Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sermon for Epiphany 4: Micah 6:1-8

What does the Lord require of us?

This coming Wednesday we will begin the season of Lent. Christian people around the world will observe this season in various ways. Some people will ‘give something up for Lent’ – perhaps chocolate, or alcohol, or sugar in their coffee. Some will make a special effort to go to church more, or to spend more time in Bible reading and prayer. Some churches will add extra midweek services or Lenten study groups. Many traditional churches like ours will change their Sunday rituals a little – the mood will be a little more sombre and penitential, the colour will change to purple and so on. Some churches will have a solemn ‘burying of the alleluias’ – that is to say, the word ‘alleluia’ will be banished from the church during Lent. Some churches will do away with altar flowers.

To have a regular annual time of self-examination and intentional repentance is certainly a good thing. Of course, we’re supposed to repent of our sins and turn toward the new life of Christ all year round, not just in Lent! But most of us can’t sustain a real intention about it all year round, so it’s a good discipline for us to have this more intense time in the run up toward Easter. In the ancient church, Easter was the time new adult converts were baptised, and the weeks before Easter were a special season of self-examination and preparation for them. Gradually the custom arose for the whole church to join with the candidates for baptism in this time of self-examination.

But what should the issues be? After all, even those who are going to give up sugar in their tea know instinctively that Lenten self-examination involves more than that! What sort of life does God ask of us? Our Old Testament reading for today, Micah 6:1-8, asks that question. The answer, in verse 8, is one of the most profound and simple statements about the godly life in the entire Old Testament. It’s probably the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus’ summary of the Law: that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. Micah says, ‘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?’

But this is not where the passage starts. Some people think it should start there. Some people think the Christian message is all about the things we should do for God. When I ask them what they think the essential Christian message is, they respond ‘Love thy neighbour’ or something like that. Well of course, I have nothing to say against loving your neighbour, but loving your neighbour is good advice, not good news. And the message of the whole Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, starts with good news, and then the good advice follows along afterwards when people ask ‘What should we do in response to the good news of God’s love for us?’

So the passage starts with a metaphor. When I was a lad growing up in England, if someone wanted to complain about something you had done, they would say, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!” So now God has “a bone to pick” with his people Israel. Micah uses the metaphor of a law court, which is a regular illustration in the writings of the prophets. God calls on the mountains to hear his case – after all, they’ve been there since the day when he brought his people into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, so they are well qualified to judge the truth of his complaint.

God asks his people how he has wearied them. Has he loaded their backs with burdens and made them tired? Far from it! If they go back in the history of their country, they will see that in fact he has removed the burdens from their shoulders! Look at verses 4-5:
‘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.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the LORD’.

In these verses, of course, God is referring to the Exodus story. His people were slaves in the land of Egypt, forced into hard labour in the construction projects of the Pharaohs. But God heard their cry of misery, and God decided to rescue them from their slavery and bring them into their own land, the land where their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had lived as nomads hundreds of years before. So God sent a shy little guy called Moses, with his brother Aaron who was a good speaker, and their sister Miriam who was a prophet. God staged a confrontation with the false gods of Egypt, inflicting all sorts of plagues and troubles on the Egyptians until finally Pharaoh let the Hebrew slaves go. And when Pharaoh changed his mind and came after them, trapping them against the Red Sea, God led them through the sea by a miracle and rescued them from their oppressors.

Later on, as they were getting close to the Promised Land, King Balak of Moab saw how many hundreds of thousands of them there were, and he was afraid of them. So he sent word for a professional holy man, Balaam son of Beor, and offered to pay him to put a curse on the Israelites. However, the book of Numbers recounts the story of how God spoke to Balaam and warned him strictly not to put a curse on Israel, and so when the time came, Balaam obeyed God and blessed them instead. This infuriated King Barak, who seemed to think that Balaam could bless or curse anyone he wanted.

Through their whole desert journey – ‘from Shittim to Gilgal’, says Micah – God looked after his people. He gave them supernatural food from heaven, and gave them water from a rock when they were thirsty. He protected them from their enemies, and even though they complained against him and asked many times if they could go back to Egypt, he didn’t give up on them. And eventually it was Moses’ successor Joshua who led them across the Jordan River to their final camp at Gilgal, as they began to occupy the land God had promised to them.

This was the Gospel story of ancient Israel – how God took a helpless slave people, adopted them as his own people, and gave them a land of their own to live in. All the laws he gave them – the Ten Commandments, the laws about food and sacrifices and so on – were by way of response to God’s goodness in saving them from slavery in the first place. The laws were in answer to the question ‘Since God in his great love has adopted us as his people, what sort of lives ought we to live?’ As I said at the beginning, first comes the good news, then the good advice.

And of course the same is true for us as Christians. The message of the Gospel is all about the grace of God – God’s love that doesn’t wait for us to be worthy, but reaches out to us as we are, warts and all, and loves us into worthiness. The Gospel tells how God loved the rebellious human race so much that he came to live among us in Jesus to set us free. ‘God proves his love for us’, says St. Paul, ‘in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). God forgives our sins, adopts us into his family as his children, and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit. And even though we often stray, he continues to be merciful to us, forgiving us and restoring us and giving us a second chance, and a third chance, and as many chances as we need to get it right.

What does God ask in response? You can imagine the people of Israel, like a character in Johnny Hart’s old ‘B.C.’ comic strip, standing looking up to heaven with their arms outstretched, crying out “God, what do you want from me?”

Well, the answer’s obvious, right? He wants us to come to church! He wants us to read the Bible and pray! He wants us to take part in beautiful liturgies with wonderful pipe organ music or amazing worship bands! He wants us to build him impressive looking temples so that everyone can see how glorious he is – as if Mount Edith Cavell wasn’t testimony enough to that already! He wants us to tithe, and give up sugar in our tea for Lent, and so on, and so on.

That was Israel’s first guess; look at verses 6-7:
‘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 thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

It’s not a bad guess; the Old Testament law goes into great details about the elaborate sacrifices God wants his people to offer him. If God is displeased in some way, perhaps we haven’t been pulling our weight in the sacrificial department! Instead of tens of rams, let’s offer him thousands! Instead of a few gallons of olive oil, let’s offer him rivers of the stuff! What? He still isn’t satisfied? Uh – maybe he wants us to be like the pagans around us and even offer our children as sacrifices to him; is that it?

No, it’s not. It’s not that Israel’s rituals are wrong; it’s just that God never intended them to be the main event. Micah spells out the main event in verse eight, the passage we already read:
‘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’.

Let’s unpack these three simple concepts. The word justice is, of course, contrasted with the attitude of ‘just us’. ‘Just us’ means ‘I don’t really care how things work out for everyone else as long as I’m okay’. So I live my life in order to get as rich as possible and to have as much enjoyment as possible without any regard for how this effects other people who are less fortunate than myself.

The Old Testament had all sorts of laws to mitigate this sort of thing. There was a land law, for instance, which said that no matter how many times land was bought or sold, every fifty years all land was to revert to the family that originally owned it. This was to prevent the creation of dynasties in which children grew up enjoying special privileges while less fortunate children missed out. And there were many other laws like these. Moses said, “If you follow God’s laws, there will be no poor among you”. We commit ourselves to God’s justice in our baptismal vows, when we are asked, ‘Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?’ and we reply, ‘I will, with God’s help’. So, like God’s Old Testament people, we’re called as Christians to ‘do justice’.

The word translated ‘kindness’ in the NRSV is sometimes translated as ‘mercy’. But I like the translation ‘kindness’ better. Nowadays when we say ‘Have mercy on me!’ what we usually mean is ‘Don’t punish me!’ But when we used to thank God ‘for all his mercies’, what we meant was his acts of kindness toward us. This is the sense in which we use the word in our Prayers of the People when we say, ‘Lord, have mercy’.

Kindness is also referred to in our baptismal promises, when we are asked, ‘Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?’ To see the face of Christ in everyone we meet is to treat them as we would treat Jesus – in other words, to treat them with kindness. If Jesus needed you to spend an hour with him, you would do it, wouldn’t you? If he needed a coat, you’d give it, yes? Or a water well, for that matter! This stretches all the way from simple acts of kindness to the people we live with, to our gifts to World Vision and our volunteering with organisations like Habitat for Humanity and so on. The world is full of people in need of simple acts of kindness.

There’s an old gospel song that says, “I want Jesus to walk with me”. I’ve always been a bit doubtful about this idea; I feel much safer with the idea of me walking with Jesus. And so the final thing Micah says is, ‘to walk humbly with your God’. Asking God to walk with me means that I claim the right to decide which direction we’re going in! But if I walk humbly with my God, that means I let God decide which direction we’re going. I don’t presume to tell God what my life should be about; I ask God what my life is about, and then humbly follow the path he has set for me.

This is it. It’s not complicated at all: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. So as we start Lent this year, let’s think about these things. By all means give up sugar in your coffee, or anything else that helps you focus on God – I’m going to give up blogging, myself! But let’s not get stuck on the rituals; let’s go on to the big issues. Let us pray that God will help us to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. Let us pray for God’s help to see Jesus in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves and doing the acts of kindness that love requires. And let us pray for God’s grace not to stubbornly insist on going our own way, but humbly walking the way God has set before us, the way Micah has set out for us so simply in today’s scripture.

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