A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

Kali Gandaki River by Radosław Kut

Pentecost 23A 2017
Rev. Doug Floyd

King Jereboam II leads Israel in a series of military victories, giving the nation control trade routes and access to great wealth. Overnight, the people enjoy a long-awaited prosperity that seems to come from the hand of God. Some of the people grow incredibly wealthy and build such large homes that they are like palaces or fortresses. Many own an additional summer home for vacationing. They are enjoying the best of life: wine, oil, music, and rich foods. The Northern tribes of Israel and the Southern tribes of Judah are at peace. The kingdom of God seems at hand.

Amos, a farmer from the South appears with a word from the Lord. He prophecies a coming judgment for their surrounding enemies: Damascus, Gaza, Edom, Tyre, the Ammonites, and Moab. All these tribes had been at war with the people of God across the centuries. This judgment seems to indicate that the promised Day of the Lord was finally at hand. The people could only delight in such a word that confirms God’s blessing and favor upon them. But Amos continues: judgment is coming to Judah because they’ve abandoned the Law of the Lord. A fire is coming that will devour the strongholds of Judah.

Judgment is also coming to Israel for oppressing the poor and vulnerable both financially and sexually. The strong will be completely broken and impoverished. At one point he declares,

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,…(5:18)

It is a day of darkness and gloom. The Lord has spoken in the mouth of Amos and declared that the holy feast of worship is a mockery and that the worship of the people is noise and the Lord will not listen. Amos sings out,

24    But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:24)

This image of justice rolling down like waters is an image of a flood that suddenly turns the trickling stream of wadi into a roaring river. This cry for justice still resounds today.

As we enter the final weeks of the church year, the themes of justice, God as Judge, and the end of the world all shape our readings from Scripture. From Pentecost until Christ the King Sunday, the role of the church in the world is primary focus on the lectionary. Again and again, we are confronted with texts that challenge us to consider our role as the people of God in the world.

This word justice is a bit loaded. Whose justice? Human attempts at justice often result on a different kind of oppression. Eric Hoffer used to tell the story of the prophet who railed against the injustices of the kingdom. The king tried to silence him, lock him, remove him. His cry for justice continued to ring out. Eventually, the king was overthrown and the prophet was made king. His first order of duty was to kill off all the other would be prophets.

Justice can sometimes look like another form of oppression. In Lois Lowry’s tale The Giver, we experience a just world. A controlled world. A repressed world. A dehumanized world.

Augustine thought deeply about the challenge of justice in the world. He raises questions about the peace of Rome as he considers the history and violence that has dominated this culture. How can the people of God be just? It begins by turning to the Lord. We are images of God and we are made to reflect his glory in the world. We are also prone to sin. Even as we behold the Lord, we behold our sinful hearts. This vision is convicting and healing. It is the beginning of a journey into the light and love or God.

Prayer and worship prepare us to look honestly at ourselves and other, and this becomes a key step toward justice. But Augustine also realizes that our attempts at building the kingdom still have flaws, so we must always remember the incomplete nature of our mission here. We are working in hope toward a city not made by hands. We must avoid a blind triumphalism that assumes we are ushering the kingdom. For this often turns into yet another form of oppression. At the same time, we are not to live passively without caring the needy in our world.

Timothy George suggests that “The Christian attitude toward history is neither arrogant self-reliance (“We can make it on our own”) nor indifference (“It doesn’t matter what we do anyway”), but hope—the hope that radiates from a messy manger, a ruddy tree, and an empty tomb.”[1] We might call this a “humble expectancy.” We serve and work toward hope, knowing that in his time Christ will make all things right.

Our Gospel reading today is about living toward hope. There are ten virgins waiting to meet the bridegroom, but five took no oil for their lamps. They were not prepared to watch and wait on a bridegroom, on a kingdom that may seem delayed. Five virgins who were prepared to watch and wait lived in hope. Their lamps burned deep into the night as they waited for the coming bridegroom.

Living and moving by hope, our lamps are burning deep in the night, looking toward the faithfulness of God. Paulinus of Pella learned to walk in hope in a dark and dying age. His grandfather Ausonius has tutored the young Emperor Gratian in mid-fourth century. This renown led a life of wealth and privilege. Ausonius was a Christian, but his journals indicate he is most proud of his Roman citizenship. Paulinus was born in 376 late in the life of his grandfather and in the life of Rome. It’s former glory was already beginning to fade in Paulinus’s youth.

His family arranged his marriage, and at eighteen Paulineus married a wealthy woman and managed her estates. The world around began to crumble. His father died. Marauding tribes from the Rhineland invaded. His house was pillaged. Eventually he lost much of his property. In the world of violence turmoil, he experienced once loss after another. His sons were killed and his wife died. By the time of death at age 83, he was reduced to poverty. This once wealthy landowner and son of a powerful family lived through a time of turmoil and lost almost everything. Not everything.

He rediscovered something his wealthy grandfather has almost lost. Faith. As an aging man, Paulinus of Pella wrote an extended account of his life and called it “Thanksgiving.” He sees his whole life as a gift from God that wants to offer back in worship. The painful losses drove him to the cross and the hope of God in Christ. What appears to be a life of loss with little impact on the changing events of the age becomes a life remembered. Over 1500 years later, we continue to remember this man whose becomes an enduring testimony to hope in God’s absolute faithfulness. He is one of the five virgins that never grew weary, but lived in a bright hope that shines from age to age.[2]

This bright hope crossed Europe and even the great ocean and by the time we get to the nineteenth century, it is a red-hot hope burning across America in the second great Awakening. Sometimes this Awakening has been treated as a purely emotional and frenzied movement, but that ignores the depths of this move and the transforming call to justice that accompanied this revival.

The year is 1836. Phoebe Palmer is crying out to God in despair after losing her third infant in death. She hears an answer that does not see comforting to us, but it penetrated the depths of her being. She hears, “No other gods before me.” This drove her deeper into prayer. A year later, she experiences an encounter with God’s Spirit that transforms her life. She records in her journal,

“Last evening, between the hours of eight and nine, my heart was emptied of self, and cleansed of all idols, from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, and I realized that I dwelt in God, and felt that he had become the portion of my soul, my ALL IN ALL.”[3]

She began having little meetings in her home parlor where people sought the Lord together and shared their testimonies. She also preached. Traveling from camp meeting to camp meeting. It is estimated that she spoke to over 100,000 people in person and reach many more through her books and tracts. This became part of a revival that would usher over 1 million people into the kingdom of God.

Palmer said that God’s Spirit compels us to go and help the needy. She went into the roughest, most dangerous slums with the love of Christ. She adopted some of the abandoned children and eventually established a settlement to care for the children. Phoebe’s husband was a medical doctor and he joined her bringing medical supplies and medical care for the sick and homeless. Together they established mission houses and soup kitchens.

She mothered a nationwide movement that birthed such denominations as the Church of the Nazarene and the Salvation Army, bridged 18th-century Methodist revivalism to 20th-century Pentecostalism, and pioneered in social reform and female ministry.[4] Her vision of God led to a vision for souls and a vision for serving the lowest among us.

This revivalism was not simply about an emotional experience, but about an all-consuming encounter with God that drove thousands of Christians to open their hearts, their homes and their lives to the broken, the poor, the drug addicted, and the abandoned.

This morning as I think about Amos’s cry for justice to roll down like waters and of the five virgins who look for the coming Bridegroom with expectant hearts and prepared lamps, I am thinking about to our own call to be lights in this generation, in this moment. The life of Paullinus of Pella teaches us about a faith that can grow even when it feels like the world around us is falling apart. His faith becomes ever-increasing thanks for the goodness and faithfulness of God, thus he becomes a light across generations.

His quiet faith and thanksgiving are juxtaposed with Phoebe Palmer whose life burned with the fire of love for God’s holiness and for God’s mercy poured out on the weakest in our world. Both the gentle faith and the burning fire bear witness to the love and goodness of our God who will bring everlasting justice.

As we reflect on the faithfulness of God and his call to judgment, we ask ourselves … Or I have asked myself in light of some prayers from ‘The Book of Common Prayer,’ “Who am I oppressing? Who am I thoughtlessly oppressing?” I don’t even know. We live in such a culture that we enjoy so many luxuries, we don’t even always know. Lord help me to be wise in the things I purchase and the way I live, that I’m not being a person who oppresses those in need in other parts of the world, helps enslave them so I might enjoy the best price, the cheapest product. “How do I live as a person of hope? How do I shine hope into the very neediest people in the world around me?”

Now according to Augustine, the answers to these questions come out of worship, come out of prayer. That I go to the Lord in prayer and he is the one who leads me to become a person who shines his light into the very neediest places. Yet, he also helps me keep a cautious attitude towards the structures that even I might participate in building, realizing that humans, we have a capacity for doing all sorts of harm.

We live in hope toward his just promises. We worship, serve, love and care for those around us with unyielding hope in His kingdom, His will be done. As Timothy George writes, “That is our calling, too, amidst the brokenness—including the threat of terrorism—all around us. We are to be faithful to God’s calling, to bear witness to the beauty, the light, and the divine reality that we shall forever enjoy in heaven. We are to do this in a culture that seems, at times, like Augustine’s: a crumbling world beset by dangers we cannot predict.[5]

I thought of the chantey that Ryan had us sing this morning, “On the day that I called you answered me. You hear the cry of my heart.” And in one sense the chantey speaks of my own sense, at times, of feeling abandoned, forsaken, struggling, but I might also reflect on this simple song, “On the day that I called, you answered me. You heard the cry of my heart,” and let it begin to open my mind to those who are crying that very prayer today, in darkness, who had no hope, who feel like they’d been forsaken in this county, in this state, in this world, people that are in war zones, people that are being abused, people that are suffering; that I might pray this prayer with them on my heart and that I might ask the Spirit to touch them and even lead me to them and show me how I might extend His mercy and grace.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Timothy George, “Love amidst the Brokenness,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 94: Building the City of God in a Crumbling World (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2007).
[2] See Caferro, William. Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Kindle Locations 4239-4241). Penn State University Press. Kindle Edition. “The practical implication of Augustine’s view is that what matters is to endure. The Christian can be neither fully involved in his society nor fully withdrawn from it. Instead, he must keep his sight on the pilgrim’s path.”
[3] Charles White and Chris Armstrong, “Holiness Fire-Starter,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 82: Phoebe Palmer: Mother of the Holiness Movement (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2004).
[4] “From the Editor,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 82: Phoebe Palmer: Mother of the Holiness Movement (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2004).
[5]  Timothy George, “Love amidst the Brokenness,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 94: Building the City of God in a Crumbling World (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2007).


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