When Does True Reformation Occur?
Lord God, it is Your Spirit who can create in us clean hearts and renew within us right spirits. We pray that as we worship today Your Spirit would be present and active within us as we hear Your Word and receive Your Sacrament. Move us, O Lord, to be faithful Christians. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
The law of God cannot save us, for its primary purpose is to show us our sin and, therefore, our need of a Savior. God has provided that Savior, Jesus Christ, through whose redemptive work we have been justified. Let us rejoice in this truth and ever accept it in faith!
We are Jesus’ disciples when we receive Him by faith and abide in His Word. He promises that when we do so, we will know the truth, and that truth will bring us genuine freedom!
Text: Amos 5:18-24
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! For what good is the day of the LORD to you? It will be darkness and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness and not light? Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it? 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. But let justice run down like water, and the righteousness like a mighty stream.
In Christ Jesus, who has revealed to us His precious gospel so that we might come to know and then be led to believe that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in His atoning work, dear fellow redeemed:
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God!” There is probably no other hymn within Christendom that is tied in people’s minds to its author and the event surrounding its origin than “A Mighty Fortress is Our God!” When you hear its title, and when its words roll off your lips you cannot but think of Martin Luther and the Reformation of the 16th Century. That can be good, and that can be bad. It is good to review for ourselves the history behind our church—to understand how the Spirit of God used Martin Luther and many others almost five hundred years ago to restore to the church the primary teachings of the Bible—grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone! However, such an immediate connection can be bad, if we are led to think of "reformation" as a past historic event, rather than an ongoing and essential ingredient in our present faith lives.
Today as we celebrate the Festival of Reformation, let us consider the importance and necessity of ongoing reformation. Let us do so by asking the question, WHEN DOES TRUE REFORMATION OCCUR? As we examine these words from the ancient prophet Amos, we will see that true reformation does not occur when people maintain an external connection to the church and perform outward religious rituals. Rather, true reformation occurs when people undergo an internal transformation of the heart and live lives of genuine faith and love!
Before going further, let us review briefly the situation facing Amos, the author of our text. Amos was a part-time prophet and a full-time farmer. He lived in the Kingdom of Judah about 750 before the birth of Christ. He was called upon by the LORD to act as a prophet for only a few short months and was sent north by the LORD to rebuke the people of the Kingdom of Israel for their unbelief and resulting ungodliness. He was a plainspoken man, as you can see from our text—a man who used simple illustrations to make important spiritual observations. He traveled to Israel where the kings had established a false worship, in which they identified the LORD with two golden calves. They did this because they were afraid that if their subjects traveled south to Jerusalem to worship the LORD in His temple, they might be inclined to restore political union with Judah and remove them from power. Knowing that people tend to be creatures of habit, they incorporated all of the external rituals that went on in the true temple in Jerusalem into the worship of these false gods. Some people understood the deception, but went along with it, because the kings of Israel gave them positions of power and leadership. Others were completely deceived and with sincerity went on to worship these false gods as the LORD, failing to realize they were nothing but inanimate images. They prayed to these golden calves and asked them to deliver them from their enemies—to come and punish those who opposed them. They offered all of the sacrifices prescribed by Moses and provided music and musicians for worship just like in the temple.
Amos came to Bethel, one of the sites of this false worship and announced to the people what God thought of their worship: “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! For what good is the day of the LORD to you? It will be darkness and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness and not light? Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it? 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 told them that rather than being delivered by the LORD, He would strike them down in His judgment. They thought they would escape from “a lion,” but the LORD would become for them “a bear!” They would run to their houses to be safe, but upon entering their houses a hidden “serpent” would bite them. God was not impressed with their external worship, because it was a false worship proceeding from hearts that were still living in the darkness of sin and ignorance. He would not accept their offerings and viewed their worship as mere noise, because it proceeded from hearts, which assumed their efforts would gain God’s favor. They failed to recognize their sin and utter inability to deal with their sin. They did not understand that the offerings commanded by Moses were intended to be pictures of the sacrifice God would make in the person of His Son to deliver mankind from sin. They assumed that true reformation was something they could accomplish in their our hearts and lives through their own efforts and in their own ways, and they utterly failed!
My dear friends, times have not changed. People throughout our world establish religions or alter the true religion of the Bible to suit their own desires. They build churches, mosques, synagogues, and a host of other shrines to which they tie themselves, and in which they observe all sorts of rituals addressed to all sorts of false gods. They assume that they will be heard, and that their gods will defend them. They grasp the reins of their futures, assuming that since they have designed their gods, they can also define how they will serve them. They will reform themselves by stopping drinking, or cursing, or stealing and their god will be pleased and accept them. They will give alms, pray five times each day, go to great lengths to travel to Mecca, and their god will be pleased and accept them. They will meditate and follow a host of rules and regulations and the gods finally will be appeased and pleased.
If the truth is to be told, and it must be told. All such gods and religious rituals are “darkness and not light!” They will come under the judgment of the LORD God and offer their followers absolutely no hope for the future. Why? Because true reformation does not occur when people define who their god is, and how that god is to be served. Nor does true reformation necessarily occur, however, when people, who are aware of the true God and have the opportunity for genuine worship simply tie themselves by membership to a Christian congregation and go through the motions of religious worship. Having your name on the roster of Immanuel congregation, or some other Christian congregation, does not mean that you are right with your God. Occupying so many square inches of church pew on a given Sunday morning, or even every Sunday morning, does not mean that true reformation has taken place. Oh, do not get me wrong. I want you to be here on Sunday mornings. It is important for you to hear God’s word, to sing His praises, and to attend His Supper. But true reformation does not occur when people merely maintain an external connection to the church and perform outward religious rituals.
WHEN DOES TRUE REFORMATION OCCUR? True reformation occurs when people undergo internal transformation of the heart and live lives of genuine faith and love!Amos writes, “Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!” Amos mentions two concepts that are absolutely vital for us to understand, if true reformation is to occur in ongoing fashion our lives and in the life of this congregation. Those concepts are “justice” and “righteousness.” What must we understand?
We must understand, first of all, that from God’s vantagepoint, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). But who are the “just”? How does one become “just”? By nature we are not “just,” but rather must confess that we are "poor, miserable sinners," as we did earlier in this service. If we are honest with ourselves, we must join the Psalmist, who declares, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). We cannot stand before God on our own, for we would surely be condemned. Nor can we overcome our sins on our own, for we cannot even fully comprehend the depth to which we have fallen. No, the solution is to be found in the revelation of God Himself—the Holy Scriptures, for there God reveals His grace and mercy. It is in the Bible that God reveals to us His plan for our salvation. What does He say? He says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). We are not and cannot be “just” on the basis of our own efforts, but we are “justified,” that is, declared righteous before God in connection with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. This is the result of God grace—a love we do not deserve, but which He pours out freely upon us like water from a glass—we, who by nature are dying of thirst. When God’s Spirit leads us to repent and confess our sins, the blessed results of God’s act of justification become ours personally, and the Spirit of God transforms our hearts. He fills it with the imputed “righteousness” of Christ—that “righteousness” revealed through the gospel and which can and will allow us to stand before our God uncondemned on the last day. This then is the basis of true reformation, and it is renewed every day when we bow before our Lord in humble repentance and receive His love and forgiveness by faith.
The result of such true reformation will be evident in our lives. St. John says, “We love Him because He first loved us” and “he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:19,21). The unbelief of the people of Israel in Amos’ day revealed itself in a lack of love for God and a callous disregard for their neighbors. Amos describes the people of Israel as being in a mad rush to accumulate things—to acquire vast tracts of land (2:7), to build themselves luxurious houses ((3:15), to satisfy their every want and whim (4:1), and all this at the expense of genuine concern for others. My dear friends, our day is no different than that of Amos, and we must beware of falling into the same trap as they. When we truly understand what the grace and compassion of our God means to our future—the sure and certain hope of everlasting life in heaven as opposed to eternal suffering in hell, we cannot but be moved to live in accordance with God’s will in the present. We do, after all, belong to our God. Everything we have and ever will possess is His gift entrusted to us to be used wisely as stewards. Let us, therefore, both recognize and rejoice in these facts. Let us pray that God would lead us to love Him above all things (cf. Matthew 22:37), and that He would then lead us to love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Matthew 22:39). As we truly seek the general welfare of those around us within our families, communities, nation, and world, we will reflect the “justice” and the “righteousness” of God. It will “run down like water, and…like a mighty stream.” This is the evidence that true reformation has and is continuing to occur within our lives and within our congregation. Amen.
—Pastor Paul D. Nolting