The third essential practice of the Christian life is serving. The words “serve,” “serving,” “service,” and “servant” appear over one thousand times in the Bible. And most often in Scripture we learn that we are the servants of God. The Book of Joshua reaches its dramatic conclusion as Joshua, now aged and nearing death, says to leaders among the Israelites,
“Now fear [or revere] the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
(Joshua 24:14-15 NIV, emphasis added)
This is Joshua’s primary charge to the Israelites before he died: Serve the Lord! But what does it mean to serve the Lord?
Latreuo is a Greek word that involves serving God through worship. This, as we have seen, is an important dimension of serving the Lord. But service is not only the act of worship, as important as that is. We are meant to serve God by doing his work and his will in this world. This is a simple but important truth: God’s primary mode of working in the world is through people.
So we’re meant to ask, What does God want or need us to do? Let’s consider the work we do to embody God’s love and justice—the work we are called to do to heal the world and to help others.
In Genesis 6:6 we read that God looked upon the world he made, saw the evil and violence human beings were doing to one another, and “regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” That verse has always moved me—the injustice and evil in the world left God heartbroken.
When God looks at our world today, what are the things that continue to break his heart? When God sees pain and brokenness, poverty and injustice in our world, he is moved with compassion. And I think he cries out, as he did to Isaiah so long ago, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” And with Isaiah I believe each of us is meant to respond, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
I’ve known Christians who seemed to believe that all that God wanted from them was to go to church, to pray, to read their Bibles, and to refrain from doing evil. But throughout Scripture we find that God calls us to do good, to practice justice, kindness, and love. When we fail to do these things, our worship and other acts of devotion are worthless to God.
Consider these words from the first chapter of Isaiah:
What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?
Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me.
The people were rendering their service to God—by bringing their gifts and offering their prayers and songs— but they were neglecting the matters of justice and mercy and kindness. So, God said:
Learn to do good. Seek justice:
help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
Micah, ministering around the same time as Isaiah, offered his well-known response to the question of what the Israelites might do to please God:
“With what shall I come before the lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:6-8 NRSV, emphasis added)
Similar words show up in other prophets, in the Psalms, and in the Book of Proverbs. Particularly meaningful for me are the words of King Lemuel in Proverbs 31:8-9:
Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.
Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.
Our older daughter, Danielle, is a public defender. She makes a fraction of what she could be making at a big law firm. She has about sixty cases she’s carrying at any given time—more than anyone should have to carry. Ask her why she does it and she’ll tell you she feels called to this work of ensuring that the poor have access to justice and that their rights aren’t violated.
This is part of the lofty vision captured in the concluding line of the Pledge of Allegiance when we pledge allegiance to our nation, a nation that seeks to provide “liberty and justice for all.”
It is impossible to be the kind of Christ-follower Jesus longs for without concern for justice and mercy for the vulnerable, the weak, the marginalized, the poor.
Jesus’ first sermon was drawn from Isaiah 61 as he read these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
Jesus devoted much of his time to ministry with the poor, the marginalized, and the second class. He ministered with peasant people, with lepers, with the mentally and physically ill. He noted that, at the final judgment, people will be judged based upon whether they provided food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked and whether they visited the sick and the imprisoned and welcomed the foreigner (Matthew 25:31-46).
He noted that when we come alongside and help those who are in need, it is as if we were doing this for him. Likewise, when we fail to do this for those who need our aid, it is as though we had turned our backs on him.