November 9, 2008
I realize you expect sophisticated references from your pastor, but allow me to tell you about a scene from the movie What Happens in Vegas. Joy, a high-strung, high-powered career woman has planned a surprise birthday party for her fiance. The apartment is decorated, the many friends are in their hiding places. She waits in great anticipation for him to come home. He will walk in, she will flip the lights, everyone will jump up and say “surprise,” and the party will ensue.
When her fiance finally arrives, however, he insists on having a discussion with Joy in the entry way. He tells her that he has changed his mind; he doesn’t want to marry her. All of the hidden friends slowly emerge from their hiding places and slink out the door. The party is over before it begins.
In our biblical text, the prophet Amos is addressing the wealthy Israelites of the Northern Kingdom. They are, you could say, planning for the big party. They offer their sacrifices and worship to Yahweh, and in return they anticipate the Day of the Lord.
We don’t know exactly what they thought would happen on that day, but we know they expected it to be good. Some kind of big party that God would throw for them because they have been sticking their fatted lambs on the altar at the appropriate times.
Amos, a poor farmer from Israel’s Southern Kingdom, makes his way up north to confront these prosperous, misguided, Israelites.
“Oh, the Day of the Lord is coming, all right,” Amos tells them. “But when it comes, it won’t be the party that you expect. Instead of flipping on the lights and yelling, ‘surprise,’ God will cover you with darkness and proclaim, ‘How dare you!’”
“It will be as if you left New Orleans to get away from a hurricane, only to have your new Kansas house destroyed by a tornado. It will be like the guy in the action movie who finally makes it safely to his car, only to trigger a bomb when he turns the key in the ignition. Folks,” Amos tells them, “this Day of the Lord will not be the party you are expecting.”
I imagine Amos was not very popular on the speaker’s circuit. These Israelites knew they were doing just fine. They observed the festivals; they offered their sacrifices; and God would reward them. Never mind about that crazy farmer from the South with his darkness and gloom. We’re doing just fine, thank you.
Only they weren’t doing fine at all. How could the Israelites be so wrong about their lives? How could they be so wrong about God and God’s intentions?
I propose that these northern Israelites were making the mistake of assuming that their agenda was God’s agenda. Their agenda—as far as we can tell from the biblical texts and archeology—was to live well. Fine houses, rich foods, servants. Even if these things came at the expense of oppressing the laborers, padding the scale weights. Their agenda was to do as they pleased, which they accomplished by a bribe here and there.
You might even consider their sacrifices as bribes. They assumed that God’s agenda was like theirs—to live the “good life.” That as long as Yahweh got his cows and grains and sheep and songs, everything would be dandy.
But we can get ourselves in trouble when we assume we know someone else’s agenda.
As a college student I lived in the South, claimed “Baptist” as my denomination, and was active in my campus Christian organizations. So the Christian Coalition thought they knew what my agenda was and they sent me their infamous voting guide. Which I used to inform myself of who not to vote for.
A few years ago I was registered with a certain political party,—that shall remain nameless–I had signed various and sundry petitions for peace and justice causes, and was probably affiliated with a feminist group or two. So the woman who called to give me her spiel about abortion rights thought she knew my agenda.
We can get ourselves in trouble when we assume that other people share our agendas. And we can really get ourselves in trouble when we assume that God likewise shares our agenda.
Amos warns about this. “Why do you want the day of the Lord?” Yet church history is littered with examples of people and groups who just assumed that God shared their agenda.
Like Paul. The guy who wrote half of the New Testament. The guy who started and nurtured so many of the first Christian communities. As a young man, he thought he knew God’s agenda. He was a Pharisee, a student of the law and, supposedly, the prophets. And he decided God’s agenda was to arrest all of those who promoted following the crucified one called Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul carried out “God’s” agenda with great passion until he was struck blind on that infamous road to Damascus. And in his blindness, God’s true agenda was revealed. Suddenly Paul went from being the persecutor to the persecuted.
Peter’s agenda had to do with maintaining the restrictions of Jewish purity codes. He traveled around proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah of the Jewish people. Then he had a roof-top vision of a sheet with many animals on it—both clean and unclean. He heard the voice: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” So Peter set his own agenda aside to fulfill God’s agenda of proclaiming Christ to the Gentiles—for which we can all be thankful.
Notice, though, that it seems to take quite dramatic events to sway people away from their own agendas. To convince people that God’s agenda just might be different than the agendas they are carrying out on behalf of God. That God’s agenda is indeed more generous and more challenging than they had supposed.
Yet sometimes the blinding flashes do not come. The voice from heaven is not heard. And people continue on with their own misguided agendas in the name of God. Some agendas are terribly violent and destructive: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the early Anabaptists, the witch hunts, the Holocaust. These are dark, deep stains in the fabric of Christian history.
Sometimes the agendas are more subtly violent, more simply self-serving. Like current politicians who claim that their particular stance on the issues is God’s stance. Like those people on the Journal-World discussion boards who don’t want their pleasant shopping trips disrupted by panhandlers on Mass Street.
Like the wealthy northern Israelites who liked to play church while they maintained their lifestyles on the backs of the poor.
Amos comes to let them know that their agenda is not God’s agenda. These Israelites may not have been blinded on the road. They may not have seen a heavenly vision. But they heard the loud, insistent voice of one who was speaking on God’s behalf:
I despise your worship services; I don’t want your offerings—I don’t even want to look at them. Your so-called music is just irritating noise!
These are hard words for a pastor. Probably for those of you on the worship committee. For you musicians. Does God really hate our worship? Does God consider our music noise?
Several years ago there was a hunger conference in Bombay. The leaders of the conference had invited Mother Teresa to attend, and they were likely confused when she did not show up. And she really intended to be there, but when she arrived at the building where the meeting was being held, there was a man sitting on the steps who was terribly hungry. So rather than go in to the meeting, she fed that man.
Does God despise our worship? Does God reject our hunger conferences?
I don’t think so. But I think those things sometimes get put up a bit higher on our agenda than they are on God’s. Worship is wonderful. It is a way for us to connect intimately with each other and with God. Worship can open our lives more fully to the presence of the Holy Spirit so that we can more faithfully carry out God’s will in the world. Worship is wonderful.
But worship is not the totality—perhaps not even the priority—of God’s agenda.
The wealthy Israelites were not happy to hear this. Because they were good at worship. They had the money and the social clout to put on great shows for God, to set valuable gifts on the altar. They knew how to do worship.
But here comes Amos saying, “You know what, this so-called worship you are doing is just part of your agenda. It’s not God’s agenda.”
The fatted lambs and calves? The grain offerings? Not God’s agenda.
The money in the offering plate? Not God’s agenda.
The pageantry during the festivals? Not God’s agenda.
The thoughtfully coordinated worship services? The eloquent sermons? Not God’s agenda.
The sacred music, rising to the heavens? Not God’s agenda.
So what is God’s agenda?
Now that’s a good question. Ask a hundred people and you’ll get about a hundred responses.
Here is Amos’ response: God says, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing torrent.”