Sermon - Sunday 30th January 2011
Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12
The Rev Andy Braunston
Last week I found myself sharing a meal with a very radical lawyer. He is someone I’ve met before and he does very good work. We were in a group with a lot of lawyers and someone “outed” me as a magistrate. My radical friend – who, until then, thought I was “sound” became very different. Evidently he doesn’t like magistrates as we’re biased, right wing and have compromised with the power of the state which is, of course, always bad. I was surprised as the normal reaction to people finding out is to ask about penalty points and speed limits! We did get talking and reflecting, however, on justice. People want the courts to be fair (even lenient if they are in trouble) but they also want justice (especially if they have been assaulted, if their house has been burgled or if they have been put in fear). I’ve been thinking about justice since then really, mainly as his initial reaction was so fierce.
These thoughts were playing around my mind as I came to look at the readings set for this week. Our Old Testament reading, from the book of the prophet Micah is all about justice. The passage is in two parts and the first is written from God’s perspective. It’s as if God is taking Israel to a cosmic court to arraign it for it’s crimes.
Micah’s prophecies date back to around 750 years before the birth of Jesus and he had a difficult job. He didn’t need to call people to faith, as his contemporaries were very religious; they just didn’t get what true religion is really about. Religious leaders made a great show of their religious practice showing everyone how holy they were, but their spirituality seemed to be about external things which kept the powerful in power and didn’t change the status quo. Micah’s strong words that we heard in our reading would have shocked his complacent contemporaries to the core.
The passage opens with God opening a legal case against Israel. God asks the whole of creation to act as the jury in the case. The mountains and the very foundations of the earth will hear both God’s charges and Israel’s responses.
We are told that the “Lord has a case against His people” but we’re not told the details – they have been outlined in Chapters 3 and 6: “you’re wealthy and full of violence, your inhabitants speak lies.” The basic idea is that the people have not stayed faithful the Covenant – this always had a component of righteousness and justice within it. As the people have got richer they have forgotten their social obligations to look after the poor.
As God reviews the divine-human relationship so far, there is an implied judgment of the people whose unfaithfulness is contrasted with God's faithfulness. We get a salvation history of sorts, where God spells out all that He has done for them:
- God delivered them from slavery in Egypt
- gave them leaders (Moses, Aaron, Miriam)
- blessed them through the foreign priest Balaam
- and brought them into the promised land (from Shitteem to Gilgal).
Each story reveals the chronic unfaithfulness of the people. These brief two verses serve to remind the people who this God is;
- This is the God who hears the cries of the people and brings them out of slavery.
- This is the God who will use even the outsider to bring blessings.
- This is the God who shows compassion and mercy when the people fall. Even the people's idolatry and injustice cannot prevent this God from acting.
- This is the God who is faithful no matter what. The entire creation stands witness to this God made manifest in these acts.
The people’s reply was in the second part of the reading and the question “with what shall I come before the Lord” is an admission of guilt. There is no attempt to counter God’s accusations, no evidence is given to defend themselves, instead they revert to the familiar – they wonder about sacrificial offerings to make up for their sins. Yet worship without a change of heart is false worship. If we carry on as before and don’t let our encounters with God change us then we deceive ourselves and seek to deceive God.
God’s response is clear: “I have told you, O Mortal what is Good, to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” It’s not about extravagant worship, great displays of piety, but about three things – justice, kindness and a humble walk with God. We can’t worship meaningfully on Sunday and then treat people dreadfully on Monday.
It is, however, easy from these verses in Micah to set up the false dichotomy between the practice of our faith and genuine faith itself, between piety and social justice. Nowhere does Micah tell people to stop observing ritual practices or to stop being religious. The problem is not religion in itself. The problem is using ritual practice to excuse ourselves from the divine demands of justice and mercy. Equally troublesome is the opposite, excusing ourselves from communal practices of prayer and worship on the grounds of social justice work. Either extreme fails to be whole.
Rather than offer God thousands of rams or other animals as sacrifices Micah calls us to offer up a thousand daily acts of love for each other and the world God loves. “Walking humbly with God” means knowing the temptation we have to be self-righteous. We cannot play at being church or frame our spirituality as a game where we keep God in check by coming along, lighting a candle and saying our prayers. The life of faith is indeed a journey that changes us.
Jesus’s words in St Matthew’s Gospel which we heard today show us how we learn to walk humbly with God, do justice and practice kindness.
A key principle of embracing this life is "blessedness." This is a refrain that runs throughout the passage: those are blessed who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are persecuted. The word "blessed" does not mean "holy," and neither does it mean "happy" in the sense of being in a good mood. Rather, the word, "blessed" refers to a fortunate state of life. Jesus is saying that those who are poor in spirit are fortunate! It may surprise us that he speaks these words about those whose present circumstances seem so unfortunate.
Jesus can speak such words because he is revealing a kingdom perspective. The first and the last of the nine beatitudes extend his proclamation of the good news by applying the presence of the kingdom of heaven to the poor and persecuted. These beatitudes act like bookends for the rest of them, indicating that the kingdom of heaven is the controlling concept of the section.
The verbs in these two verses are in the present tense: "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The kingdom that Jesus proclaims infiltrates the present condition of the unfortunate and transforms it. Jesus had begun his public ministry announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Later, when Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and heal, he tells them to make the same announcement as they go. The kingdom of heaven breaks into the world with the words and work of Jesus.
The promise of future vindication does not mean, however, that the focus is entirely future. Jesus insists that God has the final word, bringing assurance into the present. This is why he can say, "Blessed are those who mourn...blessed are the meek...blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...blessed are the merciful...blessed are the pure in heart...blessed are the peacemakers." Jesus gives his followers eyes to see that the future is certain and this transforms the present.
Jesus calls us to join a radical kingdom. He gives us a radical vision to match, that the kingdom of heaven infiltrates our present. We can continue fishing for people, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom at great cost to ourselves, fighting oppressive powers in Jesus' name. We can suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, with the assurance that God has the last word. When we see people receiving the word of God, and finding healing and freedom in Jesus' name we can announce, "the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” and realise that we are, finally, learning to do justice, practice kindness and walk humbly with our God.