In the midst of the glory of Epiphany we encounter this sobering and bracing text about God’s lawsuit against his sinful people. How is this an Epiphany text? The only connection I could find lies in that little word “showed” in verse 8. After the whole court proceeding laid out in verses 1-7, God reveals what he requires of his people. A careful study of God’s requirements will finally lead to a revelation of what God has done for his guilty people. So, we can get to Epiphany from here, but we have to go to court first.
God calls the court into session way back in the Eighth Century BC, during the last days of the divided nation of Israel. Micah prophesied about and during the same time as the prophets Isaiah and Hosea. His message is similar to theirs, including the condemnation of Israel’s reliance on empty ritual to appease their obviously angry God. Our text is unique in its judicial format. And it ends with the famous and often misquoted and misunderstood words about what God actually does require of his sinful people.
In verses 1-2, God summons Israel into court to hear his accusations and to prepare their defense against the charges that follow. This is a picture of God that many of your hearers won’t like very much—God as a plaintiff, a prosecuting attorney, a stern judge—but this is part of the biblical revelation of our covenant God. He is not only full of lovingkindness (hesed in Hebrew), but also full of justice (mishpat in Hebrew). And, as we will read in verse 8, he calls us to be full of both as well.
Micah takes pains to assure Israel that what follows come from God, not Micah. “Listen to what the Lord says….” I didn’t make this up; it comes straight from God. God is calling his sinful people into the witness stand and calling the everlasting mountains to serve as the jury in the case he is bringing against his people. “For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.”
It is fascinating that this stern summons is followed immediately by a poignant self defense on God’s part. Is your sin somehow my fault? Did I do something wrong that led you astray? Was I unfair or unkind in some way? “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.”
God’s answer to his own question actually becomes part of his case against them, because God has done nothing but good to them. “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.” I provided splendid leaders during that time of salvation in the persons of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. When you were opposed on your journey to the Promised Land by Balak king of Moab, I turned his own prophet, Balaam son of Beor, against him, defeating your enemy. I gave you the land of Canaan from top to bottom.
Did I, Yahweh your God, do something wrong, so that you rebelled against me with good reason? No, I did only “righteous acts” on your behalf. You knew those acts, but as you settled into the land of promise and assimilated into the pagan culture of that land, you forgot my “righteous acts.” That’s the heart of your sin; you did not remember me and my work of salvation. And you took on the religious practices of the peoples among whom you live.
That’s why Israel responds to God’s accusations with an offer of sacrifice. Like the pagans who thought they could appease their gods with a sacrificial system, Israel took the sacrificial system given to them by God and turned it into a ladder leading to God. We are way down here with our sins and God is way up there in his holiness. How can we climb up to heaven? “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?”
Their answer? “Sacrifices.” Note how the sacrifices mentioned in verses 6-7 increase in cost and volume, beginning with burnt offerings of a year old calf, proceeding to thousands of rams and 10000 rivers of oil, and ending with the horror of child sacrifice, “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul,” as did worshippers of the horrific Moloch. Moving from the reasonable (and even commanded by God) to the absurd (and forbidden by God), the guilty Israelites ascended the ladder of sacrifice. If we rely on sacrifice to win back God’s favor, what does it take? How many and what kind?
Now, in fairness to Israel, God did require sacrifices of his people. The Torah is full of rules and regulations dealing with an elaborate sacrificial system. They were definitely part of Jewish religion. But they were never intended as a ladder to heaven, as the way they could win God’s favor, earn their salvation, appease an angry God. And they were never intended to replace the central obligations of the covenant of grace, as laid out in the Ten Commandments and summarized with memorable brevity in verse 8 here.
So, God cuts through all the talk about what kind of sacrifice God needs and summarizes his will for his people of all times and places. “He has showed you, O mortal man, what is good.” What I’m about to say is not new. I showed it to you long, long ago, but you have forgotten, even as you have forgotten my “righteous acts.” “And what does Yahweh, your covenant Lord, require of you?”
What follows is as neat a summary of God’s will as can be found anywhere in Scripture. Yes, the Ten Commandments spell out obedience. And yes, Jesus’ summary of the Law in his two sentences about loving God and neighbor captures the heart of obedience. But these words show us how that loving obedience looks in everyday human life. “To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Earlier I mentioned how God is both loving and just, dealing with us in both hesed and mishpat. So, it should not be surprising that God calls his covenant partners to deal with our fellow humans in both hesed and mishpat. Made in God’s image, we are to treat others as God treats us. So, we must act justly, defending the rights of others, and we must love mercy, taking care of the hurts of others.
There is so much to say about these simple words. Isn’t it true that we want justice, but not for ourselves? For ourselves, we want mercy. And isn’t it true that we want mercy, but not for others. For others, we want justice. All of which shows how complicated these simple terms are. As one scholar said, “Doing justice and loving mercy are strained partners.”
A vigorous pursuit of justice leaves no room for mercy, but a soft display of mercy makes justice impossible. Wendell Berry put it well when he said, “Justice that is not framed by love creates a downwardly spiraling society of anger, hate and brutality. Relationships—family, neighborhood, community—simply will not work without a framework of justice that is massaged and conditioned by mercy.” On the other hand, is it right to be merciful to someone who has done wrong? Shouldn’t there be appropriate penalties and sacrifices for wrongdoing? Should mercy cancel justice?
These, of course, are exactly the problems that plague our society today. How can we both act justly and love mercy? The answer, I suspect, lies in the third phrase in this famous verse—“to walk humbly with your God.” Neither justice and mercy are possible if we don’t walk humbly with our covenant God. We won’t be able to show mercy unless we have experienced God’s mercy. We won’t know what justice is apart from God’s justice. God will keep us from being too hard with justice and too soft with mercy.
This is precisely why our culture and our personal lives fall so far short of justice and mercy. We don’t walk humbly with our God. Indeed, many versions of this text are used in social justice campaigns, but they leave out those crucial last words. I saw a Huffington Post blog the other day that was urging people to vote, using this text. Here’s how it read. “Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Vote.” No mention of God, let alone “our God.” There can be no genuine humility until we realize how much we rely on God for justice and mercy. Without a personal relationship with a personal God, our text becomes just another impossible burden for an already burdened human race, something we simply cannot do.
So, in the end, your sermon on this text must call people to walk humbly with God as they seek to do justice and act mercifully. Perhaps the best way to do that is to remind them of what God has done for them. Take them back to all that talk about sacrifice. All of our attempts to win God’s favor by sacrificing this or that will never work, but God in his mercy has satisfied his justice by the ultimate sacrifice.
The God who tested Abraham’s faith with the command to sacrifice his only son, the God who called Israel to offer their firstborn sons to God as living sacrifices, has offered his only begotten Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (Romans 3). Yes, he requires justice and mercy and humility, but we cannot do what he requires. In his mercy, God humbled himself and satisfied his justice in the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God.
I know that many folks today, including many in the church, balk at this talk of justice and sacrifice. But the fact is that we will not walk humbly with our God until we embrace his righteous acts on our behalf. The epistolary reading for today sums up the importance of the cross. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1:18) Only when we acknowledge that and embrace the crucified and risen God will we be able to do justice and love mercy in a broken world.
It is fascinating to me that so many people balk at the idea of God as judge when our society is fixated on judicial proceedings. In the United States, we have spent weeks watching the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, with almost violently passionate pleas for justice on both sides of the political divide. And many of the most contentious issues of justice and mercy in American society will finally be adjudicated by the nine justices of the Supreme Court. We want justice and we need mercy, but so many of us don’t want anything to do with a righteous Judge or a merciful Savior. Is it any wonder that we are in a tangled mess where both sides proudly claim to be absolutely right, like God?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 2, 2020
Micah 6:1-8 Commentary