“Come to Bethel and rebel; rebel even more at Gilgal! Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tenths every three days. Offer leavened bread as a thanksgiving sacrifice, and loudly proclaim your freewill offerings, for that is what you Israelites love to do! This is the declaration of the Lord God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
On occasion I’ve heard a popular Christian speaker joke that he has the spiritual gift of sarcasm. Formally defined, sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or express contempt.” Irony, of course, is expressing one thing by saying it’s opposite as a means of drawing attention to it. The speaker’s point is that he’s got a knack for poking fun at things that don’t fit with his worldview framework. Sarcasm can be funny, but it can also be pretty mean-spirited. Either way, it can be an effective way of expressing a point in a certain context in fairly unmistakable terms. One of the places we wouldn’t normally expect sarcasm, but in which we nonetheless find it remarkably often, is the Scriptures. Here is a perfect example. Let’s talk this morning about why God is being sarcastic and what we should do with it.
If you were just reading these couple of verses without any real context about Amos’ prophetic record or the culture and geography of the ancient kingdom of Israel, you could be forgiven for entirely missing what is going on here in the text. This is another of those places where reading the Scriptures is good, but studying them is better because you’re going to be able to get a whole lot more out of them. Or at least you’ll be able to better understand what’s happening in them. In this particular passage, it would be easy to come away thinking that God was trying to encourage the people to be more diligent in their worship practices. The truth, however, is just the opposite.
Bethel and Gilgal were the two major centers of worship for the northern kingdom of Israel. When Jeroboam I established the nation as a breakaway from the united kingdom of Israel during the reign of Solomon’s idiotic son, Rehoboam, one of his early concerns was that if his people continued going to Jerusalem to worship the Lord, this sharing of religious faith would gradually knit the people back together which would eventually merge the divided kingdom back into a united one again. While in big picture terms this would have been a much better outcome, from a worldly standpoint, this meant that Jeroboam would eventually lose his newfound power. This was not something he was going to abide.
As a result, he set up worship centers for the Israelites to use instead of going all the way back to Jerusalem and the temple there. And in these worship centers he set up calf idols like what Aaron made for the people when Moses lingered too long on the top of Mount Sinai when he was receiving the Law from God. What he was fairly open about communicating to the people was that their brothers and sisters to the south were actually worshiping the wrong God, and that the calf god created by Aaron was the one who really led them out of Egypt. In doing this, he got his nation started on a path of idolatry out of the gate and they never really turned back from it.
Looking at this text here, understanding this idolatrous foundation for the nation helps us better understand the juxtaposition of God’s invitation to rebel with His apparent commands to worship. He was describing the kind of worship practices the people engaged in at these centers of worship. The point, like we have talked about before, is that the people’s problem was not a lack of religiosity. They were incredibly religious. They did all these things God was describing here very faithfully. They made sacrifices and gave offerings. In fact, they followed many of the same sacrificial practices as their brothers and sisters to the south. They were a very religious people.
The problem was that they were doing all of this in pursuit of the wrong god. They were doing it in pursuit of a god who did not even exist. This was all religion for the sake of religion. Now, they didn’t think in those terms themselves. They believed – just like every ancient pagan people believed – that all of these things were efficacious. They were appeasing their gods so that they would bless them with prosperity and protection. And at least in Israel’s case, their efforts seemed to be working. Their economy was great and their military was strong. What more could you ask for?
God had tried to warn them away from this path, insisting that their wealth and their military prowess was all an illusion, but they wouldn’t listen. So here He tries another approach. He gets sarcastic with them. “Okay fine, go ahead and have at it. If you are going to worship like this, throw yourselves all the way into. Double down on your idolatry. Triple down on it even. Show the world just how religious you are. Then they will be able to see how worthless your religion is.”
He was trying to help them see that all their religiosity was ridiculous. They were pouring themselves into something that was not going to meaningfully benefit them. It may have given that appearance in the past, but there was not actually a connection between the two. They were simply the beneficiaries of effective human leadership which was itself only happening because God had allowed it in hopes that the good times would lead them to make the connection between the blessings and Him. It didn’t. This was no different from occasions today when companies like Apple or Amazon or Google have benefitted from really effective leadership and become enormous and profitable in spite of the fact that nothing they are doing is done with the purpose of honoring God.
What was ridiculous was their belief that any of this temporary and worldly success was the result of themselves or their religious practices. What was ridiculous was their sin. Friends, sin is ridiculous. It’s always ridiculous. Sin runs on the delusion that we can have our way at the expense of God’s way. It embraces the delusion that we are fully autonomous creatures who can make our own way through this life. It traffics in the ludicrously silly notion that we are the final arbiters of what is right and what is wrong. It’s all a mirage. It is often a really effective mirage, but it is a mirage all the same. And sometimes the best way to reveal a mirage is to point out just how silly it is. Sarcasm can do that. So, sometimes God is sarcastic.
Here’s the uncomfortable question to ponder this morning: Are you doing anything that could provoke God to sarcasm? Are there things you do on a regular basis that you image are effective at causing some good thing to happen in your life but which are not really even remotely responsible for it? Do you have secret sins that would totally torpedo much of what is good in your life if they were discovered, but which you keep returning to like an alcoholic to his bottle? Are you in a place where you are practicing religion without a deep and abiding relational connection to the God who created it, believing that your religion is good enough by itself to keep you right with Him?
Those things and a million others like them are silly. They are ridiculous. They are stupid, to put it even more bluntly. Stop doing those things and start walking the path of real righteousness. Don’t make God be sarcastic. He likes to laugh, but He would rather laugh with us than at us.