Justice is complicated, contentious and personally challenging. In our first sermon of the winter series “Jesus & Justice,” we set the stage as we explore the Biblical definition of justice, why it is an essential aspect of the Christian hope, and how we are meant to pursue it.

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    We all have a sense, deep within our bones, that there is such a thing as justice. We may not always agree on the particulars, but we can't escape the idea that there is a way that things are supposed to be. When we see vulnerable people mistreated or powerful people abusing their position, it provokes a reaction. We know instinctively that there are some things that are flat out wrong, unfair, and unjust, and they need to be made right. We dream of justice, yet despite all of our passion, or the energy that we might expend in pursuit of justice, true justice often seems to slip through our fingers, leaving us wondering why. Yet though justice may prove elusive, it remains a central aspect of the Christian hope. In light of the tragic murders of Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, we've heard many renewed calls for justice, especially racial justice, over the last nearly two years. For many years, I've done a lot of thinking and praying about what the Bible actually has to say about justice and how we as Christians are meant to pursue it. I've talked to a lot of people. I've read a lot of books. I've thought long, and I've prayed hard on this subject. I'd like to share a few of my reflections with you.

    We're going to start a new sermon series, which will carry us for the next month or two, which we have entitled Jesus & Justice. What does Jesus actually have to say about justice in the gospels? This is a tricky subject because the topic of justice is inherently complicated. It's potentially contentious, and it's personally challenging. It's inherently complicated, because it's complex. It's not easy to define, and justice is even harder to achieve. It's potentially contentious, because many people have differing ideas about what justice entails, and most of their ideas are very strongly held opinions. It's also personally challenging. The topic of justice unsettles us. It can make us feel a little bit uncomfortable, because we know that the more that we explore it, the more it might reveal our own apathy, or perhaps our own complicity in injustice. From the outset, let me say, I'm no expert. I'm not a professional. I'm not a trained legal scholar. I'm not a philosopher. I'm not an activist. I'm just an ordinary Christian. I'm just an ordinary Christian, trying to think through what the Bible actually has to say about justice. I hope that this series may prove helpful to you. 

    When it comes to Jesus and justice, there are many people who act as if Jesus never had anything to say about it at all. Then there are others who act as if it were the only thing he ever talked about. If you know me, you know I like to thread the needle. What I'm going to try to do is offer a Biblically balanced perspective. What can we say about justice from the standpoint of the Scriptures? If you want to know what Jesus had to say about justice, the very best place to start is with Jesus' first inaugural. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus first began his public career, after a long period of preparation, he began speaking in synagogues throughout Galilee. His fame quickly spread throughout the whole region. Then on one very memorable occasion, Jesus began teaching at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There, Jesus chooses this moment, in that location, to reveal who he is, and what he's all about. That's why I call this Jesus' first inaugural address. If you'd like, I'd encourage you to open up a Bible to Luke 4. I'll be reading from v.14-22. This is God's word.

    14And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.

    16And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

    18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

        because he has anointed me

        to proclaim good news to the poor.

    He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

        and recovering of sight to the blind,

        to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

    19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

    20And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph's son?”

    This is God's word. It’s trustworthy. It's true, and it's given to us in love. 

    In the first century, people would gather on the Sabbath for a synagogue service, in which there is always a reading from the Torah, one of the first five books of the Old Testament. Often there is a reading from one of the prophets. After the reading, any qualified person could get up to instruct the audience. Luke tells us that this had become Jesus' regular custom. As he was visiting the synagogues throughout Galilee, he would instruct the audience based on the reading that day. On this particular occasion, in his own hometown, Jesus stands up to indicate that he's got something to say. They hand him the scroll of Isaiah. Remember, back then they didn't have books of the Bible; they were contained within scrolls. Jesus receives the scroll of Isaiah, and he deliberately opens it up to a particular place. He finds the place that he's looking for, Isaiah 61, proceeds to read it, and once he does, he hands the stroll back to the attendant and sits down. That's the posture that a rabbi in the first century would take in order to begin teaching. So he sits down to teach and the first words out of his mouth are, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That is astonishing because what Jesus is doing right there in that moment is saying that he is the one of whom Isaiah was speaking. He's saying that he's the anointed one. That's what the word messiah means. Messiah: Anointed one. He's the one that has been anointed with the Spirit. He has been sent in the power of the Spirit, and he deliberately chooses this passage to reveal his identity and his mission. Isaiah 61, for Jesus, sums it all up. What does he emphasize? He mentions five things: He has come to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. 

    This passage is so fundamental and so important that we're going to spend more than one week on it. We'll come back to some of the details next week. For now, here's what I want you to consider. What do all those five things that Jesus mentions have in common? If you go back to Isaiah 61, and read it for yourself, which you'll do with your Community Groups this week, Isaiah explains the reason why God cares about all these things. Here's the reason. The Lord says through Isaiah, “I, the Lord, love justice.” The God of the Bible, the God revealed in the person of Jesus, is a God of justice. Our understanding of true justice is always going to be limited and partial because of our fallenness and our finitude. But what we're being told here is that justice is not merely the product of the human imagination, nor is it merely the result of some kind of social construct. No, justice is real because God is real. God reveals himself as being passionately committed to the pursuit of justice, and he will hold us accountable for doing justice, and bringing justice ourselves. In this first sermon of this series, which will serve as something of an introduction to the whole, I'd like us to consider a few questions. What is justice? Why do we need it? How do we get it?

    What Is Justice?

    First, what is justice? By asking that question, we immediately discover why justice is inherently complicated and complex because there are almost as many definitions of justice as there are people. Some people think of justice in terms of fairness, or the right use of power. Some might define justice as the equitable distribution of both benefits and burdens. Perhaps one of the most basic definitions of justice was first put forward by Aristotle. He said that justice is giving every person what he or she deserves, but therein lies the problem. How do we determine what each person deserves? Who gets to decide what is right, or fair, or equitable?

    Down through the centuries, we've seen that people have come up with countless theories for what justice entails and how we should pursue it based on all different kinds of presuppositions as well as agendas. From the standpoint of Christianity, people often say God is the God of justice or God is love, but the British missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin, once said that terms like justice and love are not self explanatory. They need to be defined. Justice and love can be, and frequently are, used as masks for special interests. When it comes to the topic of justice, one has to stop and ask: Whose justice? What kind of love? For the Christian, when we engage in this topic of justice, we need to remind ourselves that God defines what justice is and how it should be pursued. Every claim to justice needs to be measured against God's revelation. That's what we're doing in this series by looking at what the Scripture is actually telling us about justice and how to pursue it. 

    Where do we begin? The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who's a friend of mine, has written several books on justice, all of which I would commend to you. He writes these books, specifically from a Christian point of view. He would suggest that we need to think of justice in at least two different senses. There's First Order Justice, and Second Order justice. First Order Justice is justice in our relationships with one another. It means to treat one another justly, as colleagues and companions, community members and fellow citizens. Justice is all about relationships. It's about treating one another justly—teachers and students, business owners and their customers, landlords and tenants, parents and kids. First Order Justice is about justice in our relationships. Second Order Justice comes into the picture when there has been a violation of First Order Justice. Second Order Justice usually entails some kind of penalty or punishment. That's when we talk about retributive justice or restorative justice. This is criminal justice. The Bible has a lot to say about that too, but my focus is on First Order Justice—justice in our relationships with one another. 

    What can we say? From a biblical point of view, justice in our relationships is grounded in the concept of rights. Justice means treating people in accordance with their inherent rights. I’ll have a lot more to say about rights as we go along,—that in itself is a vast, complex and controversial subject—but for now, I'll offer this one key principle from Scripture. The Scriptures tell us that every single human being, without distinction, is created in the image of God, and therefore, every human being, without exception, is imbued with inestimable dignity, value, and worth. That means that every human being has an inherent right to be treated in accordance with their worth, regardless of the color of their skin, or how much money they have in their pockets. This is the consistent refrain throughout the Scriptures.

    Consider Psalm 8. There the Psalmist can hardly contain himself when describing the value, the worth of human beings. He says, human beings are just, “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with glory and honor.” He says every human being is “crowned with glory and honor” no matter who they are, no matter what they've ever done, no matter what they believe. Every human being possesses this inestimable value and worth because they are created in God's image.

    Or consider Genesis 9:6. That's the place, the very first time in the Bible where God prohibits murder. You might stop and ask, why would God command human beings not to kill one another? The answer is, it's not because it's the result of some arbitrary law or some kind of social contract. We're going to say, let's not murder one another because I wouldn't want to be murdered. No, the reason God prohibits murder is because God made human beings in his image. That's the answer. That's the reason given in Genesis 9. All who bear God's image possess an inherent right not to be murdered. That's the basis for it.

    The upshot of all of this is that your worth, as a human being created in the image of God, places a demand on me, to treat you in accordance with your inherent value. To do justice, means to treat you in accordance with your inherent value. If I fail to treat you in any way less than what your worth demands, then I wrong you. You have been wronged, and I am guilty. If that happens, then what needs to happen next? I need to cease and desist. I need to stop what I'm doing. I need to ask for forgiveness. I need to make amends. I need to seek restitution. I need to make things right. What do you need to do on your part? You need to extend forgiveness. You need to release me from the debt I owe so that we can be reconciled in relationship with one another.

    What is justice? From a biblical point of view, to do justice means to give each and every person his or her right. That's the biblical conception of justice, to treat each person in accordance with their inherent worth. 

    Why Do We Need Justice?

    If that's what justice is, why do we need it? The answer is because this is what we were made for. We could never flourish as human beings without it. We cannot flourish without justice. That is why justice is so closely connected to the concept of Shalom in the Scriptures. Shalom is the Hebrew word which we usually translate as "peace," but a far better translation of that word might be "flourishing." We tend to think that peace is a negative word that refers to the absence of conflict, or stress, or hostility, but peace means far more than that. We shouldn't think of it only in that negative sense, but also in the positive sense as the presence of harmony, wholeness and delight. Peace does not simply mean the absence of conflict or hostility, but the presence of wholeness, harmony, and delight in all of our relationships, first and foremost with God then with others, with our physical environment and even within ourselves. In a word, Shalom captures God's design for the world. That's what God intends for the world: Shalom. The theologian Cornelius “Neil” Plantinga, Jr. sums it up like this. He says,

    “This webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets called Shalom. We call it ‘peace,’ but it means far more than just peace of mind or cease-fire between enemies…In the Bible, Shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, all under the arch of God’s love. Shalom, in other words, is the way things are supposed to be.”

    If you understand that, it changes everything. We just celebrated Christmas. At Christmas time, we remember that Jesus is referred to, using the words of Isaiah, as the Prince of Peace, but it means far more than bringing peace between hostile parties. Jesus is not merely the Prince of Peace, he's the prince of Shalom. What do the angels announce to the shepherds on the night of Jesus's birth? They say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, Shalom.” "Universal wholeness, harmony, delight among those with whom he is well pleased." Shalom is what God intends for the world. Shalom is the way things are supposed to be. One of the reasons why I love that word Shalom is because it combines both of our conceptions of justice and peace. Justice and Peace. There's no peace without justice, and there's no justice without peace. There can be no peace in the face of injustice, even if people say that they're happy and content. That's not a real peace if injustice continues to exist. On the other hand, there can be no justice established through non-peaceful means. You can't establish justice through violence. There's no peace without justice, and there's no justice without peace. The two go together. You could say that injustice is the impairment of Shalom and to do justice, to bring justice, means to restore, to promote, to rebuild Shalom. God loves justice because God desires each and every human being to flourish. Justice is indispensable to that. 

    With all that said, it's important for me to make one point of clarification. To do justice means to give each person his or her right. If I have an inherent right to be treated a certain way, that is a good thing in my life, not a bad thing. But this is where it's important to be clear. Every right is a good, but not every good is necessarily a right. I have a right to be treated a certain way, and that right is always a good thing. But not every good is something to which I have a right. I'll give you a somewhat whimsical illustration of this based on something that Nicholas Wolterstorff inspired. I love Van Gogh's painting of Starry Night. I have a replica of it hanging in my office here at the church. I love this painting. I love the colors. I love the brushstrokes. I love the story behind it. I love everything that it represents. It would be a good thing, it would be a good, if the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) decided that I could hang the original in my office, rather than a replica. No doubt, that would be a benefit. That would be a good thing in my life. It would bring me joy. It would bring me satisfaction. It would bring me beauty. But though it would be a good, I don't have a right to that painting. MoMA is not wronging me by telling me that I can't hang the original in my office. MoMA is not depriving me of something to which I have a right. Every right is a good but not every good is necessarily a right. We need to stop and ask ourselves, what are the things to which we have a right? At a minimum, we could say if every human being is created in the image of God, regardless of who they are, what they've ever done, or what they believe, then every human being has a right to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Every human being has a right not to be insulted or demeaned. Every human being has a right not to be abused, or mistreated, or tortured, or enslaved. As long as we're clear on that, we can say that there's no way to flourish without justice because justice is indispensable to Shalom. 

    How Do We Get Justice

    If that is what justice is, and why we need it, how do we get it? We were made for justice. We were made for right relationships with one another, with God, with our physical world, and even with ourselves. Yet, Justice has been broken. We've turned against God. We've wronged one another. We have violated each other. We constantly deprive one another of our rights. We fail to treat one another in accordance with our inherent worth and value. We treat one another as "less than." If that's the case, how can justice be restored? How can Shalom be realized? In many ways, it's going to take several weeks to unpack that one, but in short, the answer is Jesus. The answer is Jesus. There is no true lasting justice apart from Jesus. That brings me back to Jesus' first inaugural. Jesus deliberately chooses Isaiah 61 to clue us into his identity and his mission. He says that he has come to proclaim good news to the poor, to the captives, to the blind, and to the oppressed, and to inaugurate the year of the Lord's favor. 

    God's ancient people knew their Bibles, far more than we probably could ever appreciate. They had large sections of it memorized. By the Bible, I mean, they knew the Hebrew Scriptures. They knew the Old Testament. They knew that the messiah, the promised anointed one, would usher in a new age, where justice and compassion for the poor would prevail. The significance of Jesus' words would not have been lost on his audience. They would have immediately caught what he was saying. Jesus was deliberately evoking this text from Isaiah 61 to reveal who he is, what he's all about at the very beginning of his ministry. He is clearly claiming to be the one anointed by the Spirit in order to usher in God's reign of justice. That's another way of translating the kingdom of God.

    Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God had now come. It was at hand, meaning that God's reign of justice was now a present reality. It was confronting them in the person of Jesus. If that's the case, if God's reign of justice has begun, if the kingdom of God is here, then what do we have to do? Jesus said, “Repent and believe.” You have to repent and believe. If God is bringing his justice to bear on this world, and that means, first of all, you need to cease and desist. Stop doing whatever you're doing that is contributing to the wrongdoing and the injustice in the world around you. Then undergo a transformation in your thinking. That's what it means to repent. If you're headed the wrong way down the highway, the best thing that you could do is stop and turn around as soon as possible. Repent and believe. Receive the forgiveness and grace that God is now bestowing upon you and become part of his project in order to set things right, in order to establish justice and Shalom—justice and peace. 

    If Jesus is not merely the peace broker, but the Shalom bringer, that means that our longing for justice is not some vain, idle wish, or silly fantasy. No, because Jesus embodies the passion for justice that lies at the very center of God's heart. Jesus comes, he enters into our world, in order to proclaim and to embody a completely different conception of justice than the world has ever seen before. To no surprise, the powers that be pushed back. That is why you can never turn to Jesus and say, you don't know what it's like. You don't know what it's like to be mistreated, or abused, or oppressed because Jesus does. Jesus was falsely accused and wrongly condemned, even though the authorities knew that he had not done anything. He hadn't done anything deserving of death, and therefore, Jesus himself became a gross victim of injustice. He knows what it's like. Jesus entered into our world as the one who would lift the downtrodden, yet he himself was pressed down and crushed into the ground. Jesus is the one who is of infinite value, the one and only Son of the Father, and yet he was treated as if he had no value at all. That would be deeply ironic, and tragically sad if it weren't for the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus is merely the middle chapter in a much larger story. 

    The good news of the gospel is that mysteriously, Jesus voluntarily accepted the way of suffering, not only to identify with us in our own suffering, but also to substitute himself for our wrongdoing, and the injustices that we have perpetrated, knowingly or unknowingly. On the cross, Jesus took our place, so that as God brings his justice to bear against all human injustice and wrongdoing, he can condemn injustice without condemning us. He absorbs the wrongdoing and the injustice into himself. You can't establish justice through non-peaceful means. Jesus brings his justice to bear on the world by absorbing it into himself through peace. That's how he establishes his Shalom. But the cross of Jesus is just the beginning because three days later, God raised Jesus from the dead. That is the first step towards the new creation. In other words, God is not merely entering our world, in the person of Jesus in order to forgive us for the wrongs that we have committed in the past, but he is actively seeking to put everything right in the future. His goal is not merely to restore us and forgive us, but to bring about a whole new world where his love and justice will reign, and where we as human beings can finally flourish in the way that God intends. If you want justice, true justice, that will last, that will endure, you're not going to find it anywhere else than in and through Jesus. That's what we celebrate at this table as we remember his cross and his empty tomb.

    Please pray with me. 

    Father, we acknowledge that we long for justice in our world. Yet we do find it confusing because the topic is complex. It is potentially contentious and can result in dividing us even more, and we find it personally challenging because the very topic of justice makes us uncomfortable. It unsettles us because it shines a spotlight on our own apathy and complicity. But Lord, we acknowledge that we need true justice because it's the only way that we can flourish as you desire us to. We'll never become the people that you've called us to be without your Shalom. We pray that you would help us to set our eyes on Jesus, to fix them on him. The only one who can establish true justice in our individual and our corporate lives. We pray that you might teach us how to repent and believe, how to receive the forgiveness that you have to offer and to become part of your project to make all things new. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.