October 4, 2015 – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Where did Superman grow up? That’s right, Smallville, U.S.A. Where was Abraham Lincoln born? Yes, in a log cabin, in a place called Sinking Springs, Kentucky. James Madison’s first lady Dolly Madison was born in a tiny Quaker settlement in North Carolina. It’s a classic story we all love, greatness arising from a small town.
It was already a classic when the prophecy of Micah picked it up and connected it with what would be the greatest story the world has heard. As we turn today to chapter 5 we hear especially in verses 2 to 4 the second of what I’ve called Micah’s “hit tunes,” the best known parts of his book.
Verse 1 is not so well-remembered, but it sets the stage and gets us ready to hear the beautiful promise which begins in verse 2. Part of why we don’t recall verse 1 is that it’s kind of obscure and hard to translate. I think my usual NRSV is wrong here. The prophet is speaking to Jerusalem as a daughter again and telling her to get her troops together because she besieged, surrounded. It could mean either the Assyrians around Jerusalem in Micah’s own time or the Babylonians around it in future times he prophesied.
Either way, Assyrians in 702 B.C. or Babylonians a hundred years later, they humbled the current ruler of Israel, and gave him either literally or figuratively a slap on the cheek. Remember, that’s what they did to Jesus when He was brought in front of the high priest before His crucifixion. A slap on the face was a serious insult, especially to someone like a king who ought to be respected. But that’s what Israel’s rulers got and that’s where they were, hemmed in and humiliated by their enemies, with no help or salvation in sight.
Let the camera pull back for a long shot and you can see verse 1 describes the basic human condition. We are hemmed in by foes of sin and death whom we cannot escape. It’s your story and my story. It’s our story together. Just when we think we’re doing well, just when are making progress, those ancient enemies gather around and slap us down again.
You know what I’m talking about. It happens individually and it happens to us together as families and communities. My sister had surgery on her hand Thursday. She’s in agony, but to add insult to injury mice invaded her home, ate through plumbing and flooded their cabinets. It’s when we are weak and tired the little rodents of sin sneak into our lives and really chew on us. Ask any alcoholic about “H.A.L.T.” Hungry Angry Lonely Tired. That’s when our failures happen, when enemies surround and bite us where it hurts.
Seventeen years ago a student at Thurston High School here in Springfield shot his parents at home and then went to school, killed two fellow students and wounded 25 other people. A student and a teacher from this church were there that day. Now this past week we’ve heard the same sort of news again in our state. Sin and evil is constant and everywhere. It invades our lives and arrives unexpected and devastating.
God wants to deliver us from it all. Two weeks ago we heard that He would beat swords into plowshares, weapons into farm tools. Now we see God’s deliverance arrives unexpected, from a small place, the little town of Bethlehem we sang about a few minutes ago. It’s the shepherd village in the region of Ephrathah where David come from. Through Micah God promised another great king from a small town.
Our readings today from Hebrews 1 and 2 connect with Micah. In his time, back in the days of the prophets, God spoke through many different voices, but now, “in these last days,” says Hebrews 1:2, He has spoken by His Son, “whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” Micah says that One who would come out of Bethlehem was a ruler “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days,” in other words that very same Son of God who was there when the world began.
This is the paradigm and premiere small town story. The one to come from that hamlet five miles outside the big city of Jerusalem is the One through whom creation happened. This is not just another king. This is the King, the King of everything. God’s Son was born in Bethlehem and He is our Savior from sin and death.
It did not happen right away, however. We tend to skip and forget verse 3 too. Micah says that “he shall give them up until the time…” Another translation is, “He will abandon them until the time…” The king from Bethlehem was a long time coming, “until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.”
That last bit about labor and birth could go back to chapter 4 verses 9 and 10 which compared Jerusalem’s sufferings in the Babylonian captivity to a woman giving birth. But as Christians we know it also looked forward a long time, to a young woman who while temporarily homeless gave birth to a baby boy in a shelter meant for animals. Micah predicted it and it took seven hundred years to happen.
You heard the news from Roseburg and asked, “When is it going to stop?” It ought to stop now. American people should hound our legislators and improve our schools and heal our families and create a society where young people don’t become murderers. You and I know how unlikely that is. We hate it and weep, but we won’t be surprised if we hear similar news tomorrow from Kansas. We’ve waited decades for an answer. Israel waited centuries.
Our reading from Hebrews quoted the psalm for today, Psalm 8. Human beings were created by God just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor. He made us in His image to have all things subject to us, the whole world guided and controlled by human direction. But then in chapter 2 verse 8 we heard, “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them.” No kidding. We can’t even control ourselves, much less the rest of the planet. We’re still waiting for that, just like Israel waited.
We don’t see it yet. No control, no healing, no peace on earth. But Hebrews 2:9 goes on, “but we do see Jesus.” That’s the difference between our time and Micah’s time, between what Hebrews 1:1 called “long ago” and the present day. Now Micah’s prediction has been fulfilled. The promised birth has happened. The One who can save us from sin and death has already arrived, has already been born in the little town of Bethlehem. That’s why we sang, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Mary’s Son is the answer to all those years before and all these years after His birth.
At the end of verse 3, Micah tells us that once the promised Savior was born, “the rest of his kindred [his brothers and sisters] shall return to the people of Israel.” Hebrews 2:11 says that Jesus is “not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Jesus came to gather His people together, to add people from all the rest of the world to God’s family, to make us all one people, one family, one flock in Him.
Verse 4 says, “And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” Hebrews said that now we see Jesus “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” The glory and honor of Jesus is that He died and gave His life so that you and I could have our lives back in Him, could enter into the flock which He feeds and cares for. So Micah goes on, “And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be peace.”
“They shall live secure… and he shall be peace.” That’s what, that’s who was born in Bethlehem. Our phones ping, we read the news and ask, “When will it stop?” When Jesus Christ is truly honored in the whole world, when he is “great to the ends of the earth,” that’s when “it” will stop, whether we’re talking about gun violence, or war, or homelessness or abuse of children or the pain of broken families which Jesus deplored in our Gospel lesson. It’s all meant to end with the grace and love of the great Shepherd who gathers His flock, His family into peace and security.
We may not always see it clearly, but when we look, we still like Micah, like the writer of Hebrews, see Jesus. Wherever Jesus is honestly and authentically given glory and honor there is the beginning, the down payment on that peace and security we were promised. Which means it’s happening now. It happens in the church, in the churches who are the flock of Jesus Christ, His presence now on earth.
I know all too well that no church is perfect, that some churches are pretty dismal affairs. I grew up in a little church that had the most exciting business meetings I’ve ever seen, royal battles fighting over things like the color of the curtain in front of the baptistry. Yet I also found there the love of Jesus, a love which had room for my divorced mother, for African American young men from south Los Angeles, and for a quirky paraplegic man constantly in need of help and money. Folks in our church believed that Jesus loved them. That made them, even with all their flaws, able to offer love to those Jesus sent them.
That’s how it happens right now, you see. We live in the hope and promise of Jesus coming back, like Micah and dozens of generations after him lived in the Bethlehem hope and promise of His birth, His first coming. But now Jesus comes and lives among His people and it’s here right in the midst of us that you can see Him shining in glory and honor, in strength and majesty.
This glorious presence of God in His people are what the last couple verses are about. We definitely don’t read these when we read Micah’s Bethlehem prophecy at Christmas. Verses 5 and 6 talk about fighting against the Assyrians, conquering them and ruling their land. “Seven shepherds and eight rulers” are going to be raised up to fight for Israel. All that corresponds to nothing in history. Israel never fought successfully against the Assyrians. They were only defeated by new enemies from Babylon. Nothing like seven or eight leaders were ever raised up to guide Israel to victory and power over their enemies.
Those verses are not literal. They are a picture of God’s people winning over their enemies, against all the forces of evil which oppressed them and which oppress us. The Assyrians symbolize all our foes, including the most dangerous, sin and death. Those seven or even eight shepherds or rulers is a way of saying that God’s people have everything we need in the struggle. Seven symbolizes completeness and eight means there will be even more, an abundance. God promised that when that one great Shepherd Jesus is among us, His people have within themselves all the leadership and strength they need.
We wonder what to do about guns and kids who kill. God’s answer is the one Micah gave. It’s Jesus Christ alive and powerful in us. On NPR yesterday morning there was a story about mothers in south Los Angeles, in Watts, responding to the death of their own sons in gang violence by becoming activists, patrolling their own streets. There’s a 73 year old woman named Betty Day who sits and watches over a small park where children play safely and other women sit and listen to her advice. She’d just gotten out of the hospital but she went to take her place in the park, saying “I’ve gotta come see about these children.”
Our Gospel reading told us today how much Jesus cares about children. That’s why He was so uptight about divorce. He knows what it does to kids. The best way to care for children is to nurture families and help them stay together or to help them heal when things get broken. That happens best in something like a small town, a community of grace where you can find love and support when life gets hard. In other words, the answer to the evil around us is to do our best to be what God saved us in Jesus to be, the church.
Micah promised the Great Shepherd to a small town. He still promises Himself to any community where people gather in His name and seek His help. That’s why we are here. That’s who we are, people saved by Jesus to continue His saving work of defending children and bringing the hope of forgiveness and peace into glorious reality. We come together around His Table. Our Communion is a true sign that Christ was born, died and rose again, that He is alive and present here among us. Jesus keeps arriving in the small places.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj