Sunday, July 18, 2010

Focus (Amos 8:1-12)

We've no idea if the prophet Amos ever delivered the materials in his book at the same time, like a sermon. But if he had, it would have been interesting to watch the people listening to him.

He begins with oracles that proclaim God's judgment on the nations around his own. Then he moves in to Judea, the other kingdom formed when the original kingdom of Israel divided under Solomon's son Rehoboam. Up until this point, our listeners might have been cheering him on. You said it, buddy! Give it to those pagans! Sock it to those wannabes down in Judea! But some of them might have worried, because with each different oracle against a nation, Amos moves in closer and closer to his own nation of Israel. His focus becomes clearer each time, and then whammo! He zeros in on his own land and his own people, and lets them have it for their sins as well.

And you might call the root of their sins a lack of proper focus. As anyone who wears glasses or has used a camera knows, focus measures the clarity of the image we see. Sharply-defined images where we can identify the details are said to be in focus. Fuzzy images where it's hard to tell just what we're looking at are out of focus. Amos lets the people of Israel know their image of themselves as God's people is out of focus and they can't see the details they need to see.

What they do see are their regular observance of religious festivals and ceremonies. Even though they don't have the Temple of Solomon -- it's in Jerusalem, which is in Judea -- they still make sure they fast at the right times, offer the right kinds of sacrifices and hold all the proper religious feasts. But they don't pay any attention to the other parts of the law that talk about how to treat each other. God's people were given the law so they could act like God's people, and that meant practicing just treatment of all people, regardless of their power or economic status, as well as praying and sacrificing at the right times.

And they weren't doing that at all. Even during their religious observances they were thinking about getting back to the business of commerce, buying and selling the same items they were supposed to be thanking God for providing. They were planning how to cut corners and cheat their customers, especially those who already had almost nothing and could least afford to be cheated.

Amos warns them that such practices aren't part of God's people and if they can't see that, they're headed down a road of destruction. They might claim that they're still God's people living up to what God has asked of them because they've got all their religious observances down pat, but Amos tells them they do not see their situation clearly. Their focus is too fuzzy and they don't identify the problems that need fixing.

We Christians may not have as many observances and feasts and festivals as the ancient Israelites, but we can be just as unfocused as they were. It's not hard to find a church that boasts of its facilities but restricts them to members only, or that dumps dollars into its building while dribbling dimes to missions. It's not hard to find a church that proclaims this or that social or political cause on its website but has no plan or time for prayer in its life together.

And it's not hard to find Christians whose attention wanders during their own times of Sunday worship to the things of their weekly lives. I'm lazy, but fortunately I rarely have to look farther than my own mirror. Or to find people who choose their church based on what it can do for them instead of seeking God's direction on whether or not that church is the place where they can best serve him.

In the lens of the cameras we used to use at the newspaper, there was a circle in the center of the viewfinder. It was divided in half, and the way to be sure the image was properly focused was to line the image in the top part up with the image at the bottom. When these central images aligned, then the image was in focus. The key was to make sure that you'd gotten what you wanted to take a picture of at the center of the viewfinder, rather than off to one side.

Following God requires something similar. If we put God off to the side of our worldview we will not be properly focused. Maybe we hold some cause or ideal as more central to our church lives than we do our worship of God. Maybe we look for what God can give us in our relationship with him than what we owe him. Maybe we're even flat-out mean and nasty jerks like the people Amos accuses of stealing and cheating the poor. Whatever it is, we miss our mark even if we're in church every Sunday and singing every song and closing our eyes in every prayer and always having a check (not too big, though) for the offering. Those mean nothing in a life unfocused on God.

The great thing about focusing our lives on God, the way Amos called the Israelites to do, is that those failures, as well as all the others, can be removed from the picture. A failure to focus on God leads to sin, But a focus on God, with God at the center of our lives, brings grace, and grace transforms the imperfections and the blurs into a clear and bright picture of what life and we were always meant to be in God's sight.

Grace, after all, makes beauty out of ugly things.

No comments: