The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 11-12, 2009
Text: Amos 7:7-15
Dear Friends in Christ,
We have before us a powerful and insightful text. It is one, however, where the context is crucial to understanding this text. After the death of King Solomon, the kingdom divided. The northern kingdom was termed Israel and the southern kingdom, which stayed loyal to the house of David, was termed Judah. The first king of Israel, in the period of the divided kingdom, was Jeroboam I. He had been a commander of King Solomon’s workforce. Jeroboam was concerned about his people going down to worship in Jerusalem. So he set up his own shrines in Bethel and Dan. In these shrines he set up golden bull calves. Now to understand the text we must understand what these golden bull calves represent.
The image of the bull calf goes back to Mount Sinai, when the people pressured Aaron to make them an idol. Now many scholars will speculate on which god this is. They might suggest the Egyptian god Apis. But why would they worship an Egyptian god when they had just been humiliated by the plagues. Other Ammorite or Canaanite gods often suggested. But none of this holds water. In fact, the text of Exodus tells exactly which god was being represented by the golden bull calf. The problem is that many of our translations make a muck of this. In Hebrew two words are used in connection to the true God - Elohim and Yahweh. Now Eloheim is a plural form, but is understood to be singular when referring to the true God. This is hinting at the Trinitarian nature of God. So Elohim can be rendered either God or gods, depending on context. Aaron makes the golden bull calf and then the people say this: “This is Elohim, O Israel, who brought you up out the land of Egypt.” To which Aaron replies: “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh?” (Exodus 32:4-5) If they were celebrating a new god, why were they having a feast to Yahweh? Because this wasn’t a new god. This was an idol created to represent Yahweh, that is the true God. Even though it was intended to represent Yahweh, it was still a graven image - that is an image of God through which He had not revealed Himself. He had never appeared as a bull calf. So even though the people intend this as worship of Yahweh, God rejects their worship.
The bull calf as the image of Yahweh did not go away, however. Jeptha in the book of Judges has an idol, presumably in the form of a bull calf, to represent Yahweh. Likewise in Judge 18 the Danites set up an idol to represent the true God in the city of Dan. It is probable that this shrine was destroyed in the years of King David. But the memory of Dan as a place of worship was now ingrained in their culture. So when Jeroboam I wished to set up rival places of worship, he set up golden bull calves at Bethel and at Dan. We’ve talked about Dan as a place of worship, but why Bethel. The name, Bethel, means “House of Elohim.” It’s the place where Jacob had his dream where he saw Christ coming down to him on a ladder or staircase. So it too was a place associated with God’s presence. Because of this sin, and the fact that the nation as a whole was led into this sin, God rejects the house of Jeroboam I. Then came the house of Omri which led Israel into even greater sins - the actual worship of false gods. This climaxed with the confrontation between the Prophet Elijah and King Ahab. The house of Omri was replaced by the house of Jehu. Jehu purged the false gods from Israel, but continued in what Scripture calls the “sin of Jeroboam.” He continued to worship the true God through the graven images.
This bring us to the time of Jeroboam II, who is a descendant of Jehu. It is a prosperous time. Israel has achieved its highest level of power, with the promise of perhaps even greater achievements to come. But the kingdom is rotten. It is filled with false worship and unbelief. The laws of Moses are ignored. Justice is only for the rich and powerful. God sent a number of prophets to Israel in this period. One of them was Amos, a Judean shepherd. As a Judean, Amos is a foreigner. It would be like someone coming from Canada and telling us what to do. Amos prophecies against the shrine at Bethel and warns that because of this false worship, God would reject them. He would measure them with the plumb line and find that they were not straight - they were crooked. Because they were crooked, and not straight, God would make the high places of Israel desolate, the sanctuaries of Israel would be laid waste, and God Himself would rise up and make war against the house of Jeroboam. There is double meaning to this last part. Jeroboam, as the first king represents all the kings of Israel. They all shared in the “sin of Jeroboam”. But the current king was also named Jeroboam. So it referred to the current king, as well to the kingdom as a whole. Many of those who heard Amos give this warning lived to see its fulfillment. In, 722 B.C. about 30 years after the time of Amos, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. The people were carted off into exile and forced to intermarry with non-Israelites. The tribes carried off by the Assyrians are known to history as the lost tribes of Israel. For all intents and purposes, they ceased to exist.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not free to worship God any we please. Worship itself is really not a good word. Our German forefathers used the word “Gottesdienst” - God’s Service to His people. When we gather, we are gathering in the heavenly throne room, before Christ, our Lord, to be served by Him with His gifts of Word and Sacrament. True Christian service to God takes place out in the world, in our daily lives. If we try to do anything to serve God here, in His throne room, we are creating our own golden bull calf. It is also crucial to remember that we cannot serve God until we have been served by God. So we come in to be served and leave to serve. This understanding is crucial to our lives. Here, we must do things the way that Christ as commanded us. Christ has given us this law so that we would always have the Gospel. Much of what passes for worship in America is indeed nothing more than our own version of the golden bull calf. True Christian worship is always about the proclaiming of God’s Word in its full truth and power, and the celebration of Sacraments. This is why our synod has passed resolutions urging our congregations to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. Far from being an add on, the Lord’s Supper is the very expression of who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ. Why does it have this central place? Because it is what Christ has given us to do. Further, it is fullest expression of God’s presence among us. For the in the Supper, Christ, our Savior from sin and death is among us according the flesh, dispensing His gifts of forgiveness, life and Salvation.
Word and Sacrament are not just a slogan for us. They are the very center of what we are as Christians. They are the things we are given by Christ to do. They are the way that Christ is present among us. They are the way that Christ distributes His gifts to us. The alternative is something of our own invention - our own golden bull calf. And there’s a lot of bulls in American. This is certain. And so we pray that we would be shown how to put such nonsense aside, and cling to the things Christ has given us - the things in which we have life.