Then or Now?
“Then or Now?”
September 20, 2015 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
As a recent movie portrays, you can climb Mt. Everest for about $65,000 plus airfare, as long as you don’t mind the crowds. Forget about ascending a rugged, majestic peak in solitary quiet and splendor, blazing a trail no other foot has touched. Forget about marshalling all your mountaineering skill, carefully driving in pitons and securing ropes as needed, wisely choosing the safest route of ascent.
No, if you climb Mt. Everest today, you will be stepping in the footsteps of thousands who went ahead of you. You will stand in line, in fact, waiting to use ropes and footholds and other gear all the other people climbing that day will use too. 658 people made it up the mountain in 2013, and many more made the attempt.
It’s still a risky business. In April of last year an avalanche knocked down 20-25 people at about 19,000 feet and killed 16 of them. The mortality rate is about 1.4 percent of all those who try the climb. Yet people keep paying their money, flying into Katmandu, and trying to get up the highest mountain in the world.
We read today about another climb, an ascent up the mountain at the center of the Bible, the much lower Mount Zion, the hill upon which the ancient city of Jerusalem was built. But verse 1 says that Zion will be the new Everest, the highest of all mountains. And verse 2 says that, like Everest, everyone is going to want to climb it. “Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.’”
Climbing Everest is an adventure, a thrill, a check mark on your bucket list, just like climbing Mt. Hood, or Rainier, or Denali, or maybe even Spencer’s Butte. You make your way up just to say you did it and then stand gazing out at lower hills and all the land laid out below you. But people ascending the Lord’s mountain have a different object in mind. They aim “for the house of the God of Jacob.”
Bible students debate whether the prophecy here is to be fulfilled literally or figuratively. Some think that in the end times God will actually change the geography of the world so that Zion is higher than Everest. Others take it as a prophetic metaphor for people seeking God above all their other concerns.
David Bentley Hart writes that, though atheists find it deeply annoying when he says such things, anyone who genuinely believes in truth and seeks it, anyone who commits their life to pursuing absolute goodness, actually believes in God and is seeking Him, whether they know it or not. In Micah’s terms, they are trying to climb the mountain of the Lord.
The end of verse 2 points to why people climb Mt. Zion. It’s from there, from the house of God, that “instruction” goes forth. The Word of the Lord comes from Jerusalem and people want to hear it. That search for truth, their love of goodness will be answered and satisfied in what God has to say.
That’s why you and I here in a Covenant church and together with other Christians are so committed to the Bible. As our church constitution says, as we ask new members to affirm, as we teach in our Confirmation classes, “we believe the Bible, the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.”
In other words, it’s the Word of God speaking to us in Scripture which shows us the way into a relationship of faith, of trust in Jesus Christ. It the Bible which answers our quest for truth and knowledge. And it is there in the pages of the Old and New Testaments that we can discover a way of life that is better and more peaceful than any way of life we can invent for ourselves. Faith, doctrine and conduct is why we read the Bible and it’s why Micah pictures the whole world streaming up an ancient little hill in the Mideast. It’s to come and learn what God has to say about who He is and the way we need to live.
Verse 3 gives a glimpse of what it’s like when people learn from God how to live, how to conduct themselves with each other. First it tells us God will “judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away.” One hindrance to getting along with one another is the lack of an arbiter or judge everyone will accept, trusting in that judge’s perfect justice.
I don’t know how many times I’ve sat and listened to a couple in my office as one or both of them asks me to judge between them. “Aren’t I right?” she may say. “Is that fair?” he will ask. And they want me to dispense a verdict, to help them sort out justice in their home, in their relationship.
The problem is that when human beings try to arbitrate, try to offer some wise guidance or even a perfectly fair judgment, we often don’t want to listen. Someone in an organization to which I belong has been suing the organization, suing the rest of us. The case went to arbitration, both sides sat down with a court-appointed arbiter, an attorney trained to listen and mediate a fair settlement. But when that arbiter announced his decision, the couple suing refused to accept it. “We’re not going to listen to some lawyer!” they said. So they’re going to appeal and take it to jury trial anyway.
Micah’s vision here is that one day people will come to God wanting to hear His judgment, ready to listen to His arbitration, willing to settle their grievances on the terms the Lord will give them. And the result will be that incredibly powerful and beautiful image of peace on earth which we find in the second half of verse 3.
As I said in our first message on Micah, those words about beating swords into plowshares, about nations no longer raising swords against each other, about a time when “neither shall they learn war any more,” have fired the human imagination down through the ages. People today may know those words even if they don’t know anything else from the Bible. Michael Jackson sang them. Peace activists sing the words from the spiritual “Down by the Riverside:”
I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside
And I ain’t gonna study war no more
And that’s the chorus:
“I ain’t gonna study war no more, I ain’t gonna study war no more, I ain’t gonna study
war no more.”
Imagine Micah’s vision applied to our world, to our time. There won’t be any more ISIS or Al Qaeda training camps or Boko Haram factions teaching little boys to fire weapons and hate their enemies. There won’t be any Westpoint or Colorado Springs Air Force Academy teaching young men and women to utilize modern missiles and electronic wizardry to obliterate a military objective. Instead, all that passion, all that technology will be turned to a peaceful purpose, to an agriculture which can feed everyone on earth.
It’s hard to imagine isn’t it? It’s even a little offensive to some of us, isn’t it? We’ve got so much invested in studying war, so much national honor and personal pride in being people who can defend ourselves. I’m going to say more about it when we come to verse 5 in a bit, but our first inclination is to say that Micah’s vision is perfectly fine for some day off in the future, but for now necessity forces us to keep on learning war.
But it’s really worse than that. We would like to believe that the reason we need to hold onto our military academies and self-defenses classes is all about the “others,” the folks that just won’t leave us in peace and so we have to fight back. But remember the Gospel lesson from Mark 9 we heard today, those disciples squabbling among themselves, bickering about who was the best one of them even while they were walking along the road with the Prince of Peace.
We heard it too in the letter from James chapter 4 verse 1, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” Let’s be real. It’s not just insane enemies on the other side of the world, no matter how threatening they are, who keep us cracking open books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It’s all the jealousy and strife and war we have right in our own hearts and souls. That old cartoon “Pogo,” said it, and you have probably heard it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I think that’s why Micah 4 verses 1 to 3 shows up twice in the Bible. Isaiah chapter 2 verses 2 to 4 says almost exactly the same thing. It was too important for God’s Word to tell us only once. Micah and Isaiah saw and shared the very same vision. Maybe they both heard it from another prophet or maybe God told them both the same thing in the same words. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Word of God wants to teach us a different way to live from the war and conflict which are our life now.
James 3:17 called it the “wisdom from above… pure… peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Then he adds in verse 18, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Verse 4 of Micah 4 offers a foretaste of that harvest of righteousness sown in peace. Isaiah stopped with “neither shall they learn war any more,” and went on to complain about the arrogance of Israel. But Micah wanted us to see what the world would look like when people cease being in conflict with each other, cease being at war. So he invites us to see a time when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
This prophecy is about a kingdom in which every man, woman and child has a place, has a home, a vine or fig tree under which to sit and rest and from which to draw a basic livelihood and sustenance without any fear. That picture is a total contrast to the horrible displacement of thousands upon thousands refugees fleeing across Europe in terror from the homes and places they once enjoyed. It even contrasts rather strongly with the homeless travelers on our own streets trying to find a place to lay down for the night where they don’t have to be afraid of being attacked or of being rousted by police.
I’ll risk saying that the vision of Micah 4:4 is an economic vision, a picture of an economy which is neither socialist nor capitalist. It’s a world where every person, every family has just what they need to make a living, whether that’s a plot of ground to farm, or a business to run, or tools to work in a trade. The “means of production” belong neither to the state as in socialism, nor to a handful of private individuals and corporations as in capitalism. Instead the wealth of the world is distributed as widely as possible, everyone enjoying a share in peace and prosperity.
G. K. Chesterton and some of his friends supported a vision like Micah’s. They called it “distributism.” The “American dream” was once not too far off Micah’s vision when it was simply the modest idea that every citizen should own a home and have way to make a living. But that dream was perverted into the notion that everyone should have a chance to get wealthy, even at the expense of others. And so we have today a vast and growing income inequality, moving in the opposite direction from Micah 4:4.
Once again, we will want to say that these glorious prophetic visions are for later, when Jesus comes back, when the kingdom of God is finally set up on earth. Right now we have to be practical. We have to compromise. We have to make deals and work with politics and economics and all the other systems of the world as they are right now. We can’t really expect things to be like Micah promised until some day off in the future which probably won’t happen in our lifetimes.
That’s what they said back then too. That’s why verse 5 is here in our text. You can take it one of two ways. One way is to see Micah in a conflicted dialogue with his opponents, the wealthy rulers and the other prophets. So verse 5 is their rejoinder, rejecting the hope of peace in the present. Verse 2 pictured all the nations, the whole world listening to God and discovering His way of peace. Verse 5 then is the pragmatists responding that other nations won’t do it. They follow their own gods, wage war and make the world insecure. We here in Jerusalem and Judah are the only ones really trusting God. So we had better keep learning war and building up wealth in order to be prepared.
It’s better to see verse 5 as an expression of present faith, despite the fact that the time of peace and prosperity is not here yet. Yes, the other nations, the peoples of the world, are far from God. They are worshipping false gods, the idols we saw God smashing in Micah chapter 1. They are after the gods of wealth and power, the gods of lust and pleasure. But that does not stop us, God’s people, from pursuing this vision now. It does not prevent us from walking “in the name of the Lord our God,” both now and forever.
Yes, what Micah and shared here in verses 1 to 4 is for then, for the future. It will only be completely and wholly true when God acts in final judgment and calls everyone up the mountain to hear His Word and learn His ways. But it’s also a vision for now, for the way in which the people of God will live and walk today.
As Christians part of our faith is that what Micah envisioned already began when Jesus came into our world as the living Word of God. In Christ anyone and everyone on earth is invited up the mountain to know God and learn His way. So the church of Jesus is spread all over the world, teaching our Lord’s way to live to anyone willing to listen. That way, that Word is what Jesus taught His disciples there on the road, to live together in humility and peace, like little children. It’s what James taught us it meant to draw near to God, to live in that peaceful wisdom and give up our conflicts with each other.
It’s not just for then. It’s for now too. It’s not easy, it’s not simple, it’s not always what we want. But to extend the same grace and forgiveness that Jesus gave us to the people and the world around us is what it means to be Christian, to have the name of the Lord applied to us, to walk in the name of the Lord our God as Micah says. We can’t make the kingdom come right now, but we can right now live as people of that kingdom.
My wife Beth has been teaching humanities this term and she shared with me some things she learned about the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine. These days Constantine often gets a bad rap, even from Christians. He legalized Christianity, but he waited until the end of his life to get baptized. He is often said to the one who began the corruption of the church by giving it wealth and power. He was a man of war and he committed a great deal of violence in the name of the Lord.
Yet among the acts of Constantine is one small step which indicated that he too knew that the peace of the Lord was meant for now, not just then. He ended the centuries old tradition of the gladiatorial games in 325 A.D. He realized that Christian faith was not consistent with a public spectacle of violence and revenge. He may have still waged war, but he quit the practice of humiliating defeated enemies in the arena. He tried as much as he understood to bring the peace of Christ to his present time.
You and I are called to the same sort of small steps in the name of the Lord our God. We cannot stop all the war on earth, nor can we provide for every hungry or homeless soul on the planet. But we can stop fighting with the person next door or with our spouse or with a co-worker. We can take the time and energy and maybe even material resources that went into those battles and re-purpose them to plant fields of help and care. We can’t heal that whole awful hemorrhage of refugees in Europe, but we can help support an organization trying to house some of them.
I grew up hearing Christians around me say that passages like Micah 4 were all about the end times, when Jesus comes back. Yes, they are. As Revelation 22:20 says, “Come, Lord Jesus!” But Micah 4 and all the other visions of peace and joy in Scripture are not only about then. They’re about now, when you and I climb the mountain of God and meet Jesus Christ, learn from Him and begin to walk in His way. His peace has already begun.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 250, 257.