Delivered 29 January 2017, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Scripture reading: Matthew 5:1-12.
Sermon text: Micah 6:1-8.
“Tell me what you want.”
Perhaps you’ve heard those words in an argument. Perhaps you’ve used those words in an argument. Few things can spark a conflict like ambiguity, especially when those arguing debate their expectations of one another. I’ve heard people say, usually in sheer exasperation, “Just tell me what you want.”
As strange as it may seem to us — or, perhaps not so strange — people have, on occasion, said the same thing to God. I’ve noticed that most people who want to know God’s expectations really want the bare minimum of His requirements. Human nature apparently drives us to demand in frustration the minimal expectations of God. We want to make Him happy with us, either to escape judgment or to keep Him satiated.
Let’s face it. Most of us, at some time or another, have demanded God to tell us His exact expectations so we can get Him to leave us alone.
In our more honest moments, we’ll all admit we’ve felt this way. We fear God’s judgment, so we want to make sure we don’t cross the line between happiness and fury. On the other hand, we often want to surrender to temptation to do something, so we want to know just how close to the line we can get without triggering punishment.
This mentality, unfortunately, dates back to the Garden of Eden. Even the chosen people of God, the Jews, demonstrated this mentality. Today’s sermon text both demonstrates humanity’s tendency toward sin and also God’s true expectations of us. I would love to tell you that we’ll find the exact line we can toe, but instead, God gives us freedom to live fully in His pleasure.
The prophet Micah began his ministry a few years before Isaiah in the eighth century B.C. He prophesied to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, as did Isaiah. While the king in Jerusalem mostly remained faithful to God, the people had wandered into idolatry and disobedience of the covenant of Moses. The book reads like a judicial indictment that culminates with today’s passage. In this passage, we clearly see the expectations of God for humanity.
The passage opens with the convening of a court: “Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case,” the Lord said. The word for “plead” here literally means “to fight.” God would give Israel an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with their God.
God called witnesses to this debate: “Plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.” Humans, with our short lifespan, would not qualify as witnesses. Only the mountains and hills, those features next to which humans appear as whispers, could serve as faithful jurors in this case.
God went straight to the point. “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” God wanted to know what He had done to exasperate the Jews. How had He mistreated them to cause them to reject Him as their God?
God made a powerful argument that He deserved Israel’s worship. “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” When Israel needed to remember the care of God for His people, they could begin by remembering the Exodus. God had redeemed His people from the greatest superpower on earth at that time. No one would have believed the Egyptians would allow Israel to walk away from the burdens of slavery, but God had intervened to rescue His people and send them from Egypt to establish a nation. God had given “Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” to the people to lead them on the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
God reminded them of an incident on the way to the Promised Land. “O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him.” You’ll find this story in Numbers chapters 22-24. Balak, king of Moab, had hired Balaam to curse Israel. Instead, God had used Balaam to bless the nation and prophesy of Israel’s greatness in the centuries to come.
Did this reminder of their history bring Israel to repent? Did this walk down “Memory Lane” cause the Jews to remember their love for God and turn back to Him in gratitude for His blessings and grace?
Unfortunately, the Jews persisted in their idolatry and greed. The Jews stubbornly insisted on living according to their interpretations of God’s law, in spite of the consequences. The Jews had no intention of returning to God and obeying the covenant; they decided to persist in their sins. Instead of repenting, the Jews insisted they had done nothing wrong. The fault, they declared, lay with God; He hadn’t told them what He expected of them. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” they piously said. “What will please you? What do you want? Tell me what you want!” Did God want “burnt offerings” of “thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”
The Jews revealed the level of depravity they had reached with their next statement: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Of all the idolatrous practices of the pagan Canaanites, nothing elicits more revulsion than child sacrifice. The Canaanite god Moloch required child sacrifice. In contrast, Moses had specifically forbidden child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31). The sacrificial system required the Jews to sacrifice animals, but it prohibited child sacrifice.
An outburst like the one in Micah deserved a response, and God answered. “He has told you, O man, 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?”
I know we say things in the heat of an argument that we wouldn’t ordinarily say. I’ll not deny my personal guilt. And yes, I’ve debated and argued with God. Anyone who reads the Psalms will find plenty of laments and outbursts as the psalmists try to goad God into acting for His people.
Still, this passage reminds us of something. We can raise our complaints to God, but we cannot make excuses to God.
God told Micah’s audience what He expected, and the same expectations apply to us. “Do justice.” We must act rightly with everyone we meet, and we must work to guarantee justice in our society.
“Love kindness.” God didn’t put a caveat on this command that limits kindness only to our fellow citizens, or to fellow Christians, or to people of our race or language. “Love kindness” applies to everyone God puts into our paths.
“Walk humbly with your God.” This command brings us back to Epiphany, the proclamation of Jesus in our lives.
Humans don’t like humility. I don’t like humility. The list of mortal sins begins with the original sin: Pride. Pride caused Adam and Eve to desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Pride caused Cain to kill Abel. You can trace every injustice, every crime, every genocide, every problem we face in our society to pride. Pride creates a rift between us and God, and only Jesus can heal the rift.
Jesus came into the world as a baby. You can’t find a more humbling and helpless way for the Son of God to enter humanity. Jesus never ruled a nation; He never wrote a book; He never sat on a throne.
Instead, Jesus walked humbly with God. He spent time in prayer with His Father. He spent time in the Scriptures. He spent time among other people, even those the religious elite considered the dregs of society. (Don’t worry; He spent time with the religious snots, too.) The longest set of His teachings in Scripture tells us what He expects of us, and you can summarize it with 3 commands: “Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Then, the only crown Jesus ever wore bloodied His scalp as the Romans rammed the crown of thorns on His head. He suffered the most humiliating death known to humanity as He hung naked and helpless on a cross. Like all people, Jesus had to submit to death.
The story doesn’t stop there! Jesus rose from the dead, conquering sin and death for us. Now, we can turn over our pride to Jesus, and He accepts us into a family of faith. We come to Jesus, confess Him as Lord, and believe in His resurrection (Romans 10:9).
Our walk with God begins with that confession. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, God Himself, into our hearts so He can help us do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. The Holy Spirit directs us in life so we’ll meet people who need justice. The Holy Spirit directs us to people who need someone to show kindness. The Holy Spirit reminds us of our need to walk with God through worship, prayer, and fellowship with other believers.
I believe the Church must work to bring justice, kindness, and humility to our society. We cannot site idly by while others face injustice, regardless of their race or region. We must show kindness to others and serve them humbly. Only then will they see Jesus in us.
This week, I urge you to demonstrate the qualities of God in your life. Christian, I call on you to do justice for the oppressed and downtrodden. I call on you to love kindness and show kindness to all those you know and meet. I call on you to demonstrate humility to others. Serve God by serving those who need you so you’ll hear the words of Our Father Himself: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Go forth, and serve God by serving others. Love God by loving others. Proclaim Jesus in your life that others will know what God expects of us.