There are many styles of preaching. This news comes as a surprise to many people, who have only heard of two styles: good preaching, and bad preaching. You, of course, have never experienced that second kind in this building.
One of the styles I’m talking about is referred to by some people as “expository preaching,” and what they mean by this is that we take a text from the Bible and look at it line by line or verse by verse, considering in succession what each line or verse means.
Today we are going to try that style, as we look at Micah 6:1-8, as we continue our look at some of the minor prophets of the Old Testament. You may want to keep a Bible open in front of you as we do this: Micah 6:1-8—the pew Bible page numbers are listed in your bulletin. Or we also plan to keep the verses on the screens. Micah 6, verse 1: “Hear what the Lord says: ‘Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.’” This verse presents a device which is a popular one among the prophets: it sets up an imaginary courtroom drama, with God presenting God’s side of the story, and another party invited to produce their side. Instead of “LA Law,” “Israel Law.”
In this case, the mountains and hills play the role of the judge or jury; they will listen to God’s side, and the other side, and presumably issue some sort of decision—a “Mount Judge Judy,” so to speak.
A commentary by Ralph Smith explains why it’s mountains who would be jurors: “They are the jury because they have been around a long time and have witnessed everything which has taken place between God and the other party.”
Haven’t you ever wished for a third party you could appeal to like this, someone who could listen to both sides of an argument you’re involved in? I can remember as a teenager in particular thinking, “Boy, if there was just some judge or jury here to listen in. I’d tell my side and my parents would tell their side, and the judge would see how obvious it is that I’m right and how ridiculous they’re being and could just settle this thing right here. Wouldn’t they just be so embarrassed that they even tried to put this one over on me?”
Well in a way, that’s what God’s doing here: “OK, we have a dispute here, you and me, and we’re going to call in a neutral third party to decide this thing once and for all.” Notice we’re not told in this verse who the other party is.
Micah draws the listeners into this courtroom drama without revealing who it is that God is disagreeing with. I imagine they would presume it’s some other god, or some foreign nation, or some particular evil person. God against the Masked Marauder—stay tuned to find out who it is.
Verse 2: “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a controversy with his people; he will contend with Israel.”
Now we find out a little bit more about what this case is, and surprise! It’s not some other god, or foreign country or evil person on trial here at all! It’s Israel—it’s the listeners! You can imagine the impact this would have on them: “What? You’re saying God’s in disagreement with me? With us? The chosen people?” And not only in disagreement; the people of Israel are actually the accused party! God is claiming to be the injured party here; God is the one bringing the case. And that will put the people of Israel in the role of defendants.
First God will present a case charging them with some wrong, and then the people will be asked to produce their defense, to deny the wrongdoing, to deny that they’re guilty of the charges. And then the mountains will decide whether the people are guilty or not guilty. I imagine the people of Israel are suddenly a little more uncomfortable with Micah’s drama now—but you can bet they’re listening.
Verse 3: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” God begins to present the case, and notice the tone of the opening statement. This isn’t an angry god, hurling charges and accusations against someone they’re trying to put away. This is a pleading god, a desperate god, a tender god; almost a repentant god. “My people. What have I done to deserve this? How can you hurt me so? What have I done that I can fix, so we can be close again?” This is a god longing for a reconciliation with the people, not a god wanting to punish. This is a god almost hoping that the wrong comes from something God did, so that the blame might fall on God instead of the people. “Tell me it’s me; tell me there’s something I can do to make things right.” This is a god . . . who is sad.
Verse 4: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” The hurt continues to be evident: “I tried to do my best; I tried to take care of you. I brought you out of slavery; I gave you leaders so you could make it across the desert . . .” It’s not surprising that God would recall the Exodus event here; throughout the Old Testament it is considered the most significant event in history—more than Abraham’s call, more than the flood, more even than creation. For it was in the Exodus event that God created a people and God chose a people. It was in that event that Israel was formed and given an identity, as God’s people. In a sense, God says in verse 4 “I gave birth to you” as a people.
Verse 5: “O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
The recitation of what God has done for the people continues, and so does the tenderness: “O my people.” Still no ranting and raving, no angry God. The two events cited here are part of the story of Israel coming into the land of Canaan, at the end of the exodus. God has not just created a people; God has also provided for them—given them a land, a prosperous land, and a home.
And that, rather abruptly, is the end of God’s case! No speeches, no anger, no accusations, not even any witnesses. All God has to do is to say “remember,” and all the evidence needed is right there, before the people. And this is just a partial list; how many more episodes and miracles might God have brought up, to demonstrate the kind of care and love that has been shown the people? All God has to do is say “remember,” and the people know.
“Yes. You have cared for us. You’re right; you have done nothing that would warrant our ignoring you, and leaving you.”
I imagine that a simple call to remember would affect many of us the same way: all we have to do is call to mind what God has done for us, and no further evidence is needed of the care and love we have received, and of the love we should demonstrate in return. SO:
Verse 6: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?”
It is Israel’s turn to speak now, and Israel doesn’t even try to claim that they don’t owe God, that God’s case has not been made. They know that God is right; their own history proves it. “Yes, we owe God our gratitude and devotion. You win the case, God. We’re guilty as charged, and we have to do better.” The only questions left now is . . . how? How shall we show our devotion? How shall we give the response that you deserve? And Israel starts throwing out suggestions: “I know, I know—we’ll bring burnt offerings! Yeah, yeah, and we’ll bring one-year-old calves. Here, God, take my most valuable animal.”
It’s as if one of us were to bring a prized possession and give it to the church to try to settle our account with God. “Here you go, God—you take my minivan and use it to transport people to church. I’ll do without.” “Here, take my new sofa and put it in the parlor.” “Here, take my TV and DVR for the Sunday School.” That’s how I’ll please God; I’ll turn in my favorite thing.
Verse 7A: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” The people must sense that their first idea wasn’t quite right, because they keep trying. The Leslie Allen commentary on Micah points out: the worshipers are eager to respond, but still don’t think they know how, so they try quantity instead of quality.
“Maybe it’s not my best thing God wants; maybe it’s lots of things.” A thousand animals. Let’s of oil. And then the people get ridiculous:
Verse 7B: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Now the people know that God hates human sacrifice, that that was a practice of other peoples trying to please other gods, and that God had spoken against it. But they’re so anxious by now to find out what it is God wants that they’ll suggest anything: “Won’t you tell us? What can we do to restore this relationship, to pay you back for years of neglect?” What does God want? They’ve wracked their brains, and pulled their hair; they’ve offered the best, the most, even the illegal. They’ve spoken every suggestion their minds could think up. Human wisdom has been stretched to its limits. What . . . does God want?
Verse 8A: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good.” It’s in the law; it’s in the prophets; it will be in Jesus’ teaching, and in the examples lived out by many many Christians to come.
Verse 8B: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. It isn’t what you bring—how valuable, how many, how priceless—but what you do—justice; what you are dedicated to—lovingkindness; and what your continuing intent and attitude are—to walk humbly with your God. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
Oh. Is that all?
It is, of course, a tall order. Even finding out how to do it is a tall order. What is “doing justice” when it comes to complicated issues like the death penalty, or the Middle East? What all is included in “kindness”? What does it mean to “walk humbly with God”? We can work a lifetime on these objectives—and hopefully we will. Today, we can only offer a couple starting points.
First, justice. One way we can make progress toward doing justice is to get away from thinking just about criminal justice: Legal systems. Punishing bad guys. Law and order. Biblical justice is much bigger than that, as we see if we turn to passages like Isaiah 58, verses 6-14. Isaiah’s definition of justice includes phrases like: loose the bonds of injustice. Undo the thongs of the yoke. Let the oppressed go free. Share your bread with the hungry. Bring the homeless poor into your house. When you see the naked, cover them. With a little rearranging of that chapter, we can come up with sort of an “eight commandments” of justice—things that should be done if we want to be a just people in God’s eyes. Things that go far beyond just punishing criminals. Things that address the needs of those in need.
Second, says Micah, love kindness. And once we’ve found such a complete and elevated definition of justice, we see there isn’t much farther to go to also carry out kindness. For kindness, “hesed” in Hebrew, also carries with it the sense of community obligations—helping those in need. Just as God addressed the needs of the Hebrew people: breaking their bonds in Egypt, feeding them in the wilderness, providing them a home.
That is the kind of kindness we’re directed to imitate, with regard to each other—not mere politeness, but taking care of each other.
And finally, “walk humbly with God.” There are people, of course, who are fair and kind without having any interest whatsoever in religion or God. So we have specified here that what God wants in addition to just treating other people well is for us to have a relationship with God. The vertical and the horizontal, it’s been called.
“Humble” is emphasized because the attitude needed is one that acknowledges that we are dependent on God—we don’t make it on our own. This dependence was probably easier for the Hebrew people to remember in the wilderness than it is for us sometimes, but it is part of our charge—walk humbly: acknowledge your dependence on God.
“He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Let’s begin again today, with our humble response to God the rest of this worship service, and then by carrying God’s justice and kindness to the world.
And let’s pray:
God, thank you for approaching us with forbearance, with patience, with sadness, when we have let you down—with the opportunity for us to try again. And thank you for the instruction you have given us on what you want from us. Help us, to carry out the kind of justice that seeks to help others; to practice acts of caring kindness; to nurture our relationship with you, to walk humbly with you—we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.