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Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Micah. Louis was complaining Wednesday about jumping around so much the past couple of weeks in the Bible as we’ve talked about being Christian, so he’ll be pleased to hear I’m planning to stay in the book of Micah through the season of Lent.
I’ll stick to Micah, but really the book of Micah is a part of a larger whole. And you may think if we’re in Micah, this is a series through the book of Micah, and it is, but Micah is largely about justice, and so in another sense this is a series about biblical justice. In the Bibles we have, the twelve books which end the Old Testament are separated, but originally they were considered a single text called the Book of the Twelve, which is a way cooler name and would have been way easier to memorize when I was a kid in Bible drill. We usually call them minor prophets, which seems a little insulting to me. Like they’re in the minor leagues. Like they all went to a prophecy conference, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were the plenary sessions, then Micah led a breakout.
But I would encourage you to consider the message of the minor prophets as majorly important in our lives and in our churches today. They’re too often neglected, probably because they’re not super encouraging, but they are convicting. And we run from conviction, but we ought not. To avoid conviction is to avoid the Holy Spirit, himself. I want us to sit with the book of the twelve, and with the Spirit of God, and allow them, as we read in Joel last week, to rend our hearts as we prepare for Easter and the unbridled joy of the resurrection, and the hope of being made truly alive again in Christ.
These books are so overflowing with meaning, I got carried away in my study this week and almost left myself without time actually to write my sermon. They have a lot to say, and I hope, for our sakes, and everyone else’s, we listen. Let’s read it, Micah, starting from the beginning. [Micah 1:1-9] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
Micah never calls himself a prophet. And he’s not from a good family, he identifies himself by a place instead of naming his father as the rest of the prophets do. He doesn’t live in Jerusalem. His name is a rhetorical question, it means “Who is like the Lord?” He enters the book of the twelve just as a man who speaks the truth. A prophet by what he speaks instead of by what he claims. He opens his book by quoting Isaiah, thereby siding with the voices of the minority.
As I’ve said, the book of the twelve is mostly about justice—justice, righteousness, and hope, because in the book of the twelve, as in our lives, those three things are inextricably bound. You can’t have justice without hope. Hope is knowing the destination, knowing what the peace, the shalom of God looks like and learning to long for it. If you don’t know your destination, you can’t possibly know what it will take to get there, or how long. What seems like progress, then, may be movement in the complete opposite direction.
And trying to accomplish justice without pursuing righteousness is like establishing a court in a place where there is no law, or where the law, itself, is not right. You may accomplish convictions and imprisonments, but you won’t accomplish justice. The converse is also true. Hope without justice is useless; you know which way to go but have no righteous means of getting there—I see this in our culture all over the place, and I see people trading righteous means of moving forward for the enemy’s weapons. But where righteousness is absent, justice will be, too. So the book of the twelve teaches us, justice, righteousness, and hope are bound together.
Justice is a major theme, not just of Micah, but of the prophetic books as a whole. And I thought long and hard and texted our preaching team asking for definitions of biblical justice. I’ll give you a few, because they were all good and right. One: biblical justice is the labor of restoration; the work of shalom. And biblical justice is the restoration of relationships—people to one another, people to themselves, people to creation, people to God. I would add this, and then I’ll explain: biblical justice is the righteous stewardship of pain; the response of righteousness to pain and broken relationship.
Micah is writing towards the end of the kingdom of Judah. This is after the flood, after Moses and the Exodus, after king David and Solomon and the psalms. After the kingdom of Israel split, and the Northern kingdom fell, and the single tribe of Judah is all that’s left of Israel, and even that kingdom has begun to fall.
Even then, even when Jerusalem and the surrounding areas were all that’s left, even then the people of Jerusalem held onto a false hope in God of salvation. The majority of folks believed they would never be conquered, that God’s special favor on the nation meant they would not have to endure the hardships of the other more sinful nations around them. Micah’s message was unwelcome and unpopular. Again, he was in the minority, he and the rest of the twelve. They were the dissenting prophetic opinion.
Th other prophets were pointing out the sins of Assyria and Babylon, the surrounding nations, and concluded that Israel, in comparison, was a righteous nation. A godly nation. And besides that, they were the recipients of the covenants of God. Micah and the rest of the twelve were mainly confessing the sins of their own people and admitting that God would be just to overthrow Israel, if he chose to do so. I want you to notice the conversation on justice begins with people discounting the justification of God’s own actions.
Just as biblical justice and righteousness go hand in hand with biblical hope, so injustice and unrighteousness go hand in hand with false hope. False hope baptizes and whitewashes injustice. Israel did fall, just as the book of the twelve predicted, and the people of God went into exile. The majority of the prophets were proven false, and the book of the twelve became a lifeline for the people in exile to hear the truth of God spoken to them today. Truth about hope that persists even in the midst of suffering.
The world is filled with people who are willing to tell you what you want to hear. Mostly, we want to hear that our life will be easy and relatively happy, and that we are basically good people. We still do not want to hear that in this life there will be suffering. In our time, we’ve even designed entire machines, filling warehouses and server farms, which help to point us toward exactly what we want to hear. What’s rare, and incredibly valuable—not profitable, but valuable—is someone who is willing to tell you something you don’t really want to hear in a way that is both right and filled with hope. (Again, justice without righteousness or hope is directionless.)
I read an interesting article this week—I have no idea the occasion for it. The book I’m reading right now is just a collection of Frederick Beuchner’s shorter writings, without any notes on the circumstances. But in the article, Beuchner takes up the parable of the talents. You may be familiar with it. A master has three servants, and he gives them each a large amount of gold to steward before he leaves for a trip, and when he gets back he asks each of them what they’ve done with it. One man, who buried his gold in the ground and did nothing with it ends the story in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth, which is a picture of hell drawn from the prophet Isaiah.
Beuchner points out that the one thing we most tend to bury in our lives is pain, but when we bury our pain, we tend to bury with it the life we’ve been given. He says: “I think what the parable means is that the buried pain in particular and all the other things we tend to bury along with pain, including joy, which tends to get buried too when we start burying things, that the buried life is itself darkness and wailing and gnashing of teeth and the one who casts us into it is none other than ourselves.”
So instead of burying our pain, we have to steward it, ours and other’s if we don’t want to be deeply alone. We have to trade, to give what we have away and let others give theirs to us. In one sense, doing justice, as the prophet Micah famously tells us to do later on in chapter 6, doing justice is as much for us as it is for the people around us.
The word justice goes through a bit of a shift between the testaments. Meg reminded me, the shift may be more in the interpretation than in the writing, but a shift all the same. It’s because of Plato, the philosopher; he wrote a lot about justice being the foundation of civilization, and the spread of Greek culture spread those ideas so thoroughly that the meaning of the word changed. If you’re not reading carefully, you may think justice in the new testament is primarily about adherence to the law.
In the Old Testament, though, and arguably in scripture in general, but definitely in our passage, justice is primarily not a matter of the law, but a matter of relationship and covenant. Our relationships with the people around us, with ourselves, with creation, and with God. And this is where we need to really dig into our text.
One, you have to know this history: the northern kingdom of Israel didn’t just fall. The southern kingdom, Judah, helped Assyria to conquer Israel and Samaria. They helped in the downfall of their own people in order to save themselves. They trusted more in political power than in the Lord. That’s the sin Micah is confessing. But again, Micah was in the minority. Most of the people of Judah saw the downfall of Israel and Samaria as judgement on that nation for their sins, and most of the people of Judah saw themselves as innocent of those same sins.
You see, there was a religious debate raging between the two nations. You can hear the remnants of it even in the New Testament with the woman at the well. But in Samaria, they would worship gods on what were called high places—just mountains, literal high places, because gods were commonly thought to live on mountains. Think mount Olympus. And naturally, since both pagans and the people of Samaria were worshipping in the same places, the religions began to meld and blend. Judah, to the South, worshipped in the temple of God in Jerusalem, and decried the Samaritans as godless heretics.
In v.5, Micah says the sin of Judah is Samaria, and then he says Jerusalem has become a high place. It didn’t matter that they were worshipping in the right place and in the right ways because they’d done nothing to correct the egregious injustice of trusting more in political power than in the Lord. In fact they had celebrated the injustice as divine retribution. They had betrayed their brothers to Assyria, and so when the northern kingdom went into exile, Micah says the Lord went with them. Micah says in v.9, “Her wound is incurable, and it has come to Judah.” Do you get the image here? Israel, Samaria being wounded is like a wound that’s become infected, and Judah even helped inflict it. But what Judah forgot is that they and Israel are one body. So even though the wound is in a different part of the body, the infection of the cut is going to kill the whole person.
He calls Jerusalem a high place, because in v.3 he says God has come out of his temple. He’s not there anymore, because he has gone out with the exiles of Israel. You’re worshipping nothing. By calling Jerusalem a high place, he’s basically equating the sins of Judah with the sins of Samaria. Micah’s saying that your sins are the same and your fate will be the same.
I have two points I want to make, two takeaways from this passage to give to you now that I hope we understand the passage. One is, we do this. Creating divisions in our mind that aren’t really there—we do this. And as one segment of our community suffers, we start talking about how they deserve it. They are godless, God is judging them for their sins, and it’s right that they would suffer what I’ve worked so hard to avoid. Division, leads to injustice, then pride, then fall. In my lifetime, I’ve heard almost this exact thing about pretty much every kind of person. I’ve heard the rich say it about the poor, the poor say it about the rich, racial lines, political lines, religious lines.
Truth is, they are us. The human race is a single race. Don’t you know you’re one body with your brother? Don’t you realize that a sickness in one part of our community will spill out into the rest? To give some specific examples of imagined divisions leading to injustice and pride, I remember when spotlight published the article about molestation in the catholic church, I remember a lot of protestants celebrating. People saying it was God judging them for their sins and how they were wrong in their beliefs and brought it on themselves, and then the Chronicle published about the same exact sins a few years later in the SBC. Division, injustice, pride, fall. We do this.
I was talking to my friend Thomas who preached here once, you may remember. He was an advocate early on against ghettoing poverty into housing projects. He told them you can’t just bury the issues away, you had to work to actually correct the injustice, that our neighbors were still suffering, and soon the violence and drug use that defined the projects would spread to the rest of the community. I was just a kid then, but I remember folks disparaging the poor as godless. Then the infection spread to the rest of the body. Division, injustice, pride, fall.
And interpersonally, when we seek out likeminded individuals who agree with our strongest opinions and life choices, and we separate ourselves from anyone, even people who love us, who might be uncomfortable with our direction. We become bolder in our opinions backed by those who agree to the point where we insult and diminish anyone who doesn’t. Division, injustice, pride, fall.
We do this, and going back to where we started, I would encourage you to use hope to remember our destination as the people of God, resting at peace with all of the people of God. If that’s where we are going, are you moving in the right direction? Or are you moving more in the direction of isolation? Are you burying your pain, your joy, your life itself, or are you sharing it?
One book I read this week called Micah the prophet of hope, which, given our passage, might be a bit hard to believe. In v.8 he’s lamenting and wailing, going stripped and naked. How is he the prophet of hope if he’s prophesying the downfall of his own people? But mourning is always involved in hope. You have to take the two together, because if you’re hoping for some kind of destination, you have to admit we’re not there yet.
Biblical justice is a pathway through the mourning. It’s a way of giving and sharing life, stewarding it well, of righteously responding to pain and broken relationship. I would invite you this morning into hope, hope for the peace of God here on earth. Hope for the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and living in the already not yet. The wounds of the human race are ours. They will come to the gates of our people.
But our hope is that our God is able to heal any wound. He is able to turn back death itself. Our destination is one of peace on earth, with the valleys raised up and the mountains made low. We don’t have to worry about the end of the story. It’s already written. But what are we meant to be doing on the way? Pray with me.