December 27, 2020
Let’s face it. We are in difficult times. We are looking for hope. We are looking to re-engage, and we want 2020 to be over. To be over and put this phase of our lives behind us. Will we wake up Saturday morning, January 1st, 2021 and it will all be sweetness and roses? Will life be business as usual in 2021? Of course not. Perhaps we can learn lessons from history and especially biblical history to guide us with coping in these times.
Today’s sermon focuses on the words of the prophet Micah spoken nearly three thousand years ago. Spoiler alert: the seeds of today’s thoughts had their germination on a farm overlooking a fjord in Norway four years ago. The words of today’s text caught hold of me for the first time then and there and have not left me. I will save that story for later.
In today’s lesson we visit the prophet Micah whose tells us what God requires of his people. If you listen closely you will find that your New Year’s resolution list has already been made for you. Today we will be thinking about God’s message to his chosen people of the Old Testament and how the Christmas story plays out as the Good News for our lives and those around us today.
So, let’s get started.
I have chosen Micah 6:8 as our text for today: “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.”
This verse is familiar to most all of us and one that gives a powerful but simple directive. It is easy to hear this and nod and say, “Sounds good. Good advice. Sounds easy and the right thing to do.” But like everything else that God commands, it is not all that easy. It is not easy for us and it was not easy for the God’s chosen people. To help to understand this problem let us look first at the back story to this verse and find out why Micah made this pronouncement.
The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah in the 8th century BCE. Judah, where Micah lived, had just gone through 40 years of peace and great prosperity, and as sometimes happens to societies after times of success, its political and religious leaders became steeped in indulgence, greed, and corruption. Wealthy landowners used extortion and sharp lawyers to manipulate small farmers out of their land. Micah was a small-town guy and took up God’s words to the people to expose the decay and wickedness. Micah called for renewal of the covenant made by God with Abraham. When God made that covenant, He expected Abraham’s family and descendants to live their lives with righteousness and justice.
Micah also warned of self-reliant attitudes and smug religious pride. Religious leaders viewed their ministry as a business rather than a vocation. Injustice and suffering were prevalent except amongst the rich and powerful.
One evening recently I read through Micah three times trying to comprehend all the angst and rebuke. There were the predictions of doom on Israel and Judah for their idolatry and social injustices. I felt very unsettled because it seemed so real and present. There are obviously so many idols which occupy our thoughts and wishes. There are rampant social injustices for many of which we are either blind to or unaware of. Micah’s message was certainly valid for his time, but also valid for every age because of humanity’s innate capacity for sin. This is not just Old Testament history. This story in Micah is just as much about our current times. Knowing what the Lord requires of us seems just as urgent today.
Micah had two amazing prophesies. The first was his prediction 0f exile to Babylon which occurred one hundred years later. But this was not a prophecy of condemnation. He left the people hope and a promise of a compassionate God to those who would keep the covenant. His other prophecy found is in Chapter 5: 2-5 as takes his listeners fast forward 700 years. He wrote these words of hope about a Messianic king. Listen to these words from God:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
We heard this same passage found in Matthew Chapter 2 read last week, and it was written the first time over seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus. WOW!
This Messiah, Jesus, taught us everything we need to understand about justice and mercy and walking humbly with God. Indeed, that is what is condensed in the commandment of Jesus: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The teaching of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospel are linked as simply as that.
Let us go back to our text. This time I’ll use the straightforward language of Eugene Peterson in the Message, “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.”
It is quite simple, but WHY IS IT SO HARD TO DO? Probably for the same reasons that the people of Israel were having trouble. Humanity is flawed.
I would like to spend a couple of minutes playing out the prelude to today’s verse to better understand the context of the key verse on God’s requirements.
At the start of the 6th chapter God challenges Israel. Micah starts with the Lord telling the people to stand up and plead their case. Here we have the scene. The setting is a virtual court. God is the judge. Micah is the counsel, and the jury is virtual – no, not a zoom-call jury – the jury members were the mountains and hills, the Earth, the foundation of God’s creation.
God asks how is it that he has offended his people. After all, didn’t he redeem them from slavery in Egypt? And bring them to the promised land? And save them from destruction?
The evidence is obvious and overwhelming. The people of Israel and Judah have yet again failed badly to uphold their part of the covenant with God. They have failed to worship him, to honor him, to give thanks and to pray to him.
The defendants respond asking how exactly they should present themselves to the Lord. Their suggested tactic reflects their failed relationship with God. They realize that they have messed up, so they try to negotiate with the Lord and in so doing, up the ante if necessary.
First off, they suggest that perhaps they could become right with God by burnt offerings of one-year old calves, the best calves they have, not the culls. If that is not good enough, then perhaps a ram or two – no, actually - how about thousands of rams, God? How is that? Impressed yet? Are we forgiven, God?
No? Well then, we can top that- ten thousand rivers of olive oil! That will keep the lamps in the temples burning for eternity, won’t it?
Not good enough yet? OK then, how about my first born? My most precious treasure. They wonder if that is what it will take to be right with Yahweh.
Then Micah responds to this bluster and false religiosity with a fundamental reminder, “He has shown you, Mortal, how to live.” What he was saying was that they simply needed to go back to what Moses had already taught them. Just before crossing into the Promised Land, Moses told the Israelites, “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord require of you? Only to fear the Lord Your God, walk in His ways, to love him, to serve the Lord Your God with all your heart and with all your soul…”
Here, in our text, Micah rephrases what Moses had said at the end of the Exodus journey – but in simple, sweet words. “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.” As Eugene Peterson said, “As a prophet these words were God-grounded, God-energized and God-passionate.
The prophet made it clear that external forms of religiosity and sacrifice in any form or quantity would not atone for sin in God’s view. That is not what God wanted of his people. He simply wanted their hearts and souls.
Micah’s list is short - only three requirements, and Israel had failed to keep even this short list.
Let us turn now to the requirements. Note requirements. Not electives. Not options. Not a choice of personal liberties. Not either/or. Not maybe. Requirements are what God expected of his chosen people. And as children of God atoned for our sins by Christ, these are our requirements too.
Notice that this list is carried by action verbs: Do, Love and Walk. What, how and who. What are you doing? How and who are you loving? How and with whom are you walking? Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.
Micah begins with justice. Justice is defined as the quality of being just, righteous, equitable and having moral rightness. Why do you suppose Micah starts this requirement triad with justice? I think it is because justice is the underpinning of who God is. According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, Human beings were created in his image and thus are equal and all deserve to be treated with fairness and justice. We are not talking about retributive justice, punishment for wrongdoings, but rather restorative justice wherein those who are unjustly hurt or wronged are made whole and right. God calls His people to action to such justice, not to sit passively or be complacent in silence when others are hurt, abused, in need or finding themselves helpless.
Many of you read the book or saw the movie, “Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson. This is a powerful story of one man’s work to restore justice and human dignity on death row in the South.
As a young attorney Stevenson was in his 20s when he had a harrowing personal experience with racial profiling where he was assumed guilty of a crime and his life threatened by a policeman because of the color of his skin. He became driven to challenge racial bias and economic inequities that tainted the U.S. justice system. He came to represent those who had been abandoned. His clients are people on death row, abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and placed in adult prisons where they were beaten and sexually abused and no possibility of parole, and mentally disabled people whose illnesses helped land them in prison where their special needs were unmet.
In one of his most famous cases, Stevenson helped exonerate a man on death row. Walter McMillian was convicted of killing and 18-year-old woman. With only contrived evidence aided by a corrupt attorney, sheriff, judge, and an all-white jury, McMillian was pronounced guilty and held on death row for six years. In that society this was just another poor, uneducated convenient scapegoat – another black man whose life did not matter.
Against all odds, Stevenson cracked the corrupt system and got him freed. Mr. McMillian was not the sole innocent on death row. Stevenson successfully attained freedom for many others who had been wrongfully convicted. He brought hope where there had been none, and life where there had been only a death sentence. He concluded, “I’ve come to believe that the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Just Mercy. Mercy with justice. While others stood idly by, complicit in all of these injustices, Stevenson did justice. Injustice is not in short supply, and God requires us to do justice.
There are nine words associated with justice in the Bible: widow, fatherless, orphan, poor, hungry, stranger, needy, weak, and oppressed. Notice that you do not find the word rich. The rich seem to have always done fine by buying their form of justice.
Stevenson wrote, "[It] just reinforced what I had known all along, which is that we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.” That sounds like what Micah said, doesn’t it? Just as Micah spoke for the little people of Judah, we are to seek justice and work for the “little people” of the world.
Now to the second requirement. To love mercy is to show loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, gentleness, benevolence, or helpfulness.
We see it all around us all the time. I think of Love, Inc. making to love an action verb. I think of Adele Sawyer working years tirelessly as our church secretary as an act of love to all of us. I think of Chris Longley’s Meals-on-Wheels deliveries to the elderly and shut- ins. If you have ever witnessed her work, it shouts of love and kindness in action.
Consider our EMTs, law enforcement and health care workers who work desperately hard to keep our community safe and to save lives while putting their own lives at risk. Kindness, compassion, benevolences – it’s all there in their actions and love.
I am also reminded of Pastor Bill Swanson and his dedication and love for everyone at the nursing home for so many years. I remember when he brought holy communion for my mother who was incapacitated by dementia. He put loving mercy into action because of his love of her through Christ. These special people and so many others of you who are the Mother Teresa’s of our time acting out love and kindness through Christ.
On the other hand, our human nature may not always be so generous. In the book of Matthew when Jesus was asked, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? He replied,
” Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Or as translated in the Message, “Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me – you failed to do it to me.”
Is it always hard to follow God’s requirements? Often, yes, but not always. Here’s an example of an easy one. Consider the pandemic crisis that we are in. We have just been reminded that we are required do what is right, to love kindness and to love each other. We do not get a pass on these requirements by appealing to personal liberties. How hard is to respect mask usage and social distancing to protect each other and the vulnerable? Does this fit God’s requirements? Today, who are the vulnerable that Biblical justice asks us to protect? They are the sick, the infirmed, the weak, the elderly and also – let me repeat – and also the perfectly healthy 40-year-old. They are all potentially vulnerable to this virus. Those who have succumbed to Covid-19 - did we value their lives? If so, are valuing these lives that may be affected?
“Just as you did not do it the one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Just mercy.
Now to our Third requirement: To walk humbly with your God.
As a youngster in our country church in North Dakota, my mother would often have my sister and me sing a duet or solo for Sunday worship services. I remember one song well. The words began: “My God and I walk through the fields together. We walk and talk as good friends should and do.” I had the childish notion of a nice walk through a field of flowers, but at that young age I could not image the good times and tough times ahead when that “walk and talk” would minister to my heart and soul.
The call to walk humbly with God reveals our heart and our relationship with Him. It is to follow His laws and guidance, express His love and wisdom rather than relying on our own. Jesus was the perfect example of humility for us. All that he did was a direct reflection of the Father. We are called to be his disciples and walk with Him.
Let me share a story of a disciple who exemplified a humble walk with God so well in her long life. Many of you may remember Dillon’s own Torborg Hoyland, the spry, active, Norwegian lady who always had a big smile and warm heart - and warm pastries just out of the oven. As a young nurse in Nazi-occupied Oslo during WWII she watched in horror as the Gestapo made regular rounds through her hospital looking for Jews and members of the resistance movement. Knowing that they faced certain death if found, Torborg did what she could to protect these innocents and heroes. This memory stirred empathy in her through her life as she spoke out for the poor and helpless and against societal injustice. She was a compassionate nurse and a loving community member as she walked through the fields of life humbly with Jesus as her model.
She died in 2016 at the age of 99. The following summer her family in Norway held a reunion at the family farmstead in Southwestern Norway where she was raised. Since Charlene and I had met so many of the family on their visits to Aunt Torborg, we were invited to the festivities. The barn, converted into a reunion center, was filled with food, coffee, conversation, laughter, and remembrances.
That day a quiet time was set apart amongst the birches and rock fences overlooking the fjord. As in Micah’s verses, the hills and the mountains were called to witness and hear the Lord’s case. Torborg’s story unfolded differently than it did with the people of Israel and Judah.
As her ashes were sprinkled into the grave site on her birthplace, her circle of life came to completion. Her daughter, Katherine, read Micah 6:8 to her cousins in Norwegian– “du skal gjøre rett og gjerne vise kjærlighet og vandre ydmykt med din Gud."
Tears flows and heads nodded in acknowledgement. God’s truths are universal and transcend all languages and cultures. All present knew that Torborg had shown us all how to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. For me that moment was an epiphany. For the first time I heard the actual meaning of Micah 6:8, because it came alive through the example of her life. She had been Christ’s disciple. Let us pray that this can also be our epitaph as we walk in our faith in Jesus Christ.
Do remember the people in our lives and spiritual journeys who acted for justice, in love and mercy and in humble obedience to God. Then ask yourself, “Am I one of them? Do I want to be one of them?”
And how well are each of us doing in acting with justice, mercy and walking humbly with our Lord? Take these words home with you. Slip them into your pocket or your purse. Put them in your wallet. Carry them in your minds and hearts. May it be so. Amen