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August 6th, 2018

Gospel Justice

Pay attention to what God requires.  It’s not an option.

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:13-16

 

Uncomfortable

I am aware as we begin a new theme for August that these sermons may put some of you in “But Mode.” (Please, that’s only one “t” in “But.”) Our July theme of evangelism, Spread, may have been easier to embrace, but this month several groups of people will want to say, “But….”

First, those who were raised in a Baptist, Pentecostal, independent Bible, evangelical, or fundamentalist church. The themes we’re going to discuss this month are less likely to have been part of your spiritual training.

Second, those who consider themselves politically conservative. We all know there’s a widening political divide in this country, and some of you are going to think I am trying to change or shift your political loyalty.

Third, those who are comfortable economically. If you have worked hard and been responsible to get where you are and believe your job and income are generally adequate, this may be uncomfortable.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to lower your resistance to this month’s sermons. Perhaps the first way is to tell you that all three of those criteria fit me. I was raised Baptist and consider myself an evangelical Christian, I am politically conservative, and my wife and I live comfortably in the middle class economically.

Here’s something else about me that’s true of most of you. I strive to be a biblical Christian. I trust the entire Bible as God’s Word, and believe it is my ultimate authority for what I believe and how I live. What I’m going to share with you this week and the next three weeks emerges from that commitment to Scripture.

Who decides?

So what’s this topic that requires such a sermon introduction? It’s the subject of “Justice.” In January the Consistory and staff read a book called Immeasurable. The author, an Indian-born church consultant and author named Skye Jethani, suggests that what he calls “Church, Inc.” is too common today – churches trying to imitate the world in making the church too much about measurable effectiveness.

Contrary to the business world, our bottom line is often invisible. Jethani says our participation in justice can never be about “evangelistic pragmatism,” by which he means that we’ll do justice if we can measure its effect on people coming to Christ or on church growth. Quoting John R. W. Stott, he says justice must be fueled by “simple, uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself” (182).

Justice is a word with a broad range of definitions and uses. Ask an evangelical Christian about justice, and you’re likely to hear about God’s justice – how sinners deserve hell, but Jesus took our hell for us on the cross. Ask a politically conservative person about justice, and you will probably hear that justice is served when people are accountable to the law and are punished if they break it. Justice means preventing new illegal immigration and holding people accountable if they entered the country illegally.

Ask a progressive Christian or liberal American, and justice means something very different. It addresses how groups of people are treated in society. Justice for women means equal pay for equal work. Justice for LGBT folks means equal treatment in housing, adoption, and marriage. Justice for racial minorities means we ask why so many more blacks than whites are in prison – and then we do something about it. Justice for immigrants means we don’t treat all of them as criminals.

At its root, justice is simply doing the right thing. But what’s the right thing and who decides? And what if your idea of “the right thing” differs from mine? Because the term “social justice” is a non-starter for some, we came up with “gospel justice.”

Justice is not the same thing as compassion or generosity. Ministries like the Soup Kitchen or our own Good Samaritan Fund are ministries of compassion. We help out those who are less fortunate. But sometimes helping is not helping, as Robert Lupton argues in a book titled Toxic Charity. Lupton says that some efforts at charity amount to “the kindest way to destroy people” (4). Justice is not about helping the poor; it’s about addressing the root causes of poverty.

Dom Helder Camara, a Catholic bishop in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” The working definition for our elders and pastors for gospel justice is this:  “Transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a quest to understand and alter conditions that perpetuate injustice and poverty among the vulnerable.”

What God requires

We begin our sermon series with arguably the most plaque-able verse in the Bible. Interestingly, it is not quoted in the New Testament. But you’ll find these words on plaques at Etsy, Pinterest, Hobby Lobby, or Lifeway. The Thomas Jefferson Building in the Library of Congress has one section devoted to each of eight disciplines in the Humanities – Law, Poetry, Philosophy, and so on. In the late nineteenth-century the Librarian of Congress commissioned two bronze statues for each discipline. Moses and Paul represent the “Religion” section.

Above each pair of human statues is a symbolic statue, and above that is a quote for that discipline. Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot chose a quote to be placed above the symbolic statues in each area. He could have chosen any verse in the Bible or a quote from or about any religious idea. The quote he chose to represent the highest ideal of Religion was Micah 6:8: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

As always, though, I don’t like to take a Bible verse in isolation. Its meaning is so much more significant in context. Like many prophets, Micah was somewhat eclectic, apparently railing against the people in his birthday suit (1:8). Now that’s a way to get people’s attention, right? But let’s be honest, we would avoid some of God’s greatest messengers in the Bible because they were strange. More importantly, we would avoid them for the same reasons their contemporaries did: hard truths.

Micah prophesied during the first half of the eighth century before Christ, and it was a time of economic prosperity under Kings Uzziah and Jotham. But not prosperity for all. A wealthy upper class emerged, which usually means a small group of people who are more clever and more proactive than others. There’s actually nothing wrong with being wealthy, clever, or proactive. Unfortunately, though, money empowers and power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton famously said. This wealthy upper class took advantage of their power, accumulating even more wealth by unlawfully seizing homes, land, and inheritance (2:2), especially from more vulnerable widows and children (2:9), and by using dishonest scales in the marketplace and engaging in open deceit and violence (6:10-12). Meanwhile, both the civil and religious leaders looked the other way because they were getting rich off payments under the table or even in full view (3:9-11). Idolatry and witchcraft (5:10-12) shattered their sense of culpability before God.

The key metaphor of Micah’s prophecy, and of chapter 6 in particular, is that of a lawsuit. The legal system in Judah is failing to protect the most vulnerable or bring to justice the most powerful, so Micah presents God as the prosecuting attorney, with the surrounding mountains as judge and jury, and Moses among others as witnesses. When the people emerged from slavery in Egypt, Moses was very clear about God’s compassion for the powerless, and warning against the powerful.

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” the people answered with an arrogance and cynicism. “Oh, I know. We’ll bring some more animals to sacrifice to the Lord! I bet he’ll be happy if we bring thousands of rams and rivers of oil. We could even burn up our own children as sacrifices to God” (6:6-7). Unfortunately, they were apparently serious. In spite of clear laws against child sacrifice, some of their leaders practiced this abhorrent ritual to alleviate their guilty conscience or make up for their worst sins.

This is the point at which this great summary of religious ideal comes from the naked prophet:  In a word, “No!” “Don’t do more of the same, adding hypocrisy and a boatload of even more heinous sins.” “Stop using religion to cover your wickedness!”

Only he says it positively. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). This will be our theme verse for August. We’re going to take those three phrases – act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly, one each week, using some additional Old and New Testament Scriptures. Here’s a quick preview –

Act justly. Mishphat is the key Hebrew word used for “justice” in the Old Testament, occurring in all its forms (including the root shaphat) about 600 times. It has all the range of meanings we mentioned earlier. The root idea is to judge or govern. A person with responsibility has to hear all sides of a controversy and make a judgment that is right and fair to all. This includes defense of the innocent and punishment of the guilty. The word group is used for the judge, the sentence, the process, the courtroom, the law, the rights, but especially for the quality of God or a human being that makes them just – the capacity to do the right thing. That’s what God requires. He doesn’t want more excuses or religious bribes in the form of money or other sacrifices. He wants you to do the right thing.

Love mercy. Chesed is the Hebrew word here, and it too is fundamental to Old Testament ethics, like “grace” in the New Testament. It means goodness or kindness, and implies a relationship, usually from the greater to the lesser. When you do a favor or shower benefits on someone you love or for whom you are responsible – like a child, a spouse, a student, a subject in your kingdom, you show chesed. The word is used most often of God, who makes and keeps his promises. He protects and provides. He is faithful and showers far more good on his people than we deserve because he is a God of chesed. He wants his people to do the same.

Walk humbly. This is a more rare word in the Old Testament, meaning to think of yourself as low. You may have money or power or privilege, and that makes you high, but consider yourself at the bottom. “With your God” offers the ultimate comparison.

Heart-analysis

Justice is not only an Old Testament theme. In Generous Justice, Tim Keller begins with the many Hebrew Scriptures advocating justice, but moves then to two chapters on the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament. Keller says that Jesus “adopted the prophets’ penetrating use of justice as heart-analysis, the sign of true faith” (49). If you follow Jesus, you will be passionate about justice.

I chose today’s New Testament reading to tie our July theme of “Spread” to our August theme of “Justice.” Jesus uses two of the world’s most common things – salt and light – to explain how his people are to act in the world. Both salt and light are essential to human life. Salt flavors and preserves, and we are the salt of the earth. We should never lose our saltiness.

We are also the light of the world, and we must not hide that light. We light the world in various ways, but in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says we are to light the world with our “good deeds.” Micah 6:8 may not be directly quoted in the New Testament, but this may well be an allusion to that classic text. Jewish scholars as well as Christians look to Micah 6:8 as a summary of the “good deeds” God requires.

In the book, A New Kind of Apologist, two Oregon pastors tell how they were planting a new church in a very unchurched part of the country, and quickly learned that justice is just as important as apologetics in winning people to Christ. The younger generations are more globally aware of injustice than most of us ever were growing up. They also find meaning in addressing problems such as human trafficking, malnutrition, exploitation of women and children, racism, and government corruption. They believe that any institution with power or resources – government, schools, and especially religious organizations, need to do what they can to solve these problems. Therefore, inattention and apathy “represent the sort of hypocrisy that prevents our defense of Christian truth from being heard” (62). We must blend Gospel and Justice.

That shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus didn’t say our light shines brightest with words – an explanation of the Gospel or a defense against hard questions. He said when people see our good deeds they glorify our Father in heaven.

Starters

So what do we do next? This is an introductory sermon to a month of sermons, and I hope that month of sermons will actually alter the culture and priorities of our church. Here are my starting suggestions, especially if you’re still in “But Mode.”

Pray. Let down your guard. If you’re more conservative, don’t you sometimes wish the progressives would listen to some things you say, even if they don’t accept everything? The same is true in reverse. Come at this with an open mind – before God. Come before him and say, “Lord, am I missing something you want me to learn?”

Listen. Listen to people right here in your own church family. Wherever you are or have been on issues like climate change, mass incarceration, police shootings, Confederate monuments, LGBT issues, immigration, and more, there are likely to be people just down the pew who think differently. Corinth should be a place of political diversity. That shouldn’t silence your voice – or theirs. Listen to learn, not to win.

Study. When we went looking for Scriptures to study in our sermon series for a month, the task quickly became how to narrow down dozens of excellent options into just four weeks. If you consider yourself a person who studies and applies God’s Word, but you’ve never done serious reflection on the theme of justice, join us. Many of you receive a weekly email from me that previews the following Sunday’s sermon text. The study questions are designed for individual or group use. If you don’t currently receive that message each Monday, now’s a good time to start. All you have to do is email me at [email protected] and I’ll add you to the list.

Read. I’ve mentioned several books today in the message, all available online in print or electronic form, and most also in our church library. Before you get into the craziness of fall, you still have a few weeks to read a good book. Choose one of those I mentioned today:  Immeasurable. Generous Justice. Toxic Charity. A New Kind of Apologist. Maybe you have one to add to the list.

Do. I’m not as interested in talking about justice as I am in finding a practical, hands-on way to address the issues. There are some initiatives already active in Hickory that are trying to get to the root of the problems. One is NETworX, a faith-based initiative of Cooperative Christian Ministries that connects families with children to mentors who work together for 2-3 years to address and overcome the underlying issues. Another is the Patrick Beaver Learning Resource Center, which recognizes that 50% of children in economically disadvantaged homes read below grade level. They provide tutoring and other resources to those children here in our community.

Propose. The Board of Elders is looking for input from you this month for one or more (likely, more) ways we as a church body can engage in justice issues. We’re not only looking for initiatives already ongoing, but for some fresh possibilities. One person has already suggested a mobile tutoring bus that would go into communities to read to kids, loan books, and provide on-site tutoring help. What else can you come up with?

The bottom line is that we, as believers in the Bible, need to pay attention to what God requires – justice, mercy, humility. It’s not an option. And it’s also the best way we let our light shine. Amen.

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