October 11, 2015 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
We got soaked on a
campout one night. It didn’t rain, but we woke up with our sleeping bags
sopping wet. We were camped in Montańa de Oro State Park near Morro Bay in California. We rolled our bags out on ground cloths on dry grass to sleep
uncovered under the stars and listen to the waves roll in. We thought it
actually had rained when we got up to discover so much moisture on the
ground and on us. It was dew.
As Micah talks more about
the remnant of God’s people which will be gathered, here in chapter 5 verse 7
he pictures them arriving like dew appears on grass, or on sleeping bags,
mysteriously. Yes, there’s a scientific explanation for dew. It has to do with
the temperature of thin exposed surfaces and the amount of moisture in the
atmosphere. But it’s just as much beyond human control as it was 2,700 years
ago. Like we read, the dew does not depend on people or wait for anyone. We
could have stayed dry by crawling in tents, but the dew would have still been
there on the tent fly.
When the Jewish
remnant appeared, when a handful of God’s people were brought back to their own
city and country, it wasn’t because any human being made it happen. People had
a role to be sure, like a Persian king and a spunky Jewish woman, but just as
the dew, the remnant appears because and when God wants it to appear.
The other thing about
dew is that it’s generally desirable. We didn’t care for it on that soggy
morning by the ocean, but in the arid climate where most Bible people lived, it
was a blessing, a free gift appearing by the grace of God. No matter how dry
and thirsty or how parched the ground when you went to bed, when dawn came
there would be at least a few drops to quench your thirst or water your garden.
This first image of
the remnant of God’s people is that they are a blessing to the land in which
they live. Their prosperity and happiness will bring prosperity and happiness
around them. That’s exactly what Jeremiah told them to pray and seek for when
they were exiled in Babylon, the welfare and good of the city, of the place
they were, even if it was enemy territory. Like God told Abraham originally in
Genesis 12:2, they were blessed to be a blessing to everyone else. That’s still
what God’s people are supposed to be.
That’s why Valley Covenant Church is still here on 18th and Bailey Hill. Some of you have
heard this story many times, but I’ll keep telling it as long as I can. When I
came here our denomination was about to shut us down. We were way behind in
mortgage payments and we weren’t measuring up to church growth metrics of the
day. God saw us through that time and saw us through another rough patch about
ten years ago. He blessed us because He wanted us to keep being a blessing on
this corner, a blessing to Cub Scouts who meet here and homeless people who
sleep here, a blessing to some of you for whom this has been your church for
years and to others who just started attending. God has kept us together to
bless folks across the world in China and India and across town at the Eugene
Mission. Let’s never forget that part of our reason for existing, one of same
reasons God made a remnant out of what was left of His people in Babylon.
Verse 8 is a bit more
challenging to understand. From the image of gentle, welcome dew upon the
grass, Micah switches to the violent picture of a lion among sheep. As one of
our members commented on my blog this week, it’s harder today to get behind or
even grasp this kind of triumphant, conquering image of God’s people in the
world. In other words, some of us don’t sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” quite
as often or with quite the same gusto we used to. We’re too aware of how faith
has gotten perverted into violence by what we now call “fundamentalists,” whether
Christian, Muslim or something else.
Nonetheless we see in
Scripture that even our Lord Jesus the Lamb of God is also the Lion of the
tribe of Judah. John saw that fact appear before his eyes in Revelation 5 when
the Lion suddenly stands forth as the Lamb. Some of you know Mr. Beaver’s
remark about Aslan the lion in C. S. Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles. Asked
whether Aslan is “safe,” he replies, “Who said anything about safe. ’Course he
isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
You see it happening
in our Gospel reading this morning. That rich young man came to Jesus with his
spiritual quest. He wanted eternal life, safety. But Jesus taught him that was
a dangerous question. God wants everything. God, His kingdom, and His people
are good, but not safe. Our reading from Hebrews said the same thing about
God’s Word, about the Bible, it’s “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing
until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow… able to judge the
thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Getting mixed up with
God is risky business. He’s dangerous and that means, to some extent, so will His
people be. We’re not just wooly lambs everyone can kick around. Our presence in
the world, like Israel’s presence in the ancient Mideast, will cause trouble.
Verses 8 and 9 here in Micah 5 promised them they would rip their enemies to
pieces and be victorious over their adversaries, “and all your enemies will be
That verb “cut off” is
used literally in Scripture about cutting down trees or bunches of grapes. It’s
the word when David cut off Goliath’s head. It’s also used more metaphorically
about judgment and doom. The flood cuts off human life. Saul pled with David
not to cut off his descendants. And interestingly, it’s also the word for
making a covenant, because of the animal sacrifices involved. God “cut” a
covenant with Abraham and with Moses. You and I talk about cutting deals.
God and His people are
dangerous because there are things that need to be cut off, things that need to
get chopped. When God brings His remnant back home, then all their
enemies, all the dangers to them will be cut away, will be chopped.
But before we start
sharpening our swords, or maybe loading our guns, we need to read on here in
Micah to see what else God wants to chop. Verse 10 tells us that “in that day,”
the day in verse 9 when God cuts off His people’s enemies, He’s also going to
“cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots.” The
chopping is going to be God’s business, not human business. In fact, He’s going
to destroy the military equipment, the transport vehicles we use to chop up
There’s some question
about who is being addressed in verses 10 to 14. Is God still talking to His
people or to all the other nations? It’s hard to say. The transition makes it
sound like He’s still talking to the remnant, to the people He’s rescuing and
saving and giving a kingdom. But in verse 11, God says, “I will cut off the
cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds.” That doesn’t sound
quite like something He would say to His own people. But it could be.
As we work down this
list of what God is going to chop, we see that He’s talking about all the sorts
of things upon which people rely rather than on God. It’s military equipment in
verse 10. It’s cities and strongholds, secure areas, in verse 11. It’s sorcery
and divination in verse 12, and it’s idols in verse 13. People put their trust
in those things rather than in God. So God wants it all cut away, all chopped.
Micah already told us
that swords will be beaten into plowshares and that the one to be born in Bethlehem would be “the one of peace.” So it’s no wonder that God does not want us to
place our ultimate reliance on the military might of chariots or tanks or
aircraft carriers. It’s no wonder that He is going to bring an end to the
beefing up of fortifications and security around cities and military bases. It
doesn’t matter too much if this is addressed to Israel or to Israel’s enemies. War is not going to save anyone. In the end it’s not going to protect
life and make it any better. Only God can do that.
When we come to verse
12 we may imagine that we are pretty free of any guilt over that one, free of
any need for God to chop sorcery and soothsaying out of our lives. Yet any
science fiction geek here knows Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We haven’t eliminated our
reliance on sorcery. We just call it “science” now.
You might say, “Yes,
but the difference is that science works.” But in Micah’s time people thought
magic worked. And they depended on it instead of on God, just the way so many
of us rely on science to save us instead of God.
No, I’m not saying you
should just pray and not take your blood pressure medicine, or go to church
instead of the hospital when you break your leg. What Micah said here and what
Jesus told the rich young man is that no amount of stuff in this world is going
to help you or save your soul when it comes down to it. It doesn’t matter
whether it’s magic or technology, whether it works or not. What the human heart
is crying out for is God, and no substitute, whatever it is, will do any good.
As Jesus told the young man, a substitute God, like lots of money, will only
get in the way. That’s why God wants the substitutes chopped.
So when we come to
verses 13 and 14, we are back to where Micah started in chapter 1, with God
promising to get rid of idols. In chapter 1 He said He would smash them. Here
He says He’s going to chop them down. They were carved images, set up as
pillars and poles on those high places we heard about in verse 5 of chapter 1.
The point of it all is
there at the end of verse 13 in words that should convict you and me, “and you
shall bow down no more to the work of your hands.” That’s how idols are
described over and over in the Bible, the work of human hands. The implicit
question, the irony is why would we want to bow down and submit ourselves to
something we made rather than to the One who made us?
Again, like sorcery,
we may think that idolatry really isn’t much on your and my sin horizon. It’s not
something we do. We have a little concrete frog and a bird in our garden, but
neither Beth nor I have get down on our knees in front of them or bring them sacrifices.
And I would guess most of you haven’t set up a sacred shrine on your coffee
table to worship a carved wooden statue. But how much time and energy and money
have we devoted to a house, or to a car, or to an entertainment system, or to a
We have nice new
neighbors. They bought a house in our cul de sac that stood empty for a couple
years. It was a real wreck, inside and out, from moss on the roof to mold in
the walls. Over the summer they’ve gutted it and rebuilt the inside, put new
siding on the outside, constructed a new porch and steps, and replaced the
heating system. A new roof went on just this past week. They’ve worked at it
like crazy and we admire them for it. Our neighborhood and property value is
way better because of what they’ve done. Some of you have done projects like
that or have one going right now.
Here’s the thing,
though. Our new neighbors are Christians. We’ve talked to them and had them to
dinner and they told us so. But as far as we know, as far as we can tell,
they’re not going to church anywhere. They spend all their time on that house
and when they take a break it’s for recreation in the outdoors or at a sporting
event. I can’t know or judge—that’s for God to discern—but it certainly looks
like the work of their hands is receiving more attention in their lives than
the One who made and gave them those hands.
I don’t want to just
diss our really kind, sweet neighbors. That’s not the point. The point is that
it’s really easy for any of us, for you and me, to be just like that in other
ways, to be blind to the idols we’ve set up and forgetful that God’s plan is to
chop them all down. He will knock them all over like those “sacred poles,”
which are really images of fertility in verse 14. Even the goal of having and
raising wonderful children, which is why people back then worshipped fertility
gods, can be an idol for us too.
So God’s wrath shows
up in the last verse here, verse 15, “And in anger and wrath I will execute
vengeance on the nations that did not obey.” There’s another clue, by the way,
that God may have been talking here to peoples other than Israel. But again, that doesn’t really matter. God gets angry when people, when you and I
put other things in His place. It’s the same kind of emotion you and I feel
when someone we love puts something or someone else in the place that belongs
My landlords in
graduate school were a sweet old couple. They’re the ones that introduced me to
the Covenant Church and I thank God for them. Their marriage was not the first
for either of them. They had, in fact, been married to people who were siblings
of each other. Howard’s first wife was the sister of Eloine’s first husband.
But when their spouses, the sister and brother, both died, Howard and Eloine
started spending time together and eventually got married. Folks in the
Covenant church there in South Bend told us several cute stories about their
Here’s the thing,
though. The first time Howard and Eloine invited me to their home I saw a large
photograph sitting in their living room, front and center on the mantle, the
focus of attention for the whole room. It was a photo of Eloine’s first
husband. When they got married, Howard moved into Eloine’s place and she kept
everything exactly the same, including that prominent display of her dead husband’s
Howard was a gem. He
loved Eloine deeply. I could see it in the way he helped her out of the car and
how he labored to care for that house and how he deferred to her every wish and
need. But a couple of times, when he and I were doing some project together or
out in a boat fishing, he let slip his frustration, even his anger that even
after several years of marriage he still wasn’t quite first in his new wife’s
heart. That photograph of the other guy may have had a bit to do with how
It’s how God feels. In
the Covenant church we focus much more on the love of God than on God’s wrath.
We teach that Jesus died on the Cross not to satisfy God’s wrath, but to show
us just how deeply and completely God loved us. Yet we know that the Bible
teaches that God gets angry. He gets angry not so much with us. Howard wasn’t
really angry at Eloine. God gets angry with our sins and with our idols, with
all those things in our lives which we put front and center in the place which
really belongs to Him.
God wants to cut all
that stuff away not because He hates us, not because He’s full of wrath and
jealousy, but because He’s full of love and wants us to be free and clear to
receive all the love He has to give us. He hates all the stuff that gets in the
way of His love, but He doesn’t hate us. He loves us enough to chop all that
stuff away from us.
May you and I be ready
to recognize and receive the love of God which like His Word cuts because it
goes so deep. It cut deep enough to pierce even His own Son, who died to remove
every sin and idol in the way of His love. I invite you, especially if you
never have before, to welcome the love of God in Jesus Christ. Let everything
in the way get chopped.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj