My friend Dee is a great church planter, leader, mother, engineer, and (don’t tell her this!) preacher. We’ve been friends for almost two years now, and one of my favorite things about her is that she uses a wonderful metaphor to describe our beliefs. She talks about ‘stakes in the sand’. Not foundations, or pillars, or posts. And not bedrock, or concrete, or even dirt. But ‘stakes,’ and ‘sand’. Humble, portable, and (if I may say so) Biblical. Beautiful.
What follows is my stake in the sand for today. I believe it, though I reserve the right to racant or recede or declare it ridiculous at some future date. I know it to be true, and I do feel it, today. I may feel differently tomorrow. But I hope that this is true.
I was on the schedule to talk about the Minor Prophet Micah in church this week. My friends gave me plenty of freedom to take the week off, and I very nearly took them up on it. But yesterday morning I looked at Micah again, and my notes, and I started writing…
I had an abundantly awful week. Want proof? My church sent me flowers yesterday. Which gave equal parts comfort and alarm. I cried when I saw the flower guy as I thought, “Oh, no, something terrible must have happened to me!” But seriously, though, thanks for standing with us and crying with us and praying with us. It has been a gift quite beyond words.
I’d like to say that it was the worst week of my life, but the really depressing part is that this week means that I’ll probably have weeks that are even worse. A bunch of them, in fact.
But still, I wanted to be here. And so did my wife. To be here with our friends, and to express the real hope that I have in God, and to speak out of the peace that he has given me. And you all know me—you know that I just don’t talk like that. So it’s either real, or some figment of my own shock and denial. I leave you to judge.
What follows is a sermon that wouldn’t earn me a very high grade in preaching class. It is probably half about our prophet de jour and half about me. So be it.
What Kind of God is God? It isn’t a question which Micah had, but it is one which we certainly have. To put it bluntly, Yahweh doesn’t seem like a very good person, much less a very good God. He seems to rejoice at punishing people, and exacting over-exuberant vengeance, and withholding simple kindness and mercy.
In Micah, we see God:
Destroying entire cities with a flourish
Decimating crops, and watching people starve
Heaping up judgment on already defeated people.
Recognizing the obvious sinfulness of people,
and then condemning them for acting out of that basic human tendency
Metaphorically describing his people as a lion
which will kill and devour their enemies like gentle, defenseless sheep
And Micah rails against God for holding back when he is perfectly capable of stepping in and fixing things.
Is this God good? Is he worthy of our respect and worship?
Is this the same Spirit of God who dwelt in and acted through Jesus?
Which are questions that largely defy answers—or at least simple ones. They are difficulties that we will not overcome today, or ever. But to which I would say three things.
(I offer you a three point sermon for three reasons: 1.) laziness, 2.) because I love cheese, and 3.) so that you might further identify with the suffering of the ancient people of God.)
1. Micah is an imperfect mouthpiece (to borrow the image from one of our recent, brilliant prophet-station participants). This is not a case of God hitting ‘print’ and having the message wirelessly transferred to a human agent who will flawlessly read the script. At best, it is a case of God giving our man Micah visions, impressions, and perhaps words in clips and phrases. And Micah takes those presumably gentle stirrings, turns to the people and more or less unleashes it. He blows his stack, and vents out this combination of Divine Insight and Human Reaction.
We ought to identify with this. We’ve been shown a message of love, grace, forgiveness and kindness in the words and in the life of Jesus. It is ours to share, by our lives and our words. Yet how often does our message end up sounding more like judgment, anger, and bitterness. A message of Us – the wonderfully faithful and nearly perfect people of God, versus them—the enemies of all that is good and right. Or maybe that’s just me.
2. God is human, too. This is not the beginning of the story. God is reacting to quite a lot. Generation after generation of watching people use whatever advantage that they have gained to take even greater advantage of others.
Of doing this repeatedly, and without remorse. Again and again, until the gap is huge and the arrogance is pungent. And what’s worse!– watching the people who had suffered that oppression finally scratching and clawing their way to the top of the power structure so that they could….
Offer kindness? Find a better way? Speak up on behalf of the oppressed? Nope. God gets to watch while the oppressed become the oppressors. Instead of stopping the cycle, they drop in a bigger engine, add some more high-octane fuel, and take off. All aboard the human race!
If you were God, how would you feel? Who would you defend? The good guys, or the bad guys? If you were God, you’d see that the two categories are usually interchangeable. So what would you do? Maybe, just maybe, you’d call a family meeting one day and just give everyone a stern talking to. Who could blame you?
3. There are two sides to justice. ‘Justice’ means being ‘for’ some things, and ‘against’ others. And so ‘justice’ can sound harsh or refreshing, depending upon your perspective.
Ever had someone pass you and then watch them get a speeding ticket? Ever gotten a speeding ticket yourself? In the former case, we smile and say, ‘sweet justice!’.
In the latter, we begrudgingly accept our fine as ‘fair’.
In chapter 2, Micah turns his focus on people who covet the fields and houses of their neighbors and then find some way to obtain them by ill-conceived means. Which, if we’ve been guilty of this kind of stuff (and many of us are… anyone here have their money in a bank or mutual fund?…) sounds kind of harsh. I mean, that’s business, right? That’s the way the world turns! On the other hand, if anyone has ever leveraged their wealth and power to defraud you of your stuff, it sounds pretty sweet. Destruction, calamity and ridicule might seem just about right.
Which isn’t to say that it is good, or loving. But understandable.
When we are in need of justice and mercy ourselves, it is quite wonderful to imagine God coming in to our rescue. On the other hand, when we ourselves need to be more concerned about justice, and more merciful toward others, then it seems like ‘bad news’. And God might seem a bit, well, mean.
Of course, none of these musings are meant to fix the problem of vindictive violence in Micah. Or to force you to suddenly think of God as a nice guy, with all evidence to the contrary. But it’s just to suggest a wider perspective.
And, in this regard, the famous and pivotal section in 6:8 might offer a lens into our frustrations with the pain and disappointment which we all face.
the reason why God can so often seem to be set against us.
“He has shown all you people what is good.
An what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
And to walk humbly with your God.”
How do we learn about justice? Well, we might read about it, and check blogs of those who are oppressed, and go to rallies. But my hunch is that we best learn what justice is by experiencing injustice. By feeling it, and facing it, living through the pain and alienation, and experiencing God through it. Maybe we get to ‘acting justly’ via the path of pain.
Anyone know of a fast-track to mercy? Of a correspondence course or internet degree program? Or do we learn the value and practice of mercy by experiencing pain ourselves, and finding the sweet relief of another person or community of people who come alongside us and share the crushing burden? People who have themselves felt pain, who can understand and identify. Maybe we arrive at ‘mercy’ via the path of pain.
And humility, well what can you say about humility? If you were God, how would you bring about humility? Enforced humility is a most unwelcome gift. On the other hand, coming by humility organically ain’t any fun, either. There isn’t any formula or three-step schematic to get us from wherever we’re at to ‘walking humbly with God’. Best I can tell, it is the path of pain.
Pain, injustice, and downfall can lead, paradoxically, to justice, mercy, and humility. Or, — more often than not– the same experiences can lead to bitterness. So there you go.
So why is God so far away? He isn’t.
If we posit that he is our rescuer and our great mechanic in the sky, our rapturous escape hatch, then I guess he is far away. If we define happiness and satisfaction on our terms, he is far away. But if we can find a way to allow him his freedom, wisdom, and greater intelligence – instead of trying to keep him in our back pocket- then I think we might be able to find a way to see a sliver of what he’s up to.
Which isn’t to say that we have perfect peace, or that all of our fears subside, or that we don’t go on extended crying jags. But we know that he is with us. Close by.
Walking with us, each and every step of the way. Giving comfort as we go, and teaching us and showing us more of himself, his ways, and his perspectives. And above all, to show us his love.
Which is, in the end, the point of Micah.
The last words of Micah’s book:
18 “Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.
19 You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
20 You will be faithful to Jacob,
and show love to Abraham,
as you pledged on oath to our ancestors
in days long ago.”
This great and mighty God whose heart nevertheless beats with human blood and human compassion and who cries human tears.
Who sees and understands and feels our suffering and our grief.
Who is merciful and compassionate and forgiving.
Who delights to show mercy, if not relief. And to make us instruments of the same.