; self-reliance. For ignoring God’s disciplinary acts and His calls to repentance leads to a final sentence of disaster.
What is gotten by extortion is commonly used to provide for the flesh, and to fulfill the lusts of self. What is gotten by oppression cannot be enjoyed with satisfaction. How miserable are those whose confidence in unscriptural observances only prove that they believe a lie! Let us see to it that our faith, hope, and worship, are warranted by the Divine Word.
See the folly of carnal hearts; they wander from one creature to another, seeking for something to satisfy, and labor for that which satisfies not; yet, after all, they will not incline their ear to Him in whom they might find all they can want. Preaching the gospel is as rain, and every thing withers where this rain is wanting. It would be well if people were as wise for their souls as they are for their bodies; and, when they have not this rain near, would go and seek it where it is to be had. As the Israelites persisted in rebellion and idolatry, the Lord was coming against them as an adversary. Ere long, we must meet our God in judgment; but we shall not be able to stand before him, if he tries us according to our doings. If we would prepare to meet our God with comfort, at the awful period of his coming, we must now meet him in Christ Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, who came to save lost sinners. We must seek him while he is to be found.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- What is luxury? The word luxury comes from a Latin word that means “excessive.” It originally referred to plants that grow abundantly but then it came to refer to people who have an abundance of money, time, and comfort, which they use for themselves as they live in aimless leisure. It isn’t a sin to be rich or to have the comforts of life, if this is God’s will for you. Abraham and David were wealthy men. Yet they used what they had for God’s glory. In the eyes of people in the Third World, most of the citizens of the Western world, including the poor, are very wealthy. What the Western world considers necessities are luxuries to the citizens of other nations: things like thermostat-controlled heat and air conditioning, refrigerators, automobiles, adequate medical care, telephones, and abundantly available electricity and fuel. Luxury doesn’t mean owning abundant possessions so much as allowing possessions to own us. To live in luxury is to use what we have only for our own enjoyment and to ignore the needs of others. It means being irresponsible in the way we use our wealth, wasting it on futile pleasures instead of using it for the good of others and the glory of God.
- Who was committing the sins in Israel? “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan!” (Amos 4:1). Throughout history women have served as “decorations” for the rich and powerful. In Western society, the more beautiful the woman, the more status is lent to her male escort or husband. The more lavishly the woman is outfitted and pampered, the more evidence there is of her man’s wealth and power. So, it was too in Amos’s time and in the following century (cf. Isaiah 3:16-24). The women in this oracle in Amos are symbols of the godless pride and depravity of Israel’s upper classes giving evidence of the sins corrupting both male and female. Amos therefore attacks the women-symbols and what they represent, and declares that their end has come. He does so by turning them into nonhuman objects. They are not beautiful; they are fat cows, like those of Bashan. Why did Amos use this image? Not because these women might have been overweight and looked like cows, but because by their sins they were fattening themselves up for the coming slaughter. Both they and their husbands were living in luxury, while the poor of the land were suffering because these same men had exploited them and robbed them of money and land. What will happen to them? What do farmers eventually do with cattle that have been fattened up? They lead them away to be killed and butchered. Amos described what would happen when the Assyrians invaded Israel, how they would capture these women and treat them like cattle. The Assyrian practice was to put hooks in the noses or lower lips of their prisoners, attach ropes, and lead them away like animals, either to captivity or to death. What must not be missed in this fierce address to the ruthless women, whose closest biblical counterpart is Isaiah 3:6-26, is the fact that they are held personally accountable. Whatever complicity their husbands or masters may have had in their crime, here they alone are indicted and their punishment depicted. Nothing in their social system, patriarchal though it may have seemed by other standards, gave them any excuse when the days of judgment came. For Paul wrote, “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
- What difference does it make what worshipers are seeking so long as they are finding answers to a felt need? God answers that it makes all the difference — not only for this world but for eternity. We see this in the warnings God gave Israel to turn them from this false religious path: famine, drought, crop blight, disease, and war (Amos 4:6-11). These were given so the people may awake from their lethargy, turn from sin, and seek after Him, yet they did not. There is no seeking after God that is not at the same time a seeking after good and a shunning of evil. There is no seeking after God that is not at the same time a seeking after justice. Anything else is hypocrisy. But where God is sought, there is life. He is the source of life. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Even though we have sinned in the past, there is abundant mercy with the Lord.
- Why are Israel’s worshipers not seeking God? For what is religion if it is not a seeking after God? Are not all religions attempts to find him? Not in God’s opinion. In fact, the opposite is the case. Religions are really attempts to get away from God. That is why there are so many of them. When God begins to get close to a person, one of the easiest ways to still the prodding of the Holy Spirit is to continue to hang on to sin and the control of one’s own life through our own religious practices. It’s very easy for us to join a large, happy religious crowd, enthusiastically sing rousing songs, and put money in the offering plate, and yet not be changed in our hearts. The test of a spiritual experience is not “Do I feel good?” or “Did we have a big crowd and a good time?” The real test is “Do I know God better, and am I more like Jesus Christ?” The people in Amos’s day didn’t return home determined to help the poor, feed the hungry, and care for the widows and orphans. They went home with the same selfish hearts that they had when they left home, because their “worship” was only an empty ritual (Isaiah 1:11-17). Whether we’re looking at the broader religious scene or the services in our local churches, it takes spiritual discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff. We need to ask: Where is prayer in this meeting? Is God getting the glory? Is there a brokenness before Him? Does the fruit remain, or is it gone when the meeting is over and the enthusiasm dies down? Are we overwhelmed by the holiness and the glory of God, or are we just applauding religious activities? Are we like the Jews in Amos’s day, only going to Bethel and sinning? Therefore, it becomes necessary for God’s people to examine their hearts and make certain that their motives are right and that what they do glorifies the Lord. For inauthentic worship can entice you to think you are right with God when you have lost all touch with Him.
- What’s wrong with worship that makes us feel good? By definition, worship isn’t about the worshipper. Worship is to focus on the One that is worshipped, regardless of how we feel about it in our human activity or enjoyment. Israel had deceived themselves, thinking they could do what they thought was right regardless of what the LORD has revealed in His Word. They were reliant upon their own feelings, interpretations of events and understandings while rejecting the Law of the Lord, not returning to the LORD in repentance and faith, not being a people of humility, justice, mercy and righteousness — a people of self-deceiving showy worship. You might ask: With sacrifices so important in Israel’s system of worship, why did Amos condemn their practices? Douglas Stuart gives three aspects of how worship became such a rebellious sin: 1) they worshipped at an improper locale; 2) they worshipped in an improper manner (via illegitimate priests, idols, etc.); and 3) they substituted worship for righteous behavior. The central rite representing and cementing the relationship between God and people became sin when people participated for their own pleasure, in their own ways, for their own purposes.
- In the matter of religion, is there a wide divergence in the mind of God and the minds of fallen human beings? What is pleasing to God in our religious practices? In most people’s minds religion is a very good thing. Depending on their training, they would prefer one or another of the world’s religions or even one or another of the many forms of Christianity. But to their way of thinking even the less desirable forms of religion are better than no religion at all. They suppose, on the assumption that God thinks as they do, that God is basically pleased with all religious practices. This is not how God thinks. On the contrary, not only is God not pleased with our religious practices, He is actually very much displeased. Even more, He hates, He despises religion as defined by man (Amos 5:21-22). This does not mean that there is no worship whatever that is pleasing to God, of course. In other places, God instructs us how we should worship and informs us of what is pleasing to him. But religion as religion is abhorrent. That is the point. The only thing that is pleasing is a genuine, thankful, and obedient response to God growing life that has been transformed by him. For without the true God, religion without the reality, means nothing — for God will not be with false worshipers in their depraved, self-centered worship. Deuteronomy 4:29-31 and Deuteronomy 30:1-10 showed Israel how to respond to God’s judgment. God’s discipline has a strong purpose — to lead His people to repent, to turn away from their frivolous, God-ignoring lifestyle, and to turn back to a God-fearing lifestyle. Israel refused to recognize God’s sovereignty. They thought they could get away with worship the way they planned it and life the way they enjoyed it. But God hates this kind of popular religion since there is no sense of sin on the part of the worshiper. This is very clear in Amos, for the one glaring omission in the list of offerings that the people are said to have brought to God is the sin offering. They brought “thank offerings” and “freewill offerings.” They even boast about them (Amos 4:5), so that everyone will know how generous and pious they are. But there are no sin offerings, presumably because they had no sense that they were sinful. Much religious practice is like this. The apostle Paul faced it in his day in those who claimed to know the law and keep it, but who actually broke it and were known to have done so. He wrote to them: “If you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Romans 2:17-24). As Paul goes on to show, all are sinners — the religious person as well as the pagan or nonreligious person. Consequently, any religious practice without a sense of sin and a need for atonement for sin and forgiveness from God is hypocrisy and an offense both to God and man.
- Does a person who attends church regularly have any reason to fear God’s call to prepare to meet Him? There is no more terrible a thought than meeting God one day without a mediator, no one to advocate for you. Just you before the LORD, the God of hosts. For God has a dispute with us because of sin. Sin is transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4) and rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18). God hates sin, and sin stands between all of us and Him. The rightful punishment for sin is eternity in Hell. Nothing we could do on our own would be sufficient to mediate between ourselves and God. No amount of good works or law-keeping makes us righteous enough to stand before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). Because of our sinful condition, human beings need a mediator to negotiate peace with God — and that person is Jesus Christ. There is no other go-between. Nothing but faith in Jesus Christ is sufficient to bridge the gap between sinful humanity and a Holy God. As the one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ now rules in the hearts of believers and “is at the right hand of God … interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). We can live in the secure knowledge that, in the end, Christ will put every enemy “under his feet,” including “the last enemy,” which is death itself (1 Corinthians 15:24-27). But woe to those countless people that love religious activities, that are self-reliant and love to preach and do many mighty works in Jesus’ name; who will perish eternally in Hell (Matthew 7:21-23). Hell will be full of religious people that suffered. And much of that suffering being gracious wounds from a good, wise, merciful, kind, heavenly Father. For the wounds were intended to wake us up. But many will not return to the LORD and they will perish.
- Who is this LORD of hosts? The name “LORD of hosts” occurs some 261 times in the Old Testament Scriptures. The word LORD, capitalized, refers to Yahweh, the self-existent, redemptive God. The word hosts (Hebrew word sabaoth) meaning “armies” which is a reference to the angelic armies of heaven — another way of saying “LORD of hosts” is “God of the armies of heaven.” Eventually, Yahweh of armies will put down all rebellion (Isaiah 24:21-23) and establish His Kingdom from Mt. Zion (Isaiah 31:4-5; Isaiah 34:12). As the LORD of hosts, God is the all-powerful Ruler over the entire universe. All power and authority are His. He alone intervenes to provide victory for His people. He alone brings world peace. At the same time, He is available to hear the prayers of His people (Psalm 80:19). There is no other God like this. The sovereign LORD of hosts has the grace to always be there for the one who comes to Him through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The King of glory, who commands the armies of heaven and who will eventually defeat all His enemies in this world, is none other than Jesus Christ. He is the LORD of hosts (Revelation 19:11-20). But what was Israel’s reaction as Amos spoke in the name of the LORD, the God of hosts? The God who is never irrelevant to His people’s needs, nor out of touch with their fears, life’s needs and anxieties. Repentance was the door for their safety — providing the way of repentance for the people of God to come within the sphere of the almighty, transforming and ever-present power. What a tragedy that even God’s discipline and punishment failed to catch Israel’s attention. Caught in sin’s trap, Israel did not hear or respond to God’s call to repentance! Are we any better?
Instructions for saving audio file…
To save audio to your local disk, click on the SAVE button above, then use the right mouse button on the AUDIO (MP3) and finally click on Save Link As to specify the target directory.