Have you ever misjudged someone at first glance? Have you ever taken a conversation or a text message out of context? Have you ever simply misunderstood the information that you were processing in the heat of the moment? I sure have! I've been guilty of this more than just once or twice.
Unfortunately I have misjudged, misunderstood and taken lots of things out of context - that's why I have learned to take my time and lean into the context of the situation. Now this doesn't always change my opinion or my judgement, but it sure does help me keep my foot out of my mouth or my heart in the right place.
We're on this journey together now - an adventure to figure out how to return to God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. To do that I want to look at the "Book of the 12" or the "Minor Prophets" as our backdrop of learning this discipline of "returning". In order to do this, we've got to consider a few general ideas when reading these books of the Bible.
First, these 12 books were compiled to be ONE, single unit and they were placed in order to paint a picture of what God was doing in the midst of the Hebrew people. To understand their deep content we must always try to keep them in their context. If we are going to see how we can return to God - then we must first understand what it meant for the Israelites and the countries and people surrounding them.
It's like when I look back on our adoption journey. If you would pick just a few small moments throughout the past 6 years you could form very different stories depending on what moments you chose to weave together. You could make our last 6 years the worst of our lives. You could form the images and memories and events in such a way that you would think that we've never had a bit of trouble. You could arrange small events, images and moments to create your own version of our lives. It's not that hard to do and we do it all the time with the small moments, events, images and messages given to us every day.
My point is that to understand our adoption story you must take all the images, events messages and moments as a whole. You must take everything, beginning to end, in order to understand what God was doing in our family and in the families around us. This is exactly what we must do to understand the "Book of the 12" and their message to us - a message of ultimate hope and restoration.
Second, the prophets are preaching God's Word to the people. I'm not sure that they were trying to give us some special code for unpacking the "end times". I'm not sure that they were trying to speak about the actual current events as a roadmap to determining the return of Christ.
They however were making statements about what God was doing, did do and what God's heart is for His people moving forward. The prophets were trying to get the Hebrew people to understand their place in God's heart and God's purpose for them in the broken world that they (and we) live in.
Thirdly, in these "sermons" or "oracles" these 12 men carry a very clear message for the Israelites - they are God's covenant people - and if they want to return to God - they must return to the heart of the law and covenant that God gave them. God sent a message through the prophets about how to have a true heart and an inward relationship with God - FIRST!
Michael W. Smith
“Real joy comes when we get the right desire met - the desire for God himself, for a life led by the Spirit, fulfilling not our material desires but our deepest need, which is to be in a close relationship with our Creator. That is the source of true blessing. The only source.”
In order to return to the Father, we must first make sure that our hearts are right. We can't deal with the people around us and make spiritual impacts on this world unless our hearts are fully devoted to God. God's message was (and is) clear - You must have an inward transformation in order to live an outward message of hope and restoration. You must not conform to the pressure of the culture around you; instead you must apply Godly pressure on the consuming culture around you.
Romans 12:1-2 The Message
12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
This message of hope is often lost because you and I read most of these sermons or oracles out of context and we miss the understanding of how they have been laced and weaved together to point us to God's heart and His plan for redemption and hope. The prophets are driven by this idea of "hope". Their messages speak clearly and announce the wrong-doing of these covenant people. They don't shy away from calling out how and where the Hebrew people have pulled away from God. They clearly announce God's plan of destruction for those that are not willing to listen and repent. But they always have in the back of their mind - God's message of salvation - hope for a new day!
Once again lets keep things in context. God's wrath is always seen (for the ancient Hebrew) as a way and road to restoration. The fact is that God being, loving and just, can't simply let evil go on without dealing with it. (Now I'll talk more about the difference between "evil" and "sin" later).
These prophets knew that their messages were hard to hear, but they knew if the people would simply stick around and listen to the end, they would hear a message not just about God's wrath, but a message about God's heart - a message about salvation and restoration.
Let's take a look at one verse today... This verse speaks about Israel’s failure to learn from their past mistakes and from God's past direction. They have simply forgotten about God and how God blessed them. They have moved on from their obedience and are now stuck in a lifestyle of plenty and self-absorbance.
Amos 4:1-3 New Living Translation
4:1 Listen to me, you fat cows living in Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy, and who are always calling to your husbands, “Bring us another drink!”
(Remember we are keeping all things in context and not jumping to our cultural politically correct sunglasses - remember misjudging, misunderstanding and missing the point - just wanted to remind you...let's go on).
2 The Sovereign Lord has sworn this by his holiness: “The time will come when you will be led away with hooks in your noses. Every last one of you will be dragged away like a fish on a hook! 3 You will be led out through the ruins of the wall; you will be thrown from your fortresses,” says the Lord.
It seems clear that there is a message here if we are willing to listen. The first thing we notice is that the prophet is speaking for God - "Listen to me"! God wants to get their attention and He does so in a striking way. The people living in Samaria have turned from God's covenant; they are living a lifestyle far from what God desires. They have turned to their own wants and their own desires. They have grown fat and lazy on the back of worshipping other gods and idols. They have grown prideful and uncompassionate as they have failed to live by God's covenant. God goes on...
Amos 4:4-5 New Living Translation
4 “Go ahead and offer sacrifices to the idols at Bethel. Keep on disobeying at Gilgal. Offer sacrifices each morning, and bring your tithes every three days. 5 Present your bread made with yeast as an offering of thanksgiving. Then give your extra voluntary offerings so you can brag about it everywhere! This is the kind of thing you Israelites love to do,” says the Sovereign Lord.
The prophet speaks to the people and lays out the fact that what they are doing is far from what God truly wants from them. They are going through the motions of "religious activity", but they are not living for God at all. The fact is that the people living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel have turned from God and they need to return.
Side note: Israel's Kingdom was divided after the death of Solomon into the 10 tribes to the north - "The Northern Kingdom" - and Judah in the south - "The Southern Kingdom''. Amos is speaking directly to the northern kingdom because of their idol worship and turning from God's law and covenant. So what did it mean to them?
Amos 4:6 New Living Translation
6 “I brought hunger to every city and famine to every town. But still you would not return to me,” says the Lord.
Don't miss this... this is huge for us moving forward! I will come back to this often. God sent Amos with a very clear and stern message of destruction and wrath. God sent a clear message for the people who were living outside of God's plan and God's way of living holy. They replaced God with images of animals. They replaced God with false religious activity. They replaced their love for God with a love for themselves. The prophet says that God tried to get their attention. God attempted to get their focus, but "still they would not return".
Kyle Idleman, Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart
“God is jealous for your heart, not because he is petty or insecure, but because he loves you. The reason why God has such a huge problem with idolatry is that his love for you is all-consuming. He loves you too much to share you.”
N.T. Wright "Lent for Everyone: Mark Year B"
“God's wrath, properly, is an aspect of his love: it is because God loves human beings with a steady, unquenchable passion that he hated Apartheid, that he hates torture and cluster bombs, that he loathes slavery, that his wrath is relentless against the rich who oppress the poor. If God was not wrathful against these and so many other distortions of our human vocation, he is not loving. And it is his love, determined to deal with that nasty, insidious, vicious, soul-destroying evil, that causes him to send his only, special son.”
If we're not careful... we will miss the point of God's love as Idleman and Wright suggest. What seems terrible for those involved is actually the most loving thing God could do. You see, the people of the Northern Kingdom were heading for ultimate destruction... they were heading for an eternity without God. God doesn't want that... God wants all people to "return" or "be restored" to Him. If we're not careful we will take this out of context and only focus on the "mean God", when in fact - God's heart has never been more open to these people - if they would simply listen and return!
D. A. Carson: "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God''
“. . . the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything that culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all, sentimentalized. . . . Today most people seem to have little difficulty believing in the love of God; they have far more difficulty believing in the justice of God, the wrath of God and the non-contradictory truthfulness of an omniscient God.
Amos 5:21-24 New Living Translation
21 “I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. 22 I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. 23 Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.
In a world that is so focused on more and more and more... If we want to learn what it means to "RETURN" to God then I think we need to have a hard look at what it means to keep all things in context.
We have gotten so far away from the simple truth of God and the law of Christ. We have lived in our comfort and we have relished in our safety. Keeping this in context God was speaking to the entire nation of Israel (even though there were some that most likely were following God and keeping the covenant) - However, God doesn't pull any punches when He speaks about the importance of returning to Him. This message can't be any more real for us today... RETURN.
It's time that we look at our hearts. It's time that we begin to see people as God sees them. It's truly time to learn what it means to combat evil while giving a message of hope and restoration to everyone! It's clear - God wants ALL people - not just the political right, the religious elite, the "good" people - God's desire is for everyone to return and He will stop at nothing to see it finished!
If we can keep things in context and learn from that context, then just maybe we can begin to move away from the polarization of politics, the disunity of division and the hate that comes from many who simply fail to "listen and return". God has never changed His message of salvation for those willing to "do good".
Micah 6:8 New Living Translation
No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.