For some years I co-taught a Bible course on the prophets with one of my colleagues from the Old Testament division at Calvin Seminary. My main task in that course was to talk about how to preach from the Prophets and then to grade a sermon the students write on a passage from Micah. Somewhat to my disappointment, very few of the students really tried to imagine what the prophetic ministry of Micah must have been like or what Micah himself looked like.
But consider: Micah was a country boy, a bit of a bumpkin in the eyes of the ruling religious establishment in Jerusalem. He probably looked more like the charming albeit rustic character of Hoss (memorably played by the hulking actor Dan Blocker) from the old TV show Bonanza than some well-polished preacher. And as if to confirm his uncouth country ways, Micah spent part of his ministry wandering around Jerusalem buck naked, howling like a jackal and making owl noises to boot (or to hoot, as the case may be).
Micah was hard to take seriously on the surface of things. Ah but his words . . . the message he brought: that was powerfully serious stuff. What emerged from Micah’s gap-tooth mouth was shattering, devastating speech. And if some among the Jerusalem elite failed to take him seriously or heed his calls to repentance, it was to their peril that they did so. Because Micah saw clear down to the roots of Israel’s problems in his day. He saw how religious ceremonies were mostly just a front to cover over lives of injustice, of arrogance, of abusing the poor. He spied the disconnect between religious talk and secular lives. And he had an inside track from Yahweh to know how absolutely nauseated God was with all this.
Micah’s very name in Hebrew is mi ki yah: “Who Is Like Yahweh?” The answer in his day was, “Not the people of Yahweh, that’s for sure.” And so after 5 chapters of rebuking the leaders and prophets in Israel (the very ones who should have been leading the people to a deeper devotion to Yahweh but who were instead leading the people the other direction via their own shoddy examples), everything comes to a head in Micah 6 when God presents his court case, his holy lawsuit, against his own people.
And what an indictment it is! God through Micah tells the people to stand tall and brace themselves to receive what God was about to say. He then reminds them that although all he is getting from them was abuse and unfaithfulness, for his part God has been nothing but faithful. The history of the Exodus from Egypt is traced out as well as some of the subsequent ways in which God worked overtime to keep his people on the covenant rails. But it had all been to no avail and now the day has finally come when things are so bad in Israel, all God can do through prophets like Micah is predict their doom and impending punishment. Oh, there was hope (Micah 5, after all, includes the now-famous promise of a ruler arising out of Bethlehem) and the entire book ends with promises of future restoration. In the meantime, however, the picture is pretty dim.
All of that, then, is the backdrop to the more famous words of this chapter that begin in Micah 6:6. Having heard God’s indictment, Micah speaks up on behalf of the bewildered people to wonder what they could do to make nice with God. How about some sacrifices, a really huge number of burnt offerings? Would that do the trick? Would that take the wind out of God’s sails and deflate his ballooning anger a bit? But then the rhetoric actually gets darker. “What about my firstborn child? Should I do the Molech-like thing and kill the child? Would child sacrifice protect me?”
It’s a sad and tragic thing if Micah’s words in verse 7b really did reflect sentiments in Israel at the time. Were the people really so bad off that they thought human sacrifice might placate God (instead of doing what it would really do, which would be to enrage his holy sensibilities)? If so, the situation was at least as bad as Micah described.
But, of course, no such thing was needed. Even worship practices that stopped well short of the horror of human sacrifice were not per se needed and would not, in and of themselves, accomplish anything spiritually. What was really needed was as simple as simple could be: just live right! Show that you are in love with being merciful and generous. Enact in your life practices that help to ensure justice and a fair chance for a good life for all people, not just a few elite folks or well-to-do members of society. Be humble and follow the covenant paths God has blazed for us.
Micah 6 is paired in the Revised Common Lectionary with Matthew 5 and the Beatitudes of Jesus. Both passages have the same bottom line: what matters in terms of kingdom living is what emerges from the inside of our hearts. What matters is seeing the whole world in a new way, of overturning what society values so as to reveal what God values. External practices will result from such kingdom perspectives and ingrained sensibilities but without such internalized kingdom priorities and vision, nothing we do on the outside will matter to God. After all, when it comes to God, there is no such thing as our getting away with just going by appearances.
Someone once noted—in commenting on Micah 6:8—that what God asks of us is not exactly rocket science. The instructions for how to program your Blu-Ray player are more complicated than this. What’s more, in a New Testament perspective, we know that in Christ God has already lavished on us all the Grace we would ever need to be changed on the inside and to then let that change show on the outside in terms of how we live, how we shop, how we eat, how we vote, how we talk with one another about what matters in life and what does not. The Christian life is not a set of hoops through which we have to jump in order to make God love us. The Christian life is an outflow (and an effusive overflowing) of grace, grace, grace. It’s letting out what God has put into us.
It’s easy to turn Micah 6:8 into a piece of bad news: Do This and God Will Love You. If we preach on this verse in that way, it’s right up there with the horrible church sign that says, “Jesus Did His Best, You Do the Rest.” But we don’t need to turn this verse into the bad news of works-righteousness, of earning your own way to heaven.
Instead we can see in this famous verse the truth of grace in action, of being transformed by the love of God from the inside out. As a gracious God, the Lord would never “require” of us something he is not also ready, willing, and able to enact in us by his grace. We know he has done this through Christ Jesus the Lord, who sacrificed himself for us. What remains is our going with his gracious flow, genuinely and from the heart.
I once read a poem written by a Korean girl. It is just one girl’s words and yet, as Douglas John Hall has noted, these words could fit equally well on the lips of altogether too many people with whom we share this planet:
My mother’s name is Worry.
In summer, my mother worries about water;
In winter, about coal briquettes.
And all year long she worries about rice.
In daytime, my mother worries about living;
At night, she worries for children;
And all day long she worries and worries.
My mother’s name is Worry.
My father’s name is Drunken Frenzy.
And my name . . . my name is Tear and Sigh.
Someday, prophets like Micah predict, someday the world will be a just place where all can flourish in the shalom God has all along intended for us. Some day. As we live in this day, however, our vocation is to make that knowledge and glory known in the way we treat those around us. Our task is to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. If the Bible is any kind of guide, however, then it becomes clear that how well we walk with God depends in no small measure on how justly we walk with one another.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 29, 2023
Micah 6:1-8 Commentary