Gone Fishin’

When my brother and I were kids, our dad would take us out to a friend’s house to go fishing.  The house had once been a hunters’ club lodge and was set right next to a private lake.  We would get up early in the morning, fish for a few hours, swim in the lake in the afternoon, and then go back out fishing in the early evening.  Usually we caught something, and that something usually was our dinner.  They were called fishing trips, but really the trip was less about the fish and more about the hours in the boat with dad or sitting on the dock with mom or gathered around the grill with friends.  It was about relationship.

In Matthew 17, Jesus sends Peter on a fishing trip.  However, this is a rather unusual fishing trip.  Allow me to share what Matthew writes:

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?”  He said, “Yes, he does.”  And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon?  From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?  From their children or from others?”  When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free.  However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The first question that comes to my mind is what Peter was thinking as he walked home after running into the temple tax collectors.  He had defended Jesus in front of them, but where exactly was the income from which Jesus was to pay this tax?  I wonder if Peter was worrying and fretting about how this was to take place.

Jesus turns this into an interesting teaching moment.  He refuses to let Peter keep this problem to himself.  He asks him about it, in kind of an indirect way.  Do kings tax their own children?  Well, of course they don’t.  It is their subjects that pay taxes.  “Then the children are free.”

The temple was understood for centuries to be the house of God, the place where God’s throne rested.  Jesus in five words has explained why he doesn’t have to pay the temple tax:  he is the Son of the King, the Son of God.  Jesus uses tax law to explain his own divinity.  And who said taxes were a bad thing!

But the really cool part was what Jesus says next.  Jesus tells Peter to go fishing and to look in the mouth of the first fish he catches.  There he will find a gold coin that is to be used to pay the temple tax not only on Jesus’ behalf but on Peter’s as well.

Jesus didn’t have to pay the temple tax; it didn’t apply to him.  However, he was willing to pay the tax not only on his behalf but on behalf of Peter, who probably didn’t have the ability to pay it for himself.

Suddenly, Peter’s fishing trip is not about fishing or even taxes.  It is a parable of why Jesus came into our world:  he came to pay the price for sin that was not his for the sake of those who could not pay the price themselves.  And it’s about relationship.  Jesus didn’t want Peter to have to give up following him in order to go earn money to pay the tax.  He wanted to keep Peter close to his side.  That was why the gold coin was for both of them.  It was about relationship.

Christ paid a price that was not His to pay, and He paid it because we could not do so ourselves.  He paid it so that we could stay close by His side, so that we could have a relationship with Him.

In the movie A River Runs Through It, the narrator says of his upbringing, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”  The same appears to have been true of Jesus.  In my mind, I see Peter, standing by the sea, pulling out a hook and a coin from the mouth of a fish.  This was not a fish story, it was a salvation story.

The Time Has Come

“There’s smoke!”

These words, in most cases, would be words of caution and warning.  Yesterday, these words were words of celebration for the thousands gathered in Vatican City, awaiting the announcement of who the next pope would be.  Ever since the white smoke appeared and the cardinals announces Pope Francis I, the question that has been on so many lips has been, “So what can we expect from this new pope?”

Mark’s gospel begins with an announcement, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).  You can consider this the “white smoke” moment of the gospels.  But there is a question that would chase Jesus throughout his ministry, the same question that is now pursuing Pope Francis I:  what can we expect?

Through word and deed, Jesus would answer this question.  We can expect God’s promises to be fulfilled.  We can expect sins to be forgiven.  We can expect Satan to be vanquished.  We can expect an end to sickness.  We can expect the dead to rise.

But we can also expect the unexpected.  Those who shout to the rooftops proclaiming how righteous they are may find themselves face to face with a Lord who is wondering who they are.  Those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first.  There will be crosses to take up, possessions to give up.  And what was that about “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life …”?

Perhaps the saddest words I read this week were in John 6:66:  “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  I imagine these folks were all excited to see the smoke, to hear that the time had come, but found themselves disappointed when the kingdom of God as revealed in Christ did not meet their expectations.  So many times, our spiritual journeys become sidetracked by disillusionment and discouragement when it seems that Christianity is less than what we hoped.  Jesus even told a parable about this reality (Mark 4:3-9).

If this is where you are in your journey, I want to invite you to consider this:  when so many turned and left Jesus, He looked at His disciples and asked, “Do you want to go away too?”  I love Peter’s response:  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).

There will be unexpected tests and struggles as part of our Christian journey.  But there will always be unexpected blessings.  The prodigal son is welcomed home.  The Samaritan is the hero of the story.  The one lost sheep is not left behind.  And even when the unexpected is unpleasant, our hope remains assured:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

Our faith is not a product of smoke and mirrors.  It is our response to the Messiah who has come calling for His children to turn to Him.  It is because of Him, because of His resurrection,  that we expect eternal life.  And so we follow on, joining Him in sharing with the world this good news:  “The time has come, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Your Identity is the Most Beautiful Thing There Is

The following article comes from “The Story” resource material.  It is entitled “Your Identity is the Most Beautiful Thing There Is”.  The author is unknown.

Imagine living your life with a false identity.  That’s what happened to Francisco Madariaga Quintela.[1] Just over 30 years ago his mother Sylvia was kidnapped by Argentine security forces.  Her husband Abel last saw his pregnant wife being pushed into a Ford Falcon by army officers dressed as civilians as she walked to catch a train on January 17, 1977.

Sylvia was placed in one of the most notorious torture centers near Buenos Aires—Campo del Mayo.  Surviving prisoners later revealed that the baby was taken away after birth and Sylvia disappeared in a short time.  The baby was taken by a military intelligence officer and adopted as Alejandro Ramiro Gallo.  The adoptive father was eventually put in prison for murder.  When he was older, Alejandro’s adoptive mother told him the truth about himself.

In the meantime his real father Abel had joined a group called The Grandmothers of the Plaza del Mayo—a group formed to help return children who had disappeared during the late ‘70’s to their parents.  One day Alejandro went to the group.  After DNA testing a match was found and a meeting with his father—Abel—was arranged.

Alejandro, after learning his real name was Francisco Madariaga Quintela, said, “For the first time, I know who I was. Who I am. . . . Never again will I use this name. . . . To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is.”

Maybe you need to know your identity today.  A strong sense of identity can take you through the toughest tests.  It did for Jesus.  Just after his baptism where his lineage was stamped with these words, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” Jesus endured tests in the wilderness.  Satan attacked his identity three times with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God . . .” Jesus knew who he was and he changed the world so that you can know who you are and have your world changed by your faith in him.

During a news conference where Abel Madariaga told his story, we are told “his chest heaved” as he presented his own son to the world.  Like a proud papa, God has presented his one and only Son to the world.  He wants you to believe in him so that he can, with “chest heaving full of joy,” present you as his child too.  When Satan attacks you can stand firm.  And when you need it most, you will feel his hug in a spectacular way and know that you are home.

“To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is.”



[1] Argentine stolen at birth, now 32, learns identity by MICHAEL WARREN, Associated Press Writer Michael Warren, Associated Press Writer – Tue Feb 23, 7:34 pm ET at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/lt_argentina_dirty_war_children

Joy to the World

OK, I know.  It is weird to be reading “the Christmas story” in March.  Wise men and shepherds and stars are for December right?  We come to associate these stories with one month of the year, often times ignoring them for the other 11 months.  Perhaps, though, there is a message in these stories that goes beyond Christmas.  It wouldn’t be the only sound of Christmas that was never intended just for the holiday.

In the early 18th century, a rabble-rousing English cleric by the name of Isaac Watts was reading Psalm 98 and found himself inspired by verses 4-9.

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth:  make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.  Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.  With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.  Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.  Let the floods clap their hands:  let the hills be joyful together before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth:  with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

Watts felt inspired by these verses, and he wrote out a poem he entitled “Joy to the World”.  He set the poem to music and included it in a hymnal he published.  However, the British church still had not widely accepted the use of hymns other than actual psalms in worship, so Watts’ hymn went unused.  In 1839, an organist by the name of Lowell Mason found Watts’ words and connected them with a tune that he had written himself, the tune that most of us now sing Watts’ words to every December.

Here’s the thing:  neither Watts nor Mason ever intended for “Joy to the World” to be a Christmas carol.  It was not inspired by the gospels but by a Psalm whose focus was not a day of birth but a day of judgement.  Yet, somehow, this song has come to be associated with Christmas, even though the lyrics themselves make no mention of the nativity story.

I have a peer who has a constant crusade going to get the Christian church to sing “Joy to the World” throughout the year, not just at Christmas.  His point:  we rejoice all through the year that the Lord has come, that He rules the world, that sin no longer has dominion.  Why shouldn’t we sing of our eternal joy all year long?

Maybe that is too drastic a step for you yet.  But maybe we can reflect on the fact that Luke 2 has a message for us beyond just Christmas day.  Christ has come to bring peace on earth and good will toward all mankind.  Christ has come to make our joy complete.  Something tells me that is a message that speaks as loudly on March 1 as it does December 25.

Play On

I have the pleasure of coaching a high school boys’ basketball team at our local YMCA.  Every Saturday afternoon during the winter months, these young men come out to compete and to have fun.  Sometimes, however, the first gets in the way of the second, especially when one of the guys feels like the referee missed a foul.  The arms spread out and they get that look of, “What are you, blind?”  Occasionally, those words are just thoughts in their heads but statements from their lips.  Most of the refs understand that these are competitive young men and will give them a warning.  It then becomes the job of us coaches to find a way to get through the frustration and anger with a simple but important message:  play on.

I think Malachi could have coached at the YMCA.  In Malachi 3, Malachi brings this message to the Jews:

You have spoken harsh words against me, says the Lord.  Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?”  You have said, “It is vain to serve God.  What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts?  Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.”

The people are feeling frustrated, wondering what good comes from being obedient when they see evildoers prospering.  I imagine their faces looked kind of like the faces of the guys on my team when they look at the refs and say, “How could you miss that?”

Malachi’s message to these people:  play on.

Then those who revered the LORD spoke with one another.  The LORD took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the LORD and thought on his name.  They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.  Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3:16-18)

It is frustrating to see sin rewarded and injustice go unpunished.  We want the ref’s whistle to blow immediately, for retribution to be instantaneous.  As long as it is someone’s sin and injustice and not our own, that is.

Malachi encouraged the Jewish people, and encourages us, to live with the whole game, the Upper Story, in mind.  In the short term, it may look like it is more beneficial, more rewarding, to choose unrighteousness over righteousness, to choose selfishness over selflessness.  As God’s people, we are called to play on, to keep living how we know our LORD has instructed and coached us to live; for, in the grand scope of eternity, God is taking note of our choices and actions.  He remembers, and He is even now preparing for that moment when He will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

We can choose to live every day guided by the desire to hear those words from God, or we can choose to live every day frustrated.  We can give in to the temptation of the short-term, to play by the world’s rules, or we can “play on” in the wisdom and knowledge that God’s righteousness ultimately wins the day.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.  They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.  In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The Social Network Gospel

Did you know that Twitter won the “Social Media Super Bowl”?

About 50% of the advertisements aired during the Super Bowl included a Twitter hash tag, outpacing other social media options like Facebook or Google+.

The world of social networking is a developing gold mine for companies and ad agencies.  Not only can social media tools provide a wealth of information that allows for targeted advertising to potential customers, it also provides an easy method for carrying out the best form of product advertisement:  personal testimonial.  If you like a product and share it with your “friends”, advertisers know that recommendation will be much more effective than any advertising campaign Madison Avenue could dream up.

Perhaps the church should be as intentional as television advertisers in reminding us of the influence we have.  Each of us has a “circle of influence” – people whose lives we interact with and impact to varying degrees.  At the center of that circle are our children, parents, and closest friends.  As we move out to the fringes of that circle, we find neighbors, co-workers, classmates, the mailman, the guy lifting weights next to us in the gym, and (yes) our Facebook friends and Twitter followers.  Just by being present to some degree in these people’s lives, we have the opportunity, through word and deed, to have on impact on them.  We can display patience, communicate love, practice forgiveness, model endurance, and share a word of hope and even, when the time is a right, our testimony of God’s presence and power.

Mordecai had to remind Esther, when the Jewish people faced extermination, that she was made queen “for such a time as this”.  She had an opportunity in this moment to act and speak to her circle of influence not for personal glory but to save lives and change hearts.  We sometimes think that only government leaders, preachers, and celebrities have an opportunity to make a difference.  But we don’t have to be a queen or king or missionary to influence others for the sake of Christ.  Before Facebook and Instagram, our God believed in the power of the social network, the influence we have on the people around us.

Who are the people in your circle of influence?  How can you share Christ and do justice and mercy at such a time as this in their lives?

The Hole in the Ground

My family’s favorite place in the world is Northern Michigan.  Just about every year, we gather with my wife’s family at Walloon Lake to rest and play and enjoy the quaint towns and beauty of God’s creation.  And every year, we get to see the big hole in the ground.

As you drive into the town of Petoskey from Walloon Lake, you are met with a gaping hole in the ground.  At one point, the hole in the ground was surrounded with giant signs, announcing the impending construction of a beautiful new building – condos, I believe, overlooking Lake Michigan.  However, one thing led to another, and the building project never got started.  All that is left now is the giant hole in the ground that had been dug to prepare the site for the building to come.  What was to have been the beginnings of a foundation is now the reminder of a failed effort.

When the Israelites returned to Judah from exile in Babylon, they immediately began an effort to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.  “As soon as they came to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, some of the heads of families made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site” (Ezra 2:68).  In chapter 3, we see the foundations for the new Temple erected, and all Israel shouts and sings as the building project gets under way.  However, when the neighboring peoples offer to help, the Israelites refuse.  Perhaps they had good reason to refuse.  Perhaps they were concerned that if other peoples helped build the Temple, they might demand that their gods be worshiped in the Temple as well as the LORD.  In any event, when Israel refuses the help, “… the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia (Ezra 4:4-5).  We are told that construction on the new Temple ceased, and it was 16 years before a new effort would begin.

I think about that 16 year period, what it was like for the Israelites to walk by that vacant work site every day.  The Temple ruins that had been reminders of Israel’s fall were replaced by a big hole in the ground that was a reminder of yet another failure, yet another loss.

Do you have any big holes in your life?  What are the things that you started to do because you knew they were the right thing only to run out of energy, resources, passion, or desire to do?  What are the efforts that started off with a bang but you gave up when things got too hard?

For 16 years, people walked by that big hole in Jerusalem.  Some people wanted to see the hole filled in.  Get rid of the eyesore and move on.  But for some people, that hole may have been a daily reminder that one day, they were going to come back and finish what had been started.

Sometimes we leave efforts unfinished because we realize that the efforts were wrong in the first place.  Sometimes we leave efforts unfinished, but we have every intention of coming back to finish the job.  Fill it in and move on or finish the job and celebrate.  Unfortunately, too many times, we just let ourselves get used to living with the big holes.

Allow me to share these words from 2 Timothy, the words of the apostle Paul as he looked back at his life.  Hear these words and ask yourself:  are these the words of a man who has looked back at his life and seen a lot of big holes left behind?

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will me on that day, and not only to me but all to all who have longed for his appearing.

Burned

I am always amazed by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  When King Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw them into a fiery furnace if they didn’t bow down and worship his idol, they responded, “Go ahead, throw us in!”

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18)

I have heard numerous times, and probably said numerous times myself, “If it’s God’s will, then he will make it successful.”  However, when I read these words from Daniel, I realize that sometimes, even when we do what God would want us to do, there is a possibility of getting burned.

One of the hardest situations to recover from is when we offer help to someone and then discover that our help has been taken advantage of.  We act out of concern for another, and in return the person we help is ungrateful, wasteful, or even tries to milk our kindness for selfish purposes.  When we realize what has happened, it can make us feel like we made a mistake helping in the first place.  We question our intentions, and wonder if we should ever take such a risk again.

We should.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were willing to be thrown into the fiery furnace confident that God could save them but not sure that he would save them.  They took their stand against worshiping Nebuchadnezzar’s idol not because they knew they would be safe but because they knew it was the right thing to do.  And they were willing to do what they knew to be right, even if it meant that they could get burned.

The prophets were not remembered because of successful revivals but because they spoke the truth even when doing so meant losing everything and everyone.  The disciples left family and careers to follow Christ, and it led them to a cross. William Wilberforce spent 25 years in the late 18th-early 19th century pushing Parliament to end the British slave trade, only to get voted down every year.  If Wilberforce one day said, “Well, I have not been successful ending the slave trade, so it must not be what God wants”, there never would have been the 26th year when Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, ending Britain’s involvement in the African slave trade.

Sometimes we will do the right thing and get burned in our doing it; other times we will know the joy and wonder of success and salvation.  What we must remember is our righteousness is based not on what happens when we face the fiery furnace and all about when we face the King of Kings.  On that day, our success is not his concern.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:37-40).

Can We Handle the Truth?

I have always been a cheap date … literally.  When Amy and I went on our first date, I did not take her to a fancy restaurant and movie theater.  No, our first date was over a bag of Oreos watching a rented copy of the movie “A Few Good Men.”  (I’ll stop here for a moment and again thank God that He convinced this woman to marry me).  Even if you have never seen the movie, I imagine that most people can at least recite one line from memory.  It is the moment when Jack Nicholson screams into the camera “You can’t handle the truth!”

That scene has flashed through my mind again and again in the last 24 hours as I have flipped back and forth between stories of Lance Armstrong’s admission of using steroids after years of denial and stories of Mantai Te’o’s fictitious dead girlfriend.  Both of these stories have captured the country’s imagination, and I am left wondering if, in the midst of the media hysteria, someone shouldn’t be screaming in all of our faces “You can’t handle the truth!”

Lance Armstrong was a hero to many, a man who battled cancer and went on to win multiple cycling titles when it seemed a miracle he was even alive.  People were so inspired by Armstrong’s story that they gobbled up one “Live Strong” bracelet after another and donated millions to Armstrong’s charity for cancer research.

Te’o was a Heisman Trophy runner-up as a defensive player, an almost unheard of accomplishment.  He led Notre Dame on a magical and unexpected perfect run through the regular season and a spot in the national title game.  The story of how his grandmother and girlfriend died in the same 24-hour period and brought tears and admiration for a young man who had struggled through such loss.

Now we know that Armstrong cheated and Te’o’s girlfriend not only never died but never existed.  A host of other questions follow both of these men and remain unanswered, and a lot of people feel unsatisfied by the truth we now have.

And perhaps that is something we have to admit to as a society as we point fingers of blame and speculation at these two men:  sometimes we just can’t handle the truth.

Sometimes the truth is just not as good or as touching a story as the lie.  Sometimes the truth is routine.  Sometimes the truth is condemning.  Sometimes the truth does bring us to tears, and sometimes the truth is (to quote another Hollywood hit) “just the facts, ma’am.”  As I have listened to people express disappointment about both these news stories in the last 24 hours, it’s hard to tell if they are disappointed about the lies or disappointed that the truth is not as good a story as the lie.

We look for inspiration and motivation from our leaders, our athletes, our stars, our authors, and our spiritual leaders.  Unfortunately, sometimes we are willing to sacrifice the truth along the way.  That is why it is so interesting to read the Old Testament prophets.  These guys would never have had television ministries or best-selling books.  As a matter of fact, these now well-known preachers would probably have pastored the smallest congregations in town.  They were not concerned with style or popularity.  As a matter of fact, they were consistently “successful failures” in terms of drawing people to repentance or changing the worship life of Israel.  Most people didn’t want to listen to them.  All they did was speak the truth, and often it was truth that Israel found less satisfying than the lies they were chasing after.  Ultimately, though, it was the truth the prophets proclaimed that was remembered and passed on for generations down the line.  Today, we read the prophets’ words and say, “If only they had listened.”  But are we any more receptive to truth today, especially truth that confronts us with our own failings and sins?

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).  God has a greater purpose in our world than entertainment or motivation; He wants to set creation free from the evil and sin that holds it in the bondage of darkness.  Even though truth can be hard and can sometimes hurt, it always sets us free to receive God’s grace, accept God’s salvation, and share God’s love.

In the last 24 hours, we have seen that sometimes the lies make a great story, but they ultimately will become the chains that bind us and demean us and lessen us.  There is no better time to remember that it is truth that produces lasting change in history, in society, and in the hearts of mankind.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.  This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Worship Wars

In the last few decades, many churches have found themselves in the midst of the dreaded “worship wars”.  Will we sing traditional hymns or contemporary choruses?  Will we have a choir or a praise band?  Is a screen a tool or a giant TV set?  Is a tie mandatory, optional, or forbidden?

Books have been written about the “worship wars”; and, as a pastor, I have heard a lot of stories of pain, conflict and loss – members leaving and entire churches splitting – over these very questions.

When you read Amos and Hosea, you see worship at the center of controversy yet again.  I want to spend a moment reflecting on each prophet and the “worship war” they are waging.

Amos is concerned that the worship of the people is becoming “infected” by the same lack of righteousness and justice that has come to define the culture of Israel.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” … Come to Bethel – and transgress; to Gilgal – and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel! says the Lord God. (Amos 4:1, 4-5)

God later says through Amos that he will no longer accept their offerings or listen to the “noise” of their songs.  The problem is not the performance of the rituals; the problem is that the men and women of Israel are not changing their lives to reflect the virtues taught by the rituals.

As Christians, we have fought with one another to determine what should happen in worship.  However, have we given as much attention to whether what happens in worship is leading to transformation outside of worship?

Hosea is concerned about what takes place outside of worship, but he is more concerned with exactly what – or who – it is that the people are worshiping in the first place.

When Ephraim multiplied altars to expiate sin, they became to him altars for sinning.(Hosea 8:11)

Hosea sees Israel mixing the sexuality and debauchery of Baal worship with the worship of God, to the point where worship is not focused on honoring God but gaining personal pleasure.  It is not God or Baal that is being worshiped, but themselves.

God can be worshiped in so many ways and with so many instruments and tools.  However, it is always God who should be worshiped.  Sometimes, it is easy to forget to worship God and instead worship a pastor or a building or an accomplishment.  It is easy to focus more on personal pleasure than offering a sacrifice of praise.  Hosea reminds that however we worship, we should always insure that it is God who is worshiped.

I don’t know which trench you may find yourself in because of the “worship wars”.  I am sorry that anybody has ever been hurt arguing about worship.  I wonder if the “worship wars” would be wars at all if we started with the questions Amos and Hosea ask us to consider.  Let us all ask for forgiveness and for healing not only from our battles but from our selfishness and hard-heartedness that too often gets in the way of our ability to worship God.