Back to series
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Micah, and I’m going to be reading from chapter 2. You’re going to want an actual Bible today because we are going through the text line by line, so if you don’t have one, just raise your hand, and we’ll get you one. We’ve been in a series through the season of lent centering on the book of Micah, but as I mentioned in my first sermon, the book of Micah is largely about justice, so in another sense, this sermon series is a series about biblical justice.
I’m deeply grateful to my friend John who preached for us last week talking about how biblical justice has two dimensions, a vertical component and a horizontal component, and how we are called to live at the intersection between the hope we find in Christ for the world and the pain we find within a broken humanity and a stained creation. The first sermon in this series, I allowed Joel to introduce Micah and talked about fasting—how the Bible invites us, even in times when we are doing great, to rend our hearts and willingly enter into the pain of the world.
Fasting, praying, and working in spaces of hardship is a way of seeking the Lord, and a way of remembering that he is sufficient. Even if everything else is lacking from your life and from your ministry, if God is in it, he is enough. That’s something easy to say in the theoretical and harder to practice in the midst of actual grief, but it’s true all the same.
Justice is a road back to rights when things have gone wrong. In Micah’s day, a lot of his work as a prophet was just convincing people that anything had gone wrong, that there was a need for justice in the first place. That’s true today, too. Assyria had conquered half of God’s people, and Micah goes into mourning, but the people to whom he’s preaching are talking about how they got what they deserved. People have an amazing capacity, then and now, for “crying peace, peace when there is no peace.” Justice is a road back to rights in people’s relationships with God, creation, other people, family, themselves, which means that justice is a road into peace. Peace is the Bible’s word for everything being the way God created it to be. And righteousness is the means—the way God works.
Those three things are inextricably bound. I know I’ve said it, but it’s worth repeating. 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.
Micah, this morning, is going to get specific about the injustice in his society which no one seems to acknowledge or mourn, and so will I. But this is not a message of complaint. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty—may it never be; guilt is a weapon of the enemy, and so it will never, no matter how you use it, accomplish justice. Far from guilt, I’m hoping as I do each and every week, that this passage will bring you truth, hope, conviction, and freedom. Read with me, Micah, chapter 2. [Micah 2] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
I want to start just by going through and understanding the passage. Micah is prophetic poetry, and if you’re not used to reading it, it can be difficult to understand. He opens, v.1, by pronouncing woes, which is not typically the way we would say this. Instead, we say the phrase “he’s wrong for that.” He’s wrong for that—he knows he shouldn’t be doing it, but he’s doing it anyway. He has reasons and excuses, but no matter what the reason is, what he’s doing, or the way he’s doing it, are wrong.
He says “woe to those who work evil on their beds,…and when the morning dawns they perform it.” He’s taking aim at a different kind of sin than what people always point to. He’s taking aim at people who sin in their thoughts and desires. As a pastor, it’s usually pretty awkward when I tell people what I do professionally—it always somehow catches people off-guard, like pastors are supposed to live in a special colony somewhere and not mingle with the general public—and when I tell people what I do, a large segment of people start giving me their spiritual résumé. Most people do this, actually. It’s really kind of funny, if you actually know me, how nervous people are that I’m going to think they’re a terrible person, and that a list of good deeds is going to change that opinion.
My mind goes to one lady I used to work with when I was a barista, the first shift we had together, she asked why I had moved to Boston, and I told her it was to go to seminary, and she cursed me out and walked to the back. When she came back, she was listing her qualities, angrily—talking about how how she’s fought for women’s rights, and for the environment, and on and on and all of that just to say, we all have ways of assuring ourselves that we are righteous. That we are good people, and usually we think of the things we do and don’t do, the people we look down upon, and the ways we’re not like them.
Church folks do this, too. Or maybe church folks do this, especially, where we focus on certain things we’ve done or not done to assure ourselves that we are living right. Micah is talking to church folks. He says in chapter one, these are people who go to the temple and offer sacrifices. And like most church folks, they do what they are supposed to do. These are people who would be able to give me a spiritual résumé of their good deeds, and in their own minds, they’re good people, but again, Micah is talking about a different kind of sin and brokenness than what we would typically think. He’s pointing out some things we usually don’t talk about.
He says, v.1 you work your evil, not out in the streets, but on your beds, meaning—these folks aren’t out getting drunk at night, they’re in their beds, but as they’re going to sleep, they are making plans to do things which by the morning they’re carrying out. Specifically, he mentions, v.2, acquiring another family’s lands and inheritance. V.8, taking advantage of travelers and those who don’t understand the place they are in. V.9, evicting a single mom and her kids.
He’s saying, so long as we live in a city where these things happen, we aren’t at peace. That’s not peace, when people lose everything and become destitute—their inheritance, their livelihood. That’s not peace, when travelers come to us and meet, instead of hospitality, people taking advantage of them. It’s not peace when single mothers are made to leave their homes, when children lose their innocence and at a young age have to face harsh realities. That’s not peace.
V.6, he admits that this is not going to be a popular message. It’s funny, if you’ll allow yourself to laugh about it, he says “‘Don’t preach’—thus they preach.” He says people have told me to stop talking about this. He admits, other preachers have told me to stop pointing these things out. And then he asks his readers, in v.7, to decide, he says, “should this be said?” And the answer of his readers comes to us through ancient times by the preservation of this book of prophecy. Micah, the rest of the book of the twelve, at the time this was the minority opinion, but through the conquering of Jerusalem, through the exile, the book of the twelve was preserved, and all of the other books were lost.
They have the benefit of history to teach them whether or not it should be said. Should it be said, that Jerusalem should have cared for destitution, travelers, and single moms? Yes. Still in v.7, are these the Lord’s deeds, overthrowing Jerusalem? Yes, and these are his reasons. These are the injustices he abided with patience, until, v.7, his patience ran out. Literally in the Hebrew, that phrase reads that his breath ran out. Like he was holding his breath, waiting for his people to change, and he waited as long as he could, but then he had to act. He had to do something. If a situation is unacceptable eventually either we or the Lord will stop accepting it. Don’t preach that, though. Thus they preach.
V.6, “one should not preach of such things,” people say, “disgrace will not overtake us.” But Micah’s response is essentially, in v.10, the disgrace was already here. It’s not that disgrace will overtake us, or that peace will be disrupted; disgrace is already here, and the current way of things is not peace. He tells the vulnerable people in his country, in v.10, he pleads with them to go somewhere else. He says, you won’t find peace here. Jerusalem being conquered wasn’t the disgrace. It was God’s people calling peace peace when there was no peace, when people among them are destitute, when foreigners are robbed of even their garments, when single moms are evicted, and turned into the streets with their children, and the people of God act like there’s nothing wrong. That’s the disgrace. We’re not waiting to see whether or not disgrace will overtake us, we’re already living in disgrace, Micah says in v.10.
So let’s talk about how we should apply this passage to ourselves. I know one should not preach of such things, but I also know the wisdom the ancients passed to us and painstakingly preserved was the book of the twelve, and not the other books. I want to get very practical with you for a moment, and then I want to spend the rest of the sermon talking about hope, because justice without hope is directionless.
These three specific instances of injustice Micah’s listing in our passage, the destitute, travelers, single moms, those are three groups of people who are being oppressed in our society as well. “Should this be said?…Do not my words do good to those who walk uprightly?” And I said we’re going to get very practical, because one of our cultural delusions, one of the lies of the enemy in our time and place is that talking about something is going to help. Using bold rhetoric about societal issues, starting a movement, putting a sign in your yard and a flag on your porch, that’s going to be the change we want to see in the world. But I see a lot of people talking and not really doing anything, or doing silly things which don’t really address the issue, and doing them apart from Christ.
Working with the destitute week after week, I’m always amazed at the people who are in the room helping. Political opinions are all over the map, and opinions on justice and the Christian’s role in it are not just controversial, but divisive when we talk about it, and I’m so glad we aren’t just there to sit and talk about it. We could talk about the different races in the room, genders, addictions, root causes, systemic elements. We could talk about it, and we should, but we mainly need to stop talking, open the doors, and do something about it.
I think of Jesus’s parable of the two brothers who are asked to work in the field. One brother tells his father he’s going to do the work, and do it well, and they’re on the same page, and they probably use the same hashtags—but then he never actually puts his hand to the plow. And then the other brother refuses. He says he won’t work, doesn’t matter what the father says, but eventually he gets up, goes to the field, and does the work of his father. Jesus ends the parable by asking which child pleased the father. I’ll end it by asking which child are you?
One cup of water handed in real life to a thirsty person is worth more than all of your pro-justice Facebook posts combined. One presentation of the gospel to a person who has lost all hope. One time driving a single mom living on the streets because she’s been evicted to a shelter, praying with her as she goes, is worth more than all the times you spoke out in class controversially, at home, and in your friend groups to advocate for change. In our times especially, you have to remember what’s real, and what’s talk. We could talk all day about what you have to say about societal issues, and my question at the end of the conversation will always be, what are you going to do about it?
The destitute. This message will have a different tone at most other churches I speak to, but preaching to Vieux Carré and Union mission—this is a place the destitute are reconciled back to God and their brothers and sisters in Christ, and I’ll echo John from last week. Don’t grow weary in doing good. Don’t grow weary, and focus on what actually helps. There’s a lot of silly things being done in our society for the destitute, and I want us to focus on what really helps. Dig in relationally. Reconcile people back to God, back to their brothers and sisters, back to themselves.
I told y’all last week about my vice principle when I was teaching high school science who told me, “Mr. Brian, you don’t teach science; you teach students.” I have a lot of conversations with folks about homelessness that focus on things they provide. We do breakfast every day, we pass out sandwich bags, we put together kits, we pass out backpacks. Y’all, let’s be clear among ourselves—we don’t do a meal, clothes, and showers, we minister to people. Don’t just give him a backpack if what he actually needs is to be reconciled to God, and to a family, either church family or kin, that actually cares for him and loves him. Don’t give him a sandwich if you’re not going to sit and eat with him at your table.
Foreigners, refugees, and travelers. Single moms. We throw up our hands and say what can be done? We can’t fix Hurricane Eta hitting Honduras and hundreds of thousands of families losing their homes amidst existing economic turmoil. We can’t fix the decline of the family within generational poverty, dad not being in the picture. It’s unreasonable to ask us to care for a single mom and her kids after they’ve been evicted. Or what, am I supposed to try to pay her rent when she blew the family money on alcohol? What can be done? And Micah’s responding to similar questions. Instead of throwing up our hands, we need to heed his answer, and engage in his hope.
Hope starts in v.12. Micah uses an image of war, but it differs from a typical war scene in some important ways. He says the remnant of Israel, the people of God will be gathered, and their king will lead them into glorious battle. They’ll make a breach in the wall of the city. The glory of Israel. But look at it. Instead of breaking into an enemy city, Micah says the king of Israel is going to lead the people out from the city. The King of Israel is going to deliver the people, not from a foreign invader, but from themselves, and from these injustices and atrocities, from their own sins. And it’s not king Ahaz leading the people through the breach, in the last verse Micah reveals, the true king of Israel who is going to preserve a remnant of his people and lead them out of this city of injustice is the Lord, himself.
A lot of Micah’s readers would, in their lifetimes, be led out of the city of Jerusalem through a breach in its walls as prisoners going into exile. They would become the foreigners in Babylon who don’t know the city, and with men dying in the wars, their wives would become the single mothers turned out of their homes. Their children became the children who had bourn far too much hardship far too young.
Micah says God is going to go through that breach with you, into this hardship. And we see this prophecy, this truth, perfectly fulfilled in Christ, who was led out of the gates of Jerusalem by the conquering army to suffer just as these people would. His tunic was taken from him. His mom was left without a husband and without an eldest son. It’s this prophecy, fulfilled, God is going with you into hardship. He did all of that so you wouldn’t be left alone, and so he could be with you.
Ultimately that’s our hope, and we as God’s people need to imitate him in this. We in New Orleans know what it means to have a breach in the city walls. We’ve been there, and hundreds of our neighbors died. But even with the levees standing, you know the walls of our justice have breaches all over the place with people dying every day. Right now, we are a ten minute walk from a human trafficking ministry, strangers who were brought here and their clothes and dignity taken from them. That same ministry houses single mothers and children who have been evicted. We’re two minutes from a shelter for kids without homes; even some of the kids upstairs right now need permanent families.
They will know we are Christians by whether or not we are following our Lord into the breaches of the city walls, by our love. He’s leading the remnant of his people out. Are we going with him?