October 18, 2015 - Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
†††††††† My mother loved Perry
Mason and Iíve read most of John Grishamís legal thrillers. One of my wifeís
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
†††††††† 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 ďhigh
places,Ē 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 Godís judgment on His peopleís 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? ďO my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied [or
ďburdenedĒ] you?Ē 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 ďholy history,Ē the great story of Godís 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.
†††††††† Iíll 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. Godís salvation extended even to controlling
what Israelís 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 Canaanís 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, ďRemember, donít 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?Ē
†††††††† It was a good thing
for Godís people to remember what God had done for them and itís good now for
Christians to remember. Thatís 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
Then comes the traditional
reply of the congregation:
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on
So God reminds us of what Heís
done for us and of our sins which nailed Jesus to the Cross. Then we respond
with ďHolyÖ, holyÖ, holy, have mercy on us.Ē Thatís called the Trisagion,
the phrase which calls God ďthrice-holyĒ 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.
†††††††† Iím thinking Iíd like
to get these Reproaches into our own Good Friday worship here next year. Itís
good for us to bring ourselves up short at points, especially when we feel like
God isnít doing what we want, hasnít measured up to our expectations. Itís 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. Itís a time of prayer in which we
quiet ourselves in Godís presence toward the end of the day, thank Him for His
gifts, for what Heís 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, ďWhat has God done to me?Ē
†††††††† 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. Thatís what the next couple of verses, 6 and 7 of Micah 6, are about.
†††††††† Bad answers to Godís
question begin with a question we might ask of Him. So verse 6 asks, ďWith what
shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?Ē 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. Itís 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, ďShall I come before him with burnt
offerings, with calves a year old?Ē Thatís 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. ďWill the Lord be pleased
with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?Ē and then the horrible
idea, ďShall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for
the sin of my soul?Ē Something has gone way off track here. Whatís the problem?
†††††††† Whatís 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. Youíre standing in front of your
class. This is the day you talk about your favorite subject, whether itís the
Declaration of Independence or the migration of Canadian geese or Shakespeareís
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 weíve all heard, whether weíve
said it or not. You know it. ďIs this going to be on the final?Ē 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 youíre
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 donít get it. They havenít really been listening. They just want to
meet the minimum requirements, to land a good spot in eternity. And Godís 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 ďreproaches,Ē in which our Lord tells us all Heís
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 whatís 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, ďWhat
hast thou done for me?Ē 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 Heís done for
me. But Micahís extreme examples make it obvious that wonít work. I canít match
Godís giving. I canít match Jesusí suffering. I canít match what God has done.
†††††††† God wants something
else. Thatís 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
donít really care how he or she feels, donít really want to spend time
together, donít really enjoy being united in your marriage. It doesnít matter
if you buy her that big diamond or build that cabinet she wants. It doesnít
matter if you bake him a homemade pie or go fishing with him. If you donít
really care about what she thinks and feels, if his worries and ambitions donít
matter to you, then itís not a good relationship. It doesnít mean doing all
those sweet and kind things for someone is bad. It just means you canít have a
good relationship with someone just by making a list of things to do and
checking it off.
†††††††† Micah reminds us itís
the same with God. Thereís 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. Itís not that spiritual disciplines are
unimportant, itís 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
†††††††† 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 whatís on their mind. Heís 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? Whatís required? Good relationship with Him and others. Thatís 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. Heís inviting us to put our hand in His like a child puts a
hand into a parentís, walking along in complete humble trust wherever He leads
†††††††† Itís very simple and
itís 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 whatís expected and we will do
it. Itís 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, ďIíll never figure
†††††††† Thatís when we go back
to the ancient Christian wisdom which us the answer to Godís 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, ďHave mercy on us.Ē 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