Today we continue our 4 week series entitled God of Justice looking at God’s heart for justice in the world, his desire for us to move our worship out into the world, and how our hearts should break with the things that break God’s heart. And one of the things we definitely know is that God has a heart for justice (last week in Isaiah 61 we read these words, “For I, the Lord, love justice”), and that injustice in the world breaks his heart.
Today we are looking at Amos 5:21-24 but before we get into the text that we are looking at, we are going to do some background on the prophet Amos, what lead to it’s writing, and what he was speaking out against.
Amos was a prophet, who was a shepherd and a fig tree farmer before God’s call on his life. He preached around 750 BC and was a contemporary to Isaiah and Hosea. He was from the southern Kingdom of Judah but preached in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Both Judah and Israel were enjoying great prosperity and reached new political and military heights. It was also a time of idolatry, extravagant indulgence in luxurious living, immodesty, corruption of judicial procedures and oppression of the poor. He spoke a lot about the widening gap between the very wealthy and the very poor and his major themes in the book that bears his name are social justice, God’s omnipotence, and his divine judgment.
With that background let’s turn to Amos 5:21-24 and see what it might have for us today in our world almost 3,000 years later. Amos 5:21-24 says, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
So God through the prophet Amos is confronting the people of God, the Israelites, regarding their communal life together. He is confronting them in relation to their religious practices. God points out that He isn’t looking for an abundance of religious practice. No, what he is really looking for is his people working for justice in the world. Religious ritual and practice aren’t enough. I’m not saying that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting and worship aren’t needed and that God doesn’t care for them. No, what I am saying, as Amos is saying, is that God wants our internal lives to match our external lives and that our worship, prayer, and fasting should lead to acts of right living, right action, and working for justice in the world.
In verse 21 we read this, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.” Wow. Talk about harsh sounding. Amos was in the midst of a culture, as I mentioned before, that was steeped in religious tradition, religious practice, religious systems, and religious rules and regulations. But all the religious traditions, religious systems and religious practices didn’t lead to a better or more just world. The people who were caught up in the religious system still went out, after participating in worship and other religious practices and oppressed their workers, the poor, and others. And God saw right through the religious veneer of these people and to their heart. That is the reason that God through the voice of Amos is saying that he hates their religious festivals and assemblies.
Here was the people of God, the Israelites, living out the faith that was handed down to them for probably thousands of years. Religious rituals, festivals, assemblies and ways of relating to God that generations had followed before. So Amos comes along and says that God despises their religious assemblies and festivals. And the people loved it and welcomed Amos and his message with open arms….or not. It isn’t a surprise then to realize that this message would have offended those who would have heard it. I can almost hear the voices and responses now…”But isn’t this what you wanted from us. Isn’t this the type of religious “system” that you wanted from us? Isn’t this how we are to have a relationship with you? Why do you despise what you initiated?” But before we can get an answer to those questions, Amos continues on telling the people what God is seeing in their engagement with him and with those win the world.
Amos continues speaking the voice of God to the people of Israel when he says, “Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” Everything that the people of God prided themselves on. Their religious sacrificial system. There religious festivals. Their songs of worship. All of these religious things that the people of God did, that they thought God wanted from them, was actually getting in the way of what God actually wanted. What Amos is getting at here is that God doesn’t care about good worship, or good theology if justice doesn’t accompany them. He is saying that all of these things that the people were doing were actually being rejected by him. That they were a stench to him because they didn’t move from worship and engagement with Him out into the world to be about the work of the Kingdom of God in the world. Yes they “worshipped” and “prayed” and did all the religious rituals, and then when they went out into the world, their religious rituals didn’t translate into loving of their neighbors, caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.
What does God want then? If the people’s religious rituals (their festivals, their worship, their prayers, etc..) were a stench to him then what is worship that he would accept? Verse 24 answers this question. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” So we know that it really wasn’t Israel’s religious practices per se that was the problem. It was the fact that these religious practices didn’t lead the people into acts of justice and righteousness. Religious activities without justice and righteousness are abhorrent to Yahweh. Moreover, the righteous and justice acts he demands are not the intermittent kind showing up here or there. But the constant kind that rolls down like waters and is an ever-flowing stream. The people of Israel (and by definition those who seek to follow Him) would find them (and us) trying to fight the very God they are worshipping. If our acts of worship, prayer, etc.. aren’t in tandem with acts of justice and righteousness, then the river of God will wash over us. And we will find ourselves struggling against the current of God’s river of justice. We will actually be trying to go upstream, fighting the current, and going in the wrong direction. God calls us to lift our feet off the bottom of the stream, turn around, and be led by his Spirit, into the world as the hands and feet of Jesus, working for justice and righteousness all around us. To live justice, the way things should be.
It is a reoccurring theme within all the prophets: God resists religious expressions that separate orthodoxy (right beliefs) from orthopraxy (right actions). Isaiah complains about Sabbath observances disconnected from care for the needy (Isaiah 58). Joel calls for God's people to rend their hearts, not their garments (Joel 2:13). Micah reminds us of what God's final requirements are: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). These prophetic calls in no way diminish creed and liturgy in the life of the church: those rubrics which give us the very grammar we need to worship God. But it does demand that creed, liturgy and practice all be brought together in an inexorable bond under the umbrella of our ecclesial head, Jesus Christ.
Put another way..if our orthodoxy (right belief) doesn’t lead to orthopraxy (right action) that it isn’t really orthodoxy. If all of our religious beliefs, practices, rituals, systems, events, theology, etc…don’t lead to justice and righteousness then they are really a huge waste of time and God doesn’t get any praise, joy, worthship, etc.. out of it. I would say that if we aren’t engaged in acts of seeking to make this world a more just, fair, and right world, then God would also not want us to worship Him at all. God wants holistic individuals and communities who see worship, prayer, fasting, etc.. and justice, mercy, blessing going hand in hand with each other. They are not separated from each other. We don’t need worship Christians and Justice Christians. We need followers of Jesus whose worship and prayer sometimes looks like “worship” and “prayer” and sometimes their “worship” and “prayer” looks like feeding the hungry, standing up for the poor and oppressed, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and needy, and living out the life of the sheep found in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.
The river of God’s justice is flowing out of his throne and into the world. Just as plants and animal life flourish where there is water, so humanity flourishes where there is justice and righteousness. God is asking us to jump into this river of justice and righteousness. To wade deep into his water. To go with His flow (His Spirit) into places which need the waters of life and justice. Where the water of God’s love, grace, mercy, righteousness, and justice will heal, restore, renew, and grow. Where human life will be able to flourish and be the way things are supposed to be.
Are we worshipping God on Sunday morning but not working for justice during the week? Are we doing the external acts of worship and prayer and other spiritual practices yet not getting to the deeper matters of mercy, justice, and righteousness. (Matthew 23:23…
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Are we going against the flow of God’s river of justice and righteousness?
How can you and I do a better job of combining our worship and prayer with our justice work? Or better yet how can we do a better job of seeing our prayer and worship as worship and prayer but also see the things we do that work for justice and against injustice in the world as prayer and worship as well? How can we be holistic followers of Jesus who serve the poor, oppressed and needy out of our connection with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit? How can we be Justice and Worship Christians, where our worship and prayer leads us into justice work. And where our justice work leads us into worship and prayer?
Let’s spend some time dialoguing around these issues raised in Amos 5 as well as the message. Let’s talk about what it looks like to be holistic in our worship and justice work. And let’s talk about what it might look like for you and I to jump into God’s river of justice and righteousness and go along with the flow of the river and see where we might end up.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc.. do you have about Amos 5:21-24 and/or the message?
2. Has religious practices ever gotten in the way of God’s justice in the world? How can our worship lead us into justice work and how can our justice work lead us into worship?
3. How can you and I let the river of God’s justice and righteousness flow through us? What might it look like for Veritas to jump into the river together?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?