“I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.” Amos 5:21-23
Prophets have a hard job. God tells them what to say, and then they have to stand up in front of people and say it. And the message that God gives them is rarely, “Great job, folks! Keep it up!”
Even so, these particular verses from Amos seem harsh. Imagine if your preacher stood up in the pulpit and said, “This is what God has told me to say to you: ‘I hate, I despise your potlucks and your worship services. Even though you offer Me your tithe and your offering, I will not accept them. Take away from Me the noise your praise songs and hymns, for I will not hear the melody of your pianos, organs, guitars or drums.”
It sure sounds like God hates church! Why would He hate church?
What God hates is hollow worship – where people just go through the motions. I think we’ve probably all done that from time to time. Maybe we’ve had a really rough week, so we come to church and we stand when the congregation stands, kneel when everybody kneels, we may even talk to people we know. We sit through the whole service but we leave without ever being mentally or spiritually touched by anything that went on. If anybody asked us what the message was, we probably couldn’t tell them.
Imagine though, if that went on for so long, that we accept that as how things should be. We’re just going through the motions – we look like Christians, we act like Christians, we even think we are Christians, but we have no relationship with God at all. And that’s what God hates – hollow Christians.
Amos was talking to the Jews of his time. Jesus said pretty much the same things to the Jews of His time.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23:23-28
The scribes and the Pharisees were hollow just like their worship. They made sure they did all the right things, wore the right clothes, and ate all the right foods, but it was all for show. In their hearts they were selfish people who took advantage of people who sincerely were seeking God.
John Boykin explains in his column, “The Gospel of Coincidence.”
“What was so bad about [the Pharisees'] hypocrisy? If we think of it as consisting merely in their teaching or pretending one thing while in fact practicing something contradictory, we will miss Jesus’ main point. What He nailed them for was that they were using God and the things of God as a means to some other end. That’s what was insidious about the Pharisees’ example. ‘They do all their deeds to be noticed by men’ (Matthew 23:5). … Theirs was a problem of priorities: their first priority was social status, to which end God was but a means. What greater affront to God could there be? Better to ignore Him altogether than to exploit Him as a means to something else you value more highly.”1
Why are we Christians? Why do we go to the church we do? Is coming to church mainly our social event of the week? Are we more concerned about what we wear than what we hear from the pulpit? Do we worry more about the form of worship than actually worshipping? And what difference does it make, anyway? Isn’t it more important that we’re there than not being involved at all?
“Jesus spoke as one having knowledge and authority. The denunciation he uttered against the Jews condemned their formalism and hypocrisy. His scathing rebukes and denunciation of formalism have the same force today as they had in the days of the scribes and Pharisees, and apply to those who have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof. The God of infinite holiness cannot accept external service as spiritual worship. Those who worship God must worship him in spirit and truth, or their service is vain. There must be reality in the religious ceremonies, or they are simply pretensions, hollow abominations. But though Jesus rebuked the priests and religious teachers for their formalism and hypocrisy, yet how forbearing and tender were his lessons to the poor, the oppressed, the afflicted, and discouraged. The priests and rulers, the scribes and Pharisees, destroyed the living pastures, and defiled the well-springs of the water of life. By their false precepts they confused the understanding, and clouded that which was clear. They misrepresented God by their hardness of heart, by their impurity, pride, and selfishness. They made God altogether such a one as themselves. Their imagination was darkened and polluted by their wicked works. Because of their religious degeneracy they could discern nothing that pertained to the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Through rejecting the messages of mercy brought to them by the Lord of light and glory, they became, in their stubborn resistance, past feeling. They had evidence in abundance of the divine character and mission of Christ, and increased evidence would only have increased their guilt. Thinking themselves to be wise, they became fools. As men do today, so they did then, and used the very intellect that God had given them to brand with falsehood his eternal truth.” (E.G. White, Sabbath School Worker, December 1, 1894)
So, what’s it going to be for us? Are we going to take our lead from the Pharisees or from Jesus? Will we allow the vessel to become more important to us than the contents? Are we going to worry more about how people are dressed at church than that they’re at church at all? Are we going to come to church to meet our friends or to meet with God? Are we going to let the formality of our church service get between God and a searching heart?
God is longing to meet us and inhabit our worship. Let’s not let our worship be hollow any more. Let’s not wait to hear, “Woe unto you!” Let’s fill our hearts and minds with the spirit of praise.
- John Boykin, The Gospel of Coincidence, Christianity Today, Vol. 39, no. 5 ↩