The Lion Still Roars: Lamenting Our Empty Sacrifices
Written by Dn Danny Chua
Originally posted here. Reposted with permission.
Part 1: Repentance Prayers from the Book of Amos in a Pandemic
The lion has roared; who will not fear?Amos 3:8
Not too long ago, towards the end of 2019, we in Zion Bishan spent 14 Sundays listening to 14 piercing sermons from the book of Amos. Week after week, the Lion – our Lord God – roared over and over again. Why am I recalling all of this in the middle of our ‘circuit breaker’ isolation period? It’s because I’ve finally realized recently that every single thing I now miss about ‘church’ as we knew were the very things I took for granted. In this first of a three-part reflection, I hope to help us reflect and repent of our empty sacrifices and divided hearts.
“Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord God.Amos 4:4-5
For the past few weeks, we’ve ‘watched’ and worshipped in our homes through virtual livestreams of our church services. I look in the screen and see the eyes of our leaders looking back at us – I know that before him or her, there’re no more than 8-10 people in that sanctuary. Imagining that visual and communal emptiness, and hearing the leaders on site lament the situation… My heart ached. It physically hurt.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not contending against the limitations we find ourselves living within. No, we Christians must be the first to affirm and support our national efforts to contain the virus spread; hence, loving our neighbor is, as our preacher, Tze Ming reminded us this past Sunday, learning to give up our usual practices for the common good of others in Christian charity. And yet, our hearts do ache as well.
But my heart ached for another reason. It ached because I also realized in that moment how much I had taken all those years of our Sunday corporate gatherings for granted.
In Amos’ time, Israel was charged in no uncertain terms for their empty sacrifices to the Lord. As Amos 4:4-5 above put it beyond doubt, Israel’s nonchalant and undevoted religious sacrifices were not just heaps of rubbish before the Lord God; more than that, they were transgressions and sinful acts of rebellion against Him! Lips sang praises but hearts were far away. Animals were offered but minds were running astray. In fact, these were not just accidental acts of absent-minded worship. The Lord spells it out clearly “for you so love to do!” – Israel’s worshippers enjoyed that kind of hypocritical worship. They delighted in that type of unfocused lip service.
It’s no wonder the Lord God was so angry with His people! Looking at their terrible attitude, He simply declared:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.Amos 5:21-24
Can you imagine the Lord ever saying that to us? “I hate your fellowshipping in my Name. I have no pleasure whatsoever in your so-called worship services and congregational singing.” Shocking.
Remembering these sober words of God for Israel in the book of Amos struck me – I realize now in retrospect how piercingly accurate they were in describing my heart and attitude of worship.
What were some of the aspects of my worship I realized the Lord hates?
All those times the sermon was preached, and I tuned off into screensaver mode, not even realizing I had tuned off.
All those times during a Scripture reading segment, when I checked my phone just because – not for my electronic Bible or for any particular reason.
All those times we sang glorious songs (yes, there was a time we sang!), but my lips moved without my heart’s devotion as my mind drifted away.
All those times we physically put our offerings to God into bags, and I neither felt an ounce of thanks nor bothered to utter an intentional prayer of dedication.
The list goes on in so many different ways for me, and I am sure, for you too. Now to be clear, these are not things to check off a list just to ensure we’re in the right ‘mode’ of worship as though there were such a thing. The point is that these idyllic and distracted behaviors simply reflected where my heart was on many occasions. And now, as I hear songs played over a screen, imagine a congregation gathered in hundreds of homes staring at the same YouTube page, I long to return to be with the one Body of Christ worshipping together in Spirit and in Truth again. I know without a shadow of doubt that Lord Jesus is still with us, and will be in the coming months, and yet I long to return to a heart of worship, once again with my brothers and sisters, somewhere in the unpredictable future…
This is why I must begin now. This is why we must begin now. Returning to that true heart of worship, repenting of empty sacrifices and undevoted worship begins in this season, as we press on without the normalcy and elements we once frivolously enjoyed. This is why we have a prayer of repentance to cry out to our Father today:
“Our Father, like the ancient Church of Israel, we’ve brought empty offerings and undevoted sacrifices before You. Like them, we’ve spent years taking our corporate gatherings for granted. We have not treated with honor the very Church that our Lord Jesus bled and died for. We’ve wasted countless hours before You, in the very presence of the Living God, uttering empty praise. We’ve taken for granted all those precious moments in those pews, with brother on the left and sister on the right, dwelling in the Spirit’s fellowship. Lord, help us repent of our empty sacrifices and wayward lips. Warn us, as You once warned Israel. Strike us with grief and despair for our careless hearts and drifting minds. You desire devoted hearts, a humbled posture, not sacrifices and offerings. Would You teach us, Father, in this season of isolation as we come to terms with the very gifts we’ve spurned, to long for You, to cultivate a heart of true worship and devotion. We thank you for our Lord Jesus who died for hypocrites such as us. We thank You that He was wholly devoted, in every sense a sacrifice in heart, mind, and soul, to You alone. We thank You that His sacrifice on the Cross was one you delighted in – the one sacrifice that allows us to cry this prayer before You for forgiveness under His ransoming blood. Remind us of that sacrifice on Calvary again this Holy Week, for it is only Christ crucified that can win our divided hearts and grow in us real devotion and true worship again. We pray these things as we grieve and partake in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”
PS: Pastor Sam Allberry, pastor and global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, said this recently about how we may all be feeling about being in quarantine and isolation, “Someone once said “life is basically a long, bad date with yourself.” Many of us are being confronted with the reality of who we really are. And it can be exhausting. So Jesus says, “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.””
If you’re feeling exhausted and tired of life and Covid19, disappointments one after another… Or if you’re even tired of wondering what in the world God is up to during these crazy times, I’d be happy to chat – just drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (unless you want to leave a public comment below).