Manuscript of my sermon for November 12th, 2017.
Texts are Amos 1.1-2; 5.8-15, 21-24.
For those who’d like to dig deeper into the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness, see my “Justice and righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount.” This is an excerpt from my 2007 Master’s Thesis.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
Words I never heard in church
Our readings today, from the words of the prophet Amos, ended with these words:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5.24)
Do those words sound familiar to you?
The first time I ever heard those words wasn’t in a church building on a Sunday morning from the pulpit. No, I first heard those words from the lips of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his history-shaping “I Have a Dream” speech. It was January 1987, and I was in the first grade. We listened to an audio recording of that defining speech as we learned about the man whose life was honored by our newest national holiday. Listen to how Dr. King seamlessly wove the ancient words of Amos into his masterpiece sermon, delivered August 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C.:
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered these words actually came from the Bible. I just always assumed that Dr. King was an intelligent man and an eloquent speaker, so that’s just how he talked.
Think about that. I was raised in church from the time I was in the womb. But I never heard those words in church: until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I only ever heard those words, right out of the Bible, in elementary school.
And I’m almost certain I’m not the only one who can say that.
In 1994, I was able to visit the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL. It’s a simple instillation, designed by Maya Lin—the same designer who gave us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A thin veil of water constantly flows over the names of 41 people who lost their lives between 1954 – 1968, during the long fight against segregation. And overlooking it is that phrase: Until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. Only you’ll notice it doesn’t say these words come from Amos 5.24. The memorial attributes them to Dr. King. Like I did for so many years.
I was too young in 1987 to understand what he meant when he said until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. What unfulfilled longings those words expressed. What deep hunger and thirst remained unsatisfied. But for some reason I treasured up those words in my heart. They stirred up some hope, some longing, some desire deep inside me—even though I couldn’t put those feelings into words yet.
I bet you never heard these words in church, either
Maybe you’re like me. You know those words from Dr. King’s speech, but you’ve never heard them talked about in church. Maybe you didn’t even know they came from the Bible. Maybe you’ve even just heard these words for the first time today. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Maybe you’re not even quite sure what those words mean, but you do know they express some deep, wild, raw hope. Maybe you can even begin to feel that hope stirring inside you now.
And if you do feel a trickle of hope welling up in you as you hear those words, you’ll want to find the words to express that hope. So that it becomes a solid, defined hope that you’ll hunger for, lean into, and work for. So that your hope defines your vision, and gives you energy and strength.
You’ll want to know what the Bible means when it talks about justice and righteousness. You’ll want to know why God wants justice and righteousness to flow like a mighty stream. What you can do to help that happen. And what difference it will make when you do.
Or maybe you’re here and you’re wondering why you should even care about all this. You’d rather I talk about something more relevant than justice and righteousness. Like relationships or money or the plan of salvation. I get that. But hold your horses. Justice and righteousness actually includes all those things, too. And more.
See, justice and righteousness aren’t just concepts that are on the margins of the Bible. They’re core concepts. These words describe the heart of God. And they tell us who we need to be if we’re going to follow after God’s heart. Here’s how central these concepts are in the Bible. The words for justice in our Bibles appear over 450 times. Meanwhile the words for righteous or righteousness show up more than 350 times. So, together, justice and righteousness are mentioned about eight hundred times in our Bibles.
If God talks about something eight hundred times, that’s pretty important, wouldn’t you say?
Compare that to other great Bible themes.
The Bible talks about love 538 times.
The Bible talks about faith 424 times.
The Bible talks about grace 122 times.
The Bible talks about wealth 86 times.
The Bible talks about hell 13 times.
So it’s probably a good idea to devote at least one Sunday to justice and righteousness, right?
What the Bible means when it talks about justice and righteousness
Now, here’s the first thing you need to know about those words. In the Bible they’re synonyms. There’s really only a shade of difference in meaning between them. In fact, you’ll often find them used side-by-side, like we heard in today’s reading: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream. Amos was saying the same thing, but he was putting it two different ways. Justice and righteousness should flow from and among and out of God’s people like a rushing stream.
So what do these words mean in the Bible? Righteousness isn’t a word we use very often these days. But most of the time, when we say someone is righteous, we mean they’re a good person who plays by the rules. That’s part of what the Bible means by righteousness, but there’s a lot more to it. It’s an incredibly deep word. It can mean innocent, like when we say someone is an innocent victim. We don’t mean that person never did anything wrong. We mean they didn’t do anything to deserve something terrible happening to them. Sometimes in the Bible righteousness refers to a person’s integrity. They tell the truth, they don’t take bribes, they don’t steal, they keep their promises. Other times it has to do with fairness and equality before the law. That’s what it means in Deut. 16.19-20, which says:
Don’t delay justice; don’t show favoritism. Don’t take bribes because bribery blinds the vision of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. Righteousness! Pursue righteousness…
But the deepest and most common idea of a righteous person in the Bible isn’t just a decent person who doesn’t lie, steal, or take bribes. It’s a person who actively goes out of their way to stand up for the needy and vulnerable and make sure they’re taken care of. You see this in Job 29.12-17. There Job says he put on … righteousness as [his] coat and turban. And this is how Job clothed himself in righteousness:
I rescued the weak who cried out …
I made the widow’s heart sing …
I was a father to the needy …
I shattered the fangs of the wicked,
rescued prey from their teeth.
Job was righteous because he stood with the vulnerable—the widows and orphans and poor people. And because he stood up against anybody who messed with them.
That’s what the Bible means when it talks about righteousness.
And then there’s this word justice. We typically think of this word in terms of retribution. The bad guy gets what’s coming to him. That’s part of what the Bible means when it talks about justice, but only part. Justice isn’t something you do to clean up after the bad thing has happened. It’s actively working to correct situations that hurt and humiliate people, and to promote situations where people aren’t hurt and humiliated. It’s making sure that anyone who’s been mistreated is made whole. And it’s leveling the playing field of life.
You hear this in Isa. 1.17: Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. Ezek. 22.29 says the leaders of Israel had denied justice because they oppressed the poor and mistreated the immigrant. [Sub 8] And Deut. 10.18 says God enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.
So when the Bible talks about righteousness and justice, it doesn’t just mean being a nice person and taking down bad guys. It means God’s people are out in the world actively promoting good and helping the needy and vulnerable. The Old Testament specifically names the poor, orphans, widows, and immigrants. I’m sure there are even more categories of people who need us to stand with them and stand up for them we could think of.
God expects all people to do those things, but especially God’s people. That’s what Micah 6.8 is saying: He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. See all these words on the screen behind me? That’s what God wants from us, church. Justice and righteousness.
Too often, the church has cared so deeply over what goes on in these walls, and not nearly enough about what’s happening in our neighborhoods, our cities, and the world around us. We’ve fought battles over worship styles and theology and how you interpret this or that random passage. But listen to our reading today, Amos 5.21-24. The people were worshiping right. They were presenting all the right offerings, and praising God until the rafters rang. But God said: I hate … your joyous assemblies … I won’t even look at your offerings … Take away the noise of your songs. God doesn’t want a flood of our worship and offerings and praise unless we’re letting justice roll down like waters from our lives and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream from our churches.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5.6). In light of what we’ve just heard, I don’t think he meant that we’re supposed to be longing to be nicer people. He was talking about people who want to see wrongs righted, the hungry fed, and the abused protected. Also in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 6.33, Jesus said: desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. The kingdom of God is what God is doing through us—through you and me as individuals, and through the church as a group—to bring healing and hope and peace to the world. When our first desire is God’s kingdom, our hearts want the same things God’s heart desires: to see the wandering find their way home, to see the neglected taken care of, and to see broken hearts healed. We will open our hearts and lives and maybe even our tables and our wallets to let God do those things through us.
Justice means not just us
After all, it says: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We’re called to let God work through us. It begins when our hearts long for the healing and wholeness God longs for. Then we’ll yield our lives, for God to rain down justice and righteousness through us.
In Amos’ time, the prayers and songs of God’s people all sounded off-key in God’s ears. Why? Because they poured out a flood of prayers and offerings and songs of praise to God; but justice and righteousness didn’t fill their lives and flow out of them like a mighty stream.
The problem was their worship had become inwardly focused. Maybe their primary goal was getting worship right—checking off the boxes. Or maybe they got tunnel vision. They wanted to forget about their sins, their problems, their struggles in worship. But when they did that, they also forgot about the suffering world outside their assembly.
Whenever God’s people lose their focus on the needs of the world, the Word of God always calls us to pursue justice and righteousness. One way we can understand what God’s Word means by that is: Justice means not just us. God called his people to look outside their comfortable group, to the needs of the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, means we understand that God has put his church in the world so that he can bring peace and healing and restoration to others through us. It’s not about us; or at least—it’s not just about us.
When we let justice roll down like waters …
What difference do you think it will make if we’re hungry and thirsty for justice and righteousness? Maybe we’d pursue those first and foremost. And God would give us the other things we crave, as well: joy, purpose, fulfillment, friendship, and inner peace.
Maybe it would add depth to our prayers, and energize our worship. Because we’d understand that what happens in this building on Sundays isn’t the main thing. We’d know that our times of worship are really meant to nourish us, encourage us, and transform us. So that we’ll be people God can work through to bless and heal and restore our neighborhoods, our nation, and our world.
Maybe, like Dr. King, we’d have a dream. Maybe we’d have lots of dreams, stirred up by God’s Spirit working within us and among us.
And we’d work to bind up the wounded, to put food in people’s bellies. To provide safe space to the abused and comfort to those who suffer. To extend friendship to the forgotten. We’d be out looking for those who’ve been left behind. We wouldn’t put up with bullies and abusers. And we’d never make peace with anyone or any circumstance that takes food out of people’s mouths, or hurts them instead of healing them, or forgets about people and leaves them behind. Then justice would flow like waters, and righteousness like a healing stream from us.
God has spoken, calling for justice and righteousness to pour forth from us. God is with us, as we go out into the world as God’s answer to their prayers and their cries. Let God’s will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Amen.