For the next four weeks we will be reading from the prophets. Prophets in the ancient Afro-Asiatic world were messengers, delivering words from God to the people. Sometimes these are words of warning, sometimes they are words of comfort, usually they are a combination of both. The prophets we are reading from are referred to as the classical prophets. They aren't miracle workers and they speak mainly to the common people, instead of to the king and the power brokers. Sometimes they do strange things, called prophetic acts, to make a point. These classical prophets include Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and others. After King Solomon, the ancient kingdom of Israel split into north with Samaria as its capital, and south with Jerusalem as its capital. This morning we hear Micah prophesying to the southern kingdom after the fall of the norther kingdom. First he warns them that they are no better than their northern relatives, that Jerusalem could be captured just like Samaria. Then he says that their deliverer won't come from the urban halls of power, but from a little podunk village, not what they expected. Finally, he challenges their expectation of what it means to please God. His overall message is that if people choose to live outside the boundaries of God's good plan for the world, if they choose to live only for themselves, they will not experience the beauty and freedom of God's shalom, God's flourishing. Here's the thing: the people already knew that, just like we know it. But God continued to send them prophets to remind them.
Scripture Reading Micah 1:3-5, 5:2-5, and 6:6-8
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?
2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans[a] of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
5 And he will be our peace
when the Assyrians invade our land
and march through our fortresses.
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 olive 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 do justice and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Sometimes the Bible is really clear. Sometimes it's clearer than we want it to be. Sometimes it's clearer than we are comfortable with. And friends, the last part of what we read this morning is one of those passages. There's really no way to mistranslate it, to twist the interpretation, to pretend it means anything different from what it says.
And you all know by now, there's not a lot of times that I say this. The Bible has a lot of room for nuance. The situation of the original audience matters greatly for our understanding. It can mean different things to different people in different times and places. The Bible moves with us. And yet, sometimes, we can attempt whatever hermeneutical gymnastics we want and we will still be left facing something that seems crystal clear.
Let's take a look at that last section that we know so well. It's written in very simple language, so I want to offer you some insight on the key words based on what they mean in Hebrew.
God has shown us what is GOOD. That's a very bland and non-descriptive word in English. In Hebrew it is the word from Genesis 1 for what God thinks of creation. God makes light and dark and water and land and plants and animals and people and God says that they are GOOD. They are exactly as they are intended to be. God has called us to do things of the same quality that God did at creation.
And not only does God call us to do it, according to the text, God requires us to do it. Now many people in progressive churches are uncomfortable with this kind of language. I myself usually say that God invites us or God woos us, but this text says "requires." This language of requirement is covenant language. Covenant is about who we are, whose we are, and how we will treat each other. If we are going to live in covenant with God, this is what we must do. Now if you don't want to live in covenant with God, then don't. God doesn't force us. We choose. I personally think life is infinitely better in the covenant, but everyone makes their own decision. If you choose to live in the covenant, these are the requirements. There are three.
1. To do justice. To shape it, to make justice as God made the earth, to bear forth justice as trees bear forth fruit. Justice is God's standards. To call things what they are, distinguishing between good and evil and not making any peace with oppression. Plato's Republic says that justice is whatever is advantageous to the strong. But the Old Testament says that justice is whatever is good for widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor. The people of God are called to actively shape a world where God's standards are upheld for the good of those who are not socially strong.
Now the lie our society wants us to believe is that people in privilege will suffer if justice is done for the less privileged. That is a lie designed to divide us. Things will change. Power will shift. But it will result in everyone having enough instead of some people having more than enough and others having not enough. And when we follow Jesus in willingly sacrificing ourselves, we will gain so much more than we could ever lose.
2. Next, We are also called to love mercy. That word love in Hebrew is pretty much how we would use it. We are called to adore mercy, to desire it, to embrace it. Mercy in Hebrew is the word chesed, which we talked about when we studied the book of Ruth. This word is used 250 times in the Old Testament, always in the context of a relationship, either from God to humanity or between humans. It is translated as kindness, loving-kindness, faithfulness, and mercy. "It means love and loyalty, steadfastness and persistence. It is the attitude that both parties in a covenant must maintain toward one another."1 When this Hebrew word is translated into Greek, it is charis ... GRACE. In our relationships with one another, we are called to love grace, to be gracious, to treat each other the way God treats us. We are called to forgive, to be patient, to see the best in each other, to ask for help and to receive help.
3. And finally, we are called to walk humbly with God. Throughout the Scriptures, this metaphor of walking refers to our total way of life. The book of Kings says that one king walked or didn't walk in the way of his ancestors. In the New Testament, the early Jesus movement was called The Way, as in the path we are walking.
And on that path we are called to walk humbly. The only other time this word is used in the Old Testament is in Proverbs 11:2, which says, "With pride comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom." Humility is the key to spiritual maturity. Humility doesn't mean thinking less of ourselves than we should. It means thinking of ourselves as we should. When we are humble we remember that all people are created equally in God's image, equally glorious and equally fallible. When we are humble, we are able to apologize and forgive. When we are humble, we are generous towards those with whom we disagree. When we are humble, we remember that everything we have is a gift and we are only the stewards. Humility is the key trait of spiritual maturity.
Walk humbly with God. Love mercy. Do justice. Notice how close this is to the two greatest commandments of Love God and Love others. Jesus says that those two sum up the law AND THE PROPHETS. These three requirements specifically address all the spheres of our life, personal, the interpersonal and the public. Personal: walk humbly with God. Interpersonally: love mercy. Publicly: do justice. Dr Cornel West, an African-American professor and philosopher says, "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."
These three requirements are a measuring stick that we can use to evaluate ourselves and our Church, both Zion and the Church Universal. As an individual, what am I doing to nurture a humble walk with God? How am I loving mercy in my relationships with other people? And where am I doing justice in the world? Here at Zion, are we putting our time and finances into doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God?
These three things are all interconnected. We cannot be satisfied with walking humbly with God if we are treating other people poorly and ignoring issues of injustice. We cannot be satisfied with being nice to our friends if we are allowing widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor to be trampled on. And, my progressive brothers and sisters, we cannot be satisfied with protesting and contacting our senators and serving those in need if we are starving ourselves spiritually. The good news is that I think the more we do one of these, the more our hearts yearn to do them all. If we are pursuing spiritual maturity, doing any of these will lead us to do all of them.
And according to the text, it doesn't matter what else we do if we don't do these. We are now in the third week of our stewardship program. When we chose to do this program, I decided not to go looking for stewardship texts but just to preach what was already laid out in the Narrative Lectionary plan. And friends, if I HAD gone looking for texts, there is no way that I would have come up with three weeks in a row of texts that include the message, "It's not about the money." Week 1: Solomon asks for wisdom instead of riches. Week 2: Naaman brings a huge gift to Elisha when he comes to be healed and Elisha says, "No thank you." Week 3: God requires justice, mercy and humility more than lavish sacrifices. Three weeks of "It's not about the money." Ain't nobody crazy enough to preach that during a stewardship program!
Apparently, God wants us to hear during this stewardship program that our giving is not the most important thing. We need to give. There's no precedent to say we will only give time and not money. All through the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, God's people survive by pooling their resources in good times and bad, to care for those who lead their worship, to care for their sacred space, to fund their celebrations, and to provide for those in need among them. Even the poorest among them contribute something.
But there's also no precedent to say I'll only give money and not time. Some of you might be more intimidated to turn in that time and talent card than you are to turn in your financial pledge. Some of you have been overworked by a church in the past. I commit to you as your pastor that I will do everything in my power to make sure that doesn't happen here. God is bringing us the people that we need to do what God is calling us to do. You should do the work you love and feel empowered to do, even if it's a stretch for you. You should give the amount God is inviting you to give, even if it's a stretch for you.
The good news is that the Gospel is personal but not individual. We are each of us called to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God, and to contribute financially. But we are not called to do it alone. We survive because we are together. The Psalms says that God sets the lonely in families. Thank God we have been set in this family of faith to work together. We have a high calling; we are blessed to be a blessing, and we are called to do it together. Amen.
1. N.H. Snaith, Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, London (1944).