My father was a sculptor. His medium of choice was wood. He was also one of the most patient men in the world. Anybody who asked for a lesson would immediately find themselves situated behind a fresh piece of wood, holding a chisel. The very first thing my father would tell everyone is, “Always cut away from yourself.” And everyone would smile, nod and think to themselves, “Well of course, everybody knows that.”
The lesson would begin and somewhere along the thirty minute mark, my father would be carefully bandaging his newest student’s hand because they had forgotten the first rule of sculpting – “Always cut away from yourself.”
I wish I could say that, since I heard the rule so often, that I learned the lesson best … Sadly, no. I can’t count how many times the sharpened piece of metal I am using to cut something has turned itself on me – even when I could swear I have been cutting away from myself. It’s almost like the tool I’m using has two sharp edges, one facing toward me as well as the one facing away.
Hm. That makes me think of something I was just reading in the first and second chapters of the book of Amos. Through the prophet Amos, God told the Israelites that He was going to punish all the “heathen” nations that surrounded Israel and Judah – Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. I can imagine the Israelites cheering because these people who they had been fighting with for centuries were finally going to “get what they deserved!”
Have you ever felt that way – glad when someone who was doing bad things finally got caught and punished? Especially if some of those bad things have been directed at you, right? But even when it’s not about us, most of us hate to see someone or something (like an animal) victimized. The news is full of stories that cause us to become angry and demand justice. We want the bully to get his comeuppance and we’re glad when we see it happens.
There’s a problem with that whole, “yeah, they got what they deserved,” attitude. If we keep reading in Amos, when we get to Amos 2:4, the knife of justice turns back toward the Jew’s themselves.
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not relent. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed, I will send fire on Judah that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.’
“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.’” Amos 2:4-8
Oh, bummer. Can you imagine? Here the Israelites are feeling all superior because God was taking care of their enemies, but then He lets them know that they’re in trouble too.
Those other nations were condemned, it looks like in Amos, for committing atrocities in war. Terrible? Yes, Judah and Israel were guilty because they seemed to be using their status as God’s people to take advantage of people who couldn’t defend themselves.
“Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: ‘You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.’” Amos 3:1-2
What is it that Spiderman says? “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I think the same thing could be said for “great privilege,” don’t you?
God gave the Children of Israel privilege and power as His chosen people. Their role was to have pointed the people who saw them to the One True God and to portray Him accurately. They didn’t do that, in fact, the Jewish nation repeatedly rejected God altogether while still claiming the privilege. They subjugated their own poor and defenseless and rejected any who could not increase the nation’s worldly status.
Are we, as Christians, able to stand up to the same scrutiny that God gave to the Jewish nation? How are we using our great privilege? Are we carrying God’s message of love and redemption to the people who need it most?
Yes, we send missionaries to all parts of the world to share the gospel, but are we doing anything for the people nearest us who also need to be touched by the grace of God?
Mark Buchanan, author of “Messy, Costly, Dirty Ministry” describes an evening that changed his perspective.
“The Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle felt like skydiving into a tornado, exhausting and exhilarating all at once. I'd read about the meeting in Pastor Jim Cymbala's book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, but nothing prepared me for the event itself: 3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours.
“Afterward, my friend and I went out to dinner with the Cymbalas. In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, ‘Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is?’ I wasn't sure, and the question was rhetorical anyhow. ‘It's not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It's not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large.’
“Jim named two or three other candidates for the worst sin, all of which he dismissed. ‘The number one sin of the church in America,’ he said, ‘is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, “Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.”’
“I had no response. I was undone. He had laid me bare, found me out, and exposed my fraudulence. I was the chief of sinners. I had never prayed, not once, for God to bring such people to my church. So I went home and repented. I stopped sinning. I began to cry out for ‘those nobody wants.’”
When we see the bullies of the world, whether they are individuals or nations, we cry out for justice. But we have to remember that God’s justice cuts both ways. We who have been privileged to be called His children, have a huge responsibility to bring God’s love to as many people as possible. How many of us have prayed that our church will be filled with the unchurched?
“Then he told his servants, ‘We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on—every place filled.” Matthew 22:8-10