Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 29, 2017
Micah 6:1-8 Commentary
What do you give to the person who already has everything? It’s not just a question for Christmas, birthday or other gift giving. It’s also, in some ways at the heart of the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday: What do you give to the One who already owns everything?
Micah 6:4-5 describes God’s extraordinary generosity towards God’s Israelite people. It’s a litany that contains memories that are still vivid for those people. The prophet describes a God who repeatedly rescued God’s Israelite sons and daughters from a variety of threats.
Micah 6, after all, rehearses not just Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery, but also the leadership God provided to facilitate that escape. It also details the story of how God foiled Balak’s plans to destroy Israel by sending, among other things, a talking donkey.
Yet by calling Israel (twice!) to “remember” (5) her travels to the land of promise, Micah suggests she’s somehow either forgotten them or acts as if she no longer remembers what God graciously did for her. In fact, verse 3 implies that Israel feels as though God has somehow acted not for, but against her. “My people, what have I done to you?” God asks there. “How have I burdened you?”
That easily happens, after all, when God’s children forget the gracious things God has done for us. It’s not just that we fail to remember God’s countless acts of love, mercy and kindness. It’s also that we quickly begin to imagine that instead of acting for us, God has actually somehow acted against us.
This presents Micah 6’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on the power of memory. They might ask how we keep memories of God’s gracious acts alive in such a way that they shape our understanding of and relationship with God. Preachers and teachers might also reflect with their hearers on how the loss of memory can pervert our view of God.
God has become so frustrated with God’s forgetful Israelite sons and daughters that God puts them “on trial” on Micah 6. The prophet sets these “legal proceedings” in the context of a kind of “heavenly courtroom” in which, according to verse 1, the mountains and hills serve as kind of jury.
This suggests that God’s case against Israel is so strong that God is confident that even the inanimate creation will recognize Israel’s guilt. Micah may even design Israel’s trial in this way to make readers wonder how Israelites whom God created in God’s imagine don’t get what even mountains and hills understand.
God begins our text’s “court case” by reviewing the pertinent facts of God’s generous and gracious history with the Israelites. God then moves on to describe what God wants from them.
Israel’s ideas suggest she assumes God wants some things from her. Maybe God desires burnt offering that will smell nice from the Israelites. Or perhaps God longs for a yearling that will taste good. Or how about a grander apology? How about thousands of rams like Solomon offered? Or 10,000 rivers of oil? Or maybe the sacrifice of an eldest son?
Of course, all of these offerings would be “religious” ones. These are offerings Israelites made to God in the past. In fact, some of them are things for which God historically asked. They formed an important part of Israel’s grateful response to God’s great grace.
This offers an opportunity for those who present Micah 6 to reflect on some of the “religious acts” God’s 21st century sons and daughters perform. What are some of those liturgical and other gestures that we offer God in thanksgiving for God’s great generosity? What are the dangers of assuming they’re the most important or perhaps only part of our response to God’s grace? How do we keep those religious acts in their proper perspective?
In verse 8, God, however, insists God doesn’t want any things from Israel. One prominent biblical scholar paraphrases it to mean, “It’s you, not something God wants.” God’s primary desire is not for God’s adopted sons and daughters’ activities and things, but for our hearts, minds, souls and strength.
Of course, that commitment to God of our whole selves displays itself in concrete ways. Our text’s summary of those ways basically comes down to loving each other with God’s love.
We usually think of love as attitude. We easily confuse it with something like romantic feelings or attraction. However, Micah 6 reminds us that God thinks of love as an action. The prophet begins God’s “wish list” by calling God’s adopted sons and daughters to “act justly.”
Here again those who preach and teach this text will want to clarify what God thinks of as justice. We usually think of it as circumstance. We easily assume justice is just the absence of immoral things like unfairness, racism, and prejudice.
However, the prophet speaks of justice as something we do. So to act justly is to work for, among other things, the well-being of all whom God has created in God’s image. To act justly is to let the Holy Spirit bring every area of our lives into conformity with God’s will. To act justly is to work for a society that reflects God’s order for human life.
However, God also longs for God’s children to “love mercy.” That too takes concrete shape. Those who love mercy show loyalty to each other. We establish and foster healthy relationships between people on opposite ends of spectrums, between, example, rich and poor. Those who love mercy care for others with respect and generosity.
God also longs for God’s adopted sons and daughters to “walk humbly with” our “God.” To live in intimate relationship with God, to pay close attention to God. Those who walk humbly with our God pay closer attention to God’s desires than our own. We turn our eyes toward God for guidance and correction.
Those who preach and teach Micah 6 may choose to point out a couple of characteristics of what God longs for from those whom God has graciously saved. While God desires certain behaviors from us, they may not always be what we think of as religious actions.
Nowhere in Micah 6, for example, does God ask God’s Israelite children to spend more time in religious meetings or give more of their money to religious causes. The prophet doesn’t claim God longs for God’s sons and daughters to pray more. No, God longs for us to act in concrete ways much the way God in Christ acts. God longs for us to treasure the things God treasures, like justice, mercy and a close relationship with God.
On top of that, God’s longing for God’s people is for us to turn ourselves especially towards those on society’s margins. Justice and mercy are all too often doled out in tiny portions to our most vulnerable neighbors. Those who preach and teach this text may want to explore just who those vulnerable people are and how we might act more justly and mercifully toward them.
That, after all, is what the prophet calls “good” (8). It’s what’s proper, not only for those whom God has redeemed, but also for all those whom God creates in God’s image. God is, after all, not just our neighbors’ creator. God is also their sustainer, their caretaker, a role God invites us to join God in playing in the world God so deeply loves.
In his book, To End All Wars, Ernest Gordon describes his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II along the Kwai River. His Japanese captors forced their prisoners to work in low-lying swampland. They beat to death or simply beheaded any prisoners who seemed to lag.
Eventually a combination of beriberi, malaria, dysentery, typhoid and diphtheria took its toll on Gordon. Basically paralyzed and no longer able to eat, he asked his fellow prisoners to bring him to the Death House where prisoners went to die.
However, while Gordon was in the Death House, God’s Spirit moved along the Kwai River. One particular event exemplified that movement. When no one confessed to stealing a Japanese guard’s missing shovel, he began to scream, “All die! All die!”
As he raised his rifle to fire at the first prisoner in line, a prisoner of war stepped forward and said, “I did it.” The enraged guard then raised his rifle high in the air and beat the man to death with it.
However, when the prisoners inventoried their tools that evening, they discovered the guard had made a mistake: no shovel was missing. They realized that their fellow prisoner had voluntarily given his life in order to spare them.
Gordon remembers how God used such selflessness to change the prisoners along the River Kwai. They began looking out for each other instead of themselves. Two Christian Scots demonstrated this change by coming to the Death House every day to care for Gordon.
They dressed the ulcers on Gordon’s legs and massaged his atrophied muscles. By doing so, they gradually restored him to what passed for health along the Kwai River. Those Christians showed their love of mercy by tenaciously nursing Gordon back to health.
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