We began with Jonah, who showed us “the God of the second chance”. Then came Amos, who went from his home south of Jerusalem to the Northern Kingdom to tell them that their religious idolatry, sexual promiscuity, and economic oppression falsified their offerings to God. God wants God’s people to thrive. Last week we heard about Hosea, whose radical love for his unfaithful wife gives us a picture of God’s love for God’s unfaithful people.
These three prophets ministered in the Northern Kingdom during a time of political and economic prosperity. Jeroboam 2 had a long and prosperous reign. They made it clear, however, that outward prosperity can conceal inward greed and rebellion against God. It may be that the watching people don’t see the inner corruption, but God does see it, and God sends the prophets to speak against it.
Today we move from the North (Samaria) to the South (Jerusalem). Micah ministers in the period just after Amos and Hosea, beginning in days of prosperity under Jeroboam 2, but continuing through his successors. The first verse of the book states: “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This dating carries his ministry through Jeroboam’s successors: Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah, and Hoshea.
Micah saw the prosperity of Jeroboam. Micah saw prosperity in Judah as well, if not as much as in Samaria, but he also saw something else. Amos had said during the height of Samaria’s prosperity that the Assyrians would destroy their nation, and it happened. Micah saw the end of the Northern Kingdom, and he saw his own country tremble before the Assyrian army. He experienced the terror of the Assyrian army camped around Jerusalem, before God destroyed it (2 Kings 18 and 19). Lord Byron pictured the scene in a poem written 200 years ago:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
This then is the background to the passages we heard read this morning. We consider them now briefly, and then ask what they tell us about the heart of God.
Micah 1: 3 to 7In chapter 1, Micah tells the people that God’s judgment is on Samaria (the northern kingdom) and Jerusalem (the southern kingdom) because of their reliance on the high places – worship of false gods mingled with their worship of Yahweh. Given that he is speaking primarily to Judah, he uses the fact that they have seen the judgment on Samaria to warn them about the danger they face. He references primarily religious idolatry, but economic corruption is also a basic theme in his warnings to Judah.
Micah 4: 1 to 5The passage in chapter 4 is one of our best-loved. Clearly it was one that the people of Micah’s day also liked, since Micah and Isaiah both use it. Probably they are both quoting a saying or hymn that people knew well.
The passage tells the people that God’s desire for God’s people is that they will be people of such goodness and peace that the whole world streams to them to learn how to know such peace and joy. People around the world look for such goodness within their own ‘gods”, but God’s people follow Yahweh alone, in Whom is peace and joy.
[Excursus: Missiologists call this “centripetal mission” of attraction, as compared to the “centrifugal” mission” of sending in the NT. Of course, God’s People are also sent in the OT (e.g., Abraham and Sarah sent to Canaan, and Jacob’s family sent into Egypt, and God’s New People in the NT are also to be a “city set on a hill”.]
Zion (or Jerusalem) is a foretaste of the New Jerusalem, so that this perfect peace, in which weapons are turned into agricultural implements, finds its fulfillment in the return of Christ at the end of all things. It stands as a beacon to inspire us to live the way that God wants us to live now, to be people of peace now. Ten Thousand Villages carries a line of jewelry made out of bomb casings, a sign of our hope in this life and the next.
Micah 6: 1 to 8In chapter 6, in another of our favourite passages, God speaks like a lover. He says to us, “Remember the relationship we have had, the life we have lived together!” The prophet then speaks for God’s people, recognizing that our sin has polluted our worship and made it completely unacceptable. True worship is found in walking with God. Justice and mercy come from walking with God (which means, living with God). True religion flows from right relationship: Our faith is not a religion; it is a relationship.
[Footnote: I am borrowing this line from Bruxy Cavey and his book, The End of Religion. Of course, it is an overstatement. I teach World Religions, and that includes the religion called “Christianity”. But Cavey is right. The heart of the Christian religion is relationship with God, not the system of rituals we call “Christianity”.]
[Excursus: I was at a Theological Day with Joel Thiessen this past Friday (May 4, 2017), held at The Meeting House in Oakville,Ontario, where Bruxy is the preaching pastor. Thiessen’s presentation on those who enter “no religious affiliation on surveys (the “nones”) tied well into my thinking in this sermon.]
SynthesisThe point of all this is that God desires a relationship with us. The Law in the OT was always based on covenant. A covenant is something that seals and protects a relationship. True religion in the OT was never a matter of simply doing the right things so that God would have to bless the people. The transactional approach, trying to make God serve the people (what some call using God like a vending machine), is precisely what the prophets spoke against. Amos says, “I hate your tithes and offerings because you have broken our covenant!” Micah repeats it here: What does God want? God wants you to love justice and show kindness – and, most importantly, to walk with God. God wants us as lovers! That is the repeated thought in the startling imagery that we found in Hosea!
True worship relates with God; it is a relationship, not just ritual. True worship obeys and is better than sacrifice. True worship changes your life and mine. True worship changes the world around us through the power of love, acting in justice and mercy towards everyone around us.
Working It OutJesus told us precisely this, and we have heard it often enough. Jesus summarized the Law: “Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself.”
Jesus had told the disciples that his new commandment was to love each other with the love they saw in him. This active love, this dynamic relationship, was what would show the world that they were Christians (John 13). But what do most people think of in Canada when they think about Christians? Joel Thiessen wrote an article in 2010 about the churches’ struggle to attract new people. Here is how he describes the way many people see the church:
Non-Christians perceive Christians, particularly evangelicals, to be hypocritical, anti-homosexual, sheltered within a Christian subculture, too political, judgmental, and motivated to make friends with non-Christians only because they wish to convert them. Christians are known not for what they stand for, but for what they stand against. They are perceived as closed-minded, arrogant, and highly exclusive relative to the surrounding culture.
Quote from Joel Thiessen, “Churches Are Not Necessarily the Problem: Lessons Learned from Christmas and Easter Affiliates”, p. 6. (Church and Faith Trends, Dec 2010, Vol. 3, No. 3). This paper was part of the reading for the Theological Day I attended.
This is awkward. What do the prophets do, if it is not to condemn sin in the world? What are prophets known for, if it is not for what they stand against? I have stressed the sins that Amos and Hosea and Micah condemned: sexual promiscuity, religious idolatry, and economic oppression. Only the last of these would gain any purchase in Canada today. We might agree that economic oppression is bad, but we would tell the prophet to mind his own business if he started rebuking us for what we think or believe or do “behind closed doors”.
But to hear the prophets this way is to miss what they were for. Their point was never only to denounce sin, but always to call people back into relationship with God. Amos wanted people to worship God rightly. Hosea wanted people to discover God’s love. Micah called people to renew their covenant with God and walk with the God who made them. This was their heartbeat, which reflected God’s consistent desire for God’s creation: “Love God. Love God’s People. Love God’s World.”
How?The task of figuring out how we do this is your homework. We need to work this out together, talking over coffee, working alongside each other, discovering the needs of our community and our world and meeting them in love.
Micah’s words were: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Start with the last of that series. We recognize that we are not very good at showing people God’s love, so we turn back to God in humility and with a deep desire for God to fill us. Read your Bible often, listening for God’s voice. Pray often, listening for God’s Spirit. Use the Lord’s Prayer or something like it over and over.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned Alan Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. He notes that worship and prayer were basic to the early church’s patient consistent walk with God. People spent time together praying and seeking God’s face. They prayed looking up, as if towards God, with hands outstretched. God was real to them, and God’s presence transformed their lives.
Justice and mercy (or as some translate it, kindness) flowed out of them because they knew themselves to be in God’s presence, wherever they were. These qualities were like their clothes, which they put on when they got up in the morning. One way that they reminded themselves who they were was by using the kiss of peace. Rich people would kiss poor people in the church, and poor would kiss rich. When martyrs were about to die in the arena, they would kiss each other as a visible sign of God’s love working within them. We don’t need to do what they did with these outward forms, but we do need their relationship with each other and with God. We love God, and so we love God’s people and we love God’s world.
What would it take for us to change the way that people around us see Christians? When it comes to witnessing, many of us probably adopt a policy of be as nice as you can, and maybe sometime someone will ask you why you’re so nice. Then you can say, “Because of Jesus!” J The trouble is that niceness is our national Canadian virtue. You know how we apologize when we trip over someone else. It’s their fault, and we say, “Sorry!” Someone asked, “If a Canadian trips when nobody is around, will he/she still apologize?” We are all participants in a national “I’m nicer than you contest”. So how nice would we have to be for people to notice?
You notice that Micah doesn’t say, “Be nice.” He says, “Be kind.” Put yourself out for people who are hurting. “Love justice.” Put yourself out for people who are marginalized. “Walk humbly with God.” Spend your life so close to God that you reflexively radiate God’s peace and love in every situation you find yourself.
ConclusionAs I said before, the actual shape of our lives is for all of us to work out together. Perhaps you can talk together a family or friends over lunch, working out what it means to radiate God’s love. Let me leave you with a prayer you have heard before, sometimes called the prayer of Saint Francis, which expresses in other words what I have been trying to say:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Note: I gather that this well-known prayer was probably not by St. Francis, and that it appears in various versions. The prayer is still worth praying.
Steinbach Mennonite Church6 May 2018
Micah 1: 3 to 7
Judgment against Samaria and Jerusalem
3 Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling-place; he comes down and treads on the heights of the earth. 4 The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope. 5 All this is because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the people of Israel.
What is Jacob’s transgression? Is it not Samaria? What is Judah’s high place? Is it not Jerusalem?
6 ‘Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble, a place for planting vineyards. I will pour her stones into the valley and lay bare her foundations. 7 All her idols will be broken to pieces; all her temple gifts will be burned with fire; I will destroy all her images. Since she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes, as the wages of prostitutes they will again be used.’
Micah 4: 1 to 5
The Mountain of the Lord
4 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. 2 Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3 He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more. 4 Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig-tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
5 All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.
our God for ever and ever.
Micah 6: 1 to 8
The Lord’s case against Israel
6 Listen to what the Lord says: ‘Stand up, plead my case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say. 2 Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.
3 ‘My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me. 4 I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. 5 My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.’
6 With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.