Getting Just Right
I would like to admit standing here before you this morning that when Glenn Beck’s TV show was on Fox News a few years ago I was as regular a viewer as I could be. He was entertaining and I found that I agreed with him on many of the issues he addressed. Given the nature of his show when it was on, though, and the fierce competition among shows like his for viewership, he thrived on saying things that were shocking and scandalous. One of his favorite targets was the Progressive Movement that had its start in the early part of the 20th century. But one of the most controversial things he ever said at least in terms of the reaction within the community of the church in America was when he preached against the sneaky evils of social justice. I still remember the episode. Social justice, Beck explained, is simply a ploy of the progressives to advance their political and social objectives with the clueless complicity of America’s churches. He appealed to all the churchgoers in his audience to be on guard for their pastors or their denominations talking about pursuing social justice and to call out the closeted progressives on the spot when they heard it.
The reaction in the church was mixed and passionate. There were many progressive-minded believers who railed against Beck and his meddling in the affairs of the church and missing what they saw as the point of the Gospel. There were many like-minded believers who went on veritable witch hunts for progressives. There were some more fair-minded critics, though, who were not progressive and yet advised caution before simply writing off the idea of social justice. It is far too easy for folks to have only half listened and picked up the idea that calls for justice generally are all simply driven by a particular political perspective. More conservative expressions of the Christian faith in this country already have an image problem in our culture because they (we) tend to be weak on matters of justice. But the truth is that justice is an essential characteristic of our God. Justice has always been and will remain one of the key tasks of the church and pursuing it socially is just as important as anywhere else. You see, we serve a God we proclaim to be just. If we are going to see His character come to bear in our culture then we need to be working for justice. Living a life of justice is, as it turns out, one of the essential practices of the Christian faith.
This morning we are in the fifth part of this journey called, The Heart of Christianity. The whole point of this series is to equip you in this season when more folks than usual are considering the worth of the Christian faith to demonstrate its worth through your understanding and embrace of some of the most essential practices of the faith. If you’ve missed any of previous four parts you can find them over at our website. Most recently last week we talked about the practice of serving. Service was an essential part of Jesus’ ministry. He leveraged all of the benefits and advantages He had in service to the needs of others. If we are going to successfully reflect His character in our lives, serving is a must. If we want to be who Jesus was, we have to do what Jesus did, namely, live lives of service to the least, last, and lost around us.
All that being said, simply saying, “You should go and serve people,” isn’t terribly helpful. A bit more clarity and definition seems to be in order. What kind of service should you do? Who should you seek to serve? What should be your goal in serving? Well, I think all of these questions and more are answered by examining a fourth essential practice of the Christian faith: working for justice. It sounds good say, “If we want to be who Jesus was we have to do what Jesus did.” This morning I want to give you some more specific examples of what this looks like.
I said just a second ago that more conservative expressions of the Christian faith today have a bit of a reputation problem when it comes to matters of justice most notably because we don’t do much about them. But if that’s the case, it’s nothing when compared to the image problem of religion more generally in our country. A small, but popular, group of folks called the New Atheists have made a name for themselves by bashing on religion (and specifically the Christian religion) every chance they get. A former member of this movement who died a couple of years ago named Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called god Is Not Great, with the “g” of “god” in lowercase type to make a jab at Christians. The book’s subtitle tells you pretty much everything you need to know here: Why Religion Poisons Everything. Marketing aside, I can think of dumber things to say and believe, but for an avowed intellectual who is thinking and writing about religion that’s pretty high on the list. But atheists aren’t the only ones saying things like this. A well-known preacher in Los Angeles who I enjoy listening to has gained both fame and notoriety for saying that he wants to eradicate the religion of Christianity from the face of the earth (and before you start worrying about the kinds of preachers I’m listening to, he’s a good, conservative, Baptist preacher and his reason for saying this is different from Hitchens’). The fact is, though, that there’s some truth to this. Leaving aside the multitude of problems caused by non-Christian religions today, Islam most of all, if you think about the Christian religion when it has been associated with various positions and people of power over the last 2,000 years it has done some real damage.
But I would argue that this all came at the hands of people who were taking the structures of religion and secular authority more generally and retrofitting them onto the Christian religion. When you examine the Scriptures what you find is something very different. God the Father knew He was setting in place a religious movement through the work of His Son. He knew that we would take what He was giving us and turn it into a religion. As a result, He gave us some guidelines in the New Testament for what the religion should look like when we did it. What more, these guidelines didn’t come out of thin air. Rather, they were fully in line with the kind of religious movement He had always been working to see take hold among His people. For the rest of our time together this morning I want to prove this to you and talk with you about some of the implications of it.
Perhaps the clearest statement on what the religion of Jesus was to look like when it got up and running came from his brother James. James spent most of his life convinced that his brother was nuts for claiming to be the Messiah—and wouldn’t you?—but became utterly persuaded of the truth of this claim when He encountered His resurrected brother. James went on to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem. At some point in his ministry he wrote a letter to the believers in the region that read a little like Proverbs—lots of practical advice and wisdom on how to do the Christian life well. Early in this letter he makes a statement about what religion done right should look like that’s about as clear as you could hope to have. Turn to James 1:27 with me and take a look at this: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this…” Are you ready? He’s about to tell us what kind of religion makes God happy. Here it is: “…to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” The kind of religion that makes God happy involves being right on the outside and right on the inside. Today Christians tend to focus on one or the other of these prescriptions often based on their political leanings. Those who lean more to the left maximize on the first part and those who lean to the right maximize on the second. Yet James makes clear that we are to be giving our full attention to both. If you aren’t right on the inside you’ll never get the outside stuff right for very long. The Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century proved this. It got focused on the outside part to the exclusion of the inside and eventually fell apart. On the other hand, if you aren’t right on the outside, if you aren’t pursuing justice, the inside doesn’t matter. Or as James would later memorably put it: Faith without works is dead.
Let’s face the truth, though, folks: We are part of a tradition that has put a lot of emphasis on the inside stuff often to the exclusion of the outside. Now, we still don’t get the inside stuff right all that often, but at least part of the problem is that we aren’t putting into practice what we are learning and thus we lose it. And what does it look like to put the inside stuff into practice? Justice. Getting the outside stuff right is the heart of justice. We serve a God who is just and thus He has a passionate concern to see this part of His character reflected in the world He has created.
But, this isn’t something relatively new with God. Many folks try and draw a line between the God of the New Testament (Jesus) and the God of the Old Testament as if they are somehow different. That Old Testament God is all about judgment and wrath whereas Jesus is all about love and true justice. Nonsense! When God inspired James to describe true, God-honoring religion as concerned with matters of justice, He was being entirely consistent with what He had always been saying since He first introduced Himself to the world through the people of Israel. We can see this in Moses’ review of the Law in Deuteronomy 10. Turn back there with me now. Deuteronomy was Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel. He used this opportunity to remind them of everything they had learned over the last 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. He didn’t introduce anything new to them, but told them yet again who God was and how they should live in light of that.
Well, after reminding the Israelites of a time when they totally blew it Moses urged them to give up the ways of their past and serve without reserve the God who is truly worthy of their worship. Look at how he describes this God starting at v. 17: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” That’s quite a statement. What would you expect to follow a proclamation like that? Perhaps something like, “This God expects you to worship Him and only Him for He alone is worthy of your worship.” That would make sense, right? Or maybe this: “This God will be obeyed because He is higher than you and your lot is to do what He says.” We wouldn’t bat an eye at something like that. But look what He actually says. This God is great and mighty and awesome and so…“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” The God we serve is all these incredible things and what He does with all that power is to care for the weak and the vulnerable of this world. Oh, and by the way, you should too. Look at what comes next: “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.”
Think about that. Just like we saw in the example of Jesus last week, God is great and mighty and awesome and what He does with that is to care for those who are unable to care for themselves for one reason or another; He provides for those who can’t see all their own needs met in spite of their best efforts; He advocates for those in need of an advocate; in short, He executes justice. God loves justice. And if we are going to rightly claim to love Him, we should too. God loves justice and so should we. As James put it, this is what true religion looks like.
In fact, this is what true religion has always looked like. You see, there are five books of Law in the Bible. Each deals with a slightly different aspect of it. As I said, Deuteronomy is a review of the Law given shortly before Moses’ death. Genesis doesn’t focus on Law at all, but rather covers the origins of God’s people. Numbers contains a somewhat random selection of laws, but it mostly concerned with national census data—thus the title. Exodus deals more explicitly with the formation of the people from out of slavery in Egypt and contains the laws necessary to get the people up and running. But the book I want to take you to now is Levititus. Leviticus often gets maligned as the most boring of the Law books and, admittedly, this is not without good reason. There are some rather lengthy descriptions of sacrificial details that get a bit tedious. But, when seen from a broad angle, Leviticus is all about worship. It contains many details about what the religious practice of the people was to look like. More to the point, given that the whole goal of worship is to reflect the image or character of the thing we worship, Leviticus offers some rather explicit instructions on how to look like God. Now, there are some of these instructions that are hard to square with some of the cultural assumptions of our society, but on the whole they are pretty uncontroversial. In Leviticus 19 God lays out through Moses what is really a banner statement of the document. In Leviticus 19:2 God says: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Now, as before, what might you expect to follow that? Be holy like Me: Read your Bibles. Be holy like Me: Pray five without ceasing. Be holy like Me: Share your faith with other people. Be holy like Me: Help make sure the people around you keep the Law. Be holy like Me: Be at church every Sunday unless you have a sports tournament and then I’ll give you a pass. Lots of good…and some not so good…options there. But what does God actually say? You’ve got to see this for yourself. He says things like: “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father.” Amen, I think we can close with that. Okay, that was just for the parents in the room. He says some things that deal with the inside stuff James mentioned. He says some things that deal with the more physical aspects of worship—like “when you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted”—so they don’t inadvertently copy the less-than-savory practices of the pagan peoples around them. He deals with a few things like that, yes. That stuff is part of true religion James told us. But there’s also this in v. 9: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner; I am the Lord your God.” And this: “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” And this: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” And this: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Got that? Instead of all those other things we said a minute ago what God says is: Be holy like Me: Take intentional steps to provide for the physical needs (food) of those who are struggling to provide them on their own. Be holy like Me: Make sure the poor get a fair wage and get it without any harassment. Be holy like Me: Make sure your justice is blind, treating all people the same. Be holy like Me: Treat the foreigners in your country the same way you treat citizens. Those are all matters of justice. Someone might even call them matters of social justice. God says: “I’m concerned about what’s going on inside your heart. I am. You and I have got to be right there. But I’m also concerned with external matters of justice. I’m concerned to see you put the inside stuff into practice on the outside. If you want to reflect My holiness, you’ll be concerned with both too.” But again, we have focusing on the internal stuff down so let’s just make this really simple: God loves justice and so should we.
The whole goal of this series is to equip you with some of the tools you need to get the Christian life right. If you can get your minds around these ideas and practices much of the rest of the practice of the faith will fall into place. What we are talking about this morning fits squarely in line with this goal. Let me make this as plain as I can: if we want to get the Christian life right, we cannot overlook matters of justice in our attempts to get the inside stuff right. We can’t ignore the horizontal in favor of the vertical. Jesus made this plain when He blasted the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites for making sure they tithed consistently even on their spices while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Jesus accused them of straining out a gnat—fixating on the little things—while swallowing a camel—missing the big stuff. It’s a both-and affair. The inside and the outside work together. God loves justice and so should we.
I told you before that I would give you more specific examples of the kind of service that is most reflective of who Jesus was. Here you go. Service that advances the various causes of justice in our culture is a great place to start. If that’s not clear enough just think back through what we’ve seen this morning. God’s passion is to put all of His glory to bear in caring for the weakest and most vulnerable members of human societies. And His favorite way to do that is to work through you and me. God loves justice and so should we. He has a special place in His heart for orphans, widows, the poor, the foreigners—anyone who is vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by the culture. Start by serving them. Serve in ministries that are effective at meeting physical needs like hunger in the community. Start a ministry that is effective at meeting physical needs in the community.
I get an email each Sunday morning with the name and story of a church to pray for. You know who it was last week? It was Immanuel Southern Baptist Church in Wagoner, OK, the seat of the most unchurched county in the state. A few years ago this congregation of less than 100—that’s our size—decided they were going to minister to their community and not just focus on the inside stuff. After some research they decided there was a need for a food ministry in their community. The food pantry ministry this church of less than 100 people created serves—get this—400,000 meals per year. That’s almost 1,100 meals per day. Well, because people in the community have gotten the message that Immanuel loves them, they have started sending their kids there. The church is overrun by kids. So you know what they did next? They built a children’s ministry center. How are they paying for all this? They are relying on God because, after all, there’s less than 100 of them. But there’s less than 100 people who understand that God loves justice and so should they.
How about some others? If you are an employer, make sure you are paying your employees enough for them to live comfortably and not paycheck to paycheck. Get involved with ministries that help poor folks learn how to manage their resources in effective, God-honoring ways so they don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck. Start one if you have gifts that lie in that particular area. Or this: While we do still have orphans in our culture today, we have even more kids who are affected by the plague of fatherlessness raging in our society. Kids with absent or uninvolved dads are much more likely to experience poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and emotional health issues, poor educational achievement, involvement in criminal activity and its consequences, and involvement in sexual activity including teen pregnancies. That may seem like a tide you can’t possibly stem on your own, but you—especially the guys in the room—can find ways to get involved with mentoring these kids, pouring into them some of the things their fathers never will. Dad, if you want to have a huge impact on your kids and their schools there is a group called All-Pro Dads you can hook up with. Come see me and I’ll get you their information. You can reach out to widows in the community, particularly older widows, and work to see their needs met whether those be transportation, handyman type work around the house, shopping trips, and the like.
And here’s one more that’s a bit touchier. Get involved in serving the “sojourners” in our midst…that would be the folks not originally from this country. Illegal immigration and what to do about the folks who are here illegally is a hot topic right now. But listen, whether someone is here legally or not, they are still creatures made in the image of God and due all the dignity of such a status. Besides, who knows but that you wouldn’t do the same thing if you were in their place—and don’t say you wouldn’t because you don’t have any idea what their life is like. Just because someone is in this country illegally doesn’t mean they don’t still need food, clothing, and safe shelter. Now, should the government provide all of that? Well, that’s a matter of debate. Personally I don’t think so. But the real question for us is this: as Jesus followers, as devotees of a God who loves justice, should we, the church, work to see those needs met and serve as advocates for these folks who are often very much in need of an advocate? Let me put it this way: God loves justice and so should we.
Now, is any of this easy? No. Is it comfortable? Not a bit. Is it inconvenient? Absolutely. Immanuel Southern Baptist Church is constantly in a state of fiscal stress, to put it mildly, because of all they are doing. But is it right? God loves justice and so should we. Does it lead us to be more reflective of God’s character? God loves justice and so should we. Will it lead us to demonstrate to the world in a powerful way that the Christian faith is not only worth their time, it is the only real hope of life they have? If history is any kind of a guide there can be no doubt of this. Whenever the church has been the church people have turned to it in droves because they recognize that the life we offer is more real than anything else they’ve tried. God loves justice. He is just. He is justice personified. If we are going to adequately reflect His image to the world around us and as a function of our efforts to reflect the image of Christ, then pursuits of justice cannot be merely ancillary to our practice of our faith. They must be absolutely central to it. As Jesus Himself said when announcing the inception of His public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That same Spirit rests on us and those are still our ministry goals. God loves justice and so should we.