A sermon based on John 7:37-44 and Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-24 preached on November 12th, 2017
How hard is it to come across someone who tells the truth about themselves—however hard that truth may be! These days, truth is an endangered species. Most of the time, we do not expect to encounter it, and whatever remains of it must be valued, protected. There has been a spate of sexual harassment scandals in these recent months and weeks. A torrent of accusations has been made. In the vast majority of cases, the charges have been denied. We’ve heard celebrities, their lawyers, and spokespeople use words no one else ever uses: words like “categorically,” phrases like “patently false,” or “unequivocally denied.” This is the sort of language that’s used by someone who most likely has something to hide. Most of us can see right through words like these. We know the difference between the rhetoric of lawyers and the straightforwardness of honesty. We feel the difference between the truth and a lie.
Then, most recently came these words from comedian Louis C.K., another celebrity condemned for sexual impropriety, about the claims from his accusers:
These stories are true.
Wow. That’s almost shocking to hear from a public figure faced with an accusation.
Their stories are true. Every bit of them.
Louis C.K.’s behavior is still despicable and troubling, but we can also imagine how much weight can now fall C.K.’s shoulders because he has chosen to tell the truth about himself. As undignified his actions have been, he has responded to his accusers with some scrap of dignity.
There’s something about justice—biblical justice—that we fail to understand. Before we go further into these tough words handed to us from the lips of one of God’s prophets, we must get this straight. The world’s version of justice is called retributive justice. You take something from me, and I’ll take something from you. This is the sort of justice we know best. The court system and the criminal justice system works according to this worldly version—retributive justice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are parts of scripture that describe this sort of justice, but far more often the Bible describes another sort of justice: restorative justice.
Restorative justice means making whole what’s been broken, changing social structures to make things fair for all of us. Lifting up those who have fallen or been trampled underfoot. Remembering those who have been forgotten. Restorative justice—God’s idea of justice—demands that we start telling the truth to ourselves and to one another about how we live in a way and make systematic decisions that lift up some and throw others down.
This restorative justice is what the prophet Amos is interested in. He brings God’s word to God’s people—God is a just God in that He’s relentlessly interested in making whole what’s been broken, changing social structures to make things fair for all of us. Restorative justice is the sort that’s interested in having one human being see another as equal in value, and worthy of the same respect and dignity as any other. God’s justice leaves no one behind—forgets no one.
Restorative justice—spoken of throughout the new and the old testaments, by Moses, Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus—demands that we start telling the truth to ourselves and to one another about how we live in a way, and make systematic decisions, that lift up some and leave the rest behind and disregarded. It takes no sides. This is a holy justice is not interested in political maneuvering, the excuses we make for our own behaviors. And it requires much of us. It demands that we face up to ourselves, and with dignity and humility and eyes wide open, admit our complicity in the unjust systems of our days.
Biblically, injustice is a sin because it ignores the dignity of others.This is what Amos confronts his own people with, but they do not want to face up to it. They stand silent in the face of the truth-telling words of the prophet.
Amos was the first of the four eighth-century prophets. He was a no-name man from a podunk town no one had ever heard of. He lived a simple life—he was a shepherd. He didn’t think of himself as a prophet of God. He knew of some prophets, but it seems he didn’t want to be grouped in with the likes of them. Amos just sort of did his own thing. But, when he heard God’s Word to him, he spoke up. And he didn’t hold back. Not one bit.
The book of Amos is nine chapters long. You can read it in one sitting, but put your seatbelts on before you do, because Amos was a straight shooter. He doesn’t mince words. Amos spoke against the superficial religious institutions of his day, and like anyone who tells the truth to a nation of people who don’t want to hear the truth about themselves, Amos didn’t last long. In Amos’ day, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few ruling elites who controlled the government. Amos witnessed wealth flowing from the working, peasant class to support the luxurious lifestyle of a few politically powerful elites. The rich became richer, and the poor became poorer.
During the reign of King Jeroboam II, an increasing number of people lost their jobs. These people were squeezed out of the peasant class into a permanent underclass of “expendables,” who found themselves in debt slavery and who had no claim to their own lives. In this social context, only two to three percent of the population could afford the luxury of literacy, and higher education was the property of the privileged.
Furthermore, vast amounts of Israel’s resources that could have been allocated toward humanitarian concerns, such as education, were siphoned away to wage King Jeroboam’s ill-conceived war against Damascus—a war where Amos would see entire communities destroyed. It was into this context that Amos spoke.
Thank God that our world today is nothing like what it was back then. Thank God we’ve gotten rid of the distinctions between the haves and have nots—that we no longer have social problems like a lack of education or illiteracy like they did back then. Thank God we’re no longer war-addicted people. Nothing changes under the sun, does it? History has a tendency to repeat itself.
The prophet’s words are tough for us to hear. Appropriately so. If we’re entirely comforted by scripture then we’re not paying close enough attention. God has demands for His people.
And here, Amos brings word that God doesn’t want ceremony; God wants justice. God is not satisfied with “Thoughts and Prayers.” God wants his people to love and insist upon restorative justice. With these words, Amos sets it out as plain as it comes: God is not interested in any of our worship if we’re not interested in restoring justice in our nations.
If we’re not interested in taking our faith and with it, restoring the dignity of those the world has undignified, then God is not interested in our prayers or our songs. We’re wasting our time and our breath in worship. At the center of a worshipful life is our effort out there to make whole what’s been broken, changing social structures to make things fair for all of us. Speaking truth even when, or especially when, no one wants to hear it.
God wants us—we who call ourselves his people—to have a reputation for telling the truth to ourselves and the world, and working to pick up those who the rest of our culture throws down. God is calling us to be a voice for those the world tries its best to silence. But we know the terrible sound of silence in the face of injustice. Silence like a cancer grows.
The message from God’s biblical prophets: Speak up. We can sing our songs and shout our praises to God until we’re blue in the face, but as long as we keep silence when others suffer, we are not worshipping. Real worship insists upon justice to roll on like a river, like a never-failing torrent, one that washes away our apathy, our disregard for others. What God wants most from our lips is not our ceremonious songs, our sanctimonious displays of worship, but our refusal to turn away from the suffering of others.
There is another who did not turn away from suffering. It was in the fullness of time that Jesus faced the cross—a Roman torture machine. He spoke truth to people who had no appetite or tolerance for truth. In an expression of utmost injustice, he was sentenced to death by crucifixion.
Jesus knew what he was up against: A world that wasn’t interested in truth. He went to the cross to change that. Even though he had what it took to turn away from the suffering imposed upon him by the powerful people of his day, He did not turn away. And neither can we.
The sound of Christ’s silence upon the cross split the night and still shakes the world with its volume. May we who call ourselves His speak up and tell the truth, also.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!