Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gratitude and Grace and What God Requires: A Sermon on Micah

Scripture can be found here...

On an episode of “Glee” that aired a few years ago, one of the students at McKinley High School discovered an image that looked very much like Jesus Christ on his grilled cheese sandwich. And these kinds of incidents have been in the news, recently… an image of Jesus was seen in a tree in North Providence, RI the week of Halloween; another, in a plume of smoke coming from a house fire in Fresno, CA. On the TV show, at least, this event sparked theological conversations. The students started talking about God. What did they think about God? Did they believe? Some of the students were clear: they had faith, they believed in God, one even spoke up for the power of prayer in the face of life’s difficulties. Others were not so sure. Some said that Christianity seemed to deny women’s equality to men, to claim that God didn’t love gay people, and to force a choice between faith in God and scientific progress and discovery. But are all those things necessary to the Christian faith? Are they essentials?

In response to just those kinds of question, a Methodist minister wrote a book called, “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?”[i] The title seems a little odd, until you understand it is a book about the basics, what you might call the “essential tenets” of the Christian faith. What the author is really getting at is, “What does God want from us?”

If we have any inkling that we are not alone, that there is a power in the universe greater than the human imagination, a power we call “God,” I think we want to know the answer to that question. If there is a God, who created everything that is, including us, and who therefore has loving intentions towards us, what does that God want from us? What is required? This is the same question being asked 2750 years ago by Micah.

When Micah was a prophet, the kingdom of David had split into two kingdoms, one in the north (called Israel) and one in the south (called Judah). Judah contained Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, the place where Solomon had built the Temple, the holiest place on earth, for God’s covenant people. And for a long time it was believed that Jerusalem and the Temple were impermeable, inviolable—that Jerusalem would always successfully repel an invasion, and that the Temple would never be destroyed.

At the end of the eighth century BCE, the prophet Micah had a different understanding of the ways things were unfolding. Micah could see the truth: that the injustice and violence of the people and their kings was leading Judah down a path that could only lead to destruction. Any number of prophets—including Isaiah—were saying the opposite: that nothing would ever destroy Jerusalem or the Temple. And of course, those words were very popular with those in power, because it seemed to promise that they would stay in power. Micah saw things very differently. Micah saw the truth, and he spoke it aloud.

This is what a prophet does, by the way. A prophet looks at things and sees them without a filter, without the interfering blinders of politics or popularity or self-promotion. And then the prophet speaks out about what he or she sees. It’s common to think that prophets are like fortunetellers—the people who can look at your palm, and without knowing anything about you, tell you all about yourself. But prophets are doing just the opposite. They are looking deeply at the situation before them. They know the subject of their prophecy intimately. They speak out of their deep reflection and understanding. God’s anointing of a prophet isn’t so much about revealing secrets to them as it is endowing them with the strength and courage to speak what might be an unpopular word.

So Micah speaks. First, he gives an indication that there needs to be a new ruler. He’s pretty clear that the one who is currently on the throne is not the one who will save the people. In fact, the new ruler won’t even come from Jerusalem. Instead, he points to a little backwater named Bethlehem—Bethlehem, whose only claim to fame at this point is its favorite son David. But Micah stresses that Bethlehem is not so much a city as the boonies, “one of the little clans.” This is the Ancient Near East’s version of “outside the Beltway.” Then and now, it’s a powerful image. Power will arise where the people are generally pretty powerless.

With a new ruler comes a new understanding of the covenant relationship with God. Here is that question: What does God want from us? What does it meant to be in relationship with God? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” [Micah 6:6a] And in proposing various answers to that question, the prophet reveals what is really going on, everything he sees with those clear, anointed eyes, the reasons God will not let this monarchy stand.

It comes as a series of questions.

“Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” [Micah 6:6b]

This would be an appropriate sin offering in the Temple. Micah’s listeners are nodding their heads.

“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” [Micah 6:7a]

It’s funny Micah should ask that, because… didn’t we read just a couple of weeks ago, that Solomon “used to offer a thousand burnt offerings” upon the altar at Gibeon? We did. And it was presented as the kind of magnificent offering that only a king could make—and a fantastically wealthy king, at that. Micah’s listeners are still nodding, but they’ve been put on notice—this is something none of them could every dream of doing.

“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” [Micah 6:7b]

The crowd freezes. What does Micah mean, exactly? Does he mean that he would dedicate his child to God? Like the child-to-be-prophet Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah? No. That’s not what he means. And they all know it.

They know it because they, like Micah, know all about their king, Manasseh. They know all about his transgressions. In 2 Kings 21, we can read a long list of his crimes.

Manasseh took Temple worship and twisted and perverted it in the worst possible ways. He built “high places,” illegal worship spaces where people worshiped false gods. He even built altars to these same false gods in the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem. He practiced witchcraft. And “he made his son pass through fire.” Manasseh sacrificed his own child.

And so Micah speaks the truth: God will not let this monarchy stand. The Temple will be no more. Jerusalem will be no more. This line of kings will be no more.

Micah is prophesying a dreadful loss to the people—the loss of both king and Temple. But at the same time, he is lifting up something powerfully hopeful: there is life after the Temple. There is relationship with God outside the Temple. And what the Lord requires is something that can be accomplished by all, women and men, royal folk and regular people. Three things are required.

First, do justice.

Justice is a word that has been somewhat hijacked by a contemporary American notion of punishment. We speak of people being brought to justice—by which we mean, arrested, tried, convicted, and punished. And this is a part of biblical justice, but only one part. Biblical justice also means giving people their rights. This is why, according to one writer, when you see the word “justice” in the Hebrew Scriptures, you typically see references to “the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’”[ii] Justice is every bit as interested in the vulnerable as it is in the culpable. This is because justice is a basic attribute of God. When we strive to “do justice” we are also striving to be in right relationship with others, to be generous, in short, to show by our actions that we are truly made in God’s image and likeness.

The second thing that is required: To love kindness. The word used here in the Hebrew is hesed, and it is rich and layered. It means things like: faithfulness, goodness, strength, even salvation. Hesed is never an abstraction—it’s not a feeling. It is always associated with practical action on behalf of another person. And hesed is not transient—which feelings so often are. Hesed is enduring.[iii] In scripture, God is said to be filled with hesed. Of all the people in scripture, the word is most associated with Ruth.

And finally, the third action: walk humbly with God. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that word, “humble,” means. Humility—the English word—has the same root as humus, as in, the soil, the good place where things grow. Humility seems to mean something like “groundedness” or to put it theologically, knowing where we come from. We human beings, according to the bible, are earth creatures—God made us from the earth we live upon. To be humble is to keep that in mind. To humble is also to be teachable, to know that we will not always be right in every moment and situation. To be humble is to be willing to listen perhaps just a little more than we speak.

What does God want from us? It's simple, though, like so many simple things, it’s not necessarily easy. Do justice. Love kindness. Be humble in your walk with God.

At the end of the “Grilled Cheese” episode of “Glee,” some of the Christian students have decided that their love for another student who calls himself an atheist is not dependent on his accepting their faith. And the student who calls himself an atheist is deeply moved by his friends’ prayers for his sick father, even though he doesn’t understand that impulse to pray. And the boy who found the face of Jesus on his sandwich still doesn't understand what it all means (though he does understand that he still really likes grilled cheese). And you know, I was reading reviews of this episode of “Glee,” and lots of those reviews were of the opinion that the boy with the sandwich was disillusioned, and that he lost his tentative, blossoming faith. That is not what I saw as I watched the scene. I saw a boy eating a grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of Jesus—a moment of communion, or recognizing that the sacred is all around us, and within us, even in the most ordinary things. And in their own way, the students all seem to be doing their best. They go to great lengths to be fair to one another—that’s doing justice. They go to great lengths to show their love for one another—that’s loving kindness. And they are all humble enough to know that they are still learning. That, at least, is the beginning of a humble walk with God.

What does the Lord require of us? Just that. Fairness. Kindness. And that we keep walking, learning, opening ourselves to God, to one another, and even to the extraordinary flashes of holiness in the ordinary moments of our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[ii] Tim Keller, “What is Biblical Justice?” in Relevant Magazine,
[iii] Will Kynes, “God’s Grace in the Old Testament: Considering the Hesed of the Lord,” Knowing & Doing, a Publication of the C. S. Lewis Institute,, p. 2.

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