Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine you live in a village deep in the Amazon jungle. You and three friends are out looking for some fresh mangoes when you come across a river.
You’ve been to the river countless times before, but this time you hear something new. It’s a muffled cry. You and your friends start looking around trying to figure out where the sound came from when you see it. A basket floating down the river.
As it floats closer, you hear the crying again and realize there is a baby in the basket. And just a bit farther downstream is this huge waterfall so you know this baby is in grave danger.
You don’t really have an option, do you? You jump into the water, grab the basket, and bring it back to shore.
You open it up, see the baby, and think, “That was crazy. We just saved this baby’s life! If we hadn’t been here this baby surely would have died.”
You and your friends are laughing in relief and patting each other on the back and letting your adrenaline calm down when all of a sudden you hear another muffled cry. You look up and see another basket floating down the river.
You turn to your friend and say, “Why don’t you get this one?” But just before he’s about to jump, you realize that it isn’t just one basket. It’s several. Dozens.
Before long, you realize there are hundreds of babies floating down the river heading straight towards that waterfall.
What do you do?
Well, you’ve got some options.
First, in a situation like this you could be what I call a leaver. I mean, there are way more babies in the river than you could possibly save, right? What’s the point of even trying? You peace out and say, “man, what a shame.”
Another option is to be a jumper. You jump in and pull as many babies out of the river as you can. You know you’re not going to get them all, but you want to save as many as possible until your energy runs out.
But those aren’t the only two options. You could also be a seeker. You could start making your way upstream and find out who is throwing babies in the river in the first place. You could try to solve this problem at the source.
Or you could be a shouter. You could run back to your village and get as many other people as possible down to the river to help.
Leaver, jumper, seeker, shouter… Which one are you going to be?
WHICH ONE ARE YOU
Now, if you haven’t figured it out by now, this whole thought experiment is really about injustice.
The babies in the river represent the countless people in our world who are being crushed by the weight of poverty, people being denied basic human rights, vulnerable people being taken advantage of, the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the hungry, the enslaved…
The babies in the river are victims of injustice. It is an unending stream of suffering and there are no quick fixes.
And we have to choose what we’re going to do about it.
Just like in the thought experiment we could be leavers. That’s an option. Leavers give up before we even start because of the magnitude of the problem.
When faced with the caste system or genocide or vast income inequality, the natural question to ask is, “What difference could I even possibly make?” We wash our hands of the problem and walk away.
We try not to think about those babies in the river because it’s just too uncomfortable.
Maybe it seems like an inconceivable option, but so many people in our community make that choice. They do nothing to heal the injustice in our world.
But again, if we choose to act we’ve got options. We can be jumpers, diving in and helping as many individuals as possible.
These are the clinic workers, the caretakers, the food pantry volunteers, the orphanage directors, the teachers, the counselors, the foster parents…
And this is a crucial role in our struggle against injustice. We need brave people to step up and spend themselves on behalf of the poor and marginalized. Face to face. One life at a time.
But as the metaphor makes clear, simply rescuing individuals will never be enough. We also need seekers, people willing to find and attack the root causes of injustice. The systems of injustice in our world.
These are the lawyers working to prosecute sex traffickers, the advocates seeking education reform, the activists standing up against systemic racism, the researchers working on agricultural sustainability, or the investigators exposing corruption…
Seekers do whatever they can to pull up systemic injustice by the roots and attack it upstream at its source.
Finally, we need shouters. I think of myself as a shouter. Shouters are focused on getting more people down to the river to serve.
Shouters learn about the needs, see what God is doing, then share what they’ve learned with anyone who will listen. These are the journalists, the storytellers, the artists, the musicians, the prophets, the preachers, the photographers...
Shouters won’t rest until everyone is doing their part.
So which one are you?
Now, realistically the work of healing injustice usually combines these roles. You’re never really doing just one thing. But I think it is a really helpful exercise to do a bit of self-evaluation.
Are you leaving those babies in the river? Or are you doing something about it?
This is the last sermon of Hope Month. All month we’ve been talking about how God is in the business of healing injustice and how he invites us to us to join him in that work.
Next weekend we are going to put these ideas to work. Weekend of Service. And I hope you’re planning to join us.
But before we do that, I want us to look at one final aspect of biblical justice and it’s this: where is God in the midst of it?
With all these babies floating down the river, where exactly is Jesus?
We’re going to open our Bibles and find out, but first, let’s pray.
In a moment we’re going to look at one of the teachings of Jesus which is probably the most direct, most provocative things he ever said about injustice. But before we do that, we need to understand the biblical threads that lead up to it.
We’ve talked all month about how the message from God to the Israelites is very consistent throughout the Old Testament.
O people, the LORD has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to act justly, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.
Justice and mercy and humility - these are the basic building blocks of the world God desires. A world of abundance and life, not injustice and scarcity. That was what Israel was supposed to demonstrate.
But as the biblical narrative makes very clear, that is not at all the shape that our world has taken. Injustice runs rampant, the vulnerable are abused, widows, orphans, and foreigners are neglected. There are babies in the river…
But according to the biblical authors, God is doing something about it.
The prophet Joel, for example, says that God is going to gather all the nations together and he’s going to judge the world. “Judgment day.”
Now, I know that phrase has a lot of baggage with it, but put simply, what does a good judge do? He makes things right. He establishes justice.
And so there are a ton of Old Testament passages that riff on this theme of God doing just that. They dream of how, on judgment day, God is going to finally make things right, including injustice.
In Ezekiel, the prophet makes it clear that this future judgment will also include the people of Israel.
As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. Isn’t it enough for you to keep the best of the pastures for yourselves? Must you also trample down the rest?
In other words, “I’m looking at you, too, Israel. You’ve got a lot of injustice in your land too.”
And then there’s Daniel 7. This was a hugely important passage to Jesus.
We won’t look at it in depth, but it’s this wild vision of terrifying beasts trampling humanity. They represent human empires that just chew up the vulnerable with injustice. But then, Daniel says,
I watched as thrones were put in place and the Ancient One sat down to judge.
The Ancient One – Yahweh - judges these beasts of injustice and destroys them. But here’s the twist: he doesn’t do it alone.
I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world…
So this “Son of Man” shares God’s authority to make things right in the world. This was the future hope the Israelites held onto as they faced deep injustice. A divine yet human leader would one day come to heal this broken world.
THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS
Ok, so now we fast forward to Jesus who called himself the “Son of Man” and had his own particular take on “judgment day.” He drew all these biblical threads together and this is what he said:
If you want to read along, grab a Bible and turn with me to Matthew 25:31, Page _____
The passage is a little bit long, but I think it’s worth reading in full.
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
Woah. That’s pretty intense. Jesus is taking all these Old Testament prophecies about judgment day and weaving them together, but he’s also making a provocative claim.
“Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Earlier I said we’re going to talk today about where God is in the midst of injustice. And here we have an answer.
Yes, God is the one who is making all things right. He’s the righteous judge on the throne. He rescues the vulnerable out of the hands of the unjust. Whether in this world or in the New Creation, justice will be done.
But Jesus is making a startling claim. He’s saying, Yes. The Son of Man judges the unjust. He rescues the vulnerable. But he also is the vulnerable. He saves the outcast, but he also is the outcast. He’s the widow, He’s the orphan, He’s the foreigner….
The Son of Man stops those babies from being thrown in the river, but he’s also the one in the basket.
If you want to try and understand this paradox, look at the cross. The Creator of our universe so radically identifies with the marginalized, abused victims of injustice in this world that he became one of them.
The author of life dying naked on a cross. That is the Son of Man. That is Jesus Christ. But so is the righteous judge rising from the grave to declare that the ferocious beasts of injustice in our world have finally lost their power.
It’s a paradox, but it’s true.
Where is our God in the midst of injustice? He’s on the throne and he’s in the gutter.
The question for us is, will we meet him there? In both places…
Here’s what I mean by that.
In a world filled with injustice, the Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that God is actively working to heal it. It’s what he cares about. It’s what he does.
Just look at the life of Jesus. He jumped right into the river to save the babies in his path. He went upstream and flipped tables in the temple to dismantle the systems of injustice putting them there in the first place. And he taught anyone who would listen about how to get into the game.
So we know that when we do any of those things ourselves - when we are jumpers or seekers or shouters - we’re doing it shoulder to shoulder with Jesus.
But this passage gives us a provocative new angle to consider. If Jesus is also the one in the basket, if he so radically identifies with the poor and marginalized, then when we join God in his work of justice in this world, we will also be meeting him in the lives of those we serve.
Put simply, if you join God in his work of justice you’ll be surrounded by his presence.
The only ones who miss out on experiencing God in this struggle for justice are the ones who walk away.
But if you stay in the game, you’ll find Jesus everywhere you look.
A perfect example of this is Grace’s Care Center. When the choice food pantry is operating it is like one big love fest in there. You’d think that in place where people are often facing some kind of hardship in their life and need help that the tone would be kind of somber.
Right? You’d imagine exhausted volunteers overworked and overwhelmed by the need. You’d imagine Care Center friends feeling all kinds of shame and embarrassment at their need for help. You picture it dark and heavy and depressing.
But that’s not what you find at the Care Center. You find joy and laughter and friendship and family. Every time I volunteer at the Care Center I walk away uplifted and energized.
Why? Why is that the case?
Well, because as a volunteer I routinely meet Jesus in the people I’m serving. He’s there, reminding me of what he cares about, gently adjusting my misconceptions and biases, speaking truth. I can’t tell you the number of times God has spoken to me through victims of injustice.
I’m not just serving my neighbors. I’m serving God himself. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
At the same time, Care Center friends are coming into a space filled with the truth that God loves them, that he cares about what they’re going through. That there is no shame in being in a time of need because Jesus is right there with them and he is on the throne making things right.
At the Care Center they hear the message loud and clear that they’re not charity cases; they’re beloved children of God. And he will bring justice into their world through his people.
This is how it’s meant to be.
The vulnerable encounter God through the Church. And the Church encounters God through the vulnerable.
That’s why the Care Center is a love fest. Because God’s presence is everywhere in that place. And if you’ve never experienced it… you really ought to give it a try.
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
Now, the Care Center is just one tiny example of all the things God is doing in this world to heal injustice. We’ve talked all month about our partners in Haiti, in Ukraine, in New York City, and I’ve seen these same truths playing out in all of them. But they are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are many, many ways for you and me to get into the game of justice. To meet Jesus in the least of these. To respond, resolve, and rebel like we’ve talked about…
There are babies in the river. So what role are you going to play?
You can leave. You can shrug your shoulders and say, “it’s just too hard.” A lot of people do.
Or you can join God in his work of making things right.
Whether it’s as a jumper, seeker, or a shouter - Jesus is inviting you to join him in the work he cares about. Shoulder to shoulder with the Son of Man.
He is inviting you to serve him in the least of these.
There are babies in the river. What are you going to do?