Establish Justice at the City Gate

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
November 12, 2017

Amos 1: 1-2; 5: 14-15, 21-24 (CEB)
These are the words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa. He perceived these things concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, in the days of Judah’s King Uzziah and in the days of Israel’s King Jeroboam, Joash’s son.

2He said: The Lord roars from Zion. He shouts from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds wither, and the top of Carmel dries up.

14Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of heavenly forces, will be with you just as you have said. 15Hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the city gate. Perhaps the Lord God of heavenly forces will be gracious to what is left of Joseph.

21I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. 22If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. 23Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

A week or so ago, Ken, Mary Ellen, Owen, and I were relaxing at home late one afternoon. Mary Ellen had some special event at school that morning, and then we had run several errands. It was a pretty dreary day, so we all plopped down on the couch with our various devices to just have some “down-time.” Ken and I were reading, Mary Ellen was watching a movie on her tablet, and Owen was watching something different on Ken’s tablet. Everyone was pretty content in their own little world, but eventually the time came that we needed to move on and head out again. Ken and I started to talk to Mary Ellen and Owen about what needed to be happening in that moment, but it was like talking to a fence post. The two were completely absorbed in what was happening on the screens in front of them. Ken managed to get them to look his way at one point and gave them some direction, but in no time, they were back to their shows, and the next thing I heard Ken say was, “And suddenly, no one is paying any attention to me!” The kids were there, but at the same time, they weren’t. They were physically present, but not mentally engaged with what was going on around them.

I’m sure you all have had similar experiences. I know I’m guilty of sometimes being present but not really aware of what’s going on around me. I know there are times when I get absorbed in something to a point of distraction. We get to reading the morning paper and miss the important question from the spouse about the day ahead. Or we pick our kids up from school every day, and every day we have the same conversation, “How was your day?” “Fine.” “What did you do today?” “Nothing.” Each of us has these times in our lives when our level of engagement in what is happening around us is little to nothing. Or we have seen it in others around us. And this happens for all sorts of reasons; we could be distracted, or it might be that we are doing something so familiar that we are just going through the motions without even thinking about what is happening.

This morning, we move to look at some of the Old Testament prophecies. We begin this week with Amos. We will also spend some time in Ezekiel and Jeremiah. So before we go too much further, I want to say one thing about Biblical prophets. We often think of the prophets as people who made predictions about the future, but that’s not really an accurate depiction of the role of the Biblical prophets. Prophets are not “foretellers” of the future; rather, they are what might be called “forth-tellers.” They speak forth to the people the truth, the reality of their present situation. Often, this involved the prophets identifying some area or areas where the people were presently failing to follow God’s commands and remain faithful to God’s covenant. Any predictions about the future typically came only as a warning related to the present bad behavior of the people. So, the general pattern of the prophets was to say something along the lines of, “Because you are doing this, God will do this.” Or, “Because you are NOT doing this, God will do this.” So more than predicting the future, the prophets worked to address the problems of the present. And that was certainly true for Amos.

Ken told me this week that he had a seminary professor who referred to Amos as “a tobacco farmer from Alabama.” I guess that’s because Amos was a shepherd and a fig farmer from Tekoa in the Southern Kingdom. Even though he was from the South, Amos prophesied about the Northern Kingdom. And he didn’t mince words about the problems among the people there. As we hear Amos’ words this morning, what becomes clear to me is that the people were disconnected. They were going through the motions, but they weren’t really engaged.

Through Amos, God tells the people, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.” That’s pretty harsh, isn’t it? But without losing the impact of God’s words we have to understand exactly what God is saying here. God says he hates the festivals and the entirely burned offerings, but that doesn’t mean God hates worship. In fact, as we know, God commands worship! Instead, what God is saying is that he hates this empty worship. God hates that the people aren’t truly engaging, they are just going through the motions. God is not pleased with anything less than authentic worship, and what the people are doing is not authentic worship! Authentic worship is so much more than attending festivals or bringing a sacrifice to the altar. Authentic worship is so much more than reciting prayers or singing songs. True, authentic worship is to work for justice and righteousness. So worship is something that happens here, but it is also something that happens beyond these walls; worship is a part of our lives as we work to establish justice and righteousness out in the world, in the town squares, at the city gates, in our workplaces, and schools, and so on.

So what exactly does Amos mean when he talks about establishing justice at the city gates and letting righteousness flow like an ever-flowing stream? Every prophet spoke about justice and righteousness in slightly different ways. The best way to get an understanding of Amos is to go back and look at chapter 2 of his prophecy. There Amos names some of the injustices he sees among the people of Israel. They haven’t kept the Lord’s commandments, they have sold the innocent into slavery for basically nothing, they have crushed the poor and afflicted, there is sexual and drunken debauchery. So what it comes down to is these people are coming and worshipping God on the Sabbath day, and then every other day, they are out in the world defiling the name of God, doing whatever they feel like doing, stomping on the poor and the outcast, taking advantage of the very people God has commanded them to care for.

You know, as we hear these words from Amos this morning, it’s so easy for us to nod our heads in affirmation. “Yes! Yes! Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” But are we really considering the message that Amos is delivering? We might even go a step further. “You tell ‘em, Amos!” After all, what is worship if it is just one hour of one day once a week? Amos has a point there, for sure. But what about us? Does God look at our worship and see the same empty, disengaged behavior? Does God despise our worship, too, because it is completely separate from everything else that happens in our lives? Is our worship authentic, or is it empty?

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years about creating “authentic” worship experiences. Many churches have spent a lot of money on high dollar sound equipment and lighting to create the so-called perfect atmosphere for truly authentic worship to happen. But that’s not true worship, friends, it’s just not. We need to hear that loud and clear from Amos this morning. If we are not spending every moment of every day following God’s commands, looking out for God’s people (which is all people, by the way), and caring especially for the outcasts and the poor, then we are not truly worshipping!

You know, when I hear these words from Amos, when I think about what they mean, my initial thought is: “Boy, that sounds so complicated.” It’s so much easier to just show up at worship on Sunday mornings. Isn’t that good enough? I mean, after all, simply showing up to worship regularly is better than about 80% of the population. But that’s not good enough. Seeking God is tied up with seeking good, God’s goodness, in the world. God, who has given all of himself to us through the sacrifice of his Son, asks so much more of us than one hour a week. We have to give of ourselves too. We have to work for God’s righteousness and justice in the world. We have to show genuine love for our enemy and our neighbor, which means working to make things right, righteous, for everyone. As God seeks to make justice flow down like waters and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream, God calls us to do nothing less than to “establish justice at the city gates.”

I want us to think for just a minute about what it might mean today to “establish justice at the city gate,” what Amos might tell us to do if he stepped into our 21st century world. I think Amos would tell us to work for the abundant life that God desires for all people. I think Amos would tell us to speak out against gun violence and to find a way to end it. I think Amos would tell us to work on making healthcare accessible to all, especially the poor. I think Amos would implore us to do more to house the homeless and feed the hungry. I believe Amos would urge us to reach across all the walls that divide us, to grab the hand of our neighbor and our enemy, and to journey together, even work together.

Indeed, it all sounds very complicated. But I believe God’s promises are true. And I believe that if each of us who claims the name Christian were to take Amos’ words seriously and to truly worship not only in word but in deed, then amazing things will happen. I think if we can all take our worship out into the world and work to “establish justice at the city gate,” then we will one day see “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
To end, I’m going to read part of this passage again, but this time from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message. “Seek good and not evil—and live! You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, being your best friend. Well, live like it, and maybe it will happen…“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

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