This sermon is part of the sermon series "Project Hazmat: Handling Today's Tough Topics". See series.
The Story Behind the Sermon (by Bill Haley)
Why is it important to preach on social justice?
It's important to preach on social justice for the simplest of reasons: it's an important and prevalent theme in the Bible. It's almost as simple as "It matters in the Bible, therefore it matters in our preaching." That's justification enough as we want to be faithful to "the whole counsel of God." I would also add that, not only is it a prominent biblical theme with many verses about justice, but also the ramifications of not heeding God's call to justice are significant and quite sobering. So there's a profound pastoral obligation to speak on this.
What were you trying to accomplish in this sermon (and series of sermons) on justice?
We had had many "outreach" sermons and series that emphasized evangelism and personal witness, and we wanted to provide some balance to the message about how we reach out with God's love, that it of course is about our words, and also about our deeds. And like so many other times we try to bring to light other aspects God's heart, we wanted to spend some time on this part of God's heart which hasn't gotten as much air time in many churches. It was important that this wasn't just a one-off sermon.
What are some of the dangers/pitfalls/landmines about preaching on social justice?
One danger is to be unnecessarily political or partisan. Preaching this especially in the Washington D.C. area, it's too easy to alienate a lot of people by equating one party's platform with a biblical position. It's better to be crystal clear on the general principles described in Scripture, and leave policy implications for a different venue.
Is there anything you would do differently?
I was trying to accomplish an awful lot in this sermon, and what got left out (and I knew they would) were a couple illustrations of people finding justice through God's people working for it. That would have made a better sermon.
What advice would you give to other preachers about preaching on social justice?
In the words of the old adage: "You draw more flies with honey than vinegar." A compelling invitation to do justice is much more effective than a tone of obligation or guilting people toward action. At the same time, we want to make the connection between working for justice and our own personal relationship with Jesus—that this matters not only for those who suffer injustice, but also for our own spiritual growth.
This morning I want to begin at the very beginning, at Genesis 1:1—"In the beginning, God created …" everything. In Genesis 1:26-27 we're told the deepest reason God created people: man and woman were made to image God in the world he made. People were made to reveal God, to be like God, to act like God, to take care of everything that God had made and make something of it, and to do this in relationship with God. By this God would be glorified: people on Earth who would reveal his character in the universe.
This is the headwater from which everything else flows. Anything and everything in the Bible, including Jesus, only makes the deepest sense when it starts from that point. People are made in the image of God, and this carries with it two huge implications.
First, every individual matters, every human being—regardless of age, color, gender, creed, class, citizenship, or lifestyle choice—every human being carries the same amount of dignity as everyone else. From the womb you are of infinite value and imbued with infinite dignity, and that's true for anyone who's ever been conceived. This is the first implication of being image bearers, of being walking icons.
The second implication is also massive: we exist to demonstrate who God is, what his character is like, and how he acts. Being made in the image of God makes the marching orders for every human being crystal clear, even more so for the Christian. More than anyone else, those who have been saved by Jesus and filled with his Spirit are to demonstrate the character of God in the world, like Jesus.
God's character and his actions are the foundation of Christian ethics, for how a Christian lives, and we see that again and again in Scripture, throughout the whole Bible. Love, the Bible says. Why? Because God is love. Be merciful, because God is merciful. Forgive, because God forgives. Be holy, because God is holy. Do justice, because God is just.
We talk a lot about the call for Christians to be loving, forgiving, merciful, and holy, and we should, because God is. Today we're talking about Christians doing justice. And we should, because God does justice. We could talk about many Scriptures this morning, but for now let's just look at Psalm 146:7-9:
The LORD executes justice for the oppressed,
[and] gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
If God does justice, God's people get to. It's our calling because it's God's nature, and because of that, God is committed to helping his people live faithfully into our calling. He does this in a couple of ways. One way is through the Bible, another is by raising up prophetic voices, and another is to send the Holy Spirit to put the things on his heart on the hearts of his people. We are living at a moment when all three of these things are actually converging, and God has been putting his heart for justice on our hearts in a new and fresh and powerful way.
The new wave of social justice
In the last 30 years, we've been a beneficiary of what God's been doing in the evangelical church—putting on our screen what's on his screen. Our church has had a role in this, in many ways. One of them is when Gary Haugen and a few other our church members launched the International Justice Mission in the mid-90s. In an article written Books and Culture titled "The Church on a Justice Mission," Amy Sherman reflects on how the whole evangelical landscape has changed since Gary Haugen and his team launched IJM. Sherman writes:
Looking back to the mid-1990s, when IJM was being dreamt up, Haugen recalls, "there was no teaching on this. I'd heard thousands of sermons by then in my Christian life and not one on justice. There were no books …. Today, Haugen asserts, "the obstacles of going into the church and speaking about injustice have been almost entirely removed from mainstream evangelicalism." God has a plan for fighting injustice in the world, Haugen often says, and "it's us." That message has resonated, and he is excited that "there's a whole generation of young Christians for whom the Gospel in the absence of justice is just not interesting or compelling or tolerable."
The Christian press is picking up on this sea of change. Around the same time, Time Magazine observed the very same trend about justice and put it in a long article: "A remarkable cultural shift has taken place [over the past decade] among young Evangelicals that has surprised even longtime observers." One of the longtime observers was our own Mike Cromartie, who they quoted in the article. He chalks up some of it to the continuing crumbling of the wall that divides the secular and the sacred.
We live in exciting times in the church. God is up to a lot; some we can see, and more we cannot see yet. We are recovering a sense of God's heart for the poor and for people on the margins and for those who are the victims of injustice. And that God is making this movement happen is mercy on his part.
The biblical basis for social justice
In the Old Testament, when God's people had forgotten their calling to reveal God's character through their words and through their deeds, God sent prophets with bracing messages. But their messages were also full of promise of blessing—blessings for the hearers and blessings for the world. That's exactly what we see going on in Isaiah 58.
Isaiah was written 700 years before Jesus, over a period of several decades when the Jewish people were divided between two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Northern Kingdom had already been judged by God and taken into exile. Why were they judged? Simply, the Northern Kingdom was judged because they had broken their fundamental agreement with God. There were three manifestations or effects of the breaking of this covenant that infuriated God. The first one was idolatry, the second one was infanticide related to idolatry, and the third thing was not caring for people the way God did or the way God had told them to.
So Isaiah was called by God to speak his words of warning to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, because they were doing the same things as the north. God sent Isaiah to say, "Turn back before the same thing happens to you, before you get judged and go into exile." And it is this third egregious offense before God—tolerating injustice and not showing compassion—that is discussed in Isaiah 58. There are three major sections of this chapter: the problem (verses 1-5) , the instructions (verses 6-10), and the promises (verses 10-14).
It's not a quiet word to God's people, or one said softly or gently. Verse 1 says, "Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression." In other words, "Listen up, God's people. This matters." The first five verses describe a simple problem. The Jews were doing a good job in their private devotional practices and in their corporate practice of observing the sacred fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. But they did this while they oppressed their workers and while they were fighting with one another. They wondered why God wasn't hearing their prayers. Well, God wasn't hearing their prayers because he wanted their obedience.
God says in 1 Samuel 15:22, "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice." And then to put a finer point on it, Proverbs 21:3 says, "To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice." In other words, the devotion that God wants includes our deeds done on behalf of other people. Without those deeds, our devotion is suspect, and our piety and personal spirituality don't matter very much. In fact, they frustrate God. It makes him mad. 700 years later, God was still mad in Matthew 23:23, as we see Jesus say to the religiously conservative Jewish leaders of his day: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."
But as we see in our passage this morning, God is merciful, and he's patient, and he does not abandon his people, even when his people missed his heart even though they should have known better. Once again, he tells them what to do, what he wants, and what he expects. This is in verses 6-10. John Piper arranges the list here helpfully, so I'm going to use his categories this morning. He distills these things into five different human needs that God is concerned about.
First, we see the need for freedom from bondage and oppression. So four times in verse 6 and in verse 9 you see this. "Loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the straps of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke." And, "Take away the yoke from your midst." Second, God is concerned about the need for food. Verse 7 says, "Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?" The third need is the need for housing. Verse 7 continues, "Is it not … to bring the homeless poor into your house?" The fourth category is the need for clothing. Verse 7 again: "Is not this the fast I choose: when you see the naked, to cover him?" And the fifth category is the need for respect. Verse 9 says, "Take away … the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness." In other words, Piper says, "Stop accusing unjustly and belittling and exploiting." This last one is really important for us right now in our country, to treat people with respect.
The practice of social justice
God's people, more than anyone else, should be concerned with freedom from oppression in its myriad forms, with making sure people have enough to eat, a place to live, and clothes to wear, and to treat others with dignity and respect. God's heart is broad, so this is a very broad list. From Isaiah 58 and the rest of Scripture we see that God's desire for the righteousness and justice of his people touches on many of the things we encounter in our own world today. John Stott has helped the evangelical church see this through his writing, specifically on this topic of the Christian's obligation to social concern. I want to quote him this morning from a little tome he wrote on the crucifixion called The Cross of Christ. It's a long quote, but worth reading:
The cross is a revelation of God's justice as well as of his love. That is why the community of the cross should concern itself with social justice as well as with loving philanthropy. It is never enough to have pity on the victims of injustice, if we do nothing to change the unjust situation itself. Good Samaritans will always be needed to succor those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands. Just so Christian philanthropy in terms of relief and aid is necessary, but long-term development is better, and we cannot evade our political responsibility to share in changing the structures which inhibit development. Christians cannot regard with equanimity the injustices which spoil God's world and demean his creatures. Injustice must bring pain to the God whose justice flared brightly at the cross; it should bring pain to God's people too. Contemporary injustices take many forms. They are international (the invasion and annexation of foreign territory), political (the subjugation of minorities), legal (the punishment of untried and un-sentenced citizens), racial (the humiliating discrimination against people on the ground of race or color), economic (the toleration of gross North-South inequality and of the traumas of poverty and unemployment), sexual (the oppression of women), educational (the denial of equal opportunity for all) or religious (the failure to take the gospel to the nations).
Stott's book is 20 years old. Os Guinness and I were talking this week about how this relates to us contemporarily. What are some of the things in our context today that call us to apply principles of biblical justice? They're many, we agreed, and they include immigration issues, sanctity of life issues, access to healthcare and fair wages, right remuneration at every level of a business, fairness to those who produce what we consume, access to education, food security, and human trafficking. And there's more, no doubt. Frankly, I imagine most of us are confronted every day by people and situations and issues that, if we reflected on them, are actually issues of justice. This world is a broken place, in real time, with real impact on real people. So Stott continues:
Love and justice combine to [address] all these situations. If we love people, we shall be concerned to secure their basic rights as human beings, which is also the concern of justice. The community of the cross, which has truly absorbed the message of the cross, will always be motivated to action by the demands of justice and love.
The definition of social justice
The word "justice" is a hard one to get at, isn't it? It's so big; it touches so much. In the Old Testament, the word for justice, mitzpat, is so intertwined with the word for righteousness, tsadiq, that they often appear in inseparable tandem, and it's not unusual for translations to render both words in either way, depending on the context, depending on the translator.
It's important to clarify what we mean by "justice," to study the Bible, to study others who have thought hard and biblically about it, like Gary Haugen or Tim Keller. In your sermon notes, I've given you two ways of getting at a definition for justice. They're in line with what John Stott is saying.
My definition is,
Rooted in God's character and in response to the inherit dignity in every person made in the image of God, justice happens when all people may experience 'life to the full' because individuals and systems ensure that everyone has unhindered access to the required basic necessities of the life that God intends for human beings—including food, water, emotional and physical health, shelter, education, protection, and access to Truth. Because we live in a fallen world, justice requires that the weak are protected, victims compensated, and the guilty are redemptively punished, so that things that are wrong may be made right.
Tim Keller's definition is,
We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the rightings of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealings with people, to regular, radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression.
Maybe we could simply say that justice is "doing what is right for people and righting the wrongs that have been done to people." How in the world do we know what's right? We can ask, "What would a loving, holy, merciful, compassionate, forgiving, just God do?" When we have a good answer to that question, we'll know what justice looks like.
But of course the point of clarifying what we mean by "justice" is not so that we will have a clean definition. No, it's so we will know what to do, and so we will be compelled to live in that way and lead people to know the love and the character of God.
The blessings of social justice
When we do what God tells us, especially in regard to how we treat people on the margins and exercise compassion and advocate for their justice, they will be blessed. Yet here is what is so beautiful about Isaiah 58: when we pursue justice and righteousness, we're blessed, too.
When God's people live and love like him, we receive wonderful blessings. As you look at these blessings, ponder your own church and lives. Here are blessings for the world, for ourselves, for those places and people that need blessing. So let's just walk through this. Notice what happens when we obey God and put justice into practice:
Your light will shine in the midst of darkness.
Your healing will happen when you least expect it.
Your God-likeness will be your reputation.
Everything that God is will protect you.
God will hear your prayers quickly, and come.
Again, the Bible says, your light will shine.
The places of your darkness will feel lighter.
God will guide you, every step.
You'll find satisfaction even in desolate places.
You'll be strong on the inside.
You'll be as lush as a well-watered garden, beautiful, fruitful.
You'll be bountiful, overflowing.
Things that are ruined will be rebuilt.
Strong foundations for those who come after us will be built.
You'll be given new names of honor: restorer, repairer.
I once had a long conversation with a dear, longtime friend, a woman of means who again and again expressed frustration with her life and the various complexities that came with her lifestyle. I finally said to her—in truth, love, and gentleness—"You know Janet, your problems come with wealth. I think you need to get involved with some folks who are poor so you can hear what their problems are. I think that'll help you." And she did—boy, did she! She dove into a ministry downtown that works with addicts in the district, and she got to know the people who found themselves there for a lot of different reasons. Almost all of them came from drastically different backgrounds from her. None of them had what she had to start out with. She made many new friends, and she learned an awful lot, and she threw the energy of her angst into some special projects of great dignity with the folks she had come to know. She will tell you it was one of the most meaningful things in her life. Most of her circumstances didn't change, but she did. Things didn't feel as hard as they had felt before.
Gary Haugen again reflects on this:
Churches are finding not only that their witness is strengthened through their justice work, but also that the effects of the justice mission can be as dramatic for the rescuers as for the rescued. Certainly the work of justice brings marvelous rescue and joy to the victims of injustice, but God wants his people to know that the work of justice benefits the people who do it as well. It is a means of rescue not only for the powerless but also for the powerful who otherwise waste away in a world of triviality and fear.
In verse 13, all of a sudden, God is talking about the Sabbath. Why would Sabbath show up here, when so much of this passage has been about action and about other people? It makes all the sense in the world. The whole chapter is about God's people acting like God on God's behalf. Why do we take time to rest? Why is God so insistent about Sabbath throughout Scripture? You already know the answer: because it's in the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20. God took a Sabbath when he was finished with creation. We keep Sabbath because God did. Isaiah 58 is about justice, it's about mercy, it's about peace, and it's about Sabbath. Isaiah 58 is about who God is, what God's shalom looks like, and what that means for us and for God's people in a broken world.
And it is broken, and it's going to stay broken until Christ comes back to make it right. We're not going to make it into the kingdom of God on our own effort. We need help. The world will be broken until Jesus returns to make it right, to make us fully righteous, and to do all justice. We are not going to make the world fully into the place of God's complete shalom. But until then, in the meantime, we work for that shalom as a way of preparing for his coming and the fullness of his kingdom, as a way of letting people know that God loves them, and as the way God makes his presence known and reveals himself in the world. How does God do his work in the world today? I'm looking at it: us.
So, what do we do? First, so many of you are likely working for justice in your work, and that matters. That counts. I'm thinking specifically of politicians and staff. I'm talking about lawyers and judges, and law enforcers, storytellers, relief and development workers, and volunteers. God bless you all in the work that God has given you to do.
This is a great time—it doesn't matter how much you've thought about this—this is a great time for all of us to look at God's heart for justice afresh, to learn what it means for each one of us, specifically. If you haven't already, use this month to come up with your informed, biblical definition of justice.
In the meantime, let us ask God to show us in our own spheres of influence where injustice might be happening to people and how justice needs to be done for people. And let us pray. Let us discern how we can act, for the people God loves, in the power of God, because we are the people of God, saved by God to be like God and act like God, as it was always meant to be, from the very beginning. Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.
Bill Haley serves as the Associate Rector at The Falls Church, and Director of Formation with The Washington Institute, and Director of The Peregrine Group