August 23, 2015 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Most great operas have a “hit tune” or two, at least according to my wife. Even if you’ve never seen or listened to “Carmen” or “Il Trovatore,” you would likely recognize the “Habanera” or the “Anvil Chorus.” Everyone’s heard the “Ride of the Valkyries,” though precious few have endured the long hours of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” The minor prophets of the Old Testament are like that. Lots of Christians have heard their hit tune verses, but few of us, including your pastor, are really familiar with the rest of what they have to say.
Micah’s hit tunes come later in his book. The first and best known is a verse that even many non-believers and non-readers of the Bible know, chapter 4 verse 3, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” It’s quoted in a song by Michael Jackson and in the original Game of Thrones novel. For gamers, there is an early, now valuable Magic: The Gathering card named “Swords to Plowshares.” Micah gave us an enduring image of peace on earth.
Chapter 5 verse 2 is the familiar prediction we remember at Christmas time, that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. And in chapter 6 verse 8 we have those simple words which answer the question, “What does God want?” “What does God require?” “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” You may know all three of those texts, all Micah’s hit tunes, pretty well, but I doubt you are very familiar with the beginning of the book, which we just read, or most of the rest of it. Neither was I until I started getting ready to preach from this prophet for the next few weeks.
We also don’t know much about Micah himself. We’re told what Amos did before he became a prophet. We get gobs of information about Jeremiah’s life and hardships. We feel like we know Jonah personally. But there’s just not much insight here into Micah the man. We do know Moresheth was twenty-five miles west of Jerusalem, about half way to the coast. He was from a small but fortified town, part of the western defenses of Judah along with several other fortified towns guarding against invasion from the sea, the direction from which enemies often came. Micah left his little military base home and came to the big city of Jerusalem to deliver his prophecies.
The rest of verse 1 tells us Micah lasted through three different administrations, three kings of Judah: Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. They were kings over the southern part of what we think of all together as Israel. But in that time it was only the northern half, a separate kingdom, that was called Israel. They had their own kings. In both kingdoms Micah saw hard times and saw good times. He predicted gloom and doom and he predicted prosperity and peace. He raged at the rich and comforted the poor. He predicted both the imminent and soon conquest and destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians and the much later conquest of the southern kingdom by Babylon.
This was the last half of the 8th century B.C., roughly 750 to 700. The big date in there is 722, when Micah’s prophecy came true. Israel and its capital Samaria were conquered and overrun by the Assyrians. In the south, king Hezekiah’s heart was turned, which saved Judah and Jerusalem for over a hundred years. Jeremiah 26:16-19 credits that to Micah, reminding the people of the power of a prophet who truly speaks the word of the Lord.
That’s what verse 1 says came to Micah, “the word of the Lord.” We often use the terms “prophet” and “prophecy” pretty loosely. Anyone who has a little insight into the future and makes a lucky guess about events or technology we deem “prophetic.” So Winston Churchill warning England about Hitler in the 1930s or Steve Jobs talking about networking computers in the 1980s are “prophets.” But in Scripture and in biblical faith, prophets are not just predictors of the future. They are people who speak for God. And that’s what Micah did in the 8th century before Christ.
Our text today is God’s judgment on Samaria, allowing Assyria to defeat and take over Israel in the north. But Judah and its capital Jerusalem in the south are also mentioned and judged. It all starts in verse 2 with God’s appearance as “a witness against you.” Other prophets used that image too. God brings a lawsuit against His people. You find it in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and in Psalms 50 and 82. The Lord has a case and He’s going to prosecute it as plaintiff, witness and judge all rolled into one.
In other words, the Lord is just a little upset. I’ve quoted an irreverent bumper sticker before: “Jesus is coming… and boy is He *****.” Verse 3 tells us, “For lo, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.” Along with scary images of mountains melting and valleys splitting in verse 4, it’s a good reminder to us of who and what God really is.
I’ve been reading David Bentley Hart’s Experiencing God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. Hart writes about how the fundamental experiences of human life are experiences of God. But he starts out by arguing that most of us don’t actually talk about the real God anymore. All those “new atheists” are opposing and disproving the existence of a being whom biblical Christians shouldn’t really care about anyway.
The problem is that we’ve let modern philosophy, cosmology and psychology convince us that the place to look for God is somewhere within this world. If we just make God the author of the Big Bang 15 billion years ago, then He’s only another link in the chain of cosmic history. If I imagine that God is just a little voice inside my heart or my head, then He’s not any bigger than I am. And if we go into the wilderness, like some of us did this past week, expecting to find God in nature, then nature becomes all there is to God.
Micah corrects all those false images of God by telling us that God is not part of this world, not part of nature, not part of our own minds. He comes down, comes into this world from somewhere else, “his place,” which is nowhere in this universe in which we live. He’s not part of the universe, not in nature. He’s the creator and sustainer of the universe, outside of nature, supernatural. And when He steps into the world, which He made and constantly holds in being, it’s terrifying. It’s an invasion from outside, from outside of ourselves, from outside of everything we know.
Divine invasions are not only and always for judgment and destruction. Micah will talk about that later. We read in John 6 last Sunday how God comes into our world as the Bread of Life in Jesus. He comes for salvation as well as judgment. But it’s good not to forget the judgment, not to forget that God is not merely one of our buddies among many, not just one of the nice things we enjoy. God is more than just “a part of my life,” as we say all too often. He is and wants to be all of it, the source of it, the judge of it, the savior of it.
That’s why God comes bringing this legal action against His people in Micah’s prophecy, why He states His complaint there in verse 5. He is judging them for “the sins of the house of Israel” and for “the transgression of Jacob.” What are those sins? What is that transgression? Micah says that the sin, the transgression, the offense is to be found in the capital cities of Israel and Judah, in Samaria and Jerusalem, because the people had come to believe they would find God in those places and that’s all there was to God.
“What is the transgression of Jacob?” Micah asks rhetorically. “Is it not Samaria?” “And what is the high place of Judah? Is it not Jerusalem?” We need a little background here for that term “high place,” which also showed up in verse 3, saying that God would “come down to tread,” to stomp “upon the high places of the earth.” A “high place” was bad, something evil, because it’s where people worshipped idols.
There were legitimate high places before the temple was built in Jerusalem, places where altars were built and sacrifices made to the true God. But after God directed the construction of His temple, the high places became alternatives to genuine faith, places where offerings were made to false gods, to idols.
It’s not surprising that Samaria is accused of this. As you can tell by reading the stories of Elijah and Elisha in I and II Kings, the rulers of the north were quick to desert the Lord and turn to other gods like Baal. So it makes sense to identify their capital Samaria as a “high place,” a center of idol worship, a place of sin against God.
What is surprising is that Micah calls Jerusalem the “high place” of Judah. That’s where the temple is, where worship of the true God is supposedly happening. So what’s going on there? The problem is that even the people of Judah were trusting in and worshipping something other than God right in the holy city of Jerusalem.
We’re focused today on one of two main sins God sent the prophets to talk about. Idolatry takes some object within nature, within the world, and sets it up as a god, failing to recognize the true God who comes from beyond the world. Micah was also concerned with the other great sin God judges harshly. They abused and failed to care for the poor.
That was it, you know. Over and over in the prophets, that’s God’s case against Israel and His case against you and me. We worship other gods and we fail to help those in need. What did Jesus say the two great commandments are? That’s right, love God and love your neighbor. So the two great sins happen when we break those two great commandments, when we love and worship something besides God and when we fail to love our neighbors.
In Israel, Samaria, Judah and Jerusalem those two great sins, idolatry and indifference to the poor, were linked. That’s why Jerusalem was a “high place” where an idol was worshipped. Jesus talked a lot about that idol. It tempts you and me: money and possessions. We will hear more about idolatry of wealth over the next couple weeks in the rest of chapter 1 and chapter 2. Because they loved money they despised the poor. They used and exploited the poor to get more money, and robbed them of what they had.
Another idol worshipped in Jerusalem and Samaria shows up clearly in chapter 3. In their love of wealth and prosperity, people trusted their leaders to keep it secure for them, to keep the profits coming. Micah has some harsh words for rulers and even prophets who get the allegiance of the people by giving them what they want, prosperity on the backs of the poor. That sort of government is an idol itself, a god people trusted instead of God.
In verse 6 Micah sets aside Judah and Jerusalem for the moment and makes the prophecy that was fulfilled in Micah’s own lifetime. God is going to use the Assyrians to march in and take Samaria, pull down the stones of its buildings, scatter its people, and turn a city into farmland, a place to plant vineyards. As we will explore more fully in a couple weeks, God gave the land back to poor people from whom it had been taken.
Verse 7 tells us that along with the metaphorical idol of wealth, literal idols would get smashed. Those metal and wooden images of fertility goddesses and rain gods were pulverized. Their precious metal was melted down and turned back into the money from which it was formed. That’s the rest of the about “wages of prostitutes.” People paid sacred prostitutes and the coins were melted and molded into more idols. But when the Assyrian army came they melted and turned the idols back into coins to pay their own prostitutes.
See the connection again between idolatry and abuse of the poor? Worship of idols was supported and supplemented by sexual trafficking to collect the coins that became the images of gods. Jesus said love of God and love of neighbor go together. When that love fails, it fails in both directions, idolatry and exploitation.
What are we going to do with a message like this? The idolatry of the ancient Hebrews was not just about worshipping weird little statues you and I would not be interested in. The larger idolatry was trusting something or someone other than God in a way which led to sin against the people around them. They trusted their money and trusted their governments to provide for them, even when that wealth and power ignored and hurt the poorest of them.
We’re on the brink of an election year. We’ve already heard way too much of the same old stories asking us to trust one party or the other to keep us secure, to fill our bank accounts, to protect our jobs or create new ones. The Bible’s message is that we can pray and work for good leaders, like king Hezekiah was, but we should never put our faith in them. We should never put our allegiance to and trust in country above our trust in God. Otherwise, politics turns into idolatry and sin against our neighbor.
Let Micah challenge us to look in our own hearts for trust in shiny idols rather than in God. Money is one for sure. Power is another. Entertainment and frivolous pleasures are also tempting. We are always thinking that if we just pay enough for, give enough to the gods of safety and security, all will be well. Added to all that, sports, success in business, good grades, and even family, as Jesus warned, can sneak onto little pedestals in the temples of our mind so that we worship them more than we worship God.
A couple weeks ago I spent a morning looking for rising trout on Oak Creek in Arizona. Fish will feed on bugs hatching and floating on top of the water. You can see the little dimples or circles they make on the surface as they rise to eat. The challenge to the angler is to tie on an artificial dry fly of similar size and appearance, one that floats like the real bugs, and entice them to take that, get hooked and reeled in.
I found a small pod of trout rising to tiny mayflies drifting by in the surface film. I tied on my best guess for a match, a miniscule number 22 Griffith’s Gnat, and immediate caught a fish which took it. Then for the next hour I watched the fish continue to raise but refuse that fly and several others I tried, a parachute Adams, a small Renegade, a caddis imitation. Nothing, no takers.
So finally, just before giving up, I got out a big number 12 Royal Wulff. It has white hair wings and a bright red body bordered by bands of shiny green peacock hurl. It looked like none of the bugs on the water, like nothing in nature. But I cast it out and bam, a nice medium-sized rainbow jumped on it. I reeled him in and said, “Foolish little trout, you went for the candy instead of the real food.” That’s you and I. We go for big, glittering idols rather than the real source of life in the one true God.
We’ve heard Michael warn us about the foolishness of idolatry, but we also heard today the invitation that is the flip side of that warning. Seek the one true God to find life. Peter affirmed it when he and the other disciples refused to walk away from the spiritual food Jesus was offering. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
God came and will come into our world as judge, but the good news is that He also came and comes to us as Savior, as Jesus Christ the Son who has the words of eternal life. That’s whom we want to trust. He’s the one to seek first in our lives. Then we won’t care when money disappears or security vanishes. We won’t mind when the idols get smashed.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
Last updated August 23, 2015