August 30, 2015 - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
She wailed and wept
like nothing we had ever seen. When our friend from the Mideast died, her
mother gave an incredible demonstration of grief. Her whole body was wracked
with emotion as she cried and lamented for her daughter, waving her arms and
shrieking out her sobs and tears. To us it was remarkable, but to that mother
we were the strange people, who may weep when someone dies, but quietly. As one
Bible commentator notes, we’re more likely to draw the curtains and not answer
the phone than to make some public display of our pain and sorrow.
Micah had more in
common with our friend’s mother than with you and me. For his grief about what
happened to Samaria and what would happen to Jerusalem, he offered a very physical,
very public display in verse 8 which opens our text today. He will “lament and
wail.” He will walk the streets “barefoot and naked.” The second part tells us
how he sounded, howling like a jackal, making morning sounds like an ostrich or
The grief Micah felt
is for what we read last week, the destruction by an invading army of the northern
kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., and for the devastation of invasion into his own
land of Judah in the south years later. As he says at the end of verse 9,
what happened in the north to Samaria “has come to Judah; it has reached to the
gate of my people, to Jerusalem.” The invaders did not enter and destroy Jerusalem yet, but they definitely came to its gate under the Assyrian commander
Sennacherib in 702 B.C. And all the territory and towns around Jerusalem, including Micah’s own hometown of Moresheth, suffered.
Part of Micah’s pain
is that he sees no answer, no remedy for what is happening. “For her wound is
incurable,” he weeps. The one with the wound is his nation, his people, Israel and Judah. The wound itself is their sin, their idol worship and their exploitation of the
poor. And it can’t be treated.
At a gathering of
Covenant pastors this past week I heard that the wife of one my friends has
just learned she has brain tumors and they are inoperable. They are deep enough
in her brain that they can’t be removed. They don’t yet know if they are
malignant or whether some other kind of treatment might be effective. But it’s
deeply disturbing and frightening to know that an obvious treatment is
unavailable. For Micah’s people there was no healing to be found at all. No
wonder he wailed.
speaks to our own experiences of situations beyond hope and repair. I tend to
be an optimist, to believe there is always something that can be done to fix a
problem. I laugh off my wife’s fears that her computer has crashed beyond
recovery and sort out the glitch. I open the hood of my car and find the part
that needs to be replaced. On a deeper level, I sit and talk with one of you
when you are struggling and try to help you find a path forward.
Yet Micah reminds us
that there are problems which cannot be fixed, diseases that have no cure,
crimes for which there is no restitution possible. Our lives and our community
and our country can be broken beyond repair. And the only possible and the only
right thing to do is to weep and wail, to be genuinely and visibly sorrowful
for that brokenness.
What Micah does next
here might make you and I question the authenticity of his own grief. Verse 10
begins a lengthy poem making puns on the names of the towns west of Jerusalem. For us, a pun is a joke, maybe not even a good joke, something to make us groan
rather than truly grieve. But in the language of the prophets, to find a way to
let names of people and places express a message was truly authentic. There is power
in words and in names, and a prophetic pun displayed that power.
Before the puns comes
a quotation from a song of David, not from the Psalms, but from II Samuel 20.
It is near the beginning of David’s lament over the death of his enemy Saul and
his friend Jonathan, Saul’s son. After the first king and prince of Israel had died in battle, David says what Micah says here, “Tell it not in Gath.” Gath was a city
where Philistines, the enemies of Israel, lived. David explains it. Don’t let
our enemies know that two of our finest are dead, or else even their women will
rejoice and sing for joy at our loss.
The same thing applies
again now in the lowlands between the plain of the Philistines along the coast
and the heights of Jerusalem. Don’t announce what is happening to our enemies.
Don’t give them any occasion to gloat over us. So he says not to even do what
he was doing, “weep not at all.” Forgo all those public displays of mourning.
Don’t let slip any clue of our distress to our foes.
In the second half of
verse 10 the puns begin. The second part of the name Beth-leaphrah sounds like
the Hebrew word for dust. Micah is saying, in “Dust-town” “roll yourselves in
the dust.” In verse 11, Shaphir means “fair” or “beautiful,” but its
inhabitants are going to walk out naked and ugly. Zaanan is similar to a word
for “come out,” but its citizens do not come out, presumably because they are
We don’t know where
all these towns were exactly or what specifically about them would make the
puns appropriate. But in verse 13, Lachish sounds like the word for “horse,” so
its residents are supposed to hitch up horses to chariots and flee for their
lives. And the rest of the verse suggests that Lachish was one of the centers
of sin in Judah, where all their transgressions were “stabled,” to continue the
In verse 14 Micah
comes to his own city, calling it Moresheth-gath. Moresheth sounds like
“betrothed,” “engaged” we would say. People who should have been married to
their God are being given wedding gifts as they leave because they are engaged
to some other lord. Right nearby is the town Achzib whose name is similar to
the word for “deception.” So a place which may have made pottery for kings will
no longer fulfill those royal contracts, becoming a deceptively empty place.
Verse 15 tells us that
Mareshah, whose name is like the word for “heir,” will be inherited by a
conqueror. The second part of the verse tells us that the glory of Israel, its noble families, will once again take refuge in the vicinity of Adullam, where
David hid from Saul in a cave. All the glory of God’s people will be reduced to
that, hiding from their enemies in holes in the earth. And that’s a good place
to stop and reflect on what all this might mean for you and me in 2015 in the United States of America.
Let’s get real about
where we stand as people of God, as Christians in this day and time and place.
If there ever was a day when this country was a Christian, godly nation, and
I’m not so sure that ever was as true as some might think, it’s over.
Do you want to see
where Christian faith is vital and growing and truly changing lives? Don’t go
to what had been the largest Protestant denomination in the nation, because the
Southern Baptists just cut 600 missionaries because they don’t have the funds
to pay them. Don’t go to one of the flagship evangelical churches of the last
century, because Billy Graham’s grandson has resigned in disgrace as pastor of
Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Don’t go to our own Jesus People USA Covenant
church in Chicago, which a few years ago used to host the largest Christian
music festival in the world. Now people an ugly smear campaign by a former
member is hurting and shrinking that ministry.
Where is the glory of
God really on display? Go talk to our friends who share Jesus with students in China. Visit Kay and Dan’s pastor friends for whom we pray in India. Go worship with one of
our poor but fervently committed Covenant churches in South Sudan or in the
Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s where God is showing up. That’s where
Christian discipleship is deep and rich. Here in America, not so much.
In Mark Labberton’s
book Called, he says, “I believe the people of God live in exile.”
That’s where we learn our calling, learn to live in true discipleship. He says
that here in America Christians have inherited a “Promised Land” mentality. We
suppose that we live in the most blessed place on earth and our job is to reap
and enjoy those blessings. He says that the culture changes around us and the
shrinking of our numbers and influence in the nation shows us the true state of
affairs. We are exiles, “strangers in a strange land,” as Moses said about
Being exiles means it’s
all right to grieve like Micah does. It’s all right to weep over church
attendance going down and failed Christian leaders and a general decline in
justice and morality in our land. We need to wail over St. Louis where many
people haven’t been too saintly in this past year. We should lament that Body
of Christ has been chopped to bits by questions of sexual morality. We should
roll in the dust and cry out to God, like Beth and I have had occasion to, for
all the young people raised in our good Christian homes but who have walked
away from the faith we tried to share with them.
Some Christians say
it’s time to fight, to try and recapture some of the ground we’ve lost. They
say we should gear up and try to outstrategize and outmaneuver and outvote all
the forces which have changed publicly morality and public justice into
something distinctly and clearly no longer Christian. We need to “take back our
cities” or our country for God, winning converts and building back up those
church rolls. We should launch campaigns like the Southern Baptists said they
would just last year, to send a limitless number of missionaries out into the
But all that “let’s
fight back” talk is not what I hear from Micah today. It’s not really what I
hear from most of the prophets, nor from our Lord Jesus. The call we are called
with is not a call to arms, or at least not a call to any ordinary sense of
battle. It’s a call to faithfulness and following the Lord even when events and
the culture around us drive us into holes in the ground.
You’ve been praying
for my uncle, Dick, on our prayer list. While I was visiting there with him in Tucson last month, he fell and broke his shoulder. I spent the day in the emergency room
with him and my aunt. Then he went home, only to fall again even harder a week
later, breaking a finger and getting a contusion on his head.
Last week my aunt
wrote her family and friends, very discouraged by a visit to an orthopedic
doctor. He told them my uncle’s arm would never be the same. He would have to
learn to live with it. The same for his broken finger, “live with it.” As hard
as it may be to accept, that’s where we as Christians in North America may be
with the broken and increasingly secular society around us. We will have to
learn to live with it, to live in it.
That is part of what
Micah was sent to say to the people of Judah. They were about to be overrun and
completely taken over by a foreign, pagan nation which did not know the Lord. Jerusalem their capital might remain secure for awhile, but it would pay tribute to Assyria and abide in fear for the rest of its time. It’s people and everyone in Judah would have to learn to live with that situation.
I don’t blame my aunt
for be discouraged with her husband’s situation. She went on to write, “It
feels like we are the ‘old folks’ put on a back burner.” I’m sure she’s wept
for her husband and what is happening to their lives. It breaks my heart. The
desolation of these ten or so cities in Judah broke Micah’s heart. The decline
of Christian faith in America should break the heart of every faithful disciple
of Jesus. So it’s O.K. to mourn, even loudly, in such times. We are not what we
used to be, and we need to learn to live with it, just like the people of Judah in Micah’s time.
In the last verse of
the text, 16, Micah calls for even more visible demonstrations of sorrow and
remorse. Cutting off one’s hair was a graphic sign of being in mourning in his
time. Being shaved and bald meant an experience of the greatest grief. Isaiah,
Jeremiah and Amos also talk about the people cutting off their hair and shaving
their beards in sorrow and repentance and mourning over what has happened
because they sinned. So Micah asked his people for that same sign of grief,
especially for their children, “they have gone from you into exile.”
Micah calls them “your
pampered children.” He reminds us that we have been blessed, maybe too blessed
in our own eyes. We’ve had everything we’ve needed and far more. Now times are
changing and we may have much less, both materially and in terms of influence
and power. It’s O.K. to be sad about that.
What should we do
about it? I’ve already said that our call as God’s people is not to fight for
our rights or to recover our old position in society. In our Gospel reading
Jesus talked about focusing on what is inside us, on getting rid of the sins of
the spirit, rather than washing hands or what we eat. Maybe that includes less
concern about what people say about us, or about winning elections or about
anything external to who we are as people of God and disciples of Jesus.
I know you could hear
this message from Micah as a real downer, a pretty depressing lesson to take
home from your pastor and your church this morning. But let me tell you what is
encouraging about it. When God’s people end up in exile, when we lose all the
props of and support of the society around us, we get better. We focus
on the things which really matter to God and to His kingdom. That’s why the church of Jesus Christ is thriving in China and India and Africa and South America. Christians
there know they are in exile.
The Colorado River
rises in the Rocky Mountains and flows down from Colorado across the desert in Utah and on into the desert in Arizona. For a lot of that stretch, especially before Glen Canyon dam and the creation of Lake Powell, it was and still is a broad, warm, slow, muddy
river, full of frogs and fish like suckers and chubs. It waters the land around
it, but there isn’t anything very exciting about it.
But when the Colorado
River begins to drop into what we call the Grand Canyon, it changes. As its
course gets narrowed and constricted by shale and limestone and ancient schist
and granite at the very bottom, something happens to the water. It flows deeper
and faster and more clear. It stirs up in powerful rapids which make a boater’s
heart race and which wash away any sediment or dirt in its path.
These are difficult
times to be a Christian in America. It could get worse. But if we stay the
course into the narrow and difficult places, into exile in the midst of a
culture we used to think was our own, then we can be like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. We can be deepened and cleansed and empowered by the restrictions placed on
us. That’s what God wanted for His people in Micah’s time. It’s what He wants
May God grant us the
grace in Jesus to learn to flow through the canyons ahead. Let us grow deeper
in faith and devotion and sacrifice and service, and so emerge on the other
side challenged but chastened, stressed but stronger, frightened but faithful,
until our stream runs down into the great and powerful flow which is the Kingdom of God. Amen.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj