Watch Out for Wormwood {When Church Hurts}

“And the shepherds’ pasture grounds mourn” (Amos 1:2)

In the place where safety and flourishing should be, there is mourning. Sadness, pain, and grief-stained tears. Confusion and frustration cry out. Bitterness.

It’s been the way with the history of God’s people—He gifts to them sweet, life-giving places for worship, community, and growth, and His people neglect, corrupt, and manipulate them for their own ease and enjoyment.

And the shepherds’ pasture grounds mourn.

Even now it mourns. The church—the current pasture of the Lord’s sheep—is hurting.

“Surely the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets. A lion has roared! Who will not fear?  The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:7-8)

I’m not an expert on Amos, but I know this: As a shepherd, he knows what is bad for sheep. No doubt, this is one reason the Lord called him to prophesy to Israel. The priests were too busy with dining, drinking, and speaking tours to see the impending danger. But not a shepherd. His alert eyes are trained to see harm approaching from the deep abyss. Fear had many times been displaced by courage to rescue sheep from the jaws of wolves. Yes, a shepherd knows what is bad for sheep and he makes it his preoccupation to do what is good for them.

The safety of the sheep may be a priest’s occupation, but to a shepherd, it is his preoccupation.

A shepherd loves his sheep. By definition, love is only love if it loves another for the other’s good. Love knows another’s name. It learns their pain. It weeps in another’s grief, and rejoices in their hope fulfilled.

“She has fallen, she will not rise again—The virgin Israel. She lies neglected on her land; there is none to raise her up.” (Amos 5:2)

For many, the place of refuge and refreshment has become a place of despair.  Yes, parts of the church—people—lie neglected with none to raise them up. You know, they come to church with their lives a mess, looking for hope, but leave without a ‘hello.’  They listen to the cheers and applause of worshiped heroes, but what they really want to hear is a word to refresh the desert of their heart. They look around and see interesting and alarming bite marks on others. Surely these people are not devouring themselves with gossip, criticism, and one-upmanship? And people leave this neglected place—more broken, tired and discouraged than they entered. Instead of raised up, they are beaten down.

“For the Lord says, “Seek Me that you may live, but do not resort to Bethel [the place of worship]. Seek the Lord. For those [others] turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness down to the earth.” (Amos 5:4-5, 7)

Spiritually neglected places serve the cup of wormwood—bitterness.

“They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speak with integrity.” (5:10) “I hate, I reject your festival, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even thou you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offering of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps, but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (5:21-24) “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.” (6:1) “Those who recline on beds of ivory and sprawl on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who improvise to the sound of the harp, and like David have composed songs for themselves.” (6:4-5)

The shepherd knows what is bad for the sheep. He knows that love and justice go hand in hand. Love—for another’s good—keeps justice pure and integrity-filled.

“Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land…and to cheat with dishonest scales…I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring sackcloth on everyone’s loins and baldness on every head. And I will make it like a time of mourning for an only son, and the end of it will be like a bitter day…People will stagger from sea to sea and from the north even to the east; they will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” (8:4, 5, 10, 12)

For the church today, this is a strong warning. Those who are on the outside also hear the mourning from shepherds’ pastures. Why then would they want to enter in?

“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you, just as you have said! Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the Lord God of hosts may be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” (5:14-15)

I’m not an expert on life, or on the church, or even on what to do with its hurt, but I know this: God cares about justice. He hates evil. He especially hates it inside the church, when clothed with religious exception to the rules.

“Lord God, please pardon! How can Jacob stand, for he is small?” (7:2)

I know this too: God is big. He knows we are just little sheep, easily devoured up with our own or other’s arrogance and evil. As a good and perfect Shepherd, Jesus knows we are easy prey.  He knows how to lead us safely “in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9). The Shepherd knows what is good for the sheep.

“In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old.” (9:11)

If you have been hurt by the church—or are even now being hurt—the Lord sees you and He will raise up your ruins and rebuild you. As His Son has already seen to your righteousness, He too will see to your justice. He will lead and love you for your good. In your hurting, do not confuse the shepherds—the true Shepherd does not offer you a cup of bitterness, no matter how bad that thing is that happened to you. No, your Shepherd offers you a cup of sweet healing. Take, drink, remember Him.

“For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness” ~Galatians 5:5

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