Sermon - 29th November 2015
Micah the Prophet
Scripture - Micah 6:1-8
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today we enter the church’s season of Advent, and between now and Christmas our themes will involve looking backwards into the ancient traditions which spoke of a Jewish Messiah who was to come, as well as looking forward to what will be proclaimed as the birth of that Messiah.
Some people in the ancient Jewish traditions gave voice to powerful insights about God’s intentions for God’s people. These were the Prophets who were so filled with God’s spiritual power that they brought God’s truth into the times and places of Hebrew history where the people really needed to hear it. The Prophets guided their people into God’s ways; they corrected them; they challenged them; they expressed God’s anger as well as God’s love. But above all, they foresaw a future in which God would take control and bring about God’s kingdom on earth.
Our focus today is the prophet Micah because he draws together some of the recurring themes of Hebrew prophecy in one wonderfully profound sentence. We heard it as the climax of today's reading where the prophet asks the question, "And what does the Lord require of you?" And then answers his own question with the words, "To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."
Micah's book is set out in most bibles as poetry. Micah is a master wordsmith and his prophecies use those words to create sounds and effects and rhythms of speech which are designed to amplify and give more depth to his message. His poetry is resonant and inspirational, but nowhere is it more beautiful than in the 8th verse of his 6th chapter when he tells his people "to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God". It even translates into English with a natural poetic rhythm.
And in that simple yet profound sentence, Micah sums up much of what his fellow-prophets had been teaching.
Widely regarded as the earliest prophet, Nathan required justice of King David when he challenged his abuse of power; Elijah was constantly calling the Hebrews back to walk humbly in their covenant relationship with their God; Hosea used the model of his own marriage to demonstrate that a life which embodies love and mercy will lead us towards God; Amos denounced inequality and oppression and forged a link between social justice and the service of God.
And now Micah uses his gifts of poetry and drama to create a piece of courtroom theatre in which God and Israel argue with each other in an imaginary court of law before a jury consisting of the hills and the mountains. And the purpose of the case is to demonstrate to Israel that they have no legitimate claim to behave so disobediently towards their God. In those few lines in chapter 6, Micah strips away all the irrelevant trappings of religion - the hierarchies, the rules, the sacrifices, the man-made interpretations - and goes to the heart of God's expectations for the people of God - justice, mercy, and a living relationship with God.
But because Micah is writing in poetic terms, we really need to dig a little deeper into what he actually means by some of the words he uses. For example, when did you or I last do anything 'humbly'? Being 'humble' is not a description that we use in our modern culture anymore - it tends to smack a little too much of subservience and forelock-tugging, or a lack of equality, low self-esteem and self-worth. A slightly more neutral feel comes from saying that someone acted 'with humility'; but, even then, it comes across as a slightly old-fashioned way to describe someone.
So what does Micah mean when he calls us to walk humbly with our God? The original Hebrew word gets translated in a number of different ways. Bible versions which prefer the linguistic feel of older translations tend to stick with 'humbly'; but you will also find:
- ...live in humble fellowship with... (GNB)
- ...walk solicitous with... (Douay-Rheims)
- ...don't take yourself too seriously - take God seriously... (Message)
- ...live humbly, obeying your God. (New Century)
And modern commentaries definitely give the sense of walking 'thoughtfully' or 'receptively', engaging with God in an active, understanding and mutual relationship - something quite far removed from the rather passive sense which being 'humble' tends to suggest in today's culture. In fact Micah would probably argue that he was walking humbly with his God by proclaiming God's truth to the world, challenging hypocrisy, idolatry and injustice, in the same way that Hosea, Amos and Isaiah were also doing, in that rich prophetic world of the 8th century BC. Micah's kind of humility was founded on obedience to God's truth wherever that might lead him.
Micah's message to us today continues to be his poetic summary of discipleship, as he continues to call us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk in a thoughtful relationship with God. The effects of his message live on in various ways. They were influential words from an influential character in Hebrew history who, with his fellow-prophets, changed, taught, reformed and re-shaped the Hebrew faith as they persistently and relentlessly spoke God's truth to the centres of power in their worlds.
These were the principles - of justice, mercy and godliness - at the heart of the faith into which Jesus of Nazareth and his cousin John the Baptist would be born, and in which they would be raised, and to which they would bring their own unique reforms, teachings and challenges.
The Hebrew prophets shaped the authentic word of God which Jesus sought to uncover, the sincere and honest heart of God's covenant relationship which he called people to rediscover, in spite of the corruption, injustice and hunger for power which had pervaded and perverted the daily practice of the faith.
This was the core of goodness and truth which provided the foundations for the leaders of the early church to build upon. Paul, Peter, John, James, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and the many others who spread the gospel in those early years of the church, did so having been shaped by the words of God's prophets, and having been held close to God's true message to humanity through their prophetic ministries.
We shall meet Micah again before too long, because in the 5th chapter of his book he speaks of a vision that Bethlehem will become great when a new king will be born there. This is one of the classic readings for Advent when we listen again to the ancient prophecies foretelling the birth of the Messiah.
Micah's voice, in particular, reaches deep into the heart of our Christian faith and echoes around the church of today whenever Jesus's nativity is brought to mind.
But long before Jesus ever stripped away the excess baggage of religion by teaching that the greatest of the commandments were to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself, Micah stripped away the shackles of the Hebrew tradition by saying that all the Lord requires is for us to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk in thoughtful relationship with God.
Let's cherish both of those teachings equally when we seek to discern God's call in our lives as we walk through the holy weeks of Advent and approach the mystery of Emmanuel - ‘God with us’ . Amen.