by Matthew Stuhlmuller
As I’ve prepared for this sermon over the last week, I’ve been informed by many highly credible sources that Amos is a minor prophet; however, as I read it, there seems to be hardly anything minor about what he has to say here. He seems to be a pretty in-your-face type of guy, railing against Israel’s cultic practices and declaring to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Whenever I approach this text, it’s difficult for me to hear it without also hearing the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King would often quote from Amos, and from this passage in particular, maybe most famously in his “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he declared, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” These words are even emblazoned on the new National Memorial dedicated to Dr. King, complete with waterfalls to bring this imagery to life.
Now I have no empirical evidence to support this claim that I’m about to make, but speaking from my experiences haunting these halls for the last few years, Amos 5:24, that last verse about justice rolling down like waters, is one of the most frequently quoted verses of Scripture at LSTC. And I think rightfully so; this passage is just overflowing with beautiful imagery. You’ve even gotten to hear two sermons on this passage this week. It seems to me that many liberal protestants like to quote this verse the way that some Christians like to frequently quote John 3:16. If John 3:16 is the proof text for salvation in Jesus Christ, then this is the proof text for why we should work for justice and righteousness in the world. Amos provides the clarion call for us to get up and get to work.
Like the prophet Martin, we often apply this text to the various social-justice issues that we face today. Caring for the earth, full inclusion of LGBTQI brothers and sisters, occupying Wall Street: let justice roll. These are all places where justice has run dry.
But this passage is more than just a rousing call to believers work to work for justice and righteousness, and it’s also more than just a call for us church leaders to be prophets. It’s all too easy to take the words of Amos and apply them to situations that we see going on around us, but these words apply to us as well. This is a word of judgment spoken against us, just as much as it’s spoken against other people and other situations.
God is not just commanding us to do works of justice and righteousness. This is a roar of outrage from a God of justice who looks around and sees injustice everywhere, injustice committed by even God’s own people. We find ourselves caught up in systems of injustice that we perpetuate, sometimes unwillingly, but sometimes even willingly.
This is also a cry of sadness from a God of grace who grieves over what humanity has done. God looks around and sees the mess into which we’ve gotten ourselves. In so many places, that stream of justice and righteousness has slowed to but a trickle. Our God knew that there needed to be another way, that something needed to be done to get us out of our broken situations. That’s why God came into this world, taking on flesh and living among us. Jesus was a prophet, yes, like Amos calling God’s people to lives of justice and righteousness; but he’s also so much more than that, our savior, Immanuel, God with us.
This is a God who realized that if it was left up to us alone, we would never find our way out of the mess that we’ve created. Even our best efforts are not enough. We humans need a different way. We need a God who first sets us free from the old ways of life, and then walks alongside us as we live into the reign of God. That God is precisely what we’re given in Jesus Christ.
We’re reminded by Amos that it’s not just that I have a dream, or that you have a dream or that we have a dream; God has a dream. God has a dream for the restoration of this world. And God makes that dream a reality through the cross. The cross opens up the floodgates of God’s justice and righteousness, poured out for all humanity. From Christ on the cross, the source, the headwater, now present with us in the Word and at the font.
This is not about what we’re doing; it’s about what God’s doing, what God’s already accomplished for us. In Jesus, we’re given a glimpse of the promised future, when the fullness of God’s justice and righteousness will be upon all people and all lands. But friends, hear these words: it’s Jesus who makes justice roll down. Jesus who brings justice, to us, and through us out into the world. And thanks be to God for that. Thanks be to God that this is not left up to us, that we are not the saviors of the world. That’s about the best news that I can imagine, that wherever we go, we don’t have to be saviors, nor are we expected to be, because frankly, as great as I think we all are, I don’t think any of us would be all that good at being saviors anyway. Instead, we’re given Jesus, who does make justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.