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“Seek Justice”

Amos 5:4-24
Bob DeGray
June 20, 2010

Key Sentence

Seek God by Seeking Justice.


I. Introduction: The scope of Biblical justice.
II. Amos 5:4-24
   a. Seek Me (Amos 5:4-6)
   b. The charge, the judgment and the alternative. (Amos 5:7-15)
   c. The judgment and the alternative (Amos 5:16-24)


Last year I took a course from Dr. Bryan Chapell, president of Covenant Seminary. Dr. Chapell had good insights on the subject we were learning, but also on other things, and on one rabbit trail he said something that stuck with me as much as anything in the actual course. He said that in our churches, among believers, we’d find a generational divide, around the age of thirty or thirty-five. People older than this would have Christian concerns such as being pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, preserving doctrine, winning the lost through proclamation evangelism, electing conservative candidate, etc.

And most of these are good things. But younger people would have a different list of concerns, like relieving poverty for the millions in squatter communities, achieving racial reconciliation and modeling a multi-ethnic people of God; winning the lost through an incarnational lifestyle, living authentically, and changing the current systems of culture, economics and government to provide justice. And to a large extent these are also good things.

One of the purposes of this sermon series is to stretch our thinking, to explore Biblically some of the concerns on the hearts of the next generation of Christian leaders. My intention is to celebrate and affirm these concerns, seeing them as legitimate ministries of a compassionate community. But I also want to recognize some dangers of these new emphases, to call those of this rising generation to hold tight to a Biblical foundation for ministry.

So when was the last time you read a good book on justice? If you’re over thirty-five the answer may be never. If you’re under thirty-five it may be that all the good books you read are in some way related to justice. In fact, many serious believers would say that the question should be ‘when was the last time you read the Bible?’ Because to many the Bible is exactly that: a good book on practicing justice, with a huge amount to say on this subject.

Take the word justice itself. The underlying word is used of judgment, of law, of the decrees of a king and the rulings of a judge, of the workings of government and the soul’s response to individual commands. My theological dictionary introduces this range of meaning, and says “An analysis of all uses in the Bible turns up at least thirteen related, but distinct, aspects of the central idea, which if it had to be rendered by a single English word with a similar range of meaning would have to be the word "justice."

And the English word does have a wide range of meaning. The American Heritage dictionary says things like “The quality of being just; fairness.” “The principle of moral rightness; equity;” and “Conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude.” One book I read used this working definition: Justice is the right use of power in our relationships with others. That fits Scriptural usage: Justice is the right, or righteous, use of power in all our relationships.

A few examples. In Deuteronomy 10 Moses reflects on God’s rescue of Israel from Egypt: “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. 16Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. 19And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”

This justice occurs often in the Psalms. Asaph teaches us to ‘Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.’ The prophets point the word specifically at the heart attitudes of the people and leaders of Israel and Judah. Isaiah says “Learn to do right! Seek justice. Encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Hosea says “Return to your God; maintain kindness and justice, and wait for your God always

There are several other key words that quickly give you a sense of God’s heart in this matter. Words like poor, widow, orphan, and alien. Exodus 22:21-22 “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. 22Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.” At the other end of the Old Testament, Zechariah 7:10 says “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.”

God pulls no punches on this subject. At the end of Deuteronomy where Moses teaches the people to agree with God’s judgments, we read “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!" – agreeing with God that refusing right treatment to others when we have the power to give it is a sin. So if someone says that the Bible is a book about justice for the poor, justice for the illegal alien, justice for the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, you have to take that seriously, because it’s clear that God takes that seriously.

We could touch on such passages all day: in fact I’ve linked to a couple of documents on my blog that give you several hundred of these references to look at – and I believe it would do our souls good to do so. But I want to focus the rest of our time on just one passage, continuing to seek God’s heart on this subject. It’s Amos, chapter 5, and we’re going to read verses 4 to 24:

This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel: "Seek me and live; 5do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing." 6Seek the LORD and live, or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire; it will devour, and Bethel will have no one to quench it.

7You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground 8(he who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns blackness into dawn and darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land-- the LORD is his name-- 9he flashes destruction on the stronghold and brings the fortified city to ruin), 10you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. 11You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.

12For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. 13Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil. 14Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. 15Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.

16Therefore this is what the Lord, the LORD God Almighty, says: "There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail. 17There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst," says the LORD. 18Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. 19It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light-- pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

21"I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos was a shepherd from the town of Tekoa, called by God to be a prophet in the middle years of the divided kingdom, when both Israel and Judah were drawing steadily away from the God who had given them their land.

So God, through Amos, warned both Israel and Judah and called them to reverse their course away from Him. The first few verses of our section reflect this general theme. God says ‘Seek me and live.’ Don’t go to these other places, to Bethel and Gilgal and Beersheba to worship the false gods of those places. God reveals that those places will be judge, and all their apparent value will be exposed as weakness. Instead, Amos says, seek God right where you are, and in this seeking you will escape judgment and find life.

Verses 7 to 15 are the first of two cycles in which the Lord reveals their specific sins and their judgment. So, verse 7, the charge against Israel is that they turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground. What they call justice tastes like wormwood, a bitter plant, a bitter pill, to those who are the recipients of it. They have despised righteous behavior, throwing it to the ground to be trampled and desecrated.

Verses 8 and 9 are a parenthesis in which Amos reminds them who they are really offending – the God of creation, who made the stars, who controls day and night, who commands the sea. This omnipotent God, this Lord almighty is the one who brings judgment, even on the strongest places men can devise.

In verse 10 Amos voices a classic aspect of Biblical justice: “you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth.” In all ages and cultures, those in power have succumbed to the temptation to thwart what scholars call retributive justice, what we call due process, legal rights.

Countless examples from our culture could be given. In fact the poor and ethnic minorities would say with one voice that our legal system is stacked against them. But sometimes you get a better feel from literature than from news reports. If you’ve never read the classic To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee you’ve missed an evocative portrayal of how racism distorts justice. In the same way John Grisham’s novels, especially The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill, and The Street Lawyer show how power corrupts the judicial system.

But Amos’ accusations do not end there. Verse 11 adds that you trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. I just read a book recommended by Katherine Bauer that shows how this kind of thing literally occurred until very recently in the share-cropper system of the deep South. The book is called Same Kind of Different as Me. I highly recommend it for the insight it gives into oppression and poverty, and for its compelling true story.

Verse 11 also reminds us that God’s judgment is fair: if you’ve denied others what they justly deserve, you’ll be denied what you think you deserve. You built the house, but you’re not going to live in it. You planted the vineyard, but you won’t get the wine. God’s judgment brings equity to the oppressed. Go read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus for a further example.

Verse 12 repeats the charge: “you oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” It’s gotten so bad, Amos says, that people won’t even challenge it. Listen to the voice of a woman named Madi, from the Dominican Republic. She says “Forgive me if I sound angry. I am. I hate my life and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to give up, but it’s better not to want anything, or dream, or think too much about anything. When I do, I just get frustrated that I can’t do anything. I have enough trouble getting food on the table every day. I work so hard and nothing ever changes. Nobody listens. I feel like nobody will ever listen.”

But God is still calling people to justice. Verse 14 says “Seek good, not evil, that you may live.” In verse 4 we were told to seek God and live: it turns out we seek God by seeking good. “Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.” This is counsel for hypocrites, for Pharisees, for those who claim to know God’s ways, but have missed his heart.

Jesus says: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” Who are the Pharisees of our day? They are not people out there. They are sitting in this room. To my shame, sometimes they are me, caring more about appearances than the state of people’s hearts.

So Amos says “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.” There is an alternative to the judgment of God: it involves becoming people after his own heart, who love good, who deal justly with others. God calls us not to lock ourselves away behind moral and physical walls and walls of privilege, but to go out into a hurting world and cry for the hurts and meet the needs.

But Amos doesn’t feel he’s yet made the point strongly enough. He wants to make the judgment clear. So in verses 16 to 24 he sketches out that judgment one more time. Verse 16: “Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says: "There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail. 17There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst," says the Lord.” The judgment brings great calamity.

But the self-righteous always think judgment is for someone else. We started to study Revelation this past spring, and said, rightly, that it is a book of hope for God’s people. But it is also a frightful description of God’s judgment. It should make us weep for those who are not his, who are too hard hearted to receive his grace. God says “Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light.” As the image of verse 19 shows, in that day there will be no place for the hard-hearted to flee.

This is a fearful judgment, especially for those who think they are right with God. He says “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.” The sacrifices of God, David teaches, are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise. We must mourn our sinfulness and selfishness, our self protection and self absorption. We have no self righteousness that would let us place ourselves unjustly over others.

Therefore we must sympathize with the oppressed, the alien, the poor, the widow and the orphan because we ourselves have found help not in ourselves, but in the loving, rescuing power of God, in the sacrifice of Jesus, in the forgiveness of our sins. Only a broken people can share God’s heart of justice. Only a redeemed people can offer his redemption.

Just as God loved us in our unworthiness and need, so he has called us to love others in their need. Our hearts should cry out with the prophet and with Jesus and with the activists of our generation “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! This is one of God’s missions for his people in every age: let justice roll on. Let the justice that treats people fairly roll on. Let the justice that rights wrongs roll on. Let the justice that gives special care to the oppressed, the alien, the widow and the orphan roll on. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.

As we close, I want to point out that this compassionate justice is well expressed in community, the community of a church or a small group. Mike Bauer and I talked about this after we found out that both of us were preaching passages which called God’s people to to practice justice.

We picked a few specific things our churches might participate in, things your small group might embrace as an outreach ministry. I’m only going to name a few possibilities now, but Mike and I are going to generate specific details over the next few weeks.

One you’ve long known about is becoming a counselor or helper at a community or crisis pregnancy center. Those who have done this report over and over how loves are changed by caring for women in need. In fact today is the day we’re supposed to return baby bottles full of change to support the Community Pregnancy Center in Pasadena.

A more informal idea but perfectly in line with God’s heart of justice is simply tutoring at local schools. Oak Creek, of course, meets at Ross Elementary in League City – and Mike reports that there are needs right there for tutors.

One local and national organization that specifically advocates for justice in the courts is CASA for children. CASA volunteers are court appointed special advocates, looking out for the interests of children who have been abused, neglected, abandoned or orphaned; they are a voice for these children. People we know have gotten involved in this in Galveston County.

There are other options, in areas as diverse as prison ministries, the war against sexual trafficking and the movement for fair trade capitalism. But the point is that God’s heart is for justice, and he will do justice for the oppressed and bring judgment on the oppressors. In the meantime our cry should be “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”