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But “‘What Does the LORD Require?  With what shall I come before the LORD,
Good morning again, everyone, and please go with me to the book of Micah towards the end of the Old Testament. If you need a Bible, you can just raise your hand and someone will bring you one.
We’ve been, through this season of lent, in a series through the book of Micah, but Micah is part of a larger whole of what we typically call the minor prophets, or the book of the twelve. And the book of the twelve is largely a book about justice and the ways in which God brings peace into the world and into our lives.
G. K. Chesterton said, and John Perkins quotes in his book One Blood, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem,” which is a statement as true in our society as it was in Micah’s day. Micah spends most of the first half of the book trying to get his people to see the problem. Everyone was worried about Assyria invading from the North, and Micah’s trying to tell them that they are focused on the wrong issue, that their true problems are already here, and have been here for a long time. In chapter two, we saw him use the image of God leading his people through a breach in the city walls—but he was going out, not into the conquered city, leading his people out of Jerusalem with all of its oppression, and into exile.
I’m super grateful for Tom agreeing to preach for us last week for a number of reasons, but one of them was because I had two trainings that were taking up most of my time last week, one in which I was learning and one I was teaching. I want to give you just a little bit of what I’ve been learning. The training was a TBRI organizational workshop, TBRI being the trauma intervention we use with our kids and which I’ve been trying in fits and starts to use on shower Friday.
We started using TBRI at home, not because we typically follow systems of parenting—I especially was super-resistant to it. I’m strict, which is probably not shocking to anyone. And I have good parents—nah, I’m just teasing, I’m only saying that because they’re here—but I really just wanted to raise my kids the way I was raised. I turned out ok, is what I told myself. The only problem with that was, my kids have different needs than I did. And I want to give them what they need.
Nutritionally that has always been true. AJ’s been underweight and super active his whole life. We buy butter at Costco. I’m over here eating cucumbers handing him fried chicken. He asked me the other day if he could just eat a stick of butter, and I didn’t watch him do that, but I did allow him. Emotionally, too, all of our kids have been through unimaginable things, and their emotional needs are different from what mine were, so slowly I started changing the way I parent them.
One of the central tenants of TBRI is just seeing the need. You spend the first couple days of training just learning about what’s broken before you learn the first technique for trying to fix it. A lot of what looks like defiance in kids who have been through repeated trauma isn’t defiance at all and is instead an inability to self-regulate. It’s not that he’s ignoring me telling him to calm down, or to think about consequences before he acts, it’s that his body can’t do it the way mine can. I have to give him tools to compensate.
The other training, the one I taught this week, was on contextualization, meaning how changing context changes some things about the way you minister and live out the gospel. Here in the French Quarter, a lot of our ministry is to people who are homeless or who are generationally poor, and being here for the past three years has taught me that, before I worked here, I knew nothing about the real needs of people who are homeless or generationally poor, and I’m not alone.
I have constant conversations with folks who think there is going to be a purely economic solution to this problem, and I’ve tried to lend voice to the fact that most of us aren’t even seeing the core issue. I constantly see people raising thousands of dollars to hand out supplies without having a single conversation or learning a single name, looking people in the eye, playing together, giving a hug. If the problem were an economic problem, then putting together a really good care bag and passing them out to people you don’t know would be a good solution, but the core issue is relational. If someone needs some socks, yeah give him socks, but really you need to give him a minute to sit and talk. To get past the pleasantries and actually into his life. People need to be reconciled to God, or themselves, to find family in the church, or all of the above. There’s not going to be a purely economic solution to a relational issue. We’re not even seeing the needs rightly, so we’re not even close to arriving at the right solutions.
I had another conversation with John, who preached three weeks ago, about giving Christmas gifts to those in generational poverty. He saw a church group buy a ton of gifts, thousands of dollars, and as they’re giving them out to the kids, the parents wouldn’t meet their eyes. Or far from gratitude, the parents were acting agitated, angry almost. Why? Real question. Right. So what he did last year was, he raised money and bought a ton of great gifts for kids, and they told parents in the neighborhood they were opening up a Christmas shop, reduced all the prices to thrift store prices, and sold it to the parents to go give it to their kids themselves.
I wanted to tell you all of that because I want you to see the truth in Chesterton’s words. It isn’t that we can’t see the solutions most of the time, it’s that we’re not even seeing the problems—not in our selves, our churches, our societies. We don’t see the problems, or we don’t understand them rightly. In chapter two, as Micah is laying out the problems present in his society, he admits that his people probably don’t want to hear about it, and then he asks a beautiful question. He asks, “Don’t my words do good to those who walk uprightly?” Isn’t it helpful to point out problems no one seems to see? Isn’t that helpful if you actually want to work towards peace?
Today I want to talk about peace. There is a tension in the book of Micah, and in the Bible in general, between peace and the work of justice. You can see the tension most clearly in the life of Christ, himself, and in Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus is born, the angel declares peace on earth in the same chapter in which Herod orders a genocide of his own people, their children. When Jesus begins his ministry, he puts words to the tension, he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Or as Beuchner paraphrases that first teaching, “The Kingdom of God is so close we can almost reach out our hands and touch it. It is so close that sometimes it almost reaches out and takes us by the hand.”
So I’m going to read two passages today that bear this tension to us, the tension between hope and justice. Read with me, starting in Micah 5, verse 1, and then we’ll jump to the first verse of chapter 6. Please stand with me if you will and if you’re able as we read. [Micah 5:1-5; 6:1-8] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
The tension between hope and justice is because we know that our hope is not in ourselves, but in Christ, himself, and yet he draws us into the work. He’s all powerful, able to harvest a vineyard with a word, and yet he sends out laborers into the vineyard. Knowing that one day we will live in the New Jerusalem, in the house of God forever, and eat at the table of our Lord together with the saints in peace; knowing that we will dwell secure, and Christ’s kingdom will stretch to the ends of the earth, and he will be our peace; these things are in tension with the biblical insistence that God’s people should be about the work of justice in our communities today.
I want to give you a bad analogy this morning which far too many people believe. I walked to Audubon park from my house the other day, which is a longer walk, and I was tired, and I thought to to take the streetcar home. But waiting on the streetcar I grew impatient, and eventually I decided I was going to walk back to save time. So most of you probably already know exactly what happened. I think the RTA times it this way. As I walked past the stop on the line near my house, the streetcar rolled past me. I had saved myself exactly no time and expended a lot of effort. If I had just waited through my impatience I could have rested.
So if the kingdom of God is about us as a people going somewhere we are longing to be, if it’s entirely in the future, then us doing anything to get there is just wasted energy. If justice in the church is like a political movement, where we are trying to change the world in some way we see it needs to be changed, then shouldn’t we just wait? We’ll get to the same place in the same amount of time. Again, that’s a bad analogy far too many people believe.
If that’s your thought, I want you to change the way you’re thinking. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom far far away. The kingdom of God isn’t a place at all. You can’t go there, because according to Christ, it’s already come, on this earth, in this life. You can’t wait for something that’s already arrived. The kingdom of God is not something we can create as a church, rather it’s something we reach out and touch, or it reaches out to us; it’s something we find, which God is calling us to value the way he values the kingdom. So repent. The time is full, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
In our passage, Micah calls out Bethlehem as the place out of where salvation will come for the people of God, which is why we read this passage at Christmas, because we have seen the salvation of God in Christ, who was born in a manger in Bethlehem. This makes a certain kind of sense in our minds, and we can regard it as prophesy. But have you thought about what kind of sense would it have made in the minds of Micah’s hearers?
Their minds would have gone to Bethlehem for the same reason Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem in the first place. I don’t mean the census—I mean because Bethlehem was the city of David, and because city gives the wrong image. Bethlehem was rural. It’s name literally means “house of bread,” it was a farming community. For all of the talk of Bethlehem in today’s churches, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the seat of power for the whole region, but for Micah’s readers Bethlehem was a footnote in the biography of King David.
It doesn’t make any kind of sense for salvation for Israel to come from Bethlehem, except that God does surprising things, and once God even delivered Israel from the stronger nations around it through a shepherd boy from Bethlehem. So Micah isn’t guessing at the place Jesus might be born; rather, he’s encouraging his people to remember the history of God’s faithfulness to them. He doesn’t know in this moment what exactly God will do to deliver his people both from their own sins and from the oppression of other nations, he simply has faith that this is who God is: he will stay with us and guide us through our wanderings, and he will bring salvation for us from the least likely place, and when you least expect it.
Today is palm Sunday. Typically we would be reading the story of the triumphal entry, Christ riding into Jerusalem to the crowds shouting “Hosannah!” which means, God, please come save us now. And we all feel a tension in that story. We know it’s not going to work out, not the way they want. We know Jesus is going to do and be something and someone they don’t expect. I would tell you, the tension in that story is the same tension I’ve been talking about this whole time. They, like us, don’t understand that the kingdom they were wanting, willing to revolt to obtain, if only Jesus were willing to ignite the flame—that kingdom was already here, already at hand.
So I gave you my bad analogy for the kingdom of God and working for justice. Now I want to give you some good ones for what the kingdom of God is like. We’re always crying out to God for, and crowning, kings like Saul that will make us competitive with the other nations, help us win. We’re always wanting to walk down the wide road and through the wide gate of the capitol, and meanwhile, where is God? How is he working? What is he doing? He’s in Bethlehem anointing shepherd boys, up the narrow path, all knotted with tree roots, through a gate you couldn’t even get a chariot through if you tried.
Because, to use another good analogy for what the kingdom of God is like, working for justice in the kingdom of God is really more like finding something really valuable in places that no one but God thought to look. Like finding a treasure, a pearl in a field, a realizing for the first time that this one small thing you’ve just found is worth more than everything else you’ve bought in your entire life.
I would have never thought to look for family in the French Quarter. I would have never thought to look for rich friendships among the poor. Of for a child in the foster system. But God is in unexpected places and the shepherd boys and carpenters from Bethlehem are sometimes worth more than all of Jerusalem and Rome combined.
When Jesus died a few days after palm Sunday, it seems a lot of people went home disappointed. I think of the two disciples on the road to Emmeus, going home. I’m sure they weren’t the only ones. That passover was meant to be the moment everything changed. Finally revolution, with this miracle worker at the head of Jewish armies. Finally, freedom. Finally we can create a kingdom with some justice in it. Jesus is the only one looking at the Roman soldiers thinking, I think there may be something in this field that might be worth everything I have.
And of course everything did change. He didn’t go to Rome on the broad street and knock down the broad gate and declare victory. He went into death instead, where no one else would have thought to go, and found in us something valuable enough to give everything he had to buy us back into his kingdom. All the people shouting hosanna would have their prayers answered that day—they just didn’t understand, like we don’t understand until Jesus shows up in our life and at our table.
Justice isn’t a streetcar that arrives at the same time you do. It isn’t a movement that’s finally going to overthrow whoever’s on top at the moment. It’s not a thousand rams or ten thousand rivers of oil or a firstborn child. Justice is a kingdom so close you can almost touch it, and a king so close he’s able to reach across heaven and earth to reach us.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about halos. It started with a mural a few blocks from here, downtown. You may know it: it shows a dad with his son, and the son has a halo around his head. The dad has a tattoo on his arm that simply reads, still here. It stuck with me; there’s some religious imagery, and in our secular society I’m always drawn to that kind of rebellion; I liked that the halo wasn’t ironic. Most modern forms of halos I’ve seen are almost mocking the medieval artists, twisting the image into something awful.
I told AJ about the mural when I got home, and naturally he asked what a halo is. It took me a while to come up with an answer. Eventually I told him a halo is like a spiritual crown. It’s a way of showing that someone is royal—a king in God’s kingdom—noble in God’s view even if the world didn’t see it. A way of showing someone is worth a lot to God, even, and perhaps especially, if the world thought very little of them. AJ then, naturally, asked if he has a halo in God’s eyes, and I thought yes, child, you’re worth everything I have.
But I love the halo around this small child born in New Orleans, as some elements of the mural suggests, into poverty. Will he be a king? Who values all of these kids born into poverty? The artists answers, God does. God values this child, and I say amen. Here, buried in grit and dirt, is a child who is royal in truth, who in the kingdom of God is a treasure worth everything Jesus has to give, and he calls us into this same perspective, this same giving up. Orphans, widows, travelers, immigrants, God’s heart is to welcome them into family. His own family and household, and if you will allow it, your own family and household as well.
In the end, justice is about seeing the way God sees and valuing what God values, and it grows like leaven in bread, going from one person to one other until the whole lump is leavened. And justice isn’t a destination, it’s a law—a law which stands at times in contradiction to other laws, so you have to choose this day whom you will obey, what you will value, and I pray what you find is worth everything.
I’ll end just by returning to the famous passage in Micah 6, which I know I didn’t really touch on, only because it’s a passage which doesn’t really need any explanation. Like when Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, we know who our neighbors are. We don’t need further explanation, we simply need to trust and obey. Starting in v.1, Micah goes through the history of Israel again and again to show that the Lord is wanting and waiting to bless his people. To bless them and not curse them. He’s standing watching the road, waiting for us to come home. Over and over again, we are the ones choosing to abandon the true kingdom. We know it’s at hand, but we don’t look or reach out. We don’t value the people he values. We see the treasure in the field, and we walk away thinking we would rather keep what we have than redeem that thing with dirt all over it.
But “‘What Does the LORD Require?  With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”