Friday, February 26, 2016

Justice and the Character of God Part 2

A Call To Worship

So, it’s Friday, you’ve been asked to select the passage that will call God’s people to worship this coming Lord’s Day and you’re stuck. It’s not that you’ve exhausted the Psalms but you’re looking for something from a different book or even genre of Scripture. A few weeks ago you were meditating through Isaiah and used some encouraging passages from that beautiful book but would prefer not to go back to that well at least for this Sunday. Allow me to make a suggestion. It’s a wonderful passage that speaks of the greatness of God in ways that should draw those who’ve come to worship to focus their minds, hearts, souls and energy on His perfections and greatness. As an added bonus it comes from one of the books of the Law from which we rarely draw material for the call to worship.
Deuteronomy 10:12-17 (ESV) “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,
and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?
Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.
Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  

Just read through that a few times and reflect upon it. See how it pulsates with the goodness, glory, majesty, grandeur, beauty, power, and grace of the living God. It’s the kind of passage that can enthuse those who’ve come to fasten onto the blessedness of gathering before a God like this for worship as an end in and of itself.

God of the Oppressed

But wait, there’s a bit more to the passage that might enrich your worship just a tad more. Take a look at vss. 18-19. ‘He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.
Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’.

The great, mighty, glorious, awesome living God, the One who is Lord of heaven and earth and sets His heart in love on His people for their holistic redemption is also the God who is passionate about biblical social justice for the poor and less powerful. In the first post of this series I remarked how passages like Prov. 31:8-9 awakened me to the reality that the God of Scripture cares deeply for the poor and less powerful. Deut. 10 was another passage. But it didn’t end there (though if it did those two would be more than enough). The Old Testament is filled with passages just like this, so much so that the pursuit of biblical social justice was one of the primary ways God commanded His people to reflect His call, walk in His ways, demonstrate His character and express their gratitude to Him.

Biblical Social Justice

And in my view this is why the pursuit of biblical social justice is so vital to our witness now. What do I mean by the phrase ‘biblical social justice’? In short it’s God’s call and command to watch for, stand with, speak for, advocate for, protect and pursue the rights of the poor and less powerful so that they’re not marginalized, oppressed or subject to ongoing systematic injustice. (once more see Prov. 31:8-9) God recognizes these people created in His image as not just separate individuals, but as part of particular groups of people. Consequently, He often mentioned them by group when issuing commands for their benefit. Exodus 23:6-9 (ESV)
6  “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.
7  Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.
8  And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
9  “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  

Since the living God views these souls as groups (as well as individuals), it dispels the belief that systematic injustice is a foreign concept to Scripture. Furthermore, Scripture instructs us that sin is not just confined to my personal offense against a particular individual, but it’s also a systematic offense against a group of people. Psalm 82:1-4 (ESV)
1God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2  “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
3  Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
4  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

So important was this truth that the living God tied it directly to His people’s desire for protection from their enemies along with the ongoing peace, blessing and prosperity of their country. Jeremiah 7:1-8 (ESV)1  The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
2  “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD.
3  Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.
4  Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’
5  “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another,
6  if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm,
7  then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
8  “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail.   

In fact, reading through the prophets it certainly appears that in addition to idolatry, Sabbath breaking and general wickedness, oppression and injustice against the poor and less powerful was one of the main causes of God’s judgment against the ancient Hebrews. (see Jer. 22).

What does all this mean for us and is it even applicable? That will be the subject of our next post. For now just remember that the call to worship you’ll hear this Lord’s Day is a summons to worship the God of gods and LORD of lords, the great, the mighty and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing.

Joyfully In Christ,

Pastor Lance Lewis
Soaring Oaks Presbyterian Church
Elk Grove, CA

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Justice and the Character of God

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. 
Prov. 31:8-9. 

While I can’t remember the first time I read this passage I do remember its effect on me. Passages like this introduced me to an aspect of God’s character that I hadn’t heard in church, from the bible teachers I listened to on the radio or the books of theology I read. As I progressed in my walk with the Lord I discovered it also wasn’t addressed in my seminary education nor the theological conferences I attended so eagerly.

That didn’t mean the issues these passages addressed were absent in this society. In fact, growing up in West Philadelphia they were impossible to ignore. Issues connected with cyclical poverty including a lack of opportunity, official restrictions on access to housing and jobs, poor education, and ongoing injustices affected our lives and caused many of us to wonder just where was God in all of this.

I witnessed part of this first hand one day as I walked home from a bowling outing with two friends. The bowling alley was a few miles from and in a different neighborhood from ours but it was a nice day, we were all in good shape, and so decided to walk home instead of waiting for the bus. As we made our way back home a police van pulled up right in front of us as we were about to cross the street, demanded we stop, firmly questioned us regarding our presence in this neighborhood and required we produce some form of identification. (That last part was a bit difficult since none of us had a drivers license) After ordering us to get home as quickly as possible we were allowed to leave.

Among the interesting aspects of this incident was the fact that I had regularly traveled back and forth to this neighborhood to attend school since I was in the third grade. At the time of the incident I was a high school sophomore and on any given school day rather than waiting for public transportation would walk home either alone or with a group of classmates. And we were never bothered. But that day was different. That day was not a school day which meant I suppose I had no official reason to be there. That day I was not carrying a book bag and walking with a group of other students that would identify me as student of Robert E. Lamberton public school. That day I was one of three black teens who if I recall were the only black people walking on the main avenue of that neighborhood.

Now what if anything did this have to do with my personal, individual salvation in Jesus Christ? Well, that’s what this series is about. At first I too didn’t think that Scripture spoke on these issues apart from our Lord Jesus’ declaration that we’ll always have the poor with us, Paul’s command to refuse to feed those who refused to work and the Scriptural requirement of me to obey those in authority. But I continued to come across passages similar to Prov. 31:8-9 that challenged me to consider that the living God just might be interested in the issues communities like mine grappled with on a regular basis. Beyond that these passages made a strong case that the God of Scripture truly cared for the poor and less powerful as people.

Prayerfully, this series of articles will help to equip God’s people to discuss the poor and less powerful and the issues that affect them from a point of view centered in what God says and thus what Scripture teaches. In so doing I hope to encourage those believers who are currently working on the behalf of the poor and less powerful and kindly challenge those who aren’t to consider doing so. Along the way we’ll examine important biblical themes like justice, work, ‘the poor’ oppression, compassion, the kingdom of God and the gospel.

Proverbs 31:8-9 will serve as our series theme passage. I believe this passage serves us well for a number of reasons. Firstly, it ties together the theme of biblical social justice put forth in the book of Proverbs and thus cements the truth that pursuing justice for the poor and less powerful is one of the central elements of a life of godly wisdom. Secondly, it twice calls for God’s people to literally speak up on the behalf of the poor. This conveys that we are to be aware of the issues that affect them and then be willing to advocate for them concerning these issues. Thirdly, like the rest of the passages we’ll investigate, Prov. 31:8-9 calls for God’s people to adopt a particular attitude toward the poor and less powerful. We’re not to see them as drains on our society, problems that need to be fixed or a group of people who just need a strong kick in the pants so they can ‘get it together’. Rather, God commands us to view them as people made in His image who are to be loved, respected and treated kindly. Lastly, the passage underscores the biblical teaching that the poor have rights which are to be preserved, promoted and not denied.

By God’s grace our brief journey through this subject will give us some insight into the character of God, the nature of Christ’s kingdom and the potential we have for a relevant and powerful witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Joyfully in Christ,

Pastor Lance Lewis
Soaring Oaks Presbyterian Church
Elk Grove, CA

Saturday, February 6, 2016


Have you ever heard from one of your members, either directly but most probably indirectly, “I’m just not being spiritually fed?”   Well, it is wise to listen to your critics as I have heard it said that they are the first ones to see our faults, and usually before we ourselves see them.  Although I admit how frustrated and angry those kind of comments have made me, it usually meant I wasn’t doing something right in my preaching.

   That kind of statement is often a signal that a person or family is getting ready to leave the congregation.  It doesn’t have to be so, they might have other issues going on in their lives and so they begin to complain about the preaching and once those issues are dealt with they are no longer dissatisfied.  Sometimes there is sin hardening their heart and the content, delivery, and impact of our sermons has nothing to do with their complaints.

    However, sometimes they are speaking the truth and we are not adequately feeding them from the Word.  Yes, if they were really spiritual they would somehow be able to get something out of our sermons.  Then again if we were really spiritual maybe we would be putting something into them worth getting.

    I want to encourage my fellow preachers and pastors to do some self-analysis about their preaching.  I want to encourage all of us to get deeper rather than just smarter.  Let’s talk about study, learning, and knowledge for our preaching first.

    Obviously we need sermons based on truth (true Truth as Schaeffer used to say) which are correct as to the teaching of Scripture.   There are many emotionally moving sermons that come from a totally out of context and misused portion of Scripture.  The uneducated and unstudied pastor might be all fired up, yet his listeners may be intellectually embarrassed about what he is saying, or at least have cause to be.  Many of our listeners might be educated, but even those who haven’t finished high school or college are not stupid.  Folks will know if we misquote the Bible, mix up the main characters in a story which they have heard many times, or even make mistakes in terms of common science, geography, or history.

    My point is that pastors need to “study to show themselves approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)  This of course is the strong emphasis in conservative seminaries and in ordaining bodies so it results in many of our pastors being excellent students, spending many hours in sermon preparation and general study.  It does not automatically follow that they will be good preachers, nor does it mean they will always be “feeding the sheep.”

   Intellectual ability is a great gift, but it doesn’t protect you from being boring.  Being widely read is a great mental asset, but it doesn’t mean you can communicate the great truths you have learned in ways that make an impact.  Being theologically accurate is a necessity for any sermon that dares to call itself Biblical, yet theological accuracy will often miss the target of the heart if it comes off as an academic lecture.

    We don’t need more didactic moments that simply tickle the minds of those who thirst for more information, we need the forming of the heart though great sermons powerfully delivered. People need truth that shapes hearts into the obedience that comes through faith so people can be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

   The forming of the heart comes from a response of faith and therefore one of the most disappointing results of a sermon wonderfully prepared and brilliantly organized is for people to leave after listening while saying “so?” in their minds.  This kind of preaching is vacuous, it has no depth, it does not penetrate.  “What does God want me to do, and how can I possibly do it?”  People are asking this question, and the answer of course has to be accurate, but it must also have empowerment.  Is there the stress, in our sermons, on the ability of God to enable us to do the will of God?    

   The preacher sits in his study and he goes through some wonderful moments of insight and connection.  “This sounds like Moses, and he agrees with David, and here it is in Paul, and yes, I can see it in Jesus, and I remember this philosopher said something like it, and that preacher made an allusion to it and this word in the original language gives it such punch.”  What wonderful moments, and the wise preacher doesn’t tell his congregation all that he learned in his study and he knows he can’t possibly include them in all the fun he just had learning more and more about this text.  Yet, the fun will all be self-centered fun if he doesn’t know how to mine out the gold of God’s intent for our faith and obedience, and how he can stimulate us to love and good deeds, and how he should include and move us through story, illustration, and direct challenge of application.  Tell us what to do with what you are teaching us!

    All preachers have egos, they all have insecurities, they all have their own unique styles, but if they are God’s man they speak as an oracle of God according the ability that God gives them.  Some preachers hide behind the intellectual analysis of a text because they never want to make self-disclosure.  They make no confession, they flee from revealing failure or weakness, and thus they divorce themselves from the struggles of their people.  We sometimes are our own best illustration of how a text applies, or how it should be applied, or about how we failed to apply it.

     The greatest preacher in the history of the world told stories, and captured the hearts of men and women.  The greatest theologian, the one that wrote most of the books of the New Testament, did lots of self-disclosure concerning his weaknesses, in fact he boasted about them.  The preacher needs to put himself in the Gospel story, and not expect by distancing himself from it that somehow the people will find by themselves the green pastures in which is their spiritual nourishment.

  The helpful weapons for every preacher are of course fervent prayer, humility, and the breathing of the Holy Spirit upon us when we preach.  Preaching without brokenness and honest emotion about grace and the Gospel leaves congregants wondering if we are sincere, if we are telling the truth about this God we proclaim.  There is joy for all of us in the tears of repentance and forgiveness, and rich food too.