Let Justice Roll
On Saturday, June 22, 2002, the scheduled game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field was cancelled because of an eerie, and tragic, discovery. The Card’s ace pitcher was found dead in a Chicago hotel room. Thirty-three-year-old Darryl Kile, who wore number 57, had been a major league pitching sensation for 12 years and had appeared in three All-Star games.
At a recent team physical, the 6-foot 5-inch athlete seemed in excellent health. When the medical examiners conducted an autopsy later that day, they discovered that Kile had died from a massive heart attack. His main coronary artery was 90 percent blocked.
Darryl Kile appeared to be healthy, but his heart was diseased. A person’s appearance can be misleading. Looking good on the outside isn’t necessarily a good indication of the condition of things beneath the skin. The same is true in our relationship with Christ, and that is something the Old Testament prophets, as the mouth-piece of God, point out over and over and over again. We can look good on the outside, and have hearts and minds that are far from God.[i]
Over the summer, we’re walking together through what I’ve called the Bible’s “fly-over” books – the books that we rarely study or even read, and we rarely, if ever, hear a sermon preached from one. Why is that? Why do we ignore these incredibly important books, Well, think about the basic human emotions – joy, sadness, comfort, anger, and serenity – and tell me, which emotion do you think most often characterizes the Prophets? Don’t the Prophets strike you as kind of cranky and critical? Honestly. Let me give you a few examples. Amos said, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan … who oppress the poor and crush the needy” (Amos 4:1). Man I love that. How many of you would get up and leave if, instead of saying “Good morning Christ Church” to open the service, I said something like “Good morning, you cows of Grand Traverse!” or “Good morning you stubborn old goats!”
Isaiah says, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings. Your incense is detestable to me … I cannot bear your evil assemblies” (Isaiah 1:13). Doesn’t that sound a little over-the-top to you? According to the prophets, the people of God were a bunch of old cows oppressing the poor and the needy, whose worship services stunk, and whose offerings meant nothing.
Not only do they use angry words, but Prophets also resort to shock tactics that often look downright bizarre. Hosea marries a prostitute to show how unfaithful the Israelites have become. Ezekiel eats food cooked over excrement to show how defiled God’s people have become. Jeremiah digs up a filthy, buried, unwashed undergarment to use as an object lesson to show people how repellent their behavior is to God. Isaiah walks around naked for 3 years. The Prophets are filled with stuff like this, and we don’t like it. We like happy books. So why should we read the Prophets?
Their words are angry, harsh, and judgmental. They use bizarre and sometimes gross behavior and object lessons to make their points. And I think most of all, they say things we just don’t want to hear. They point out the ways in which we as the people of God get side-tracked, off-track, and just plain miss the point. And they also offer hope, the truth that God isn’t yet finished with me, or with this world. That God is active and at work in our lives and in this world, and that the bad and the evil that we experience in this life isn’t the end of the story.[ii]
The prophets remind us that as the people of God, we really, truly are, both called and empowered to live differently, to reflect the love and the grace and the justice of God as we go through this life. We aren’t perfect. We sin, we mess up, we make mistakes, sometimes we do wrong on purpose. But we’re also being transformed by the Holy Spirit, by God’s Spirit alive in us, as he works to shape us, mold us, until we really do become like Christ. Christ gave his life for us and he gives his life to us, so we are forgiven, being transformed, and really are called to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom in this broken, fallen world. Turn with me to Micah 6:1-8.
In the time of Micah’s ministry, the kingdom of Israel, united through the reign of Solomon, had been divided into two Kingdoms, the northern Kingdom of Israel, whose capital was Samaria, and the southern Kingdom of Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem, and he was active as a prophet at roughly the same time Isaiah was active. Who knows, maybe he saw Isaiah walking around naked. Isaiah walks around naked for three years and gets 66 chapters and the title “major prophet.” Micah keeps his clothes on and gets just 7 chapters, a “minor prophet.” Sometimes God has to go to extremes to get the attention of his people, in spite of what he has done for us in the past.
Micah paints an incredibly vivid picture of a courtroom. A courtroom in which God is the plaintiff (and also the judge), and his people are the defendants. And the jury who will decide the case is nothing less than the mighty mountains of the earth and the bedrock upon which we build. This is serious business, a cosmic courtroom, and God has a complaint against his people, against the people with whom he has entered a covenant relationship. God says “I have kept my covenant, in spite of the unfaithfulness of my people.” And the mountains and the earth, upon whom and before whom all of the sinfulness and brokenness of humanity played out every day, would decide the case.
Look at Vv. 3-5. God asks the question, “O my people, what have I done to you” How have I wearied you?” And then he demands an answer. “Answer me!” It’s like God is searching his own heart for anything he might have done to cause his people to turn their backs on him. God lays his heart out there, and all that can be found is his grace. He doesn’t lay out before them a list of transgressions. Instead, he calls out to them as his people, like a parent pleading with a wayward child.
“I brought you up from the land of Egypt.” It was in Egypt that God’s people were protected from famine, and went from being a relatively small clan to a hardened, strong, powerful people. When the time was right, God set them free from what had become their slavery in Egypt, using the plagues to embarrass every single false god the Egyptians worshipped, calling out to Egypt even as he set his people free. He led them through the dry bottom of the Red Sea as they left. He provided for them through 40 years of wilderness wandering, a wandering brought about by their own lack of faith. When they were poised on the border of the promised land, Balak king of Moab, one of the nations in the Holy Land, fearing the people of Israel, hired Balaam to curse them, but God caused him to bless them instead. Shittim was the last place Israel camped outside the Holy Land, and Gilgal was the first place they camped inside the Holy Land, a place where God again reminded them of his presence by doing the same thing to the Jordan River that he had done to the Red Sea as they left Egypt – he caused the waters to back up, and the people crossed on dry ground, taking from the dry riverbed 12 stones, one for each tribe, to erect a memorial at Gilgal of God’s goodness to them.
God wants us to remember what he had done for us. But this remembering isn’t just an intellectual, mind-based remembering. God wants them to remember in such a way that it becomes our current experience. It is exactly what we do when we come to Christ’s table to receive together the sacrament of Holy Communion, an experiential remembering of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
And as is pretty much always the case, when God states his case against his people, his people get defensive. Look at Vv. 6-7. “What?!?! What’s wrong with the way we’re worshipping you? Do you want more offerings, better offerings? We can do that.” They start with the simple, bowing low before the Lord, but things then get ridiculously extensive pretty quickly. They of course point out that when they bring their burnt offerings before God, they aren’t bringing young calves. They are bringing yearling steers, animals in their meat-producing prime, animals that have been expensively cared for and raised for over a year, not just a few months. Animals who, as an offering to God, wouldn’t bring any financial gain to the people offering them. They were giving sacrificially. Their worship looked good. And then they get to asking if God wants thousands of rams and tons and tons of oil for the offering. What will it take for us to get on your good side God? If our worship isn’t good enough, how can we make it better.
And then God lowers the boom. Look at V. 8. Your worship, in itself, isn’t the problem. The problem is the way you’re living. I don’t care how many yearling bulls you bring, or rams, or rivers of oil. If you aren’t living, daily, as my people, your worship is empty. And that theme is repeated over and over and over and over again in the prophets.
The great prophet Samuel, the one who anointed David king of Israel, exclaimed, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).
The prophet Hosea, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6).
The prophet Amos, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
It goes all the way back to the giving of the law of God in Deuteronomy, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (10:12).
Words that Jesus spoke, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).
God is saying “I want your worship. I want you to trust me by giving the best of what you have to give, not just what’s left after you’ve done everything you want to do first.” But if our worship doesn’t come from a life lived in relationship with God as his people, citizens of his kingdom, that worship is empty. Meaningless. It doesn’t matter if we come to church, and sing poorly at the top of our lungs, and raise our hands, and clap off beat, and give sacrificially, and lead a small group, if the rest of our lives don’t reflect the same commitment to Christ. God wants authentic followers, not Sunday worshippers.
Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell said, “There are two great moments in a person’s life: the moment you were born and the moment you realize why you were born.”[iii] And Micah says, “You know what God wants. This isn’t new. You know why you are here.
DO justice. In the Bible, justice is much more than treating everyone the same. God’s justice actually shows a deference to those in a weaker social position. God’s justice is more than treating everyone “the same.” God’s justice, the justice we are supposed to DO, involves giving an extra boost to those in a weaker, more vulnerable position in society. The Kingdom of God has a bent toward the weak, the powerless, the sick, the elderly, the homeless, those who aren’t accepted as equal in a given culture, those who have a history of being oppressed. In fact, in the Old Testament, the people of God who had power were, without exception, to GIVE BACK property they had taken to cover debts legitimately owed by the poor every seven years. You can benefit from their land for 6 years to pay off their debts, but then give the land back. Release those you have taken as servants to pay off their debts every seven years. It was called a year of Jubilee. And in real life, it was hardly ever practiced. Not in its fullness, as intended by God.
LOVE kindness. Some translations say love mercy. The actual word being translated is the Hebrew word “Hesed.” God’s lovingkindness toward us. His unconditional faithfulness to his people. The same concept appears in the New Testament as agape love, unconditional love, love with no strings attached. It is a love Jesus tells us we are to show to our neighbor, which he then defines as anyone around us at a given moment in time. The people crowding me at Meijer. The person at the next pump at the gas station. The person sitting next to me at church. The car that needs into the line of traffic at a merge. The person asking me to wear a mask at the entrance to a store. The person who cut me off, glared at me, and then flipped me off. It is a love that goes above and beyond, again and again, regardless of the behavior of the other person.
And WALK humbly with God. Live by faith. Live in faith. Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less. It is showing a genuine, authentic interest in and concern for the other person.
Can we do this on our own? Not completely, no, we cannot. But we can, in partnership with the Holy Spirit living in and at work in us, grow in our ability as followers of Christ, citizens of the Kingdom of God, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. St. Paul tells us to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that … I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philip. 1:27).
Bill is wild haired; his wardrobe for college is jeans and a T-shirt with holes in it. He recently became a believer while attending a campus Bible study. Across from campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. One Sunday Bill decides to go there. He walks in late and shoeless. The sanctuary is packed. Bill heads down the aisle looking for a seat. Having nearly reached the pulpit, he realizes there are no empty seats, so he squats down on the carpet. The congregation is feeling uncomfortable.
Then from the back of the church, a gray-haired elder in a three-piece suit starts walking toward Bill with a cane. The worshipers don’t expect a man in his eighties to understand some college kid on the floor. With all eyes focused on the developing drama, the minister waits to begin his sermon until the elder does what he has to do. The elderly man drops his cane on the floor and with great difficulty lowers himself to sit next to Bill. “What I’m about to preach,” the minister begins, “you’ll never remember. What you’ve just seen, you’ll never forget.”[iv]
What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Let us pray.
[i] Daily Herald (6-24-02)
[ii] Pastor John Ortberg in a sermon on Micah 6:6-8
[iii] Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell at a Willow Creek Leadership Conference
[iv] Lew Gervais, director of Pressing Onward support groups; quoted in Men of Integrity (3.2)