The Wrong Answers

In the fall of 2014, the good people of Crafton Heights are considering some of the basics of faithful living, using Micah 6:1-8. On Sunday September 14, we also considered Romans 3:21-23

The country is a mess. I mean to tell you, there is not one thing that is going right.

Politically? Please. No matter where you look, there are nothing but broken promises and unmet potential. Leadership? Give me a break. They say one thing and do another. There is incessant, excruciating infighting between the various parties.

Let’s talk about Foreign Affairs. National security is an issue. There is the constant threat of war. Enemies are on the move in places like Iraq, Kurdistan, and Syria. The cost of war is eviscerating any hope for improvements in infrastructure or long-term benefits, and families are crippled by the loss of husbands, children, or property.

The Economic scene isn’t any better. One writer surveys the situation and says that there is “a shocking contrast between extreme wealth and poverty…exacerbated by egregious injustices on the part of the elite rich and ruling class against the stalwart [working class]…driven…into a dependent economic status.”[1] The richest of the rich build elaborate homes behind security fences and enjoy every conceivable luxury, while the middle class workers lose property, security, income, and stability. The disparity between the top .05% of the population and the bottom 50% is appalling.

stoning-of-stephenAnd Religion? Don’t even get me started on that one. By and large, public worship is dying on the vine. Nobody has any enthusiasm for it any more. Oh, a few courageous leaders speak out against the horrors of war and terror; they lift their voices against injustice, all right. But almost without fail, those voices are stilled far too quickly: they are martyred or marginalized. There are a few wildly successful preachers who earn a pretty good living by telling anyone who will listen that all God really wants is for you to be happy and blessed. Every now and then you come across an apparently successful congregation that seems to be full of obscenely wealthy people who bring in their offerings amidst a lot of fanfare and adulation.

Assyria_TP-IIIThe country is a mess all right. I should say, the country was a mess. I’m not talking about the USA. No, no, no. I’m not talking about 2014. The scene I’m describing is from Israel and Judah in the 8th century BC. All those things I just said are mentioned in the Bible – you know, that really big, really old book that has nothing to say about our lives or the modern world because everything is so much different nowadays?

I’m not talking about our culture. I’m telling you about the kind of world into which God sent Micah the prophet. Ha! Failed leadership, constant war, gross injustice, and hollow religion. Like that could happen here, in 2014! Ha!  That’s a good one.

But try to imagine, if you can, God sending a prophet into a world that looks like the one that I’ve described, and giving the prophet the task of helping people to remember who they are, and to claim their identity as God’s own children…only the people to whom the prophet is sent are not at all interested in hearing that message. I know, I often ask you to do difficult things, and this morning I am wondering if you can even imagine that God is not only longing, but willing to speak a word into a culture that is characterized by failed leadership, constant war, gross injustice, and hollow religion. I am hoping that if you can imagine God doing that once, that maybe you’re open to the idea that he’ll do it again.

For five chapters, Micah has thundered God’s judgement on the people for their failure to live in obedience and faith. He has accused and cajoled and encouraged. He has begged and he has threatened. And now, in chapter six, we are presented with a courtroom drama.

Micah Exhorting the Israelites to Repentance, Gustav Dore, 1870

Micah Exhorting the Israelites to Repentance, Gustav Dore, 1870

Verses 1 and 2 introduce us to the cast of characters. The Lord himself is the plaintiff, and he engages the prophet Micah as his prosecutor. The very land of promise – the hills and the mountains surrounding Jerusalem – is called to witness these proceedings. Israel is named as the defendant.

In verses 3, 4, and 5, God, speaking in the first person, recounts the history of his relationship with his people. He speaks in language that is covenantal, and reminds them of the ways that he has provided for them time and time and time again. God brings up names from the past, and shows precedent for how he has consistently come to engage, enjoy, and equip his people. “And yet,” he says, “my people are not interested.”

The speaker shifts in verses 6 and 7, and the defendant, Israel, is given voice. The leadership of the nation is presented here as saying, essentially, “Look, YHWH, what’s it going to take to make all this go away? Yeah, we get it. We haven’t been the model people of God that you say you want. Great. OK. Noted. But look, we’re busy. We’re workin’ here. What do you need? What can we bring to you?”

Look at the suggestions that the people make – each offer consists of something more valuable. “What do you want, God? A burnt offering? No problem. We’ve got animals here. Pick one.”

Calves a year old are a little more expensive, as they have required a great deal of care, but thus far have offered no labor and no return on that investment. “Thousands of rams” seems a bit excessive, but there is evidence that King David made an offering of that size. “Thousands of rivers of oil” seems an obvious exaggeration, as the typical sacrifice called for a pint or at most a quart of oil. The last offer was to bring the firstborn and offer that child to the Lord – and what “everybody knew” back then was that was exactly the kind of offering that the Canaanite god Molech required. There were altars throughout Israel where people offered their children to the fire god.

Do you hear the arrogance here? The people saying, “Come on, God, how long are you going to be busting my chops here? Can’t you just get off my back? Let me give an offering and we’ll be square, OK?”

When I read this, I have in my head an image of one of the junk-bond swindlers from the 1990’s getting up from the defense table, pulling out a checkbook, and paying off a fine for millions of dollars – all the while, eager to go back out and start making money again. Or maybe you remember not long ago when Google was fined $22.5 million for violating the personal privacy settings of its customers…and earned that much money back in about five hours.

In all of these cases, ancient and modern, there appears to be no intent to actually modify one’s behavior. No, the “accused” is simply eager to placate those who are upset and get back to business as usual.

But here’s the deal: God is not primarily interested in business – not business as usual or any other kind of business. God is interested in you. In me. In us. God is not interested in the conventions of the day: God is interested in relationship.

The Ghent Altarpiece (detail), Jan van Eyck (1432)

The Prophet Micah in The Ghent Altarpiece (detail), Jan van Eyck (1432)

Look back at what God says in verses 3 – 5. When we read that, we see the language of covenant. God describes his history with the people in terms of gift and of personal sacrifice. He reminds them of promise and deliverance and the ways that he has willingly bound himself to his people for their own good, the ways that he has consistently given of himself in every age.

Contrast that language with the words that we find in verses 6 and 7, where the people are presented as speaking contractually. In a contract, we see two independent contractors coming together of their own free will. They negotiate an agreement, which implies some level of obligation on every level. A contract is a deal, and property is almost always the most important thing. It’s nothing personal: it’s just business.

And again, I repeat: God is not interested in the impersonal. God is not interested in that kind business. One does not sign a contract with the Almighty.

That is very good news, my friends. Every day, we ought to be eternally grateful for the fact that God will not give in to our demands that he become a bean-counting, score-keeping, party-of-the-first-part, party-of-the-second-part kind of Diety. Because if we insist on trying to contract with God; if we insist on trying to pay our own way; if we insist that we are just fine on our own and don’t need your covenant, thank you very much… Then we will surely perish. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, everyone has sinned. Everyone has fallen short of God’s glory. And since a contract can only be entered into by two independent parties on equal footing acting of their own free will, we can’t contract with God.

The bad news of the Gospel is that God can’t be bought. You don’t have enough sheep, enough oil, enough children to make God happy.

The Good news of the Gospel is that God doesn’t need your sheep, your oil, or your children. Those are the wrong answers.

In verse 8, the prosecutor tells us what does count: “He has shown you, people, what is good.”

It’s not about impressing me with the ways that you keep all of those so-called “rules”. I don’t need you to get straight A’s, or to be so smug and self-righteous just because you have never been caught doing the worst thing that you do, or thinking the worst thought you’ve thought. Again, those are all the wrong answers.

It’s about the walk. The way that you live your life. When we speak of our “walk”, we mean the people that you choose to follow; we mean those for whom you are looking while you are on the journey. It’s not about trying to collect the right answers – it’s more about learning to ask the right questions.

“So don’t come to me with that ‘What’s it gonna take, Lord’ kind of nonsense,” says God. “You know exactly what it takes: Justice. Kindness. And walking purposefully in covenant with me.”

We’ll talk more about those things and that kind of relationship in the weeks to come. For today, let me encourage you to delight yourself in the notion that the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, comes to you and invites you to order your life according to the covenant that God is offering. Let me encourage you to go a little easier on yourselves and a little easier on each other – so that we all have more energy to grow into those things that God is seeking to do in our lives.

Thanks be to God for this amazing gift of covenant. Amen.

[1] Baker, Alexander, and Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series) InterVarsity Press 1988, p. 138.