(NOTE: This sermon was prepared and delivered for the first “Dirty Church Conference.” Hosted by OneGen Away at Strong Tower Bible Church in Nashville, TN on September 15, 2018)
What do you hear when you hear that word?
“Justice” is one of those words that is loaded with meanings and different interpretations. Definitions of “justice” divide people, political parties, countries, and even churches. Add the word “social” to the word “justice” and you may start a holy war. Change the phrase “social justice” to “social gospel” and you may be labeled a “heretic,” or even worse, a “liberal.” Just over a week ago, a popular conservative evangelical mega-church pastor wrote a treatise entitled, “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” (published on September 4, 2018, see section IX Heresy). While some of it is good, the treatise lays a foundation where social justice becomes heresy; an extremely serious charge. Over 5,500 people—mainly pastors, almost entirely white males—have already signed the treatise. One of the more troubling statements in the treatise reads, “We deny that political or social activism…constitute a central part of the church’s mission…”
But such is the nature of speaking out on issues of justice in our world today.
While “justice” is hard to define, many people have tried to describe it or illustrate it. Here are just a few examples:
- “The more laws, the less justice” (Cicero).
- “True peace is not merely the absence of war, it is the presence of justice” (Jane Addams).
- “Justice that loves gives is a surrender, justice that law gives is a punishment” (Gandhi).
- “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (MLK).
- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (MLK).
- “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public” (Dr. Cornel West).
The best definition, illustration, and description of “justice” are the words of Jesus, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). What does that look like in real life? Jesus shows us in His parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. In that parable Jesus says that true disciples feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, show hospitality to the immigrant (regardless of their legal standing), clothing the naked which includes taking care of the homeless, providing health care for the sick, and speaking out against mass incarceration. All of these are social justice issues. Jesus makes them a heaven and hell issue. Thus, they better be a central part of your church’s mission.
Justice and the Kingdom of God
The Old Testament idea of “justice” became the New Testament concept of the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven.” During the four-hundred year period between the close of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus, the phrase, “Kingdom of God” became a rallying cry for the Jews, creating an anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. At that time, what God wants done in heaven will be realized on earth. By the time of Jesus’ birth, the anticipation that the Messiah would soon come was at a fever pitch. Before Jesus came, there were others who came, claiming to be the Messiah, and the Roman Empire killed them all! After His baptism, Jesus proclaimed, “The time has come…the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). God’s kingdom would be characterized by justice. By stating God’s kingdom was “near,” Jesus was proclaiming that His kingdom had arrived (present reality), is arriving (continued presence), and will arrive in the future (future hope). Thus, the kingdom of God is both “now and not yet.” You see the “now and not yet” of the kingdom in Jesus’ words, reading from the Prophet Isaiah, in Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed…(this is the NOW of the kingdom of God)…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (a reference to the Year of Jubilee, the NOT YET of the kingdom). Justice, and a just society, are at the very heart of who God is and what He wants His people to be!
But justice is not easy work and neither is it glamorous. Fighting for justice will make you infamous, not famous. It is dirty work. It requires sacrifice. It can ruin your reputation. It could lead to crucifixion. But fighting for justice is what it means to follow Jesus. Dr. Cornel West said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I would say, “Justice is what Jesus looks like in public.”
The Prophet Isaiah
Since the Old Testament idea of “justice” is the New Testament concept of the “kingdom of God,” and since Jesus quoted from Isaiah more then any other Old Testament book or person, I want to draw your attention to Isaiah 1:17.
Isaiah prophesied during a time when both Israel and Judah had reached their zenith in prosperity and political power. (Sound familiar?) But the people of God had turned their backs on God. Not in obvious ways, but in subtle ways of saying they trusted in God, but were relying on their own prosperity and political power. (Sound familiar?) Their problem was not atheism, but syncretism; adding other philosophies and world views into your faith in God. In other words, the people were not denying God, but adding to their belief in God. (Sound familiar?)
Furthermore, there were two competing political ideologies vying for their allegiance. (Sound familiar?) One was Egypt. The other was Syria. With whom would God’s people align themselves? Isaiah, whose name means, “the Lord is salvation,” comes on the scene and says, “You, God’s people, don’t pledge your allegiance to anything or anyone but God, Himself, who is the only source of true salvation.” Isaiah, more than any other prophet, prophesies that God is going to send the Messiah, who will set up a new government, a new nation, and a new way of life. Our citizenship is in His kingdom, not any kingdoms of this world. And that new kingdom, God’s kingdom, is characterized by justice.
In chapter one, Isaiah condemns God’s people for being a rebellious nation. Listen to what God says through His prophet…
- “…I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me…” (v. 2).
- “…the ox knows his master, the donkey his owners manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand…” (v. 3). Could I re-word this verse? “The elephant knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but my people neither know me nor understand me.”
- “…they have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel…” (v. 4).
- “…your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire…” (v. 7).
- “…the multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?’ says the LORD…” (v. 11).
- “…stop bringing meaningless offerings…” (v. 13).
- “…when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen…” (v. 15).
After fifteen verses of strong condemnation, Isaiah’s tone and tenor starts to change. He writes, “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!” (vv. 16-17). Now, notice the very first thing Isaiah tells the people of God to do after telling them to “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!”
It wasn’t to go out and build large churches.
It wasn’t to go out and create incredible youth programs so our kids don’t get bored.
It wasn’t to coddle up to people in power so you can have a seat at the table.
It wasn’t even a list of personal sins you need to confess.
The very first thing God tells His people to do is to “Seek justice” (v. 17). And if you are unclear on where to start, “…encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (v. 17). Two things stand out about the biblical idea of justice in this verse. First, justice is at the very core of who God is. Second, justice is about standing with and speaking with the most vulnerable in our society. The simplest meaning of the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat (pronounced mish-past) is to treat people equitably. The idea is to grant people their rights, giving people what they are due. Mishpat occurs over 400 times in the Old Testament. Ultimately, the biblical idea of justice is about restoration and reconciliation more than it is about punishment.
Proverbs 31:8 reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” In ancient days, the “destitute,” the extremely vulnerable, were categorized in four groups: (1) The widows. The Hebrew word, almanah, denotes not just a woman whose husband had died but also a once-married and now divorced or abandoned woman who is need of financial and legal support. (2) The orphans. The Hebrew word, yathom, means “fatherless.” Thus, a child of a single mom was also an “orphan.” (3) The immigrants. (4) The poor. The Bible is full of verses about our care for these “destitute” and vulnerable people. Here is just a sampling:
- Deuteronomy 10:17-18 – “For 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. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow…”
- Exodus 22:22-24 – “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I. Will kill you with the sword.”
- Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”
- Psalm 35:10 – “Who is like you, O Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
- Psalm 72:4 – “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor.”
- Proverbs 13:223 – “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.”
“Added to the quartet of widows, orphans, immigrants, and poor would be all those who suffer at the hands of injustice. It could be the prisoner, the leper, the prostitute, the drug addict, the sinner (including sexual sins of all orientation), the person with AIDS or some other communal disease, the mentally disabled—the list could go on. If the good news of God’s kingdom is not good news to the least and the last—the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor—then it is not good news for anyone” (Evangelism for the 21st Century, p. 84).
In addition to people, the Bible also talks about systemic injustices that the church is to be addressing. Just like there were four categories of people, there are four categories of systems: (1) Economics. (2) Equality. (3) The environment. (4) The sanctity of life. Here is just a sampling of what the Bible says:
- Proverbs 22:16 – “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.”
- Proverbs 20:23 – “The LORD detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.”
- Acts 10:34-35 – “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
- Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus.”
- Jeremiah 2:7 – “I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.”
“Standing up for life most definitely means fighting for the rights of the unborn, but it could also mean speaking out against capital punishment…We need to expand sanctity of life to include fighting against human trafficking and for affordable housing. Furthermore, it should include speaking out against war…Finally, included in a comprehensive sanctity of life would be understanding the need for better and more affordable, healthcare for all” (Evangelism for the 21st Century, p. 94).
Look back with me at Isaiah. After a very strong condemnation in Isaiah 1:1-15, God tells us what we, as His people, are to be doing, and its all about, dare I say it, social justice. Isaiah then concludes this section of his prophecy by stating something that if you have been in church for any amount of time have heard. These are very familiar verses. And I bet you have heard them, but every time you have heard them it has been in the context of confessing your personal sins so you can receive forgiveness. But notice, in context, these verses are not about personal sins, rather, they are about the sin of God’s people not fighting for justice in their society! Isaiah says, “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the word.’ For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 1:18-20).
May we understand that justice is at the very heart of God. Thus, fighting for justice should be at the very core of who we are, and what we do, as His people.