October 18, 2015 – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
My mother loved Perry Mason and I’ve read most of John Grisham’s legal thrillers. One of my wife’s favorite novels and movies, To Kill a Mockingbird, also centers around a legal battle. Courtroom drama is exciting. The contest of wits and the human emotion are as profound as they can be when a trial is held. Each side wishes to prove itself right, and we hope and pray the outcome will be genuine justice.
Verse 1 of our text opens in a gigantic courtroom into which God calls His people to plead their case and against whom He will present His own case. The witnesses and jury are the hills and mountains themselves, which have stood and seen all the events with which this trial is concerned. The mountains saw God deliver Israel out of Egypt and bring them into this land five hundred years earlier. The hills saw God give them victory over their enemies, and provide them with cities and fields and kings to rule over them. Now God wants these age-long features of topology to hear this case.
Those heights of rock also saw the sins of Israel. Their sins of idolatry were committed on the “high places,” where they set up images to worship and sacrifice to other gods. The mountains and hills are witnesses to both the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of His people. God has a double case against them. We saw a hint of this courtroom drama back at the beginning of Micah, chapter 1 verse 2, where God called Himself as witness against His people. There the picture immediately switched to God’s judgment on His people’s sins, but here in chapter 6 we hear God as plaintiff bring His case.
The complaint starts in verse 3. It takes the form of a question. What has God done to justify what Israel has done? “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied [or “burdened”] you?” This verse has a unique and long history in Christian liturgy, in worship for Good Friday. Following the way Jerome and Ambrose and other church fathers interpreted verse 3, it became in Good Friday worship a chant of reproach from Jesus Himself. So it is Jesus on the Cross who says,
Oh, my people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you?
Oh, answer me!
In verses 4 and 5 of Micah, God states what He has done for Israel, hitting the high points of what is sometimes called “holy history,” the great story of God’s first great works of salvation for His people. So verse 4 is about the Exodus, about God rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt and giving them leaders who guided them out of slavery and into freedom.
I’ll indulge in a little sidebar for anyone wondering whether the Bible allows for women to be leaders. Note that Miriam is listed right here with her brothers as one of the guiding lights of the Exodus. Part of what God has always done for His people is to raise up both men and women to serve Him by serving others as leaders.
Things get a little more obscure in verse 5 as God speaks through Micah about King Balak and Balaam and then about a couple of lesser known stops on the way to the promised land. Balak was a pagan king who hired a freelance prophet named Balaam to curse Israel. But all Balaam could get out of God was a blessing for Israel. God used a talking donkey to stop the curse from happening. God’s salvation extended even to controlling what Israel’s enemies could say about them.
Those odd place names are here because Shittim was on the east side of the Jordan river and Gilgal was on the west side, on Canaan’s side, within the promised land. What happened in between was another parting and crossing of the waters through the direction of Joshua. God is reminding His people that He did that sort of thing for them not just once, but twice.
God is like the classic mom who says, “Remember, don’t you forget! I carried you around inside me for nine months, with nausea and back aches and constant trips to the bathroom. I spent 18 hours in labor to deliver you. I got up with you in the middle of the night for 12 months after that. I changed your diapers. I wiped your nose. I made your lunch. I washed your clothes. I dried your tears. I held you in my arms and loved you with all my heart. How can you not remember and love me back?”
It was a good thing for God’s people to remember what God had done for them and it’s good now for Christians to remember. That’s why the Reproaches made their way into Good Friday worship over a thousand years ago. Different churches put it together in different ways, but one Lutheran version starts out:
O my people, O my church, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! I led you out of slavery into freedom, and delivered you through the waters of rebirth, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
Then comes the traditional reply of the congregation:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.
So God reminds us of what He’s done for us and of our sins which nailed Jesus to the Cross. Then we respond with “Holy…, holy…, holy, have mercy on us.” That’s called the Trisagion, the phrase which calls God “thrice-holy” and asks for mercy. All we can do when God asks us what evil He possibly could have done to us is to admit that He is only good, only holy, and we are in dire need of His mercy.
I’m thinking I’d like to get these Reproaches into our own Good Friday worship here next year. It’s good for us to bring ourselves up short at points, especially when we feel like God isn’t doing what we want, hasn’t measured up to our expectations. It’s time then to realize that God has done huge miracles for us, especially in His Son Jesus. So we simply beg for mercy on our own ingratitude and failure.
Even before Good Friday we might practice the kind of prayer I believe someone taught here earlier in the year, the daily examen. It’s a time of prayer in which we quiet ourselves in God’s presence toward the end of the day, thank Him for His gifts, for what He’s done, then look back through our day, remembering when we felt God present and when we were far from Him. Then we ask forgiveness for those times when we moved away from God. Finally, we look toward tomorrow, asking for help to be more in touch with what God is doing in and around us. That kind of prayer is a way to put the question of Micah 6:3 to ourselves on a regular basis, “What has God done to me?”
The danger in trying to answer that question, even with great sincerity, is that we can come up with the wrong kind of answer. The cry for mercy, the request for forgiveness, the prayer for help to remain closer to God tomorrow are all good answers. But there are some bad answers and they can take the form of trying to do some good things. That’s what the next couple of verses, 6 and 7 of Micah 6, are about.
Bad answers to God’s question begin with a question we might ask of Him. So verse 6 asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” It appears to be an excellent question. How can I can get closer to God? How can we draw near to the Lord and show Him true and authentic devotion? Those are good questions.
The problem lies in the kind of answers we expect, the kind of answers laid out here in ever-increasing intensity in the rest of verse 6 and in verse 7. It’s the thought that what God wants is something we can give Him or do for Him. It starts out pretty simple there in verse 6, “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” That’s exactly what God asked for back in Leviticus 9 when He was going to appear to His people. A yearling lamb or calf burnt up wholly in dedication to the Lord was what He told them to give as a sin offering. If the question had stopped there, with the intent to simply do what God had clearly asked, it might have been O.K.
Trouble appears in verse 7, when the suggested offerings get extreme. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” and then the horrible idea, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Something has gone way off track here. What’s the problem?
What’s messing up this simple question about how to draw near to God is a spirit, an attitude which high school and college teachers know about. You’re standing in front of your class. This is the day you talk about your favorite subject, whether it’s the Declaration of Independence or the migration of Canadian geese or Shakespeare’s sonnets or the amazing beauty of the cosine function in trigonometry. Whatever it is, you pour your heart out, wave your arms in the air, draw diagrams on the board, tell your most clever stories, give it your all to share with these students a subject you love dearly.
Then, in the middle of your glorious rhapsody on history or science or math, some doofus in the back row raises his hand and asks a question we’ve all heard, whether we’ve said it or not. You know it. “Is this going to be on the final?” All the wind goes rushing out your sails, your heart breaks, and you just have to sigh as you realize that that many of these students care nothing about what you’re talking about, but only about getting down a few required facts in order to pass the class.
Imagine how God feels, how Jesus felt, when the rich young man came asking Him in our Gospel lesson last week about the requirements for eternal life. Or even this week in Mark 10 when James and John come asking about which seat they will get in the kingdom. They just don’t get it. They haven’t really been listening. They just want to meet the minimum requirements, to land a good spot in eternity. And God’s heart breaks, Jesus has to sigh, and try to explain it one more time.
We do it too in our own Christian living and church life together. I suggested we take verse 3 to heart and hear those ancient “reproaches,” in which our Lord tells us all He’s done for us and wonders why we have treated Him so poorly. But our answer to all that should not be trying to figure out what’s required, to get down some list of what we must do to make God happy again.
In the church I grew up in we occasionally sang a hymn near the offering that went like this:
I gave My life for thee, My precious blood I shed,
That thou might ransomed be, and raised up from the dead.
Then the chorus:
I gave, I gave My life for thee, what hast thou given for Me?
I gave, I gave My life for thee, what hast thou given for Me?
Each verse would add another dimension of what Jesus has done for us and then ask that question again, “What hast thou done for me?” The point seemed to be that I need to figure out what I should do for Jesus and how repay Him so as to justify everything He’s done for me. But Micah’s extreme examples make it obvious that won’t work. I can’t match God’s giving. I can’t match Jesus’ suffering. I can’t match what God has done.
God wants something else. That’s what Micah 6:8 is about when God decides to graciously answer the question about what is required. The answer to such questions is both easier and simpler and more difficult and complex. What God wants is for everyone of us to enter into a relationship of love with Him and with each other. Relationships take more than payment, more than just doing to be healthy, no matter how great the payment is.
We all know this. Simply giving things to or doing things for your spouse is not enough if you don’t really care how he or she feels, don’t really want to spend time together, don’t really enjoy being united in your marriage. It doesn’t matter if you buy her that big diamond or build that cabinet she wants. It doesn’t matter if you bake him a homemade pie or go fishing with him. If you don’t really care about what she thinks and feels, if his worries and ambitions don’t matter to you, then it’s not a good relationship. It doesn’t mean doing all those sweet and kind things for someone is bad. It just means you can’t have a good relationship with someone just by making a list of things to do and checking it off.
Micah reminds us it’s the same with God. There’s no formula of prayer, Bible reading, tithing and church attendance which is going to produce a loving relationship with the Lord, no matter how extreme your devotion. It’s not that spiritual disciplines are unimportant, it’s that only the harder, longer road of being together with Him and with others, learning to really care about what God cares, will meet the requirement.
Here in Micah 6:8 God poured out His heart, like a teacher in front of his class, like that spouse or friend telling you what’s on their mind. He’s inviting us to hear what He really cares about and to respond, not with a need to perform some demanding duty, but with all our attention and desire focused on His concerns.
What does God ask here? What’s required? Good relationship with Him and others. That’s it. Love justice and do mercy. Treat each other justly and extend mercy and forgiveness when injustice happens. He wants us to be in relationship with Him, to walk humbly with Him. He’s inviting us to put our hand in His like a child puts a hand into a parent’s, walking along in complete humble trust wherever He leads us.
It’s very simple and it’s very, very difficult and complicated. We all know those times when we just want to know the minimum requirements. We want the teacher or the boss or the parent or the spouse to just give us a list of what’s expected and we will do it. It’s much harder to get to know that person, learn what he really cares about, what she really needs, what gives him joy, what makes her feel blessed. And sometimes we just want to throw up our hands and cry, “I’ll never figure this out!”
That’s when we go back to the ancient Christian wisdom which us the answer to God’s reproaches in verse 3, and to the challenging requirements of verse 8. Let us humbly say to God and to the all the others we have failed, “Have mercy on us.” Then let us humbly accept the gift of mercy and forgiveness we receive in Jesus Christ and turn around in perfect justice and offer it to each other.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj