Better Things to Do

Amos 8.5-6, 11
When will..the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?
…buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals…

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.

Reflection: Better Things to Do
By John Tillman

At this time of year a basket of ripe fruit brings connotations of joy and celebration, but as God explained to Amos, the ripeness of the fruit was not the ripeness of joy, but of inward sin.

The people of Israel only seem religiously observant. Inwardly, they are wishing that the bothersome business of worshiping God could be over with so they could get back to making money.

In a day when only openly religious businesses dare to be closed on Sunday, we may not comprehend a time when no business in the nation-state of Israel would dare to be open on a religious holiday.

In our culture, extended holiday hours are expected. They are a fact of life and many work additional jobs during the holidays to get by.

Although I’ve never rushed out of church to open a grain market, at times I have needed to get to the mall and open a Santa set. In my own life and the lives of many others, additional holiday employment doesn’t supply luxuries or money for presents, it is needed to get by. The additional work I get around the holidays has at times provided nearly a third of our yearly income. The gig economy is not always pretty.

The poor indeed are bought with silver.

We see repeated in Amos the theme of economic sins being prioritized by the Lord’s prophets in his messages. The uncaring attitude that the wealthy market owner has starts with a greedy lie that he has better things to do than worship God—namely, to wring out profit from every minute, every worker, and every square foot of land.

As we move into a cultural season in which we will all interact with many seasonal workers—often undertrained and often sleep-deprived—may we at a minimum interact with them with mercy and grace. And, for those who are supervisors and managers, may we work to humanize our treatment of our employees and better their lives encouraging as much rest as is possible in this season of economic frenzy.

And in moments of worship, whether private or corporate, may we remember there is nothing more profitable that we could be doing than worshiping God.

Amos is clear that if we don’t value worshiping God, the punishment is a famine. Not a famine of profit, or water, or food. A famine of the Word of God.

Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.  — Psalm 25.1-2

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 8 (Listen – 2:16)
Luke 3 (Listen – 5:24)

Additional Reading
Read More about Inattentiveness in Worship :: Readers’ Choice
We must cultivate in worship a certain kind of inattentiveness toward other worshipers and even toward the leaders—maintaining our attention on God as the focus of all our joined efforts.

Read More about Prayers God Hates
Jesus, like Jeremiah, was concerned about oppression. We see this not only by who is driven out, but by who Christ calls in their place. The blind. The lame. The children. Christ makes room for the marginalized and the oppressed, and in they come.

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Under His Covering

Luke 1.49-51
The Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

Amos 5.24
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

From John:
There are echoes of Amos (and other prophets) in Mary’s song, especially in relation to God’s compassion for and provision for the outcasts, the poor, and the oppressed. As you read both scriptures this weekend, may we join in Mary’s song, and let our voices sing out for the oppressed.

But I’m really writing to introduce the first contribution by a new guest writer, Dena Dyer. Dena sent me this contribution months ago and I knew it would line up perfectly on this day, so I’ve been impatiently waiting for the chance to share it with you.

Dena is a friend from seminary days and has a wonderful voice, both as a writer and a singer. You can follow her and find out about her other writings at her Facebook page. I look forward to sharing more from Dena in the future.

Reflection: Under His Covering
By Dena Dyer

When my friend Renae invited me to her country home for coffee and conversation, I eagerly accepted. After a long, refreshing talk, we toured the land around her house. Her husband, a teacher and part-time landscaper, had created several lovely sitting areas and interesting out-buildings around the property.

Not far from the house, Renae pointed out a small pond. “We built the duck pen first, but later decided to build homes for the birds. We wanted to keep them safe when they enjoyed the water,” she said.

I exclaimed over the craftsmanship of the two small abodes. The first was built to look like a Japanese pagoda. A foundation had been laid on four stilts, which secured the building to the pond floor. Tiny wooden steps led from the base of the duck house to the upper level, which was covered by a large peaked roof. It was beautiful, well-built, and practical.

“The ducks are dumb. They don’t use them,” Renae explained. “They sit on the pond, out in the open, and sometimes get killed and eaten by falcons.”

“What? Are you serious?” I asked. She nodded.

It struck me later that God is like Renae’s husband—a master craftsman who has given us everything we need. His gifts are beautiful, well-built, and practical.

However, we are like the ducks. Instead of accepting his grace, strength, and mercy for our daily challenges, we attempt to live life on our own terms. Then, when Satan throws hardship, temptation, or other spiritual arrows at us, we are vulnerable. Often, we get eaten alive.

I want to be more like Mary and less like a stubborn, silly duck. When God sent an angel to the young Jewish girl, Gabriel told her that he had chosen her to be the womb for the Messiah. In faith, she accepted that her heavenly Father had favored her above every other human being. She trusted him to provide for her in a myriad ways and leaned on him to give her strength throughout Jesus’ birth and life. She lifted the name of God high, instead of lifting up thousands of questions, as I would have been tempted to.

The wise men gave three presents to the baby Jesus, but God also gave three presents to Mary. He gave her the Messiah, but he also granted her joy and peace. I’m so thankful she opened all three gifts.

Has God granted you a spiritual gift that you haven’t opened out of rebellion or apathy? Confess that to the Lord, and make things right with him.
Has there ever been a time when God protected you from something because you trusted in him and followed his commands?
How can you encourage those in your community to seek shelter with God this week?

*This devotional was originally posted as a part of The High Calling devotional series.

Prayer: The Greeting
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
Let none who look to you be put to shame.  — Psalm 25.1-2

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 5 (Listen – 3:44)
Luke 1:1-38 (Listen – 9:26)

This Weekend’s Readings
Amos 6 (Listen – 2:13) Luke 1:39-80 (Listen – 9:26)
Amos 7 (Listen – 2:45) Luke 2 (Listen – 6:11)

Additional Reading
Read More about The Spirit of the Lord :: Epiphany
The growth of Jesus in Mary’s womb symbolizes his growth and gradual manifestation in our lives. Mary lent Jesus DNA, and cells, and tissue—her body knit him together and delivered him into our world. Mary lent his Spirit flesh. Jesus gives our flesh Spirit.

Read More about Dream Like Joseph :: Readers’ Choice
Mary, and Joseph after her, answered, “yes.” They accepted the danger. They accepted the unknown. They accepted the world-flipping power shift that would start with Mary and be concluded by her first-born son.

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The Church’s Primary Role

Psalm 150.6
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

From John:
Usually when we say the church shouldn’t “be political,” what we mean is that it shouldn’t disagree with my politics. Politics is a poor substitute for the gospel. We must continually remind ourselves which one we must serve.

Reflection: The Church’s Primary Role
The Park Forum

It is easy to forget, in the deluge of political conversations that have consumed the past few months, that although the church’s role in this world necessarily involves politics, it is not itself political.

The book of Psalms spans every possible human emotion, reflects on geopolitics, laments evil, and cries out for godly leadership on earth—yet it concludes with three psalms dedicated entirely to praise.

The psalmist not only calls the Church to worship, but rebukes every earthly system of power and authority that will ultimately prove insufficient to deliver what humankind needs most. N.T. Wright, as he concludes his book Simply Jesus, reflects on how the church can maintain its focus on God’s calling and sovereignty amidst shifting political powers:

We must give full weight to the difficult but important biblical vision of God’s sovereignty over the nations and his determination to shape their fortunes to serve his higher purposes. This belief is so important for any vision of what it means to speak of Jesus’ kingship in the present time that we must spell it out slightly more fully before drawing the threads together.

First… God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. He intends to bring that order to the world through the work, the thought, the planning, and the wisdom of human beings….

Second, even when the rulers are wild or wicked, God can bend their imaginings to serve his purpose…. Third, then, God will in the end call the nations to account….

Yes, God can and does work in all sorts of ways outside the church. There are many movements of thought and energy totally beyond the life of the church in which wise Christians can discern and celebrate God’s sovereign and gracious presence….

But we do not, because of that, lose sight of one of the church’s primary roles: to bear witness to the sovereign rule of Jesus, holding the world to account. And when I say “bear witness,” I mean it in the strong sense I spoke of earlier. Like a witness in a law court, we are not just telling about our private experiences. We are declaring things that, by their declaration, will change the way things are going.

Prayer: The Greeting
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
Let none who look to you be put to shame.  — Psalm 25.1-2

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 4 (Listen – 2:21)
Psalm 148-150 (Listen – 3:04)

Additional Reading
Read More about The Compelling Gospel of Billy Graham
The true gospel stands apart from political maneuvering and manipulation. We each may attempt to change it to suit ourselves, yet it is in fact working to change us.

Read More about Political Promises
May we not trade our role as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom for an inferior role as a political party’s “yes-men.” May we speak up for the downtrodden and helpless no matter which party is against them.

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Trust and Self-Giving Love

Psalm 146.3-4
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.

From John:
Today we take a look back at another post from two years ago that is still sharply relevant to us today. Whether we gloat or lament over a political outcome, we are confessing where our trust truly lies.

Reflection: Trust and Self-Giving Love
The Park Forum

There are two significant benefits to following a devotional reading plan. The first could be called an asynchronous benefit: scheduled reading leads us to places in Scripture we would otherwise not align with daily life (minor prophets, anyone?) and we are exposed to the full light and life of God’s word.

The synchronous benefit of reading Scripture along a pre-determined plan is that we see how often this sacred word collides with daily life. At The Park Forum we read a variant of the historic M’Cheyne Reading Plan—expanding the 19th-century preacher’s one year plan over two years. And today we come to a passage which could not be more timely.

Civilizations throughout history have looked to their leaders to save them—and though modernism has secularized this pursuit, it has not managed to mitigate it. Today the political right celebrates while the left laments—both confess their all-consuming trust in the leaders of our world.

In Simply Jesus N.T. Wright reflects:

We treat political leaders as heroes and demigods; they carry our dreams, our fantasies of how things should be. When we find out that they are only human after all, we turn on them, blaming them for the intractable problems that they, like their predecessors, haven’t been able to solve.

Wright then asks the question all too often glossed over in Scripture: “Why did people think that Jesus might be any different?” How is it that Christ offers a better solution?

Could it be that the paradoxical call of servant leadership, demonstrated through the moral character Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, offer a better way—a way in which God can be seen, known, and restore the brokenness of our world? Wright concludes:

When God wants to change the world… he sends the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on. Just as God’s whole style—his chosen way of operating—reflects his generous love, sharing his rule with his human creatures, so the way in which those humans then have to behave if they are to be agents of Jesus’ lordship reflects in its turn the same sense of vulnerable gentle, but powerful self-giving love.

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Send forth your strength, O God; establish, O God, what you have wrought for us.  — Psalm 68.28

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 3 (Listen – 2:11)
Psalm 146-147 (Listen – 3:09)

Additional Reading
Read More from N.T. Wright on Political Allegiance
It is impossible for genuine faith not to influence a person’s politics. Paul explains that Christian faith does not result in a doubling down on political ideology as a means toward “peace and security,” but in radical commitment to Christ.

Read More about Beginning of Righteousness
Spiritual maturity grows the immature curiosity of, “what would Jesus do?” to, “how will Christ live through what I chose to do?” This question presupposes freedom in Christ and demands intimacy to answer.

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The Church, Politics, and the Future

Amos 2.11-12
“I also raised up prophets from among your children
and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the Lord.
“But you made the Nazirites drink wine
and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.

From John:
Christians living faithfully will always suffer under governments—regardless of political promises, regardless of party affiliation, regardless of political alignment. If our political goals are to ease our own suffering, they have nothing to do with living out the gospel.

Reflection: The Church, Politics, and the Future
The Park Forum

“Christians in the first-century were a minority in a hostile world,” observed John Howard Yoder. A theologian and ethicist, Yoder believed that ancient Christianity’s minority status was radically different than the posture every Western Christian after Constantine would embrace. This historic standard is part of why the rapidly diminishing power of cultural Christianity in the U.S. has been so traumatic.

The Church, prior to Constantine, was defined by outward character and practice. Constantine effectively conscripted the West into Christianity—demanding they appear as Christian, or face brutal consequences for defiance. Because everyone essentially held the same external practices, the identity of a true Christian shifted inward, to the transformation of the heart and soul.

Over time the external signs of faith became less and less valued—until even the efficacy of an external sign was questioned. Yoder follows the logic of a modern Christian debating giving away all of his wealth:

What would happen if everyone did it? If everyone gave their wealth away what would we do for capital? If everyone loved their enemies who would ward off the Communists?

This argument could be met on other levels, but here our only point is to observe that such reasoning would have been preposterous in the early church and remains ludicrous wherever committed Christians accept realistically their minority status. Far more fitting than “What if everybody did it” would be its inverse, “What if nobody else acted like a Christian, but we did?”

In many ways, the faithful Christians celebrated throughout history are the ones who defied Yoder’s calculated control of external works of faith. “Anyone who has read Eberhard Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography knows it is impossible to distinguish between Bonhoeffer’s life and work,” writes theologian Stanley Hauerwas:

Bonhoeffer’s work from beginning to end was the attempt to reclaim the visibility of the church as the necessary condition for the proclamation of the gospel in a world that no longer privileged Christianity.

Hauerwas notes that, not only was Bonhoeffer’s faith deeply integrated into his life, but, “Bonhoeffer’s life that was at once theological and political.” Quoting from The Cost of Discipleship, Hauerwas continues:

According to Bonhoeffer sanctification, properly understood, is the church’s politics. For sanctification is only possible within the visible church community. “That is the ‘political’ character of the church community. A merely personal sanctification which seeks to bypass this openly visible separation of the church-community from the world confuses the pious desires of the religious flesh with the sanctification of the church-community, which has been accomplished in Christ’s death and is being actualized by the seal of God.”

Bonhoeffer saw that the holiness of the church is necessary for the redemption of the world.

Though Bonhoeffer saw American theology as superficial, he has many followers currently echoing his ethos for Christian praxis. A New Yorker profile on the Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore noted, “he says that Christians in America must learn to think of themselves as a marginal community, struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile secular culture.”

Moore tends toward introspection, admonishing Southern Baptists to think first—and often—about their own sins. The denomination was formed, in 1845, by white Southerners who split off from a national Baptist movement that was growing increasingly intolerant of slavery. Moore sees in his theological ancestors a cowardly and catastrophic willingness to ignore the uncomfortable. “If you call people to repentance for drunkenness, or for adultery, or for any number of personal sins, but you don’t say anything about slaveholding or about lynching,” he says, “you’re just baptizing the status quo.”

Though leaders change and the appearances of majority diminish, the call and foundation of the Church remain. Hauerwas, again quoting Bonhoeffer, concludes:

The church names that community that lives in radical hope in a world without hope. To so live means the church cannot help but be different from the world. Such a difference is not an end in itself but “automatically follow[s] from an authentic proclamation of the gospel.”

Prayer: The Greeting
Our of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; for God himself is judge.  — Psalm 50.2, 6

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Prayers from The Divine Hours available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Amos 2 (Listen – 2:12)
Psalm 145 (Listen – 2:19)

Additional Reading
Read More about A Different Kind of Exile
Living as outcasts in society has nearly always brought healing to the church through suffering. The historical church that suffers, tightens its grasp of the Gospel as it loses worldly influence and power.

Read More about being Undefiled at Heart
At times, like Daniel, we must beg for permission from governments and employers to follow our consciences. That the government may not relent, and we may be forced to eat what is given is a part of being an exile.

Articles:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Political Theology. Stanley Hauerwas for The University of Waterloo.
The New Evangelical Moral Minority. Kelefa Sanneh for The New Yorker.
A White Church No More. Russell Moore for The New York Times.
The Priestly Kingdom (pp. 42-45, draft provided by Duke). John Howard Yoder in Christian Ethics.

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Each month over 22,000 Park Forum email devotionals are read around the world. Support our readers with a monthly or a one time donation.