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
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
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
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
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
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj