September 27, 2015 – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“My life is so lame!” We can hear that teenaged girl as she moans in frustration because her phone won’t run the latest apps, or her parents won’t allow her to stay out past 11 p.m., or her summer vacation consists of working at a fast-food store. Or a high school boy might be finding it pretty lame that he doesn’t yet have a car, or that the girl he likes doesn’t like him, or that he has to take algebra.
Anyone who has a physical disability has a whole other take on what makes life lame. It’s pain and limitation built into one’s own body, one’s own self. You can’t play a sport or ride a bike or get through a day without medication. You can’t concentrate to read or see well enough to drive or walk without crutches. To have a life of lameness like that makes those lame frustrations of youth dwindle in comparison.
Yet the Lord has good news for those whose lives are lame, whether it’s petty lameness which bores us so much when we are young or huge, debilitating lameness which weighs us down and hampers life at any age. As Micah says in our text for today, God is going to make something out of the lame, make a kingdom built on those whose lives are less than exciting or whole.
Verse 6 is God saying there’s going to be a day when He will “assemble the lame.” It’s an image of sheep, animals that limp along as they try to stay with the flock. That’s the sort of people God is going to draw together, those with handicaps, those who hate their lives, those who can barely stand to get up in the morning or who need help to get up in the morning.
Micah says God will “gather those who have been driven away.” He’s got in mind sheep who’ve been frightened and scattered by wild animals, or even by stronger sheep who pushed them out to the edges of the flock. The Lord is going to gather in people who’ve been on the outside, the weird kids with whom nobody wants to be friends, the Asperger’s sufferers, the paraplegics, the children we call “special” when we don’t really mean it. God’s going to bring all those odd ducks together and make something out of them.
God’s going to make a “remnant,” and out of that remnant He’s going to make a “strong nation.” “Remnant,” usually means some sort of material. My wife goes to JoAnn Fabrics and looks at their remnant rack, little bits of cloth left at the end of the roll. There might be a yard and a half of a green print, or maybe only three quarters of a yard of some blue and yellow striped Waverly cotton. But Beth looks at that sad, creased bit of fabric and sees what it can be, maybe a cover for a worn out pillow on our couch. And somebody like Barbara can take even smaller remnants, gather them up and put together a beautiful quilt that wins a prize at the Lane County Fair.
You may go like I do sometimes to Home Depot or Jerry’s to buy a sheet of plywood or drywall to repair the floor or patch a wall, but come away happy if you can find a remnant that will work, a smaller end left over from a bigger sheet cut to size by somebody else. That’s the stuff God works with when He builds. I’ll stand there in the lumber section sorting through a stack of 2x4s trying to get perfect ones, straight and clear without any big notches. But God reaches down into His lumberyard of the world and picks out all the crooked ones, full of knots, the lame ones tossed in the back by everyone else. God told Micah He would make the lame a remnant and then make that remnant into a kingdom.
It’s just not going to happen right away, and it’s not going to be easy. That’s the rest of the message of Micah 4. In our men’s Bible study we’ve been hearing how the kingdom of Israel began, how David took the city of Jerusalem and set it up as his capital. He had workers haul dirt up Mt. Zion to expand the flat area at the top and construct more buildings and walls, to make a fortress city on the heights.
Then from the security of that mountain city, David expanded his territory. This past Friday we readd how he pushed north eastward over the Jordan and up toward what we call Syria, defeating and subduing those areas and bringing them under the control of his kingdom. But in Micah’s time all that empire had shrunk and was continuing to shrink. And Judah itself was under the control of a foreign power.
That’s why verse 8 addresses “you, O tower of the flock, hill of daughter Zion.” God is talking to that ancient city of David on the hill, and He promises, “to you it shall come, the former dominion shall come, the sovereignty of daughter Jerusalem.” As we heard last week, God spoke through Micah to say that Jerusalem would one day again be the most important city in the region, even in the world, because that is where God would speak, that is where His Word would be heard. But not right now.
Verse 9 jumps back to what has to happen before the remnant becomes a kingdom, before the lame become the rulers. First they have to cry and moan like a woman in labor. He’s called Jerusalem “daughter,” so now she’s in the agony of childbirth. Look down to verse 10 and you find that Micah is prophesying what will happen in a hundred years. The Assyrians will be gone, but Babylon will invade and take over. And they will bring an end to the line of kings which David began. The last two kings in Jerusalem will be hauled away as captives to Babylon, with the last having his eyes put out. So it’s a rhetorical question, “Is there no king in you? Has your counselor perished?” The answer is yes, and so verse 10 tells them to go ahead and “Writhe and groan, O daughter Zion, like a woman in labor.”
The middle of the verse pictures the whole sad story of the Babylonian captivity. The best and the brightest of Jerusalem would be taken from their city and marched across the open country to Babylon, camping in the wilderness along the way. All you have to do to get the picture is click on those images of refugees marching through Turkey into Germany and those of the refugee camps into which they are being herded and contained. Micah saw something very like that for his own people in just a few generations.
Life is lame for whole lot of people in our world. It’s lame enough that people want to medicate it away with drugs or alcohol. It’s lame to be disabled. It’s lame to have broken dreams of a happy family. It’s lame to have no job. It’s lame to be identified and judged by the color of your skin. It’s lame to have served your country in the military and then wait months for medical care for the wounds you suffered. It’s lame to realize you will have less than your parents had, that you may never own a home or work in the same job more than a couple years at a time. There are all sorts of ways life is lame, just as there were there in Jerusalem in Micah’s time with all the glory gone and worse times on the horizon.
Yet God is going to gather the lame. God’s going to make them a remnant. And He’s going to make the remnant into a kingdom, into His kingdom. Verse 10 ends, “There you shall be rescued, there the Lord will redeem you from the hands of your enemies.” For Israel, it was there in Babylon that they were going to be saved, be redeemed. Right in the middle of the lamest time in their history, God would come and save them.
Verses 11 to 13 picture what it’s going to be like when Jerusalem gets her own back, when all the enemies who have besieged and persecuted her through the years are put down and destroyed. In verse 6 God was going to gather the lame and exiled. Now we hear in verse 12 that another part of God’s plan was to gather Zion’s enemies like sheaves gathered “to the threshing floor.”
Then in verse 13, those lame lambs will be made into strong oxen, with horns of iron and hooves of bronze. They’re going to tread on all those sheaves, stomp down all their enemies until they are broken into pieces. The point is to “devote their gain to the Lord, their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth.”
Some commentators think these verses are not Micah speaking at all, but his opponents, that the whole vision of a renewed, powerful Jerusalem beating down its enemies and plundering their wealth is a contrast and counterpoint to the vision of peace we heard from Micah last week. But we have to understand how this will get fulfilled. It points beyond the return from Babylon, points beyond any fulfillment in the history of Israel. It points to the victory of Jesus Christ, and to the fact that in Him God will be the Lord of the whole earth.
As Christians we claim victory over our enemies, but it’s the victory of Jesus who died on the Cross and rose from the dead. In Jesus we accept our weakness, our lameness, our sin and defeat and die with Him on the Cross. Then in Jesus we are raised to new life, to healed life, to life that is no longer lame but whole and strong and filled with the riches and joy which come God.
The way to get to victory as a Christian is the same way Micah preached here to Israel. They weren’t going to rise and conquer until they had been lame and defeated, until they had dwindled down to a remnant that God could remake into His kingdom. That’s true for you and me and all God’s people today.
Look at what Jesus said in our Gospel today, in Mark 9 about how to enter into victorious, eternal life. Remember especially verse 45. Matthew gives us these same thoughts in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells us to cut off an offending hand or pluck out a problem eye, but when Mark repeats them in a different place, he adds verse 45, “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.”
God has a heart for the lame. He’s going to give the lame a better life, to make the lame into the remnant who are the foundation of His kingdom. And Jesus and Micah both suggest that we might want to consider making ourselves lame if we want to be part of it.
No, the great tradition of Christianity has never thought that you and I were to take Jesus literally here and start chopping our bodies to bits. But not taking Him literally does not mean not taking Him seriously. What does it mean for us to make ourselves lame so that we can enter into life?
Long ago I heard about an exercise for a youth group to let kids gain a better understanding of what it’s like to be an old person, to help them feel what others whom they might brush by at church or at the mall are experiencing. Have the kids put on glasses smeared with Vaseline and poke earplugs in their ears and tie a splint around one knee to make them walk stiff-legged and pull on thick gloves so their hands become clumsy. Then ask them to walk around a room full of furniture, turn on a lamp, pick up small objects. Just navigate normal activities with fuzzy vision and little hearing and fumbling hands. Feel what it’s like to be really “lame” before talking about how lame your own life is.
Something like that game for kids is the sort of spiritual exercise toward which Micah and Jesus are pointing us. Let us put ourselves in the place of the lame of the world before we rise up to claim the victory which God promises them. That’s why fasting and giving were key parts of Jewish life and why Christians kept them as part of our spiritual discipline. We deliberately and regularly disadvantage ourselves by going hungry for a little while or by giving away our money, our time, our possessions. We’re cutting off bits of who we think we are and throwing them away so that we can enter into life, real life, eternal life.
Many of us, maybe most of us, have to work at this. We have so much, especially compared to the rest of the world, that it’s hard to pare away enough to even notice, to even have any feeling at all of what it’s like to have a truly lame life, to be limping lambs falling behind the rest of the flock. We’re a bit like a cartoon of a youth group watching a video about hunger in Africa. One of the girls sees a malnourished African girl and says, “OMG, I wish I was skinny like her!” Sure that’s horrible, sure she didn’t get it at all, but how do you and I fail to get it in more subtle and hidden ways?
Some of us, some of you, do get it. You get it because you are already there. You have a disability or an empty bank account. You’ve lost someone or lost a job. Your body or your heart is broken. You are already feeling lame. You find yourself out on the edge of the flock and nobody seems to notice you’re missing. Micah’s word for you is that you and everyone like you are the Lord’s little lame lambs who will be his remnant. You are his dearly beloved whom Jesus came to save and bring into His kingdom.
The Gospel reading from Mark began with the disciples worried that a fellow they didn’t know was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. They tried to stop him because he wasn’t following them, wasn’t part of the group. Jesus told them to think again. Anyone doing good in His name was on His side, He said. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” I think that’s one of the lessons the Pope tried to teach congress this past week, when he called for a spirit of cooperation for the common good, not constantly dividing ourselves into two camps and perceiving the other side as evil.
The truth is that if we want to live with God, if we want to have the eternal life that Jesus gives, we must admit we are all lame lost lambs. To see others as somehow worse than ourselves, as the enemies in some social or political war, is to deny the Gospel truth that Jesus came to gather the lambs, to save sinners. It’s to think that we can walk whole and strong into the kingdom of God, instead of limping in like Micah says, broken by our own sins and failures and the struggles of life.
That’s why when we come to the Lord’s Table in this service next week, and every week in our first service, we confess our sins, like we heard James tell us to do this morning. It’s one way we acknowledge that we are lame, that we need the healing of the Lord, that we haven’t yet arrived either individually or as a church in the kingdom.
Yet the wonderful thing is that when we do confess and pray to be healed, when we acknowledge our disability, physical, spiritual and moral lameness, God has promised to raise us. It was promised there in James, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” That can happen now or it can happen when Jesus comes again, but it will happen.
Right now we get little previews of Micah’s vision of a lame remnant made into a strong kingdom. Jesus said it happens when even someone on the edge of the flock shares a cup of cold water in His name. It happens when you befriend someone on your block who has no friends. It happens when we take in for a night the lost lambs who are homeless. It happens when we welcome someone different into our worship. Let us pray for and work at those signs of the kingdom with all our hearts. And our hope and trust in Christ our Savior is that one day the lame will walk and the blind will see and the dead will be raised, and as Micah said, the Lord will reign over them now and forevermore.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj