November 1, 2015 – All Saints Day
There won’t be any blackberries when I get to our cabin in Arizona tomorrow. I saw them just starting to ripen along the creek when I was there at the beginning of August. Another week or two and I could have walked along grabbing handfuls or even filled a bucket. But now I’ve missed the berry season. All I will find are a few shriveled, dried up bits hanging on thorny vines.
Micah used that image to describe how he felt looking around at what happened in Jerusalem. It’s like looking for summer fruit, but discovering it’s all been picked, whether clusters of grapes or nicely ripened figs. There’s nothing there. Just like the disappearance of the grapes and the figs, verse 2 says, “The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright.”
In the 1987 film “Wall Street,” the Michael Douglas character Gordon Gecko makes a speech in which he declares, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” His point was that greed to have more drives people to work harder, work smarter, to rise above poverty and disadvantage and achieve great things. It’s the same philosophy you find in Ayn Rand and Adam Smith, that the force of human desire will push human society forward and make it better.
Micah, on the other hand, says greed is fruitless. In a society where greed flourishes, so does deceit and corruption. The good fruit, the faithful, disappear and can’t be found. No one is left who can be trusted.
It starts where we were last week, with a grain seller who scants the measure when selling grain or with a fruit seller who uses a dishonest weight to price the produce. People learn to distrust what goes on in the marketplace and so they learn to distrust everyone. And distrust turns to attack. In the next few verses we see a society where lack of trust has infected every area of human life, every relationship. The end of verse 2 says, “they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets.” Everybody is trying to trap everyone else, gain the advantage, take control.
In verse 3 we see it in public life. Officials and judges cannot be trusted. They take bribes. They take action and make decisions based on money. Bring it to our own time. What do you think of politicians? Forget which party they belong to. What words or phrases come to your mind? “Corrupt?” “Dishonest?” “Can’t be trusted?” Did anyone think of “Honest” or “Hardworking” “Champions of justice?” Like the title of a documentary series asks, “How did we get to now?” How did our time and culture come to look so much like Micah’s time? Why don’t we trust the people we place in office?
The rest of verse 3 states what we’ve all come to expect, “the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice.” Books and movies about huge conspiracies run by a few powerful individuals sell like crazy because we all pretty much believe something like that is actually true. All the talk about the “one percent” strikes a chord with how we see society around us. The rich and powerful get whatever they want.
“The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge,” says verse 4. It reminds me of lines from the 1920 Yeats poem about the decline of Europe, “The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” A society driven by greed is one where those who claim to prize goodness and truth are spineless, while those who actively do what’s wrong are passionate about it. Micah said in verse 3, “Their hands are skilled to do evil.”
At the end of verse 4, Micah pauses for a moment to say, like he said in chapter 6 last week, that punishment is coming for all this. “The day of your sentinels, of your punishment, has come, now their confusion is at hand.” Prophets were supposed to be sentinels, watchers posted on the wall to see what was coming and give warning. But as we saw back in chapter 3, those prophets deserted their posts. They should have warned this society about their greed and corruption, but the prophets themselves were greedy, and took money to prophesy what people wanted to hear. So, now, says Micah, God is coming to visit, to punish and throw the prophets and everyone else into confusion.
But it’s not just the rich and powerful who can’t be trusted. It’s not just false prophets misleading people. With verse 5 we come to Micah’s cynical advice for a society where everything that matters has become a lie. “Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace.”
I don’t know how many books or movies I’ve read or seen where at some point our hero is told, “Trust no one.” It’s an impossible rule of course. If you trust no one, you can’t even trust the person who told you not to trust anyone. But as Micah said, “now their confusion is at hand.” If you live by the rule that you should look out only for yourself, for you own interests, then confusion and hopelessness is the result.
The result is the complete disintegration of human relationships. Micah already told you not to trust your spouse, the one whom you embrace. In verse 6 he goes on to detail how human family falls apart, “for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household.”
Many of us have experienced that kind of contempt and distrust in our own families, whether it’s spouse or child or parent or sister or brother. Everything that held us together breaks down and trust evaporates.
The old director of Covenant Trust Company, our denominational entity for estate planning, used to say, “Where there is a will…, there are relatives. Where there is no will, there are more relatives.” He was talking about inevitable family fights which happen when someone dies and hasn’t done a good job of estate planning. Many of us know that story, the greed, the dishonesty, the distrust that arises when a parent dies and children and siblings and even nieces and nephews start maneuvering to grab what’s been left.
In Matthew 10:36, Jesus quoted Micah about the effect of His own ministry on family. With regard to faith in some cases “one’s foes will be the members of one’s own household.” On my blog I remembered the old 1987 film “Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger. His character Douglas Quaid discovers his loving wife Lori is part of a conspiracy against him. In their final confrontation, she tries to sweet talk him, “After all, we’re married.” But he shoots her and delivers one of those famous Arnold one-liners, “Consider that a divorce.”
It’s horribly harsh, but Micah says that’s where we land if we go down the path of greed and self-interest. We trust no one and everyone is our enemy, even those nearest and dearest. So whom can we trust? In yet another famous misquote the Greek philosopher Diogenes carried a lamp in broad daylight and said he was “looking for an honest man.” What he actually said was that he was looking simply for a “man,” a human being. As he looked around at the corruption of his own society, he wondered if anyone was still genuinely human anymore. We may wonder the same as we hear about shootings and corruption and refugees turned away or left to drown in little boats.
Whom can you trust? Micah’s answer in verse 7 is what we as Christians might expect. He says, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” When there is no one left on earth to trust; when there is no one even listening; he can trust God and be sure that God will hear him and save him.
That’s what Jesus kept telling Martha in our Gospel lesson from John 11. We didn’t read it, but earlier in that chapter Martha expressed her trust in Him. She declared her faith that her brother Lazarus would rise again and then, more importantly, she declared her faith in Jesus, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
In what we did read from John, Martha still had doubts when Jesus asked for the tomb to be opened. “Lord, there will be a stink. He’s been dead four days.” But Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And then He raised her brother from the dead, not some day off in the future, but right then, right before her eyes and the eyes of everyone around them.
In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress Christian walks through the Valley of Humiliation and there he meets one of the deadliest foes on his journey, the monster Apollyon, which means “destruction in Greek.” Apollyon is covered with scales like a fish, has wings like a dragon and feet like a bear. He belches fire and smoke and his mouth is like a lion’s. He confronts Christian with all his doubts and fears, tells him he can never get away from the City of Destruction he’s running from. He reminds Christian how often he has failed and sinned and makes him doubt, makes him wonder whether he can really trust his Lord to save him. In the end, Apollyon closes on him to wrestle and gives “him a dreadful fall” and knocks his sword flying out of his hand.
That’s when Christian reaches out his hand, catches his sword, gets up and quotes Micah 7:8, “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise.” Jesus asked Martha and He asks every Christian to believe this verse. We may fall, whether it’s into sin or into death, but He will raise us up again.
The rest of verse 8 says, “when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.” Life can look awful bleak. We can go around like Diogenes with his lamp trying to find a little light, trying to find someone worth trusting. But our Lord comes to us and raises us up and says, “Trust in me.”
Please don’t get the wrong idea about all this. Despite the fact Micah is completely pessimistic and cynical about the people around him; despite the way he seems to picture himself all alone looking to the Lord in verse 7, these last few verses about God bringing victory to the one who trusts in Him are not about a private, individual salvation.
The one speaking in verses 8 to 10 is not Micah talking for himself. The one who says, “Do not rejoice over me my enemy,” is a she. In Hebrew in verse 10 when her foes talk back to her they use a feminine possessive pronoun. Micah is speaking with the voice of Zion, of Jerusalem, where all God’s faithful people live in joy and peace. He’s speaking for that holy city we saw with John in Revelation 21 today, the new Jerusalem where God dwells with His people and wipes away their tears and takes away death and sorrow and crying.
It’s the city of God together which says in verse 9, “I must bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he takes my side… He will be bring me out into the light; I shall see his vindication.” And it’s Zion the holy city which knows in verse 10 that she will see her foes defeated.
You can trust God. Trust Jesus. But it’s not just “me and Jesus.” Micah is not telling you to trust God and no one else. He’s telling us that when we together trust our Lord, then we together become something new and wonderful, a holy city, a sacred community of people who love and trust each other because we love and trust Christ our Savior. We become part of that great company of saints we sang about and remembered today.
Augustine wrote that it’s like there are two cities in the world. One is the place Micah talked about in verses 2 to 8, a city where there’s no one to trust, where everyone is out to get whatever they can for themselves. Then there is the other city, God’s city, where we can live in safety and peace and confidence with each other, because our trust is first in Christ and then in each other. I know which of those two cities I want to live in. How about you?
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj