Amos 6

Amos 6

“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes! Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory, O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence? “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.” The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts: “I abhor the pride of Jacob and hate his strongholds, and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.” And if ten men remain in one house, they shall die. 10 And when one’s relative, the one who anoints him for burial, shall take him up to bring the bones out of the house, and shall say to him who is in the innermost parts of the house, “Is there still anyone with you?” he shall say, “No”; and he shall say, “Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord.” 11 For behold, the Lord commands, and the great house shall be struck down into fragments, and the little house into bits. 12 Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow there with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—13 you who rejoice in Lo-debar, who say, “Have we not by our own strength captured Karnaim for ourselves?” 14 “For behold, I will raise up against you a nation, O house of Israel,” declares the Lord, the God of hosts; “and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the Brook of the Arabah.”

When I was thirteen, the group Midnight Oil released their song “Beds are Burning.” Some of you may remember it. It is an arresting and memorable song with wonderfully odd lead vocals and a refrain that sticks in your head. The song is about (a) Aboriginal land rights in Australia and (b) the question of how a society that has wronged others can carry on in ease and celebration when people are suffering. Listen:

Out where the river broke
The bloodwood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam at forty-five degrees

The time has come to say “Fair’s fair”
To pay the rent, to pay our share
The time has come, a fact’s a fact
It belongs to them, let’s give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

The time has come to say “Fair’s fair”
To pay the rent now, to pay our share

Four wheels scare the cockatoos
From Kintore, east to Yuendemu
The Western Desert lives and breathes
In forty-five degrees

The time has come to say “Fair’s fair”
To pay the rent, to pay our share
The time has come, a fact’s a fact
It belongs to them, let’s give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

The time has come to say “Fair’s fair”
To pay the rent now, to pay our share
The time has come, a fact’s a fact
It belongs to them, we’re gonna give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

The two repeated questions in the song are key:

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?

Indeed! How can we carry on as if nothing is wrong when others are suffering and suffering, to some extent, because of the behavior of the dominant society?

This is not the first time such a question has been asked. The prophet Amos asked the same questions. In particular, he too spoke of beds of and of revelry when people were suffering and hurting. In Amos 6, the Lord will phrase the question like this: How can you be “at ease in Zion” knowing what you have done and knowing the devastation it has wrought? How can you dance when the earth is turning? How can you sleep when your beds are burning? How can you be at ease in Zion when the cries of the suffering have reached the ears of God and judgment is coming upon you?

Let us unpack this powerful idea of being at ease in Zion. What does that mean? Furthermore, how do you know if you are at ease in Zion?

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Matthew 24:1–14

Matthew 24

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

I must say, the Wikipedia article entitled “List of messiah claimants” is something to behold. Under the “Christian messiah claimants” heading, we find the following list of those who claimed to be Jesus or another Jesus or Jesus come again:

  • Ann Lee (1736–1784), a central figure to the Shakers, who thought she “embodied all the perfections of God” in female form and considered herself to be Christ’s female counterpart in 1772.
  • John Nichols Thom (1799–1838), who had achieved fame and followers as Sir William Courtenay and adopted the claim of Messiah after a period in a mental institute.
  • Abd-ru-shin (Oskar Ernst Bernhardt, 18 April 1875 – 6 December 1941), founder of the Grail Movement.
  • Lou de Palingboer (Louwrens Voorthuijzen) (1898-1968), a Dutch charismatic leader who claimed to be God as well as the Messiah from 1950 until his death in 1968.
  • Father Divine (George Baker) (c. 1880 –1965), an African American spiritual leader from about 1907 until his death, who claimed to be God.
  • André Matsoua (1899–1942), Congolese founder of Amicale, proponents of which subsequently adopted him as Messiah in the late 1920s.
  • Samael Aun Weor (1917–1977), born Víctor Manuel Gómez Rodríguez, Colombian citizen and later Mexican, was an author, lecturer and founder of the ‘Universal Christian Gnostic Movement’, according to him, ‘the most powerful movement ever founded’. By 1972, he referenced that his death and resurrection would occur before 1978.
  • Ahn Sahng-hong (1918–1985), founder of the World Mission Society Church of God and worshiped by the members as the Messiah.
  • Sun Myung Moon (1920–2012), founder and leader of the Unification Church established in Seoul, South Korea, who considered himself the Second Coming of Christ, but not Jesus himself. It is generally believed by Unification Church members (“Moonies”) that he was the Messiah and the Second Coming of Christ and was anointed to fulfill Jesus’ unfinished mission.
  • Anne Hamilton-Byrne (born Evelyn Grace Victoria Edwards; 30 December 1921 – 13 June 2019), founder of The Family, claimed to have been the reincarnation of Jesus.
  • Cho Hee-seung[ko] (1931–2004), founder of the Victory Altar New Religious Movement, which refers to him as “the Victor Christ” and “God incarnated”. Died in the midst of a series of legal battles in which he was alternately convicted and acquitted on charges fraud and instigation of the murders of multiple opponents.
  • Yahweh ben Yahweh (1935–2007), born as Hulon Mitchell, Jr., a black nationalist and separatist who created the Nation of Yahweh and allegedly orchestrated the murder of dozens of people.
  • Laszlo Toth (born 1938) claimed he was Jesus Christ as he battered Michelangelo’s Pietawith a geologist hammer.
  • Wayne Bent (born 1941), also known as Michael Travesser of the Lord Our Righteousness Church, also known as the “Strong City Cult”, convicted December 15, 2008 of one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in 2008.
  • Iesu Matayoshi (1944–2018); in 1997 he established the World Economic Community Party based on his conviction that he was God and the Christ.
  • Jung Myung-seok (born 1945), a South Korean who was a member of the Unification Church in the 1970s, before breaking off to found the dissenting group now known as Providence Church in 1980. He also considers himself the Second Coming of Christ, but not Jesus himself. He believes he has come to finish the incomplete message and mission of Jesus Christ, asserting that he is the Messiah and has the responsibility to save all mankind. He claims that the Christian doctrine of resurrection is false but that people can be saved through him.
  • Claude Vorilhon, now known as Raël “messenger of the Elohim” (born 1946), a French professional test driver and former car journalist who became founder and leader of UFO religion the Raël Movement in 1972. Raëlism teaches that life on Earth was scientifically created by a species of extraterrestrials, which they call Elohim. He claimed he met an extraterrestrial humanoid in 1973 and became the Messiah. He then devoted himself to the task he said he was given by his “biological father”, an extraterrestrial named Yahweh.
  • José Luis de Jesús (1946–2013), founder and leader of Creciendo en Graciasect (Growing In Grace International Ministry, Inc.), based in Miami, Florida. He claimed to be both Jesus Christ returned and the Antichrist, and exhibited a “666” tattoo on his forearm. He has referred to himself as Jesucristo Hombre, which translates to “Jesus Christ made Man”.
  • Inri Cristo (born 1948) of Indaial, Brazil, a claimant to be the second Jesus.
  • Apollo Quiboloy (born 1950), founder and leader of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ religious group, who claims that Jesus Christ is the “Almighty Father,” that Quiboloy is “His Appointed Son,” and that salvation is now completed. He proclaims himself to be the “Appointed Son of God”.
  • Brian David Mitchell, (born 1953 in Salt Lake City, Utah), believed himself the fore-ordained angel born on earth to be the Davidic “servant” prepared by God as a type of Messiah who would restore the divinely led kingdom of Israel to the world in preparation for Christ’s second coming. Mitchell’s belief in such an end-times figure – also known among many fundamentalist Latter Day Saints as “the One Mighty and Strong” – appeared to be based in part on a reading of the biblical Book of Isaiah by the independent LDS Hebraist, Avraham Gileadi, with whom Mitchell became familiar as a result of his previous participation in Stirling Allan’s American Study Group.
  • Ante Pavlović (1957–2020), a Croatian self-proclaimed chiropractor who claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ who he would soon become president of Croatia.
  • David Koresh (Vernon Wayne Howell) (1959–1993), leader of the Branch Davidians, renaming himself in honor of King David and Cyrus the Great. He and his followers were killed after an ATF raid and siege which ended with their compound catching fire.
  • Maria Devi Christos (born 1960), leader of the Great White Brotherhood popular in the former Soviet Union.
  • Sergey Torop (born 1961), who started to call himself “Vissarion”, founder of the Church of the Last Testament and the spiritual community Ecopolis Tiberkul in Southern Siberia.
  • Alan John Miller (born 1962), founder of Divine Truth, a new religious movement based in Australia. Also known as A.J. Miller, he claims to be Jesus of Nazareth through reincarnation. Miller was formerly a Jehovah’s Witness[1]

That is quite the list! And it is as predictable as it is lengthy and depressing. After all, Jesus told His disciples that precisely this would happen! He did so on the Mount of Olives in what we now call “The Olivet Discourse.” As we approach the Olivet Discourse, let us begin by noting the disposition that Jesus says His followers should have as we consider and approach the end of all things.

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Amos 5:18–27

Amos 5:18–27

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, 19 as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.

Hypocrisy is alive and well in our culture, and when it couples with religion it gives birth to particularly ugly offspring. The Southern Baptist Convention, of which we are a part, has certainly seen its share of examples in recent days.

  • The head of the most powerful committee in our convention was discovered to have lied blatantly about his educational credentials and non-existent military service, getting better jobs and more compensation as a result of his deceitfulness. He was dismissed with a severance package, the details of which have not been made known.
  • The head of the Southern Baptist children’s homes in one of our states (not Arkansas, I hasten to add!) was recently found to be misappropriating funds for personal use.
  • One of our best-known national preachers just sued the Southern Baptist Convention saying that the affair he had with a congregant was a sin between two private people and should not have been included in an SBC report of scandals.
  • The former head of one of our universities is now suing the university for firing him over his consistent debaucheries on the grounds that he can prove that board members and other bigwigs were having their own affairs and misuses of funds overlooked and forgiven while he was punished. In his lawsuit, other SBC celebrity pastors are named.
  • A Texas pastor was arrested earlier this week for assaulting a number of church members over a number of years.
  • A minister in the Midwest was recently arrested for arson and attempted murder.

Now I ask you: Does this represent the majority of Southern Baptists? Absolutely not. Why, then, do such cases get such attention? For this reason: the world knows that sin exists, but what it finds particularly stupefying is how such blatant atrocities exist among those who are ostensibly leaders in the body of Christ. We invite this kind of scrutiny by claiming to be the people of God.

In other words, even the world knows that there is something particularly heinous about religious hypocrisy, especially religious moral hypocrisy or religious criminal hypocrisy.

In a weird way, the world’s shock and even the lost world’s glee at religious hypocrisy is a compliment to the church, for behind it is the idea that if there is a God and if we are His people then our lives really should look different. No, not perfect, but different nonetheless. Is it not so? Should those who have professed allegiance to Jesus Christ not have lives that are least striving to be different, to be holy?

One atheist writer, in his expose of a recently-fallen Christian apologist, wrote this:

I consider it fair fighting to suggest that if Christianity were true, Christians would be different. The religion’s official documents speak mightily of the sanctifying power of the blood of Jesus. This is one of the few testable claims Christianity makes. If being a “new creature” in Christ means anything, it means being significantly different from us old creatures. If Jesus really sanctifies we should see more than mere anecdotes about lost wretches getting found; we should see vast differences between God, Inc. and Tobacco, Inc…

Thoughtful readers will spare me the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” straw man. No skeptic worth her salt considers the absence of perfect Christians to be evidence against the truth of the religion. The claim is, rather, that if Christianity were true, Christians would be noticeably different around the things that matter, like money and integrity in business. They aren’t. Therefore, . . .[1]

Let us talk about hypocritical religion, but which term I mean this: A self-deluding practice in which there is a chasm between the externals of religious observance and the internal realities of the practitioner’s rebellious heart.

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“Why the Devil Hates ‘Love, Central'”

**On Sunday, September 17, 2023, Central Baptist Church held its worship service as well as its church picnic off-campus, under the pavilion at Sherwood Forest in Sherwood, Arkansas. After a wonderful time of singing and a number of testimonies, I shared the following ten reasons why I thought the devil hated our “Love, Central” weekend of mission and celebration. The ten reasons and supporting passages are listed below, but you can hear the actual message in the last 15-ish minutes of this audio clip.**

  1. Because a church on mission is a threat to the devil’s mission.

Luke 10

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

  1. Because the devil delights in an inactive church.

James 1

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

  1. Because the devil delights in a fractured church.

1 Peter 3

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

  1. Because the devil loves a lie and detests the truth.

John 8

44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

  1. Because by going and proclaiming you are telling the devil that he cannot have you.

Luke 22

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,

  1. Because it is very possible that the population of heaven increased yesterday.

Luke 15

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

  1. Because a Christian on mission has not been paralyzed by the devil’s accusations.

Revelation 12

10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

  1. Because the devil loves the ugliness of sin and hates the beauty of obedience.

Romans 10

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

  1. Because the devil hates joy.

Luke 10

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.

  1. Because the church never looks more like Jesus than when it reaches in love to a lost world.

Philippians 2

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

“Love, Central”: A Sermon on Mission

In The Permanent Revolution, Alan Hirsch writes, “Of the 400,000 churches in the United States, only a few can be considered reproductive and fruitful.”[1]

David Watson has said of Christianity in the West:

It is widely held that the battle of the century will be between Marxism, Islam, and Third World Christianity. Western Christianity is considered too weak and ineffective to contribute anything significant to this universal struggle.[2]

Are these assessments too dire, too pessimistic? I think not. The fact of the matter is this: the world will be reached and revolutionized not by comfortable, wealthy, distracted, dying churches, but by churches of whatever size, possessing whatever kind of facilities or no facilities at all, and have a budget of whatever size or no budget at all, who are aligned with the missional, going, sending, engaging heart of God. 

It is not about money.

It is not about campuses.

It is not about the size of the congregation.

It is about a red-hot passion to see people saved arising out of deep and faithful commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.

I would like to call us to mission, then, not with a view toward religious busyness or frantic activity but with a view toward the church being who we were called to be: the body of Christ reaching out to a dying world with good news!

I would like to convince you that mission is hardwired into the DNA of the church because the church is the body of Christ and Christ is the very manifestation and incarnation of the missional heart of our great God.

Why mission?

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Amos 5:1–17

Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel: “Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up.” For thus says the Lord God: “The city that went out a thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which went out a hundred shall have ten left to the house of Israel.” 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. 10 They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 11 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. 12 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. 13 Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. 14 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. 15 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. 16 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: “In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, 17 and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.

Os Guinness has passed along a wonderful story about looking for the right thing in the wrong places.

One of the most celebrated personalities of the Middle East is Nasreddin Hodja, the endearing holy-man-cum-scholar of Turkish folklore. His famed wisdom is often threatened by his equally famed stupidity. One day, so a particular story goes, the Hodja dropped his ring inside his house. Not finding it there, he went outside and began to look around the doorway. His neighbor passed and asked him what he was looking for.

“I have lost my ring,” said the Hodja.

“Where did you lose it?” asked the neighbor.

“In my bedroom,” said the Hodja.

“Then why are you looking for it out here?”

“There’s more light out here,” the Hodja said.[1]

If you did not smile at that, I do not know how to help you! What a charming and absurd little story. Everything was wrong with Nasreddin Hodja’s search! His reasoning, his location, his efforts, they were all misguided. So, too, our search for God. We oftentimes do not know how to seek Him, how to search for Him, and we oftentimes look for him in the wrong places.

In the first half of Amos 5, we will find this phrase, or some variation of it, repeated three different times: “Seek me and live.” In order to do this, however, we need to understand what seeking God, what searching for God, entails so that we do not do so foolishly like Nasreddin Hodja. Fortunately, the Lord, speaking through the prophet Amos, directs us in our search.

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Matthew 23:37–39

Matthew 23

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Diana Butler Bass once told this story:

Before she retired, my neighbor was a preschool teacher. One spring, she decided to raise chickens with the children. She had a chicken coop and brooder built at the school, and bought a flat of newly-hatched baby chicks which she introduced to the students. The children loved this, adopting the babies as their own, naming them and tending to them. Each morning, the preschoolers ran excitedly to the hen house to check on and care for their avian charges.

On one such day, the class went out to the coop to discover a fox had broken in. It was a horrible scene — every bird was dead. A dozen traumatized preschoolers howling in grief, my neighbor hurried them away from the scene of the massacre. She spent the rest of the day comforting the children and, during nap time, tended to the destruction left by the fox. She called the entire episode “The Great Chicken Slaughter.”

And there were never baby chicks at the preschool again.[1]

It is a dangerous world for baby chicks. A good momma hen will do all she can to protect them and under her wings and close to her heart is the safest place the chicks can be.

This is a simple image, a beautiful image, a powerful image: a hen protecting her chicks under her wings from the coming danger. And it is precisely the image Jesus uses at the end of Matthew 23.

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Matthew 23:13–36

Matthew 23

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell[e] as yourselves. 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

One of the stranger songs I have ever heard is Tom Waits’ 1999 “Chocolate Jesus.” He recorded it while singing through a bullhorn, a technique he also employed when he performed the song live on David Letterman. Here are the lyrics:

Well, I don’t go to church on Sunday
Don’t get on my knees to pray
Don’t memorize the books of the bible
I got my own special way
I know Jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more
Fall down on my knees every Sunday
At Zerelda Lee’s candy store
Well, I’ve got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied
Well, I don’t want no Abba Zabba
Don’t want no Almond Joy
There ain’t nothing better
Suitable for this boy
Well, it’s the only thing that can pick me up
It’s better than a cup of gold
See, only a chocolate Jesus
Can satisfy my soul
When the weather gets rough and it’s whiskey in the shade
It’s best to wrap your savior up in cellophane
He flows like the big muddy but that’s okay
Pour him over ice cream for a nice parfait
Well, it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Good enough for me
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
It’s good enough for me
Well, it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel so good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

I agree with those who see in this song a lampooning of American Christianity, of what it has become. I am actually inclined to agree with the one reviewer who commented on

I see this song as a satire of America’s twisted version of Christianity.

America has commoditized religion (hence, chocolate Jesus wrapped in cellophane)—it has been monetized (sold at “candy store”), exploited (melted and poured over ice cream), and, most importantly, disconnected from its origins (don’t get down on my knees to pray…memorize books of bible…got my own special way). Christianity is used and abused (makes the chocolate eater happy and is good enough…but the eater doesn’t go out of their way for the religion, just uses for personal comfort).

One does not need to go out of their way to see the “Chocolate Jesus” phenomenon in America’s citizens, politicians, stores, and churches…(is there even a difference b/t the last two?)

Salvation is bought and sold in america…[1]

A religion that has been corrupted, detached from its origin, and valued largely for the pleasure it gives its adherents…that is a pretty good description of a lot of what passes for Christianity in our day. And, to read Matthew 23, it is a pretty good description of much of what passed for Judaism in the first century.

Beginning in verse 13, Jesus launches into a series of seven woes, seven indictments of the scribes and Pharisees, of the religious elites, the religious establishment. In doing so, Jesus paints a cautionary picture of false religion that we must heed.

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Matthew 23:1–12

Matthew 23

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Few people railed against the hypocrisy of the religious establishment as passionately as did Søren Kierkegaard. In his Attack Upon Christendom, Kierkegaard launched a broadside against the wealthy, powerful, hypocritical clergymen of his day. For instance, his words dripped with scorn when he wrote:

In the magnificent cathedral the Honorable and Right Reverend Geheime-General-Ober-Hof-Pradikant, the elect favorite of the fashionable world, appears before an elect company and preaches with emotion upon the text he himself elected:  “God hath elected the base things of the world, and the things that are despised”—and nobody laughs.[1]

I read of a famous clergyman who ruled the large church he pastored with an iron fist. When the inevitable news came to life that he was a womanizer he replied, “Great men have great needs.”

One critic referred to a famous Baptist minister of yesteryear as “excessively disputatious, outrageously arrogant, extremely bigoted, and at times desperately paranoid.”[2]

On and on it goes. One is sadly not hard-pressed to find examples of dishonest or crooked or wicked clergymen in either literature or the news. It was the same in the first century. In fact, In Matthew 23, Jesus launches a blistering denunciation of the crooked clergy, we might say. It is a hard chapter for a pastor to get through, for here Jesus calls ministers to a high standard indeed! But He is, of course, right to do so, and so we do not turn away from these great truths. Instead, let us turn toward them.

In the first twelve verses of Matthew 23, we find a contrast between the fallen religious system of the world and the righteous path of the Kingdom of God.

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Amos 4

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches, each one straight ahead; and you shall be cast out into Harmon,” declares the Lord. “Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord God. “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. “I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither; so two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. “I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. 10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. 11 “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. 12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” 13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

There is a scene in Thomas Shadwell’s 1675 play, “The Libertine,” in which the wicked character of Don Juan (called Don John in the play), stands on the brink of hell, sees the agony and torment into which he is about to be pulled, and yet still stands utterly defiant and unrepentant. He says this about the horrors of hell presented before him:

These things I see with wonder, but no fear.

Were all the Elements to be confounded,

And shuffled all into their former Chaos;

Were Seas of Sulphur flaming round about me,

And all Mankind roaring within those fires,

I could not fear or feel the least remorse.

To the last instant I would dare thy power.

Here I stand firm, and all thy threats [condemn];

Thy Murderer stands here, now do thy worst.[1]

The audience is supposed to be shocked by Don Juan’s defiance and stubbornness, and, indeed, it is shocking! Yet, if we are honest, have we not seen this kind of defiance even in our own hearts? Do we not know what it is to defy the disciplining hand of God, to refuse to tremble before Him? Do we not know what it is to choose our sin over His grace, maybe not so eloquently as Don Juan does here, but just as defiantly?

The audience should feel the same shock at Amos 4 for here too we see defiance and stubbornness and a refusal to repent.

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