Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly before your God.
This kind of sums up our ethics as people of faith in three neat
little clauses, and that, suggests theologian Andrew Foster Connors
is what makes this passage dangerous. Not because of what it says,
but because of our tendency to turn it into a slogan, rather than
a way of life.
We have been talking for the past three weeks about the journey
of Epiphany: the journey which happened to the wise men, but which
also begins for each one of us when we seek Jesus Christ the king,
and we make the decision to leave home, follow Jesus and grow into
Christian discipleship and maturity. Whoever we are, whatever our
circumstances, there are some things about the journey which we
can anticipate: it isn’t going to be a straight line, it isn’t
going to be easy, there are things we will have to give up, and
we are going to get lost along the way. This passage from Micah
chapter 6 is about what God does when we are lost, and what we can
do to get back on track.
Micah is one of the minor prophets of the Old Testament: minor
because he wrote less material than the heavy hitters like Isaiah
and Jeremiah, not because he was playing in a different league.
Prophets functioned as the mouthpiece of God: men and women who
shared God’s words with the people. And this usually meant
they were unpopular. Because, as I mentioned before, people have
a way of getting off track, of being lost, of ignoring God’s
words. And not just people singular, but peoples, entire nations.
In Micah 6:1-8, God has an issue with the nation of Israel, and
Micah sets up a courtroom scene as a dialog where God speaks to
the people, the people answer with some questions, and God responds
to them. I’d like to play out this scene for you because it’s
important context for the admonition at the end of verse 8. I encourage
you to follow along if you have a Bible with you, but I warn you
that I will be paraphrasing freely.
The narrator, Micah, begins by saying to the people of Israel:
You need to stand up and make your case, because God has an issue
with you, and God says you’re going to have to work this out.
And God comes to the witness stand and asks the people, “What
have I done to you? Are you tired of me?” These are rhetorical
questions -- the kind which you don’t answer, because the
answer is obvious. It isn’t just God the Father who asks these
kinds of questions, human parents do too. Here’s a tip: if
your mom or dad or especially your spouse says, “What have
I done to you? Are you tired of me?” Don’t answer those
questions; that conversation is not going to end well. It goes without
saying that God has done nothing but protect and save the people,
but like human parents, God goes on to tell them this anyway --
how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, sent them leaders
and prophets, and kept the prophet Balaam from cursing them when
they were camped on the Jordan, preparing to enter the promised
land. That story is in Numbers 22, and there’s a donkey involved.
So God lists these things, and the people answer back with some
rhetorical questions of their own: “So what do you expect
us to do? Give up our entire allowance? Sit at home every night?
Cut off our right arm? Seriously?” The people shoot back with
a list of exaggerated demands that God never asked or expected them
to do -- so we’re supposed to come up with a thousand rams
or ten thousand rivers of oil, or sacrifice our own children?
And God answers: Spare me the drama, you know what you’re
supposed to do. Set up systems that are fair to everyone. Be kind
to one another. Stay on this journey with me.
I had a professor at AMBS, the seminary up the road in Elkhart,
who had this quote in his office. [Slide: I will not accept your
bull] I don’t know if that quotation came from this passage
-- the sentiment, if not those specific words, is certainly here,
but you can find it through the Old Testament prophets right up
through Jesus’ parables in the New Testament. God doesn’t
want our bull: our excuses, our justifications, our assurances about
next time, our extravagant promises, our public display of remorse.
That is not the kind of offering that is acceptable to God. Who
do we think we’re kidding? God knows our hearts already. God
knows the evil that we’ve done and the good which we have
neglected to do. God knows the ways which we’ve stumbled off
the path and gotten lost. And God knows what we need to do to get
back on track -- and God will not accept our bull. Stop talking
the talk and start walking the walk.
I affirm that there is a place for our words: we need to acknowledge
to God and to ourselves when we have gotten off the path. We need
to acknowledge to other people when we have acted in ways that have
been mean spirited or even vicious. We even need to acknowledge
when we have participated in systems -- often systems which we did
not set up -- that have privileged us at a cost other people. This
acknowledgment is called confession. Straying off God’s path
is sin. But it’s a mistake to think that to fix our sin, all
we need to do is confess -- and the more dramatic we make that,
the better. God doesn’t want that bull. No, in order to make
amends for and move beyond our sin, we actually have to get back
on the path and start walking with God. We need to support systems
which are fair to everyone, we need to be kind to one another. It’s
our actions, not our words, which speak the loudest about who we
are. And that’s why it’s so important that we don’t
simply turn these words from Micah 6:8 into a slogan, a bumper sticker
to put on our car while we cut people off in traffic. Slogans which
don’t match the way we live give Christians a bad name. Quoting
God’s words without making an effort to live by them dishonors
the name of God. God will not accept that bull.
There are other places in the Bible, especially the Old Testament,
where we find rules about how to live. Often, like the ten commandments
in Exodus 20, they are phrased negatively: Don’t have any
other Gods, Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain, Don’t
steal, Don’t lie. These commandments are important to govern
our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.
But we cannot offer God the things we don’t do. We can’t
even offer God the things we ought to do, but haven’t gotten
around to yet. What God desires from us is sincerity. Sincere desire
to walk with God, sincere acknowledgement when we stumble off course,
and sincere action: action of justice and loving kindness; a sincere
commitment to treat others the way we would want to be treated,
to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love God with all our
heart, soul, mind, and strength. That sincere desire and that sincere
action is what is acceptable to God. It is the best offering we
can make, it is the offering from which all other offerings come:
our praise, our prayers, our planning, our money -- if they do not
come from a sincere desire to work for justice, to be kind to other
people and to walk with God, then we’re just showing off or
going through the motions. God will not accept that bull. You might
be able to impress or mislead other people -- at least for a while
-- but God knows what’s in our hearts.
Here’s the other side of that equation: when we are motivated
by a sincere desire treat others fairly and be kind to one another
and walk with God, we can’t help but offer our praise, our
prayers, our planning and our money to do what God wants. And whatever
offering we make, however simple, quiet, or modest it is, it will
be acceptable to God. Because God knows what is in our hearts. We
are the offering -- our sincere desire and confession and action
-- which is acceptable to God. And each one of us is worth more
than a thousand rams or ten thousand rivers of oil. No bull.
So, brothers and sisters, I encourage you to stay on the path.
Keep listening, keep praying, keep striving to walk with God. Keep
helping others who may be struggling along the way. Be sincere when
things are going well, and especially be sincere when they are going
badly. God will not accept our bull, but any offering, no matter
what it is, is acceptable when given with a sincere heart. For what
does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love kindness and
walk humbly with our God. Amen.