Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
(sermon note: 11-14 sermon note)
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.
And he said:
The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
and the top of Carmel dries up.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
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 offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a lawyer who, while traveling in an unfamiliar area deep in the south, ran a stop sign and got pulled over by the local small town sheriff. The lawyer thought for a minute and decided that he could talk his way out of a ticket. After all, he assumed that he must be much better educated than the southern sheriff. The sheriff walked up to the window and asked the lawyer for his license and registration. The lawyer asked, “What for?” The sheriff responded, “Well, you didn’t come to a complete stop at the stop sign back there.” The lawyer said, “I slowed down and no one was coming.” “You still didn’t come to a complete stop, license and registration, please,” said the sheriff impatiently. The lawyer said, “If you can tell me the legal difference between slow down and stop, I’ll give you my license and registration and you can give me the ticket. If not, well, you let me go and don’t give me the ticket.” The sheriff said, “That sounds fair, please exit your vehicle, sir.” The lawyer stepped out of his car and the sheriff started beating him with his nightstick. The sheriff then asked, “Do you want me to stop or just slow down?” The lawyer yelled out, “Please stop! They never taught me anything like this at Harvard Law School!” The sheriff chuckled, “You should have gone to Yale, like me.”
Ivy League rivalry aside, the image of a small town cop giving a big city lawyer some “southern justice” is priceless! That wily lawyer thought he knew all the legal tricks to outsmart that local yokel and get justice to favor him. More often than not, justice does favor the wise but sometimes justice likes to favor the right. The lawyer did fail to come to a complete stop and that is all the sign expected of him: to come to a complete stop. There are other signs that expect drivers to simply slow down but a stop sign has a very plain expectation: to come to a complete stop. The lawyer was wrong for running the sign and he deserved to be punished for his action. Whether he deserved a beating is debatable…
Perhaps that’s the problem with justice in this world. What’s right and fair to one person may be considered wrong and unfair by another person. Some would say that the lawyer deserved a beating while others would argue for simply a fine. And then there would be arguments over the severity of the beating or the fine. What type of beating or fine befits the crime? How is justice fully and appropriately served and who gets to decide and why? The longer you think about it, the more elusive justice becomes. What is right and wrong? Is it right that the lawyer gets beaten? Is it right that the lawyer has skills to argue out of anything? Is it right that the cop is enabled to use force on anyone? Is it right that the lawyer is enabled to run the stop sign in the first place? Is it right that we have cars or stop signs at all? Well, you get the idea, justice is an elusive gift when left in the hands of people. We find ways to disagree with what is right and wrong, fair and unfair. We find ways to disagree with how to make wrongs right and unfairness fair.
Fortunately for us we believe in a just God, a God who always delivers justice regardless of what we think or how we behave. For God, justice is about reclaiming harmony and balance. God wants his creation to exist in harmony and He’ll do whatever it takes to push it back into harmony. God couldn’t care less about fair or unfair, right and wrong. He cares about correcting disharmony and unbalance. In our reading for today, we heard how the people around Amos were falsely worshipping God and this greatly angered our God. He chastised his people for not coming to him in proper praise and thanksgiving. God had Amos speak those familiar words of woe, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Justice, God’s justice, is a cleansing act and a return to harmony. Rolling waters, ever-flowing streams, these are images of washing and purifying, of bringing life back into balance. Right/wrong, fair/unfair…what matters is harmony and balance. The false worshippers were living disharmonious and unbalanced lives and God was helping them reclaim their harmony and balance.
How we discern justice with each other ought to reflect God’s understanding of justice. What brings us back into harmony with each and with all of God’s creation? Proverbs says, “when justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.” (21:15) Justice, true justice, brings about joy which is the state of being in one with God. In God there is true joy. In God there is nothing but love! Through the prophet Isaiah, God says, “for the I Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” (61:8) There’s a reason why God says in our reading for today, “hate evil and love good.” In justice there is goodness and love. God puts his love in his justice. And God wants us to know nothing more than his love for us. God loves us and He wants us to love him and each other! Nothing more, nothing less!
In reflecting on justice this week, I heard how the Native American culture has long held an understanding of justice akin to God’s understanding of it. When one harms another in word or deed, it isn’t enough to simply seek forgiveness through an apology. No, one must also serve through acts of support and kindness. You have to actually work to make their lives better! What a beautiful understanding of atonement…balance and harmony are restored in word and deed! Friends, justice is more than punishment and suffering. It’s restoration for brokenness. David sang, “Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.” (Ps. 106:3) We are just happier in restored relationships! Our God is a God of relationship, with us and with each other. Let us seek his justice for our lives and for all of his creation. Heaven knows it can only help! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen