October 11, 2015 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
We got soaked on a campout one night. It didn’t rain, but we woke up with our sleeping bags sopping wet. We were camped in Montaña de Oro State Park near Morro Bay in California. We rolled our bags out on ground cloths on dry grass to sleep uncovered under the stars and listen to the waves roll in. We thought it actually had rained when we got up to discover so much moisture on the ground and on us. It was dew.
As Micah talks more about the remnant of God’s people which will be gathered, here in chapter 5 verse 7 he pictures them arriving like dew appears on grass, or on sleeping bags, mysteriously. Yes, there’s a scientific explanation for dew. It has to do with the temperature of thin exposed surfaces and the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. But it’s just as much beyond human control as it was 2,700 years ago. Like we read, the dew does not depend on people or wait for anyone. We could have stayed dry by crawling in tents, but the dew would have still been there on the tent fly.
When the Jewish remnant appeared, when a handful of God’s people were brought back to their own city and country, it wasn’t because any human being made it happen. People had a role to be sure, like a Persian king and a spunky Jewish woman, but just as the dew, the remnant appears because and when God wants it to appear.
The other thing about dew is that it’s generally desirable. We didn’t care for it on that soggy morning by the ocean, but in the arid climate where most Bible people lived, it was a blessing, a free gift appearing by the grace of God. No matter how dry and thirsty or how parched the ground when you went to bed, when dawn came there would be at least a few drops to quench your thirst or water your garden.
This first image of the remnant of God’s people is that they are a blessing to the land in which they live. Their prosperity and happiness will bring prosperity and happiness around them. That’s exactly what Jeremiah told them to pray and seek for when they were exiled in Babylon, the welfare and good of the city, of the place they were, even if it was enemy territory. Like God told Abraham originally in Genesis 12:2, they were blessed to be a blessing to everyone else. That’s still what God’s people are supposed to be.
That’s why Valley Covenant Church is still here on 18th and Bailey Hill. Some of you have heard this story many times, but I’ll keep telling it as long as I can. When I came here our denomination was about to shut us down. We were way behind in mortgage payments and we weren’t measuring up to church growth metrics of the day. God saw us through that time and saw us through another rough patch about ten years ago. He blessed us because He wanted us to keep being a blessing on this corner, a blessing to Cub Scouts who meet here and homeless people who sleep here, a blessing to some of you for whom this has been your church for years and to others who just started attending. God has kept us together to bless folks across the world in China and India and across town at the Eugene Mission. Let’s never forget that part of our reason for existing, one of same reasons God made a remnant out of what was left of His people in Babylon.
Verse 8 is a bit more challenging to understand. From the image of gentle, welcome dew upon the grass, Micah switches to the violent picture of a lion among sheep. As one of our members commented on my blog this week, it’s harder today to get behind or even grasp this kind of triumphant, conquering image of God’s people in the world. In other words, some of us don’t sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” quite as often or with quite the same gusto we used to. We’re too aware of how faith has gotten perverted into violence by what we now call “fundamentalists,” whether Christian, Muslim or something else.
Nonetheless we see in Scripture that even our Lord Jesus the Lamb of God is also the Lion of the tribe of Judah. John saw that fact appear before his eyes in Revelation 5 when the Lion suddenly stands forth as the Lamb. Some of you know Mr. Beaver’s remark about Aslan the lion in C. S. Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles. Asked whether Aslan is “safe,” he replies, “Who said anything about safe. ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
You see it happening in our Gospel reading this morning. That rich young man came to Jesus with his spiritual quest. He wanted eternal life, safety. But Jesus taught him that was a dangerous question. God wants everything. God, His kingdom, and His people are good, but not safe. Our reading from Hebrews said the same thing about God’s Word, about the Bible, it’s “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow… able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Getting mixed up with God is risky business. He’s dangerous and that means, to some extent, so will His people be. We’re not just wooly lambs everyone can kick around. Our presence in the world, like Israel’s presence in the ancient Mideast, will cause trouble. Verses 8 and 9 here in Micah 5 promised them they would rip their enemies to pieces and be victorious over their adversaries, “and all your enemies will be cut off.”
That verb “cut off” is used literally in Scripture about cutting down trees or bunches of grapes. It’s the word when David cut off Goliath’s head. It’s also used more metaphorically about judgment and doom. The flood cuts off human life. Saul pled with David not to cut off his descendants. And interestingly, it’s also the word for making a covenant, because of the animal sacrifices involved. God “cut” a covenant with Abraham and with Moses. You and I talk about cutting deals.
God and His people are dangerous because there are things that need to be cut off, things that need to get chopped. When God brings His remnant back home, then all their enemies, all the dangers to them will be cut away, will be chopped.
But before we start sharpening our swords, or maybe loading our guns, we need to read on here in Micah to see what else God wants to chop. Verse 10 tells us that “in that day,” the day in verse 9 when God cuts off His people’s enemies, He’s also going to “cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots.” The chopping is going to be God’s business, not human business. In fact, He’s going to destroy the military equipment, the transport vehicles we use to chop up each other.
There’s some question about who is being addressed in verses 10 to 14. Is God still talking to His people or to all the other nations? It’s hard to say. The transition makes it sound like He’s still talking to the remnant, to the people He’s rescuing and saving and giving a kingdom. But in verse 11, God says, “I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds.” That doesn’t sound quite like something He would say to His own people. But it could be.
As we work down this list of what God is going to chop, we see that He’s talking about all the sorts of things upon which people rely rather than on God. It’s military equipment in verse 10. It’s cities and strongholds, secure areas, in verse 11. It’s sorcery and divination in verse 12, and it’s idols in verse 13. People put their trust in those things rather than in God. So God wants it all cut away, all chopped.
Micah already told us that swords will be beaten into plowshares and that the one to be born in Bethlehem would be “the one of peace.” So it’s no wonder that God does not want us to place our ultimate reliance on the military might of chariots or tanks or aircraft carriers. It’s no wonder that He is going to bring an end to the beefing up of fortifications and security around cities and military bases. It doesn’t matter too much if this is addressed to Israel or to Israel’s enemies. War is not going to save anyone. In the end it’s not going to protect life and make it any better. Only God can do that.
When we come to verse 12 we may imagine that we are pretty free of any guilt over that one, free of any need for God to chop sorcery and soothsaying out of our lives. Yet any science fiction geek here knows Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We haven’t eliminated our reliance on sorcery. We just call it “science” now.
You might say, “Yes, but the difference is that science works.” But in Micah’s time people thought magic worked. And they depended on it instead of on God, just the way so many of us rely on science to save us instead of God.
No, I’m not saying you should just pray and not take your blood pressure medicine, or go to church instead of the hospital when you break your leg. What Micah said here and what Jesus told the rich young man is that no amount of stuff in this world is going to help you or save your soul when it comes down to it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s magic or technology, whether it works or not. What the human heart is crying out for is God, and no substitute, whatever it is, will do any good. As Jesus told the young man, a substitute God, like lots of money, will only get in the way. That’s why God wants the substitutes chopped.
So when we come to verses 13 and 14, we are back to where Micah started in chapter 1, with God promising to get rid of idols. In chapter 1 He said He would smash them. Here He says He’s going to chop them down. They were carved images, set up as pillars and poles on those high places we heard about in verse 5 of chapter 1.
The point of it all is there at the end of verse 13 in words that should convict you and me, “and you shall bow down no more to the work of your hands.” That’s how idols are described over and over in the Bible, the work of human hands. The implicit question, the irony is why would we want to bow down and submit ourselves to something we made rather than to the One who made us?
Again, like sorcery, we may think that idolatry really isn’t much on your and my sin horizon. It’s not something we do. We have a little concrete frog and a bird in our garden, but neither Beth nor I have get down on our knees in front of them or bring them sacrifices. And I would guess most of you haven’t set up a sacred shrine on your coffee table to worship a carved wooden statue. But how much time and energy and money have we devoted to a house, or to a car, or to an entertainment system, or to a bank account?
We have nice new neighbors. They bought a house in our cul de sac that stood empty for a couple years. It was a real wreck, inside and out, from moss on the roof to mold in the walls. Over the summer they’ve gutted it and rebuilt the inside, put new siding on the outside, constructed a new porch and steps, and replaced the heating system. A new roof went on just this past week. They’ve worked at it like crazy and we admire them for it. Our neighborhood and property value is way better because of what they’ve done. Some of you have done projects like that or have one going right now.
Here’s the thing, though. Our new neighbors are Christians. We’ve talked to them and had them to dinner and they told us so. But as far as we know, as far as we can tell, they’re not going to church anywhere. They spend all their time on that house and when they take a break it’s for recreation in the outdoors or at a sporting event. I can’t know or judge—that’s for God to discern—but it certainly looks like the work of their hands is receiving more attention in their lives than the One who made and gave them those hands.
I don’t want to just diss our really kind, sweet neighbors. That’s not the point. The point is that it’s really easy for any of us, for you and me, to be just like that in other ways, to be blind to the idols we’ve set up and forgetful that God’s plan is to chop them all down. He will knock them all over like those “sacred poles,” which are really images of fertility in verse 14. Even the goal of having and raising wonderful children, which is why people back then worshipped fertility gods, can be an idol for us too.
So God’s wrath shows up in the last verse here, verse 15, “And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey.” There’s another clue, by the way, that God may have been talking here to peoples other than Israel. But again, that doesn’t really matter. God gets angry when people, when you and I put other things in His place. It’s the same kind of emotion you and I feel when someone we love puts something or someone else in the place that belongs to us.
My landlords in graduate school were a sweet old couple. They’re the ones that introduced me to the Covenant Church and I thank God for them. Their marriage was not the first for either of them. They had, in fact, been married to people who were siblings of each other. Howard’s first wife was the sister of Eloine’s first husband. But when their spouses, the sister and brother, both died, Howard and Eloine started spending time together and eventually got married. Folks in the Covenant church there in South Bend told us several cute stories about their courtship.
Here’s the thing, though. The first time Howard and Eloine invited me to their home I saw a large photograph sitting in their living room, front and center on the mantle, the focus of attention for the whole room. It was a photo of Eloine’s first husband. When they got married, Howard moved into Eloine’s place and she kept everything exactly the same, including that prominent display of her dead husband’s picture.
Howard was a gem. He loved Eloine deeply. I could see it in the way he helped her out of the car and how he labored to care for that house and how he deferred to her every wish and need. But a couple of times, when he and I were doing some project together or out in a boat fishing, he let slip his frustration, even his anger that even after several years of marriage he still wasn’t quite first in his new wife’s heart. That photograph of the other guy may have had a bit to do with how Howard felt.
It’s how God feels. In the Covenant church we focus much more on the love of God than on God’s wrath. We teach that Jesus died on the Cross not to satisfy God’s wrath, but to show us just how deeply and completely God loved us. Yet we know that the Bible teaches that God gets angry. He gets angry not so much with us. Howard wasn’t really angry at Eloine. God gets angry with our sins and with our idols, with all those things in our lives which we put front and center in the place which really belongs to Him.
God wants to cut all that stuff away not because He hates us, not because He’s full of wrath and jealousy, but because He’s full of love and wants us to be free and clear to receive all the love He has to give us. He hates all the stuff that gets in the way of His love, but He doesn’t hate us. He loves us enough to chop all that stuff away from us.
May you and I be ready to recognize and receive the love of God which like His Word cuts because it goes so deep. It cut deep enough to pierce even His own Son, who died to remove every sin and idol in the way of His love. I invite you, especially if you never have before, to welcome the love of God in Jesus Christ. Let everything in the way get chopped.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj