April 19, 2015

Justice Is Worship

Have you ever felt like you were under a set of expectations that you sincerely wanted to meet but which seemed to keep shifting around every time you got close to them?  Maybe you have felt this way with a boss.  Perhaps you had a parent do this to you.  Hopefully your spouse hasn’t made you feel that way before but it certainly happens.  Whatever the circumstances, though, how did it make you feel?  Frustrated?  Angry?  Hurt?  Like you just wanted to scream, “What do I have to do to make you happy?”  Every single one of us has a built in desire to please the people around us, or at least the people we deem important in our lives.  We need to know that we are having a positive impact on the people around us so we feel like we have value.  Now, the nature of the impact may vary from person to person but the fact of the desire does not.  When we are in a relationship we want to know what the parameters for success are so we can…well…succeed.  When those become a moving target we are left feeling like we are in a hard place and it’s tempting to want to just give up.

Now, with people that feeling is frustrating sometimes to the extreme.  But think about this: have you ever felt that way with God?  Have you ever been in a place where you were doing everything you could think of to make God happy but could never escape the sense that it wasn’t getting the job done?  Maybe you did something wrong that only a few people or maybe even nobody knew about and the guilt was nearly overwhelming.  Finally you got to a place where you were ready to make things right with God and so you started doing what you perceived to be good things.  You started coming to church.  You got involved in serving here and there.  You were more generous with your money.  You did everything good you could think of and you never felt like God was any happier.  Or perhaps you went through a period of life when everything seemed to be falling apart.  Your job was a mess, your family was fighting, your kids were sick, the bills seemed to be duplicating, the weather was terrible, nothing was going right.  The apparently obvious conclusion was that God wasn’t happy.  So you started praying more and reading your Bible more and even going to church a little more often than normal and yet things didn’t change.  Maybe, though, you were in a place where you weren’t apparently doing anything wrong.  You were coming to church, you were reading your Bible, you were giving, you were praying, you were nice to the people around you, and yet you just had a sense that something wasn’t there with God.  It didn’t make any sense given that you were in a good place, but you couldn’t shake it.

Whatever exactly where the circumstances of your situation, you were getting frustrated and wanted to scream, “What do you want, God?  What’s going to make you happy?”  The fact is, most of us have been in a place like that.  It’s hard when it’s another person making us feel that way, but we can always get away from them.  With God, though, there’s really no escaping.  He’s everywhere, all the time.  If our desire to please other people is strong, it’s nothing compared to our built-in desire to please God, to be right with God.  We were created to be in a right relationship with God.  Even for folks who have rejected the One True God, they still can’t get away from that desire.  They strive to be right with whatever form of divinity they’ve substituted in God’s place.  Everybody does this in one form or another.  And when we feel like our efforts are not getting us there we get panicked and frustrated and start going to sometimes silly lengths to try and get it right.

All of this leads us to ask a very important question.  It’s a question we all have rattling around somewhere in the back of our mind and on occasion in the front.  It’s a question whose answer has a huge impact on our lives whether we realize it or not.  It’s a question whose answer used to come from Sunday school for a lot of folks, but today it tends to come more from pop culture.  We generally assume on whatever answer we happen to be given and live our lives as if that were the case.  And that works until we encounter some set of circumstances that lead us to question our answer or to simply conclude our answer isn’t right.  When that happens we’re forced to actually think about it.  Now that I have you wondering, the question is this: What does God really want from me?  If you’ve ever asked that question, you are in the right place this morning.  Today and for the next couple of weeks we are going to take a look at this and see what kind of an answer God Himself may have left for us in His word.  Let me also say that if you are one of the fortunate people who haven’t ever asked this question, this is still going to be a great few weeks to be here because someone in your life right now is asking it or you may yet ask it and now you’ll have the wisdom you need when the situation arises.

Well as I said a second ago, this is a question that most everybody has asked at some point in their life.  People have been asking it for a long, long time.  They have been asking it especially at times when they feel like they’re mostly doing everything right and yet the wheels are falling off anyway.  This was actually the situation the people of Judah found themselves in during the period of the monarchy in the history of ancient Israel.  This happened after the united kingdom was split into two separate nations: Israel to the north and Judah to the south.  Israel was a mess from the start and failed quickly.  Judah, on the other hand, stayed somewhat on track.  They had a few good kings who kept the people mostly on the straight and narrow.  But over time, while they kept the veneer of ritual in place, their hearts began to slide.  This was more of a subtle thing, though. So subtle, in fact, that they didn’t notice it.  After all, they reasoned, they were doing all the right sacrifices at the right times and in the right ways.  They were economically prosperous which they took as a sure sign of God’s favor.  They remained mostly at peace on an international front.  Things seemed good.  And then a man named Micah came on the scene and started messing up their nice, neat assumptions about God and what was making Him happy.

Micah arrived on the scene with a word from the Lord at a time when the nation was just as I described, but rather than tell them how good they were doing he came with messages of judgment and destruction.  There was hope of restoration to be sure, but the judgment got the people’s attention.  In one bit of prophesy in particular, the people spoke back to voice their frustration with feeling like they had been fairly on track with God but were now being told things weren’t as good as they thought.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Micah 6.  The little record of his prophecies is tucked near the middle of the Minor Prophets which is after Daniel but before the New Testament.  I’ll start reading right at the beginning of the chapter.

“Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.  Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will content with Israel.  ‘O my people, what have I done to you?  How have I wearied you?  Answer me?  For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Arron, and Miriam.  O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’”

In other words, “I did all these great and loving things for you.  I didn’t destroy you when you deserved it and instead saved you from your enemies in order to establish you as a nation.  Why are you treating me this way?”  Well, if you’re Judah and you’ve been going along thinking everything’s pretty well okay with God this had to be a shot between the eyes.  This would be like someone coming to you in a time when things were going well, you were active at church, paying your bills, serving here and there, and the like, and saying, “Friend, I need to share with you a word God has laid on my heart: you are treating Him terribly and He wants you to get back on track.”  How would you react?  You’d fire off the question of the day: What do you really want, God?  The people of Judah reacted in much the same way.  Look with me at the next couple of verses: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Can you hear the sarcasm there?  The frustration?  This was a people performing all the right rituals and they figured that was enough.  Jesus hadn’t yet come to teach them to think differently.  And here was Micah saying: “God’s not happy with you.”  So they rightly asked in response: “What do we have to do?  What?  Does God want more sacrifices?  A thousand rams?  More?  How about a river of olive oil?  How about ten thousand?  Would a million suffice?  Does He want my firstborn child?  Would that make Him happy?”  Come on you’ve been there.  Maybe you are there.  What does God really want?

Thankfully, they were not left hanging and neither are we.  Look at v. 8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  They asked—we ask—and God answered.  You want to know what makes God happy.  These things do.  Practice justice.  We’ve talked about that one before and will talk about it some more in just a minute.  God loves justice.  He is just.  If we want to make God happy, doing something He loves isn’t a bad place to start.

Love kindness.  The Hebrew word there is chesed and it’s a word so rich in meaning that a formal definition doesn’t actually exist.  It covers a range of things including loving kindness, covenantal faithfulness, and abundant mercy.  It’s a word used to describe the kind of love God has for us.  He has that kind of love for us because He is that kind of love.  Thus, if we want to make God happy, if we want to give Him what He really wants, practicing this kind of love—which I have defined as an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be—will set us far down the road.  More on this one next week.

Finally, walk humbly with God.  God desires a relationship with us above all else.  He made us so that He could share the glories of Himself with another creature made to be like Him.  If we want to give God what He really wants, let us pursue this kind of a relationship with Him.  We’ll come back to this in more detail in a couple of weeks.

These are the things God really wants.  If you spend much time actually reading His word you’ll find invitations to these three all over the place.  And for the rest of our time together this morning and in each of the next couple of weeks I want to look at these in a bit more detail so we can understand better how to pursue them in order that you can have confidence you are making God happy.  No one wants to find out they’ve been off track with God when they were sure the opposite was true.  These three are how you avoid that.

So then justice.  How do we make God happy with justice?  Well, we’ve already talked about that recently.  God loves justice and so should we.  We talked about various examples of justice-type ministries that are great to be involved in somehow: serving in ministries that effectively combat hunger; helping folks who are living on the edge of financial disaster gain the skills they need to leave behind such a place and have some financial peace; advocating for immigrants and working to make sure they have their basic physical needs met—even if they aren’t here legally; supporting ministries that effectively serve women who are pregnant, poor, and clueless as to their options and how to take care of the two people for whom they are now responsible; and so on and so forth.

Those are all good things to do.  But this morning I want to approach things from an angle we don’t often think about, but which the prophets of old spent a fair bit of time addressing.  It was certainly a reminder the people of Judah needed.  It was also a reminder the people of the northern kingdom of Israel needed.  They received this message from another prophet, a shepherd named Amos.  God sent Amos to Israel a generation before Micah started his work.  This was a time when there were still a few people at least pretending to follow the God of their ancestors.  But, like Judah, they had grown mostly concerned with ritual and not the relationship that gave it legitimacy.  In one particular passage God pretty well threw down the gauntlet to them: unless you figure out this justice thing all your worship is a waste of time.  Flip back a couple of books (Jonah and Obadiah to be exact) to Amos 5:20 and take a look at this with me.

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.”  Tough words, no?  What God is essentially saying here is that He doesn’t want any of their worship.  This would be like Him declaring to us to lock the church doors, stop singing our songs, quit taking up the offering, close the Kitchen Table, and for goodness’ sake cut out the preaching (save your celebrations for later), because He doesn’t want them anymore from us.  He hates them.  He despises them.  How might we respond?  I mean, that’s how we worship.  How else are we supposed to worship?

Look at v. 24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Justice.  That’s how.  God didn’t express such hostility toward the worship practices of the Israelites for no reason.  He refused to accept them because they were empty.  They were hollow.  They weren’t supported by the kind of lifestyle of worship that is necessary to give them legitimacy.  Ritual absent relationship doesn’t put us anywhere near the vicinity of God.  We must have the relationship in place.  And, from what Amos expressed to the people of Israel about 2,500 years ago, one of the best ways of putting that relationship in place, of giving God what He really wants, is through our pursuit of justice.  To put that another way: justice is worship.  When we worship God we are acknowledging, proclaiming, and participating in His character and glory.  To acknowledge and proclaim only without also participating means we don’t get it.  You can’t positively acknowledge God’s character without participating in it.  Justice is worship.  If we don’t have the justice piece firmly entrenched in our lives there is a great likelihood that our worship will be empty.  It will fit the pattern of what God blasted here.  Worship without justice doesn’t get the job done because justice is worship.

If you are in a place where you feel like you are running around trying to make God happy and yet can’t ever seem to get there, have a hard conversation with yourself: How am I on matters of justice?  Where am I serving others in such a way that evinces God’s character of justice in easily recognizable ways?  God desires a relationship with you above all else, but if you’re not moving in His direction that can’t happen.  And the rituals of worship are not themselves evidence in your favor.  If you want to make God happy, if you want to give God what He wants, pursue justice.  Let justice be your evidence.  Let justice be your worship when you are not in this room so that when you are your acknowledgement and proclamation will be paired by your participation.  Justice is worship.  That’s what God really wants.