Note to the reader
I preached this sermon in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (main campus) on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. It was the first time I’ve preached an entire message on the topic of Christian social justice. Feel free to leave feedback in the comments.
N.B. – All verses are from the New International Version (NIV), unless otherwise noted
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream (Amos 5:24, NIV).
One day a farmer worked in his field along the banks of the Congo River. He looked out over the river and a saw man struggling in the water, crying out: “Au secours!” (Help me). Quickly, the farmer dove in the water and rescued the drowning man, towing him to shore. By now, villagers had gathered round to see what all the noise was about. Soon, they saw many others flailing in the water. The villagers – moved with compassion – pulled person after person from the river. It wasn’t long before everyone was exhausted. Finally, a little boy spoke up:
I’m glad we’ve saved all these people from drowning, but I wonder: Who upriver keeps pushing these people in?
Amos saw the poor of his day and had compassion on them. But there came a time – moved by God – when he got tired of dealing just with symptoms. He was ready to raise his voice about the cause.
Of all people, Amos was an unlikely candidate to be a prophet. If he were alive to day in Kenya, he might have been a Maasai carrying his rungu, herding cows. Amos was a shepherd, likely with little education. He lived in the backwater town of Tekoa, not far from Jerusalem. The year was 760 B.C. and there was prosperity in the land. A longstanding peace was the order of the day under the stable rule of Judah’s King Uzziah and Israel’s King Jeroboam II.
The cancer of injustice
But if the two nations seemed as strong as a marathoner in the highlands of Kenya, there was nonetheless a secret cancer growing inside, the cancer of injustice. So God tells Amos to leave his flocks and to travel north approximately 100 km to Bethel, where Israel had its official place of worship and sacrifice to God. There Amos – like a doctor – diagnoses the illness and applies the divine treatment in hopes of healing their disease before it is too late.
What were the injustices?
Amos is smart how he addresses the crowd at Bethel. He starts in chapter 1 by making a quick tour of the surrounding nations. He points to Damascus first: “For three crimes of Damascus, and for four, I don’t hold back the punishment” (1:3, CEB). Then he moves on to Gaza, followed by Ashdod, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. And as he makes the grand tour, you can almost hear the crowd shouting: “Amen! Preach it!’ But now in chapter 5, he zeroes in on Israel herself. The crowd grows silent. What were some of the abuses they were practicing?
- v. 7 – They tuned “justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground”
- v. 10 – The had contempt for judges, especially judges who were upright, who told the truth
- v. 11 – The leaders oppressed the poor
- v. 12 – Because of bribes, the poor received no justice in the courts
- v. 26 – They worshipped false gods
In short, for the poor, life was brutal while the privileged few built stone mansions for themselves! (see v.11) Because of the prosperity of some, the poverty of others was disguised, but it was a thin veneer and God was not pleased.
The problem of hypocrisy
We might expect injustices in a land that knew nothing about God. But this was far from the case. These were the people of Yahweh. Certainly, they were careful to keep up appearances, observing all the prescribed sacrifices.
- religious feasts? check
- burnt offerings? check
- grain offerings? check
- fellowship offerings? check
- excellent worship music? check
What was the problem exactly? They claimed to love God but they mistreated the powerless and the marginalized. So Amos thunders:
Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:23-24).
But that was Israel long ago, right? Nothing like this would happen in the 21st century in the countries where you and I come from…would it? No one would go to church on Sunday and praise the Lord, then on Monday oppress or rob someone else…would they?
There’s an old Methodist hymn that reminds us: “It’s not my brother, it’s not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” As Jesus insisted in the Sermon on the Mount, we must first remove the board from our own eye before we can see clear to remove the speck from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3).
I spent my senior year in high school and my gap year between high school and University working at a grocery store, in the produce department. Soon after I started the job, my boss asked me to mop the floor of the back room as part of my night shift duties. The next day when I came into work, he asked if I’d mopped it. “Yes,” I replied. “The reason I ask,” he said, “is because it still looks dirty.” This went on for several nights, and he remained unsatisfied with my work. The floor still looked dirty when he came in the next morning. Finally, he asked me to show him what exactly I was doing when mopping. “Greg,” he said after watching me work for a few minutes, “you’re using dirty water and a dirty mop head. You need to use fresh water and change it often, and use a clean mop head. Otherwise, you’ll just spread the dirt around.”
Here at ANU, our slogan is: “What begins here, transforms the world.” And when we say “what begins here,” we really mean what God does in our heart. God must transform us first if we want God to be able to use us to change the world. If we are unclean, when it comes to trying to change the world, we’ll just be dirty mops spreading around dirty water. Nothing will change.
Last week was Holiness Week at ANU. The Lord used Dr Cindy North in a powerful way to speak to us about the change God wants to make inside of us individually. But may I suggest that that is not the end; it is just the beginning. When God has transformed us, it’s time to let God use us to impact our world.
The courage to speak up
Amos, though just a humble shepherd, found the courage to speak truth to power. When we come to the New Testament, we find the same theme. Ephesians is one of the richest New Testament books when it comes to the doctrine of the church. In the face of injustices and wrongs around us, what should the church do? Paul gives us the answer in Ephesians 5:11 –
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them (italics added).
The KJV says: “reprove them.” That means to call them out! The Common English Bible renders it: “Reveal the truth about them.”
What’s fascinating is that Paul was merely following the example of Jesus himself. Matthew 5:3-12 contains what is usually called the Beatitudes. It’s not often that we look at them from the standpoint of social justice, but this is what Mark Bredin does in his book, The Ecology of the New Testament. Take Matthew 5:3, where Jesus talks about the “poor in spirit.” Usually, we think this means those who are humble, yet a better translation for “poor in spirit” would be the “hopeless poor.” In fact, in verses 3-6, Jesus addresses himself to those who are poor and downtrodden. He promises: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v. 4) and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (v. 6).
Then in verses 7-10, we find what I call the “social justice remedy.” Faced with those who are oppressed, Jesus calls us to be merciful (v.7), pure in heart (v.8), and peacemakers (v.9). Yet it’s not naïve advocacy; oppressors and all who have vested interest in the status quo will push back against those who seek to redress wrongs. In vv. 10-11, he warns the would-be advocate that we can expect harassment, character assassination, and persecution. To be prophetic, to speak out against wrongs, means that we will be harassed like “the prophets who came before you.” Our Lord is saying: Welcome to the club!
What is your holy discontent?
When it comes to the topic of Christian social justice, Bill Hybels uses a term that is helpful. That term is “holy discontent,” and it’s the title of his 2007 book. Hybels is the pastor of a megachurch in the Chicago area, but he grew up in a small, dysfunctional church. Bill as a teenager prayed for a friend, that he would decide to follow Jesus. One day, much to Hybel’s surprise, the friend asked if he could attend church with Bill the next Sunday. It seemed like God was answering his prayers, that the friend was beginning to ripen to spiritual things. Unfortunately, the Sunday was a disaster. Few welcomed him; he felt like an intruder. The love of Christ was absent. His friend concluded: “If that’s what Christians are like, count me out.” His heart hardened and he never came back to church.
That negative experience was the moment when Hybel’s holy discontent was born. He refused for that situation to persist; he knew he had to do something to change it. He realized that small churches needed help, training so they could be sensitized to how their actions could push people away. Hybels now hosts regular conferences for small churches, equipping them to better reach the lost. His holy discontent became his calling.
William Wilberforce: Abolition of the slave trade
There are other stories of how God can use holy discontent. In 1806, Great Britain officially abolished the slave trade, outlawing the carrying of slaves in any of its ocean-going vessels throughout the Empire. Yet few know the story behind the man largely responsible for this victory, who persevered through 20 years of set-backs to finally win a glorious victory. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) stood just 5’3″ inches tall. All his life, he suffered from colitis, a bowel condition that was very painful and that could only be treated with laudanum, an addictive form of opium. Despite his challenges, Wilberforce was ambitious and was elected as one of the youngest ever Members of Parliament.
Yet something happened to Wilberforce at the age of 26. He understood the Gospel, repented, and was marvelously born again. Wilberforce referred to it as “the Great Change.” Later, he wrote a long letter to his friend and fellow MP, William Pitt (the younger), announcing that he would leave Parliament in order to preach and to have time for spiritual contemplation. Pitt- who became Prime Minister – was disappointed to lose his friend in Parliament, especially since Pitt had designs to end the slave trade but couldn’t do it alone. In a reply to Wilberforce’s letter, he wrote:
Sure the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.
It worked. Wilberforce stayed in Parliament and soon thereafter plunged into the battle against the slave trade. The oppression of thousands of African men, women, and children became for Wilberforce what sparked his calling, his holy discontent.
The 2007 movie, “Amazing Grace,” tells the story of the life of Wilberforce. Here is a short clip where Wilberforce tries to convince some reluctant MPs of the justice of the abolition cause:
The plight of Haiti’s restaveks
I wish I could say that slavery in the world ended for good in 1833, when Parliament went a step further and outlawed not only the transporting of slaves on British ships but the keeping of slaves in any British territory. Yet we know human trafficking in many forms still exists around the world. One of the sadder cases is Haiti’s restaveks.
The word “restavek” means “to stay with.” Estimates are that among Haiti’s 8 million people, there are 300,000 children who have been reduced to domestic servitude. Those scouting child servants will visit the rural areas and look for poor families who are struggling to provide for a large family. With promises that they’ll take good care of their young child – often between ages 5 and 12 – that they’ll provide good food, shelter, and quality education, little boys and girls go to the city and quickly become indentured. They live as domestic servants, unpaid and provided just the bare minimum to live. Rarely do they get to attend school, and when they do, it’s a school hardly worth attending. There are now organizations working to rescue restaveks so that they can live a better life.
Conclusion: What is your holy discontent?
Amos announced: “Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never ending stream.” Look around you. What wrongs in your society do you see? What injustices weigh upon your heart? Ask God whether rectifying one of those injustices is His calling on your life, is your holy discontent. God has saved us so that each of us can change some corner of our world. Will you answer God’s call?