Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on July 5, 2009.
Amos 5: 18-24.
For many people, justice is whatever they personally consider fair. It can be as arbitrary and changeable as stock market value, at the whim of circumstances and history, worth one thing one day and altogether another the next day. For others, it can be explained by such catch phrases as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And it all too easily can slide into vengeance, self-righteous demands, racism, or revenge and retaliation on an emotional level. But religiously in the Judeo-Christian tradition, justice always looks more like mercy than anything
we would label justice.”
Megan McKenna in Send My Roots Rain
This is the second of four Sundays in which we are looking at characteristics of God that are so critical in the character of God that we are calling them “The DNA of God.” There is another factor involved and that is that if it would be true that I would receive some of my characteristics from my parents’ DNA, then the children of God would receive some of their characteristics as well. If we are created in the image of God, then what is it that the DNA of God stamps firmly upon us that indicates that we are truly God’s children?
On this Independence Day weekend, we look at justice. What is justice? Christians in our world should not be surprised that some of the words that we cherish and that are vital to God’s word in Scripture are not used exactly the same way in culture as they are used in our faith and in the Bible. Let’s take the word love. The love of God that was in Christ Jesus our Lord, as revealed on the cross of Calvary, is not the same love when, in a sitcom, somebody titters a little and said they made love to somebody. It’s not the same word, is it?
We can think of other instances where we have to explain our words because the words in the way the culture uses them are just not quite focused enough to understand what it means in relationship with God. The same would be true with the word justice. When we start thinking about justice, sometimes we think about the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all,” but the dominant way that justice is used in our culture is in terms of criminal justice. If someone wants to go into law enforcement, they might major in college in criminal justice. We have an arm of the federal government called the Justice Department. That includes the investigation, prosecution, and conviction of people who break the laws.
I know you have seen a setting such as this. Imagine it’s a family reunion with a group of typically older men watching a ballgame. They flip to the news and something appears on the news that they don’t like. One of them clicks the TV off and says, “Do you know what the trouble with this country is? There just ain’t no justice anymore.”
When somebody says that, are they saying that punishment is too hard? “The reason there is no justice is because punishment is too hard.”
No, when people say that, they are thinking about punishment and they are thinking it is not harsh enough.
When we think about justice or when we hear justice talked about in the broader culture and society in which we live, we are usually thinking about prosecution, investigation, and punishment for crime. Let me just say that I have a son-in-law in law enforcement and we have a lot of church members in law enforcement, and that is good. It’s just not what the Scripture is talking about. When Amos says, “but let justice roll down like the river,” he is not talking about the same thing.
In the Bible, justice is not paired with liberty as in the Pledge of Allegiance. It is not paired with the word crime as it is often in the different articles, but very often it is affiliated with the word mercy. We read about that in the meditation text today. But even more than mercy, and I quit counting at 25 times, as in Amos 5, when somebody in Scripture is talking about justice, the word that is most often paired with it is righteousness. Amos says, “Let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
What is the difference? Stick with me. Righteousness is the way the people of God act in keeping with the character of God towards people they love. It is righteousness when I treat my family, my neighbor, and church members according to the way God would have us live. When we do that, we are living a righteous life. When we make sure that all people are treated this way, even people we cannot see and people we do not know, that is justice. It is righteousness when it is about personal behavior. It is justice when it is behavior of the people, the nation.
Just imagine you are parents of a child. You love your child and the way you treat your child right in the eyes of God is a part of righteousness. You love your friends’ children. When you treat them right, according to the way God would have us live, that’s righteousness. You volunteer at school to help with your child’s class. You do things for your child’s class because you love the children that are associated with the child. That is righteousness. When we work for every child to enjoy the benefit and the opportunity that we would want for our children, then it becomes justice.
The same thing would be true at the other end of the age spectrum. Let’s say you have a grandfather that you visit in a nursing home. You love your grandfather and you always make sure he is treated right. Over the months you have come to appreciate your grandfather’s roommate. Not only that, but as you come in and out of the nursing home on a regular basis, you begin to recognize and know by name Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smith who sit by the front door in their wheelchairs. When we treat them and people we know right, that is righteousness but when we work for all aging people to have the same benefit and same opportunity and to be treated the same way, that is justice.
When several people saw the title of this week’s sermon in the newsletter they told me, “I didn’t really think much about justice being something essential to the nature of God.” Just as we talked about humility last week, this is woven throughout scripture. It is not just some obscure prophet in the Old Testament, like Amos, but it is everywhere. Open up the Bible and read enough pages, and you will get hit in the face with justice. Jesus talks about, “the first will be last and the last will be first.” That sounds like a little rebalancing to me. It sounds like justice.
In James, there is a great verse where he says, “If you say, ‘I love you; be warm and be filled,’ and don’t do anything to help somebody, it is nothing.” This very much parallels the expression of what Amos said in this passage about why God doesn’t like worship. He said, “I don’t like your worship because you worship and nothing changes. You worship and you don’t treat people any better.” That is exactly what James says.
We might be keenly aware that Jesus was not crucified because he was a fine teacher and performed a few miracles and exorcised some demons. Jesus was crucified because he preached about the kingdom of God. The kingdom sounds like a great mystery to us when we read about it in Sunday school, but it is nothing more than what the world is like when God is in control and the rulers of this age are not. Do you get that? When Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is at hand” or “The kingdom of God is among you,” this is as if God is in control and the rulers of this age are not. We need to get our theology right here because not everything that happens is God’s will and not everything that happens is because God ordains it. Remember in the Lord’s Prayer we do say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why do we say that if it is already true?
Jesus was crucified because the kingdom of God upsets the balance. The kingdom of God and its desire for justice, the desire for the playing field to be level, and the desire for all people to have blessing and opportunity as other people have, that upset people and that is why Jesus was crucified.
If you have never really thought much about justice before and are now wondering how this is somehow given to us in the image of God, think about this: Almost everybody has a sense that life ought to be fair. We all know it is not. We can all think of instances where we expected life to be fair and it wasn’t and somebody said to us very kindly, “Now life is not fair,” or they said to us very harshly, “Life is not fair; get over it.” All of us have a sense that it should be fair. Life should be fair. The reason why it is not is because of sin. Sin has come in and broken this creation. Illness, disease, tornado—all of these things—are because creation was broken. But not just these things. When a drunk driver goes 80 miles an hour in a 45 mile an hour zone, and instead of veering right into a utility pole to kill herself like she intended to, accidentally veers the other direction and kills a mother head on, that is not fair but it is a result of sin. Sometimes the wake of sin that other people leave damages and destroys our lives and it is not fair. It’s not, but we can’t shake the feeling that it ought to be. That feeling is the image of God stamped onto us and the DNA of God in us saying, Work for justice. Justice ought to be.
If we are totally honest, one of the reasons why life isn’t fair is because of us. I owe Larry Atwell credit on this because he gave me this idea. He said, Did you ever notice that if you are going to give somebody a head start, you never give them enough of a head start to win but just to make them think they might win?
It’s like when we were younger and someone said, I’m going to give you a head start. You knew in your heart that you were not going to make it but it gave you an opportunity to try.
Maybe a couple of people are playing golf and one says, I am going to give you a couple of strokes. Do they ever give you enough strokes so you can actually win? No. That’s the way a lot of us work. When we say that we are working for justice and trying to make everything fair and even, it is very difficult to get the self-preservation and the self-interest out of the equation. Many times, what we really wind up doing is giving just enough of a head start to let the other person fail less. If left to our own, sin comes out in this way.
When the prophets in scripture challenged the behavior of people, we have no problem in the evangelical tradition recognizing that our personal behavior doesn’t measure up to the character of Christ. We have no trouble thinking, I have done wrong; I need to repent because I have sinned in my personal righteousness. But wouldn’t the same thing be true in our justice? What person ever fully lives up to what justice ought to be? In which culture has absolute fairness been created? It is up to us to listen to the word of scripture, not just our own ideas of what would be justice, but to listen to God and work for the good and the opportunity of every person?
I don’t know if you were paying attention to the first part of Amos 5. It is one of those, “Oh no,” passages. “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord. Why do you want the day of the Lord? The day will be darkness and not light. It will be as if a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, and he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Woe to you.”
When Amos is preaching, he is preaching to the advantaged. He is preaching to the people of God who, in earthly terms, have it made. They were all thinking, When the day of the Lord comes, this is going to be good for us because all of God’s enemies are going to be punished and we are going to do real fine ourselves.
Amos comes along and says, Hold on. Wait a minute. Uh-huh. Don’t you go asking for the day of the Lord because you think it is going to be really good, but it is going to be really darkness because of your lack of justice. The message of justice is always preached to the advantaged. Why? Because the advantaged have more opportunity to make the rules and change the way things are done. The disadvantaged rarely have good lobbyists, rarely have good influence. So the word comes to people who are advantaged in order that we might work for what God wants as justice, what we would experience as fairness in the world.
All of us are advantaged, every single one of us. If we read scripture and don’t feel slapped in the face every once in a while about the word of justice and what it means for us, then we are simply not paying attention. If in our personal righteousness, repentance is often needed, then perhaps in the realm of justice, repentance is needed, too.
Let us today, as children of God, have an understanding of justice. There are two different means, the justice in the world and the criminal justice system, that is one. But let us also understand what God wants for justice. As much as we would ever commit ourselves to personal morality and trying to live the right way, let us commit ourselves to justice for all people, that the people of God in this world would be known for treating all people, through all systems, the way the children of God are supposed to treat people. “Let justice roll down like the river and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.