The heart of true worship: doing justice

Amos chapter 5   4-7 10-15   18-24

This is what the Lord says to Israel:

“Seek me and live;
    do 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.[a]
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will sweep through the tribes of Joseph like a fire;
it will devour them,
and Bethel will have no one to quench it.

There are those who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground.

 

10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.

11 You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their 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.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.

14 Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
15 Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.

 

18 Woe 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.
19 It 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.
20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even 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.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

 

Introduction

 

What is justice? Why should we be concerned with justice this morning when we have come here to church to worship. We pray, we praise, we sing, we share together the salvation of our Christ. What has justice got to do with this?

 

Specifically how can the title of this talk suggest that the heart of true worship is doing justice? Isn’t this way off beam? Isn’t this a social gospel form of salvation? Especially when we know full well there is no salvation other than through Christ our Lord? Works, not faith

 

This is exactly what Amos wrote about more than 2500 years ago. It was to a prosperous audience. Settled communities had led to towns which had become markets for farmers. They were on a trade route and were successful traders. There was a land owning class with wealth from land, seed and cattle. There was outward and very visible prosperity. But this had come at a cost. Intensive farming had kicked subsistence farmers off the land, leaving them without livelihood. There was debt as farmers borrowed to buy more seed and more cattle for more wealth. The less wealthy had become serfs and eventually become slaves, with minimal rights. Only those with land had legal status. And they had built themselves summerhouses and winter palaces and lived a life of ostensious indulgence. What had started as a very worthy cause, commitment to economic growth through better agriculture and more trade, had turned into a very unjust, unequal and harsh community for many. The wealth of the community was at the cost of the poor and underprivileged. It was a country divided between the few haves and the many have-nots. Yet the outward religion of the country had continued. Specifically they made a great show of going on pilgrimages with abundance of showy worship.

 

What does Amos say?

 

Amos is blunt and scathing in his criticism. He focuses on the failure of justice as evidence of the failure of their love of God and the emptiness of their worship. A just society not as an end in itself. It is evidence of a caring, loving, unselfish society. A church concerned with justice is evidence of a church concerned with sharing the love of God.

 

What is justice itself? Keep always in mind that justice is not just what goes on in the courts. It is the way in which people are treated with fairness, equality and kindness. It is the care for those who are poor, in any form of need or suffering forms of unfairness.

 

We start in verse seven. Amos condemns community leaders who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness onto the ground. He follows in verse 10. There are those who hate the person who upholds justice in the courts and they detest the person who tells the truth. The honest judge and the witness of integrity. How both are hated by those, individuals and institutions, who seek to avoid justice.

 

Amos elaborates in verse 11 in the broader sense of justice. He refers to a straw tax on the poor and a tax on their grain. In other words a tax on their very livelihood, their ability to feed themselves, their opportunity for any form of monetary gain through trading in their grain. Yet those who are imposing the taxes have built themselves mansions with lush vineyards.

 

Amos condemns those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts, verse 12. He goes on in verse 15: hate evil, love good and maintain justice in the courts. He rounds this off in verse 24. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.

 

What is Amos saying about us today?

 

How does some of this actually translate? Let us look a little deeper.

 

Verse 7 says there are those who turn justice into bitterness. I suggest we all have a sense of justice, of fair play, of supporting the underdog, of giving everyone a fair chance. Fair dikkum as Australians might say. I believe this comes from being made in the image of God. We all have some sense of justice because we are made by the God of justice in his image, with his sense of justice and mercy. This is why we all find a keen sense of justice to be so important. It’s why we get quite enraged when perceptions of injustice occur.

 

But this sweet tasting sense of justice can turn into bitterness. We spit it out and we know intrinsically it’s not tasting right. Of course justice can become nuanced, losing the overall sense of justice in the small detail. Some might even say that’s what lawyers do! But I suggest that we should often have confidence in our sense of justice. How we then apply that sense of justice may be different in different situations. That’s the flexibility and the breadth of justice. This evening I’m travelling to Australia to attend a conference in Melbourne of international lawyers, all of us concerned about justice and fairness for families and children but finding different ways of applying that justice in our own countries. This is what Amos is challenging us. Hold on to your sense of justice. We know injustice because of the taste of bitterness in our mouth. How we apply justice to any particular situation requires us to stay close to God and seek his wisdom, as Soloman did famously in having to decide justice of which of two competing parties was the true mother.

 

There is then condemnation by Amos of those who hate the people who uphold justice in the courts and witnesses who tell the truth. We find this in the necessity of witness protection programmes, where witnesses will be subject to threats and violence if they testify and therefore they need protecting, sometimes long after the trial has concluded. A cost to a country of upholding justice. We find this in the threats made to judges and lawyers. In the early 1980s, Australia introduced a radical family justice law, perceived now as the forerunner of many of the good laws we have around the world. But it was deeply unpopular. Judges homes were bombed and some judges, lawyers and others were killed. More recently, whatever we may think of Jack Shepherd who allegedly brought about the death of his girlfriend in a speedboat accident and then went on the run, nothing can justify the death threats made to his lawyer a week ago if he continued to represent him. This is a man who has represented many throughout his career who have needed good representation for justice to be done. And yet he gets death threats. In the political sphere, whatever we may think of politicians views and conduct, nothing can justify the recent threats and abuse. Please do not think what Amos writing is only applicable 2500 years ago.

 

Amos then criticises the taxes on the poor; on their straw and grain. Tax is an emotive topic. You will rarely hear it preached upon in the pulpit. But here goes. What can we take from this from Amos for today?

 

A tax or similar should not deprive someone of their basic means of living. In this country we have a law known as the Truck Act, going back at least to 1725, now in more recent employment legislation. It means that employers cannot make certain deductions from wages and salary. In essence it means there must be a certain minimum always paid. In similar fashion, when somebody is bankrupt, the trustee in bankruptcy is entitled to take many goods of the bankrupt but not tools of trade. In other words they can continue their livelihood. In old Testament law, if somebody owed you money you could take his goods but not his cloak which he needed to stay warm. Our tax system has a certain allowance which is not taxed at all. Whatever else is taxed, somebody should have a basic minimum. In these different ways, we seek in our laws to make sure that the poor retain sufficient for their food and opportunity to continue to work to provide for their own food. How we do it may vary from decade to decade and between communities and countries. But we must do it. It’s only justice for the poor.

 

Amos condemns, v 12, those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Corruption is probably the most defeating, confidence destroying and morality sapping element. After perhaps a long time, costs and frustrations in getting before a judge, it is found the judge has delivered a corrupt verdict, unfair and unjust because of bribery from the other party. There can be no confidence in a justice system with corruption.

 

We see corruption in many ways. The most obvious is financial payments or payments in kind. Mostly I don’t think this occurs explicitly in our country. I deal with many justice systems around the world and many countries with a corruption problem have deliberately introduced slow procedures to reduce the risk of corruption. Where matters go very fast before the courts, ironically it gives a greater opportunity for corruption. When we condemn slow courts of some countries, this may be a deliberate ploy to reduce risk of corruption.

 

But corruption can be more subtle. There can be bias. For too many years the Masonic system led to bias, particularly in the local criminal courts. To overcome even unconscious bias, judges in this country go through training programs so that we can better understand ourselves as we are dealing with cases and particular sorts of litigants. But I don’t mind saying that it is a regular and constant challenge. It’s not easy.

 

We find corruption in public and corporate life. For too long, sincere and well motivated whistleblowers have had an appalling experience with little or no protection. It’s changing and needs to improve more. Why? Because it exposes injustice. Any who have been attacked by Private Eye will regard it as a scurrilous rag. Nevertheless it and other media have exposed corruptions in many ways and in many places. With the shift to digital media, there is a genuine worry that investigative journalism will no longer be shining a light into dark and dubious corners. We must also agree that we are fortunate in England in having a fairly open society. The vast majority of countries, even westernised countries, are far more closed. Amos would certainly be critical.

 

Amos expresses the anxiety that the poor are deprived of justice. In modern terminology we call this access to justice. It might be the entitlement to bring a claim. It might be the lack of state funding for legal representation. It might be a lack of knowledge of rights even in this present society where there seems to be so much information. This is why organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and similar do wonderful work. Giving information is part of giving justice.

 

One of my distinctive interests is the use of digital technology in the courts. Some of us get awfully excited about court proceedings online, even having an online judge. It’s already happening with some courts in this country and abroad. But we are also very aware that this will only create a new category of people without access to justice namely those uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the use of technology or just without digital access. Recent statistics show that in certain parts of the north-east of England, the poorest area of our country, only 59% of households have Internet access. That’s two in every five households have no Internet access. It’s barely comprehensible to us here. So Amos is very much talking to us in the middle part of this century as we move to justice on our smart phone when he says, let’s just pause and see what will be the effect on those then without access to this sort of justice. Amos speaking to Digital justice

 

Where does this justice fit in with our true worship?

 

Amos tells the people, verse four, seek the Lord and live. In verse 14 he says: seek good, not evil that you may live. These are active doing things. Seek is an active verb. Seek the Lord. Seek good. In doing so, Amos makes clear that seeking justice will be part of seeking the Lord and seeking good. There is no point having worship with all sorts of offerings, wonderful music, the sound of harps, pilgrimages and great gatherings if there is no justice and righteousness, versus 21-24. Justice is the outward manifestation of goodness. Righteousness is the inward personal manifestation of goodness.

 

So in verse 15 it becomes even more explicit. Hate evil, love good and maintain justice in your courts. The maintaining of justice, whether in the narrowness of the courts of law or in the breadth of our communities, is part of the loving good. Social justice is part of our loving goodness and loving the Lord. It’s not therefore surprising that in the realm of social justice there are so many Christians. I remember about 25 years or so ago now when the Home Office started rudimentary support for marriage guidance and support, everyone involved in any way was invited to a gathering. It lasted a couple of hours. Towards the end when the conversation turned to the impetus for doing this work, one of the Home Office officials leading the meeting asked for a show of hands for all those representing or prompted by Christian commitment. None of us in the room could have expected the response. Most raised their hands. We had no idea, because there was not then the communication which exists now with Christian networking, that so much of the initial work in marriage support in our country came from the Christian community. And you will find this in many areas of the work of social justice.

 

It’s been one of my privileges to have known Iain Duncan Smith and to have worked with his organisation, the Centre for social justice, including their previous chief executive, Philippa Stroud. There are many supporting various areas of that work. From a wide range of backgrounds and reasons compelling their sacrificial involvement. But many are Christians.

 

An incredible organisation is Tear fund. A couple of years ago when we were at a conference in Delhi, I arranged with tear fund to be able to spend a day with the work they were doing in the Delhi slums. It was incredible and impressive. We saw at first hand the help given to the women in dealing with personal hygiene to improve the lives of their families, the provision of after-school activities to help keep the children off the streets and men’s meetings to talk through issues such as gender and paternal responsibilities. And so much more. All done through local Christians. Here was Amos social action.

 

I’m certainly not saying Christians have a monopoly in social justice. We don’t. There are many from other faith-based organisations and many from none who work phenomenally hard for social justice. But in my experience, I believe Christians are disproportionately well represented and we should praise God for this.

 

We each have different opportunities to bring about a greater fairness and justice. It might be pressing for more elements of social housing in the many housing developments occurring in our area. Better and more housing for the less well off. It might be working or campaigning for those with mental health problems, which can so often go unnoticed, under diagnosed and untreated and yet is completely disabilitating.

 

It might be helping with alcohol and drug problems in a community. Last weekend I was visiting a friend who lives near Burnley. I go once a year and go to the local church. It’s a very poor neighbourhood. And in the church there was specific prayers for those with alcohol and drug problems in the community and for those suffering poverty as a consequence. This was not brushing local problems under the carpet. This was Christians facing the problems in the local community and finding ways for justice and care.

 

Whatever it is, the Lord is calling us to bring about justice. We can do so.

 

We do so because we have come to Christ. It’s all too easy to run away from his demands on us. Look, you cannot accuse the Bible of a lack of irony. In verse 19 we have somebody who is walking in the countryside. Clearly not the Surrey Hills because he stumbles across a lion. Oh help. Somehow, and I have no idea how, he manages to evade the lion only to come across a bear. I know from hiking in Yellowstone that the advice is always to carry a bell as a warning so that the bears can make themselves scarce. It’s when they are surprised that they are dangerous. This bear was surprised. No doubt the bear gives chase. The man sees a house nearby. He runs in and slams the door, and in a state of complete exhaustion puts his hand out onto the mantelpiece and is bitten by a poisonous snake. He ran and ran and evaded and evaded but ultimately it caught up with him. I was reminded of the Nina Simone song, O sinner man, O sinner man, where will you run to? All on that day.

 

If we seek the Lord, we run to the Lord, we experience his grace and mercy. Our life will begin to undergo a change that will continue for the rest of our lives. That change will produce fruit, changes in our lives. That fruit is justice and righteousness. Tim Keller in his book, generous justice, says as follows: the logic is clear. If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced and at worse he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.

 

What is our true worship? Of course it is hymns of praise, prayers, fellowship and more. But our true evidence of worship will be found in our outward lives. And Amos makes it clear that this is found in bringing about justice in the lives of others. Seek the Lord and live. Hate evil, love good, maintain justice. May we do so

 

Amen

David Hodson

dh@davidhodson.com

07973 890648

February 2019

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