August 30, 2015 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
She wailed and wept like nothing we had ever seen. When our friend from the Mideast died, her mother gave an incredible demonstration of grief. Her whole body was wracked with emotion as she cried and lamented for her daughter, waving her arms and shrieking out her sobs and tears. To us it was remarkable, but to that mother we were the strange people, who may weep when someone dies, but quietly. As one Bible commentator notes, we’re more likely to draw the curtains and not answer the phone than to make some public display of our pain and sorrow.
Micah had more in common with our friend’s mother than with you and me. For his grief about what happened to Samaria and what would happen to Jerusalem, he offered a very physical, very public display in verse 8 which opens our text today. He will “lament and wail.” He will walk the streets “barefoot and naked.” The second part tells us how he sounded, howling like a jackal, making morning sounds like an ostrich or an owl.
The grief Micah felt is for what we read last week, the destruction by an invading army of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., and for the devastation of invasion into his own land of Judah in the south years later. As he says at the end of verse 9, what happened in the north to Samaria “has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem.” The invaders did not enter and destroy Jerusalem yet, but they definitely came to its gate under the Assyrian commander Sennacherib in 702 B.C. And all the territory and towns around Jerusalem, including Micah’s own hometown of Moresheth, suffered.
Part of Micah’s pain is that he sees no answer, no remedy for what is happening. “For her wound is incurable,” he weeps. The one with the wound is his nation, his people, Israel and Judah. The wound itself is their sin, their idol worship and their exploitation of the poor. And it can’t be treated.
At a gathering of Covenant pastors this past week I heard that the wife of one my friends has just learned she has brain tumors and they are inoperable. They are deep enough in her brain that they can’t be removed. They don’t yet know if they are malignant or whether some other kind of treatment might be effective. But it’s deeply disturbing and frightening to know that an obvious treatment is unavailable. For Micah’s people there was no healing to be found at all. No wonder he wailed.
Micah’s testimony speaks to our own experiences of situations beyond hope and repair. I tend to be an optimist, to believe there is always something that can be done to fix a problem. I laugh off my wife’s fears that her computer has crashed beyond recovery and sort out the glitch. I open the hood of my car and find the part that needs to be replaced. On a deeper level, I sit and talk with one of you when you are struggling and try to help you find a path forward.
Yet Micah reminds us that there are problems which cannot be fixed, diseases that have no cure, crimes for which there is no restitution possible. Our lives and our community and our country can be broken beyond repair. And the only possible and the only right thing to do is to weep and wail, to be genuinely and visibly sorrowful for that brokenness.
What Micah does next here might make you and I question the authenticity of his own grief. Verse 10 begins a lengthy poem making puns on the names of the towns west of Jerusalem. For us, a pun is a joke, maybe not even a good joke, something to make us groan rather than truly grieve. But in the language of the prophets, to find a way to let names of people and places express a message was truly authentic. There is power in words and in names, and a prophetic pun displayed that power.
Before the puns comes a quotation from a song of David, not from the Psalms, but from II Samuel 20. It is near the beginning of David’s lament over the death of his enemy Saul and his friend Jonathan, Saul’s son. After the first king and prince of Israel had died in battle, David says what Micah says here, “Tell it not in Gath.” Gath was a city where Philistines, the enemies of Israel, lived. David explains it. Don’t let our enemies know that two of our finest are dead, or else even their women will rejoice and sing for joy at our loss.
The same thing applies again now in the lowlands between the plain of the Philistines along the coast and the heights of Jerusalem. Don’t announce what is happening to our enemies. Don’t give them any occasion to gloat over us. So he says not to even do what he was doing, “weep not at all.” Forgo all those public displays of mourning. Don’t let slip any clue of our distress to our foes.
In the second half of verse 10 the puns begin. The second part of the name Beth-leaphrah sounds like the Hebrew word for dust. Micah is saying, in “Dust-town” “roll yourselves in the dust.” In verse 11, Shaphir means “fair” or “beautiful,” but its inhabitants are going to walk out naked and ugly. Zaanan is similar to a word for “come out,” but its citizens do not come out, presumably because they are dead.
We don’t know where all these towns were exactly or what specifically about them would make the puns appropriate. But in verse 13, Lachish sounds like the word for “horse,” so its residents are supposed to hitch up horses to chariots and flee for their lives. And the rest of the verse suggests that Lachish was one of the centers of sin in Judah, where all their transgressions were “stabled,” to continue the image.
In verse 14 Micah comes to his own city, calling it Moresheth-gath. Moresheth sounds like “betrothed,” “engaged” we would say. People who should have been married to their God are being given wedding gifts as they leave because they are engaged to some other lord. Right nearby is the town Achzib whose name is similar to the word for “deception.” So a place which may have made pottery for kings will no longer fulfill those royal contracts, becoming a deceptively empty place.
Verse 15 tells us that Mareshah, whose name is like the word for “heir,” will be inherited by a conqueror. The second part of the verse tells us that the glory of Israel, its noble families, will once again take refuge in the vicinity of Adullam, where David hid from Saul in a cave. All the glory of God’s people will be reduced to that, hiding from their enemies in holes in the earth. And that’s a good place to stop and reflect on what all this might mean for you and me in 2015 in the United States of America.
Let’s get real about where we stand as people of God, as Christians in this day and time and place. If there ever was a day when this country was a Christian, godly nation, and I’m not so sure that ever was as true as some might think, it’s over.
Do you want to see where Christian faith is vital and growing and truly changing lives? Don’t go to what had been the largest Protestant denomination in the nation, because the Southern Baptists just cut 600 missionaries because they don’t have the funds to pay them. Don’t go to one of the flagship evangelical churches of the last century, because Billy Graham’s grandson has resigned in disgrace as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Don’t go to our own Jesus People USA Covenant church in Chicago, which a few years ago used to host the largest Christian music festival in the world. Now people an ugly smear campaign by a former member is hurting and shrinking that ministry.
Where is the glory of God really on display? Go talk to our friends who share Jesus with students in China. Visit Kay and Dan’s pastor friends for whom we pray in India. Go worship with one of our poor but fervently committed Covenant churches in South Sudan or in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s where God is showing up. That’s where Christian discipleship is deep and rich. Here in America, not so much.
In Mark Labberton’s book Called, he says, “I believe the people of God live in exile.” That’s where we learn our calling, learn to live in true discipleship. He says that here in America Christians have inherited a “Promised Land” mentality. We suppose that we live in the most blessed place on earth and our job is to reap and enjoy those blessings. He says that the culture changes around us and the shrinking of our numbers and influence in the nation shows us the true state of affairs. We are exiles, “strangers in a strange land,” as Moses said about himself.
Being exiles means it’s all right to grieve like Micah does. It’s all right to weep over church attendance going down and failed Christian leaders and a general decline in justice and morality in our land. We need to wail over St. Louis where many people haven’t been too saintly in this past year. We should lament that Body of Christ has been chopped to bits by questions of sexual morality. We should roll in the dust and cry out to God, like Beth and I have had occasion to, for all the young people raised in our good Christian homes but who have walked away from the faith we tried to share with them.
Some Christians say it’s time to fight, to try and recapture some of the ground we’ve lost. They say we should gear up and try to outstrategize and outmaneuver and outvote all the forces which have changed publicly morality and public justice into something distinctly and clearly no longer Christian. We need to “take back our cities” or our country for God, winning converts and building back up those church rolls. We should launch campaigns like the Southern Baptists said they would just last year, to send a limitless number of missionaries out into the world.
But all that “let’s fight back” talk is not what I hear from Micah today. It’s not really what I hear from most of the prophets, nor from our Lord Jesus. The call we are called with is not a call to arms, or at least not a call to any ordinary sense of battle. It’s a call to faithfulness and following the Lord even when events and the culture around us drive us into holes in the ground.
You’ve been praying for my uncle, Dick, on our prayer list. While I was visiting there with him in Tucson last month, he fell and broke his shoulder. I spent the day in the emergency room with him and my aunt. Then he went home, only to fall again even harder a week later, breaking a finger and getting a contusion on his head.
Last week my aunt wrote her family and friends, very discouraged by a visit to an orthopedic doctor. He told them my uncle’s arm would never be the same. He would have to learn to live with it. The same for his broken finger, “live with it.” As hard as it may be to accept, that’s where we as Christians in North America may be with the broken and increasingly secular society around us. We will have to learn to live with it, to live in it.
That is part of what Micah was sent to say to the people of Judah. They were about to be overrun and completely taken over by a foreign, pagan nation which did not know the Lord. Jerusalem their capital might remain secure for awhile, but it would pay tribute to Assyria and abide in fear for the rest of its time. It’s people and everyone in Judah would have to learn to live with that situation.
I don’t blame my aunt for be discouraged with her husband’s situation. She went on to write, “It feels like we are the ‘old folks’ put on a back burner.” I’m sure she’s wept for her husband and what is happening to their lives. It breaks my heart. The desolation of these ten or so cities in Judah broke Micah’s heart. The decline of Christian faith in America should break the heart of every faithful disciple of Jesus. So it’s O.K. to mourn, even loudly, in such times. We are not what we used to be, and we need to learn to live with it, just like the people of Judah in Micah’s time.
In the last verse of the text, 16, Micah calls for even more visible demonstrations of sorrow and remorse. Cutting off one’s hair was a graphic sign of being in mourning in his time. Being shaved and bald meant an experience of the greatest grief. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos also talk about the people cutting off their hair and shaving their beards in sorrow and repentance and mourning over what has happened because they sinned. So Micah asked his people for that same sign of grief, especially for their children, “they have gone from you into exile.”
Micah calls them “your pampered children.” He reminds us that we have been blessed, maybe too blessed in our own eyes. We’ve had everything we’ve needed and far more. Now times are changing and we may have much less, both materially and in terms of influence and power. It’s O.K. to be sad about that.
What should we do about it? I’ve already said that our call as God’s people is not to fight for our rights or to recover our old position in society. In our Gospel reading Jesus talked about focusing on what is inside us, on getting rid of the sins of the spirit, rather than washing hands or what we eat. Maybe that includes less concern about what people say about us, or about winning elections or about anything external to who we are as people of God and disciples of Jesus.
I know you could hear this message from Micah as a real downer, a pretty depressing lesson to take home from your pastor and your church this morning. But let me tell you what is encouraging about it. When God’s people end up in exile, when we lose all the props of and support of the society around us, we get better. We focus on the things which really matter to God and to His kingdom. That’s why the church of Jesus Christ is thriving in China and India and Africa and South America. Christians there know they are in exile.
The Colorado River rises in the Rocky Mountains and flows down from Colorado across the desert in Utah and on into the desert in Arizona. For a lot of that stretch, especially before Glen Canyon dam and the creation of Lake Powell, it was and still is a broad, warm, slow, muddy river, full of frogs and fish like suckers and chubs. It waters the land around it, but there isn’t anything very exciting about it.
But when the Colorado River begins to drop into what we call the Grand Canyon, it changes. As its course gets narrowed and constricted by shale and limestone and ancient schist and granite at the very bottom, something happens to the water. It flows deeper and faster and more clear. It stirs up in powerful rapids which make a boater’s heart race and which wash away any sediment or dirt in its path.
These are difficult times to be a Christian in America. It could get worse. But if we stay the course into the narrow and difficult places, into exile in the midst of a culture we used to think was our own, then we can be like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. We can be deepened and cleansed and empowered by the restrictions placed on us. That’s what God wanted for His people in Micah’s time. It’s what He wants for us.
May God grant us the grace in Jesus to learn to flow through the canyons ahead. Let us grow deeper in faith and devotion and sacrifice and service, and so emerge on the other side challenged but chastened, stressed but stronger, frightened but faithful, until our stream runs down into the great and powerful flow which is the Kingdom of God. Amen.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj