2. Let justice roll down
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Let us pray. Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The entire forty-plus years of preparation for pastoral ministry and then actually being on the job have been marked by various levels of push and pull, to and fro, action and reaction all around the subject of worship.
The Canadian Baptist Hymnal was introduced during my second year as a student at McMaster Divinity College. An exchange, remembered vividly, gives a hint into the sort of debate that has often accompanied worship in these past four decades. In 1963, the English poet and folksinger, Sydney Carter, wrote a song entitled “Lord of the dance.” It was immediately popular and by the time our Hymnal was being published, “Lord of the dance” was being sung by youth groups and many adventurous churches all over the English-speaking world.
Which led to a question. At a workshop held at McMaster to introduce the students to the new hymnal, a younger member of the group asked why “Lord of the dance” had not been included. The hymnal’s editor said it was an easy decision—we couldn’t afford the copyright fee. This produced a round of applause from one older member of that day’s audience who loudly proclaimed he wanted nothing to do with any song or hymn that associated Jesus with dancing. It’s a tricky business making sure that we get worship right.
The prophet Amos doesn’t think worship is being done right among God’s people. “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” (Amos 5:21–24, The Message).
There is a danger with this text, that we will not treat it with the care it deserves. Those like me who lean in the direction of tradition are quick to point out that it is not festivals and solemn assemblies themselves that are criticized but rather the failure to pursue justice and live in the right way as a result of worship that falls under the withering condemnation of God. Of course, those who long to throw out every tradition come to the opposite conclusion, believing that ritual cannot help but bring worshippers to a place of comfort with what is and an unwillingness to rock the ecclesiastical boat. Alas for those who are at ease in Zion… (Amos 6:1).
There are two things that I think almost beg to be spoken from our text on this particular day. The first has to do with wanting to get things right in worship. This is a difficult conversation in which to engage because no one who plans worship seeks to get it wrong. From the Dean of St. James Cathedral to the young church planter who sets out the stacking chairs in a new store-front mission, every pastor and musician wants to get it right when worship is planned; but there is no standard definition of what is right.
This morning is a great example. One of the things that I want to do when I plan a baptismal service is connect what we are doing with the ancient church. The person being baptized this morning, Gillian Marshall, is a thoroughly modern young adult. One of the realities of Gillian’s world is the pace of change. I am likely the worst person here today to speak of this aspect of life. I still find it amazing that just after 1 p.m. today I can turn a switch in my car and hear the description of the Blue Jays’ game from Tampa. And if I don’t like what’s happening in the ball game, with another push of a button I can listen to classical music.
Gillian, on the other hand, has always had access to her music in the palm of her hand. She likely doesn’t find the radio to be all that amazing. Gillian would probably be amused by my use of electronics. She is too polite to laugh at the fact that I think e-mail is revolutionary. Gillian and I will simply need to accept the fact that I don’t understand why anyone would have the latest and greatest mobile telephone and rarely use it for that purpose—texting is what most kids of Gill’s generation do. At least I think that’s the latest thing; in fact at the point when I know about something is usually six months after it has become passé.
The point being, I want Gillian to know, I want all of you to know, that in Baptism we are connecting Gillian with practices that are almost two thousand years old. This is not something to be eclipsed by a new update; for hundreds of years, in thousands of churches, millions of new Christians have renounced Satan and all his works and turned in commitment to Jesus Christ, trusting in the power of his resurrection and giving themselves to the work of his kingdom.
It is also to connect with the ancient church that those who are baptized are anointed with oil before leaving the baptistry. Before worship ends today Gillian will be given a stole, another connection with the church across the centuries. For me that connection with the ancient church is part of doing the right thing in worship.
Yet, I am sure those who heard the Word of God in the voice of Amos thought they too were doing things right. Take a look again at our text. The language attributed to God is sharp. I hate, I despise your festivals. One scholar points out that God uses sensory language to express his displeasure. “God holds his nose, shuts his eyes, and plugs his ears!” In other words God wants nothing to do with the worship that is being offered. God’s displeasure, however, has nothing to do with the worship forms. No doubt the ritual was correct, and God despised it.
What sort of time was this in the life of God’s people? Historians tell us that Amos spoke God’s word to a people who were enjoying both prosperity and security. The opening verse of the book of Amos identifies the time of his ministry, during the reign of King Uzziah in Judah and King Jeroboam in Israel. Jeroboam had restored Israel’s borders to the dimensions of the kingdom during the glorious days of Solomon. Neither Egypt nor Syria was interfering with Israel and Assyria was under the leadership of three weak rulers who were occupied with domestic matters during these years. It is a time of affluence and peace. Why does God’s prophet insist that something is wrong when every appearance is that everything is right?
The answer is simple. “Religion had become a matter of solemn gatherings, sumptuous feasts, sacrifices, and singing, nothing more. The soul had gone out of it. There was no communion with the Holy One, only a commotion at the holy place” (Limburg, James, Hosea—Micah, Interpretation Commentary, 105). Here is the vital thing we need to understand: God rejects the worship of his people not because the form is incorrect but because there was no connection between the ritual and reality. If a worshipper does not truly seek justice and peace in every relationship then God says there is no evidence that you have truly sought my purposes and me in your worship—you have merely gone through the motions.
Amos uses what I find to be a striking image. It comes just a little before our text in chapter five and I think helps to clarify what God wants from his people. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate (Amos 5:15). “Cities in ancient Israel were surrounded by rectangular walls. At the point where the walls met there would be an overlap of perhaps forty feet, with the walls roughly that same distance apart, thus leaving a square between an outer and inner gate (Ibid., 105, 106). This “square” is the place where the court of the city was held and this is the place where justice is being perverted and the poor are being exploited (Amos 5:10–12). I think what God is saying through the prophet is something like this: if you are truly seeking my presence in your life, when you go from the place of worship to the world in which you live the other six days of the week, you will bring my concern for justice to every place in that world. Not just in church but also in the public square.
Gillian has done something for all us today. Baptism for Baptists is an act of witness. It is an outward, physical expression of an inward, spiritual commitment. Because of that each one of us here has the opportunity to reflect on what it is we are doing in our lives to live out our spiritual commitments. When John Wesley was 86 years old he wrote a sermon that he was planning to preach in Dublin. He died before preaching that sermon but one of the things he was going to say was, “There can be no holiness but social holiness.”
Here then is the bottom line. Was the baptism done right today? Was the music done right? Was the praying done right? The liturgy was right, the singing was right, the communion with God was right if Gillian and the rest of us go from here ready to let the justice and righteousness of God flow from worship through our lives to the world.