We sing with our lives

“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake” (Amos 5:18).

No question, most of those who had come to God’s house that morning for a word of reassurance and heard Amos shouting about felt like they had got bitten by something nasty.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

The word of the Lord.

Your offerings? I will not look upon them, let alone accept them. I can’t stand the smell.

The word of the Lord.

Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to your harp music.

The word of the Lord. Nobody responded, Thanks be to God.

No question, after Amos finished that morning nobody invited the preacher to lunch. A torrent of accusations had washed over them and their ears were still ringing, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” They thought they had come to the sanctuary to hear a word of hope about the coming of the Lord, about the great day when God would appear in glory and might and Israel’s enemies would be vanquished. And instead they had to listen to this Amos, this fellow from the South, talking about God’s judgment not against the nations but against them. Who was he? Who did he think he was? No doubt some of them shouted, “Go back where you came from, we have our own prophets!”

“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” Amos told them; “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” [1]

Amos was from the hill country south of Jerusalem, from a small town called Tekoa – not exactly a foreigner in Samaria, but still an outsider, a stranger, an intruder. In the name of God, but with a Jerusalem accent, he lashed out against the social injustice in Samaria. He accused the leaders, including the priests of the king’s sanctuary, of perverting justice and cheating the poor in the marketplace. And in the context of such oppression, he told them, their worship, though religiously and beautifully presented, was no offering of praise but only ugliness, noise, and stench. “The cumulative image of these [lines of Amos’s speech] is God’s holding the nose, shutting the eyes and closing the ears to Israel’s ceremonies.” [2]

Justice and righteousness characterize the God of Israel, and justice and righteousness are to characterize the life of God’s covenant people. Without them, their worship was not just incomplete, but a perversion; without them, the people did not worship the Lord God, but only their own religious fantasies. Attention to the liturgy without attention to those who get pushed to the margins in daily life is not worship.Without attention to the faithful ordering of life in the city, the nation, and the world, attention to the order of worship is religious distraction at best, and idolatry at worst. The noble citizens of Samaria came to the sanctuary bearing gifts and dressed in their Sunday best, but they had forgotten how to live as God’s people.

You trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, Amos cried. You push the afflicted out of the way, you oppress the poor, and crush the needy. You hate the one who reproves in the gate and abhor the one who speaks the truth. You trample on the poor, afflict the righteous, and push aside the needy at the gate.[3] You think of yourselves as worshipers of God, but you are tramplers, haters, afflicters, oppressors, crushers, and pushers-aside of God’s own. You do not see past your own well-being, your own security, and the pleasures of your own lifestyle. Wake up and see that the ones you abuse, exclude, and ignore are one with you in the embrace of God. Open your eyes and let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. “Let justice run through society unimpeded by avarice or selfishness or cruelty; let it roll on without (…) hindrance like the waves of the sea; let it roll on unintermittently all the year round whatever be the political weather; let it roll on like a perennial stream which even in the fiercest heat of summer never dries up.” [4] Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

No matter how ornate, ritually correct and aesthetically pleasing the worship of God’s people may be, if it is not matched by a commitment to the establishment of just and righteous relationships in the world, it won’t be God’s name that is being honored. “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity,” says God in the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 1:13). Liturgical words and actions become meaningless, regardless of tradition, form, or quality, when those who participate in them do not seek to embody righteousness and struggle for justice for the most vulnerable members of the community.

In 1935, when the German government’s rhetoric and actions against Jewish citizens grew increasingly hateful and violent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chant.”[5] Too few were paying attention; too many kept singing their beloved hymns on Sunday morning, folding their hands and bowing their heads in prayer, only to fall silent as soon as they stepped from the warmth of the sanctuary into the cold daylight of Nazi rule. They were grateful for the comforts of a familiar liturgy and the hymns they had known since childhood, but they failed to stand up and speak out against the persecution of their neighbors.

The prophets help us see and remember that singing and living go together, that we glorify God’s name with our communal worship in the sanctuary and with our words and actions in the community. Augustine said in one of his sermons, referring to the verse, Sing to the Lord a new song!,

“You tell me, ‘I am singing!’ Yes indeed, you are singing. You are singing clearly, I hear you. But make sure that your life does not contradict your words. Sing with your voices, your lips, and your lives. (…) If you desire to praise [the Lord], then live what you express (…) and you yourselves will be [the Lord’s] praise.”[6]

Be the Lord’s praise. Sing with your lives.

“Liturgy in the absence of justice does not please God; it nauseates God,” wrote Nicholas Wolterstorff. “Gregorian chants or Genevan psalms or Lutheran chorales or Anglican anthems or Orthodox troparions [or Baptist revival songs] sung in the presence of injustice disgust God.”[7] The point of our worship assemblies and liturgies is to praise God; we gather around the Word, around baptistry and table to give symbolic expression to the commitment of our lives to God. “Liturgy is for giving voice to life, to lives of faith.”[8] In our lives, we seek to obey God, individually and collectively; in the liturgy we praise the one whom we seek to obey, and we confess our failings. In our lives, we demonstrate our love of God; in the liturgy we bless and praise the God we love. In our lives, we strive to be like God: holy, merciful, just. In the liturgy we intercede with God to be our holiness, our mercy, and our justice. But if our lives are not in fact committed to God and God’s mission of reconciliation, then going through the motions of the liturgy is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not struggle for the feeding of the hungry and peace with our neighbors, then interceding with God for the hungry and for peace on earth is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not actively imitate the divine longing for justice and righteousness, then professing devotion to God in worship is a disgusting religious performance. Without connection to lives ordered by God’s love and the demands of that love, worship nauseates God.[9]

We’re only a week away from setting up rows of mattresses in our fellowship hall for Room in the Inn. We’re only a week away from cooking delicious meals, adding a special snack to a brownpaper breakfast bag, and, night after night, welcoming a group of strangers with a smile. We do it to the glory of God and for the healing of our community; it is part of our worship.

We hear with joy and amazement that more than 700 homeless individuals in Nashville have found permanent housing since June last year in a collaborative effort of government agencies, non-profits, landlords, and numerous volunteers. But we also hear that in the city-wide street census, the overall number of homeless individuals and families in our community has only dropped by less than 40. We wonder why so many people are losing their homes when they go through personal crises, and we ask what can be done about it – we wonder and we ask to the glory of God and for the healing of our community; it is part of our worship. We do these and all things to let our life together reflect the character of the God we worship. We sing with our lives.


[1] Amos 7:14-15

[2] Jannie Du Preez, “Let justice roll on like...”: some explanatory notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal Of Theology For Southern Africa no. 109 (March 1, 2001) 95.

[3] See Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10,12.

[4] John E. McFadyen, cited in Du Preez, 98.

[5] my translation; quoted from memory. See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie (München: Kaiser, 1983) 685.

[6] Sermon 34, 5-6

[7] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a condition of authentic liturgy,” Theology Today 48, no. 1 (April 1, 1991) 10.

[8] Wolterstorff, 17.

[9] See Wolterstorff, 17.