Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 29, 2017
Taken from Micah 6: 1-8
Knock, knock, knock! You go to the front door to see who’s on your porch knocking at your door. You open the door to see a fine young sheriff’s deputy standing there holding a document you’re your name on it. It’s a court summons. If you’re fortunate, you’re being summoned as a witness in somebody else’s trial.
What you don’t want to go to the door to discover is that the court has sent the sheriff out to summons you as the defendant.
You most, most, don’t want that to happen if the plaintiff who’s calling you to court is God! But, that’s exactly what’s happening here, in our Scripture this morning. God sends the prophet Micah to summons the people of Jerusalem to court, because God has a complaint to bring against them.
It’s a jury trial as it turns out. Well, who could possibly serve as the jury in that kind of trial? Turns out it’s the mountains and the hills of Palestine:
“Oyez! Oyez! All rise,” says the bailiff, Micah, in verse 1. “Plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills here your voice.”
He continues in verse 2, addressing the jury: “Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.”
Now, why the mountains and the hills of Palestine? Because, they’ve watched what’s been going on there in their land. They’ve seen everything that’s unfolded after God parceled out the Promised Land among the Twelve Tribes.
So, in true biblical fashion, the local mountains and hills are the ones with the perspective to judge between God and God’s people. God gets to go first as the complainant; verses 3-5. (Like a lot of civil suits among family, it gets really intense, really fast!)
“My people! What I have done to deserve this behavior from you! Where in the world have I gone wrong! TELL ME!”
The events which God then relates all have to do with what God did to liberate the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. It’s like a set of bullet-points of how God got them safely out from under Pharaoh’s control and set them up in the Promise Land.
God says at the end of verse 5, “It was all just for you, just so you, among all the nations in the world, could know the lengths I was willing to go to save you.” God is so distraught and so hurt. As would any of us if we were so poorly treated by folks we’d poured out our hearts and efforts to help get a fresh start in a new place.
Now, it’s the defendant’s turn; it’s God’s people up next. Boy, does Micah ever know their song-and-dance routine, down to every last insulting move. Verses 6 and 7:
“What do you want from me now, God?! Huh? What’s it going to take to satisfy you?”
The mountains and the hills sitting over there in the jury box cannot believe their ears! The people of God are actually going to try to bribe their way out of this…can you believe it?!
“What’s it going to take, God? Here, I’ve got my check book out, my pen’s in my hand; you name the amount. We’ll take care of this, and we can all get out of here.
More offerings, God? Is that it? You want the really expensive stuff now. The yearling calves? That’s a big investment down the drain, but I’ll do it.
More rams? More grade-A olive oil? I can do it by the cartload.
What?! You’re still holding out for more! You’re just like all those other gods, aren’t you? You want me to sacrifice my first-born child, don’t you? Is that what you want, God? You want my first-born child, ‘the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’”
Wow! The jury’s just waiting any moment now to hear the thunder rumble and to see the lightning bolts to start streaking down, wiping out these ingrates.
But, instead, Micah takes the floor. Micah plays the role of mediator, the voice of reason in the room. Verse 8:
“God has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
What does God expect of you, of us?
It’s like a simple, three-legged stool: act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Do all three, and we’re fine. But when we take away one of the three legs off a stool, things start to get really shaky betwixt God and God’s people.
But what about all that other stuff? The worship stuff? Bowing before God on high, bringing offerings, and other aspects of ritual? Yes, do that. But, to what end? Their rituals had become a way of trying to keep God contained in that grand God-box called the Temple: “God, we’ll give you what you need for the spiritual stuff; leave the business and civic stuff of life to us.”
And, oh what they did on all those other six days as they went about their business and civic ventures. The Book of Micah isn’t all that long. Take some time this afternoon to read it. At least read chapters one through five that are prelude to chapter six. They’d forgotten the rule of life among God’s people: the spiritual stuff of God is the business of God and the civics of God, is the spiritual stuff of God.
Biblical justice, biblical mercy, biblical humility. Please notice, I am using that modifier “biblical” because as a person of faith and as a congregation of the faithful, God demands we look to God as our reference for justice, mercy, and humility.
Humility we know and embrace as a virtue, though, of course, we can’t claim if for ourselves because as soon as we do, we tend to forfeit the essence of being humble. Humility, I believe, is the essential foundation for mercy. That could be me, humility tells me. If it were me, I sure wish somebody would help me out.
That’s what acts of mercy are about. Mercy is when we’ve got the resources to help somebody out of a jam that they’re unable at the moment to help themselves out of. Think Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: there’s the great model for mercy from Jesus’ teaching.
University Baptist is a congregation of humble people and merciful people. Just last night, we began our two-week turn at hosting homeless men, something we do with other churches during the winter months. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of resources to host the homeless in our church building for fourteen nights running.
What about this third leg of the stool that is biblical justice? Well, it might better be called the ‘third rail’ of faith. You all know the expression, “the third rail”? The third rail is the rail next to the two rails of a train-track for a train that runs on electricity. The third rail is the one charged with electricity; you touch the third rail, you die.
In national politics, the third rail is Social Security: you mess with Social Security as a politician, you die a painful political death. For pastors, the third rail of preaching is biblical justice. The pastor who takes hold of the topic of biblical justice and gets into the nitty-gritty of it, that pastor will experience a swift death in the ministry. Unless, of course, that pastor’s congregation happens to be full of folks suffering biblical injustice.
What is it about biblical justice so off-putting and risky to us, when we so readily embrace these other two legs of humility and mercy? Let me suggest the problem we have with biblical justice by offering this rule of thumb: the more justice provided in a community, the less mercy required from its citizens. The more justice provided in a community, the less mercy required from its citizens.
For most of us Baptists, the word ‘justice’ is associated with the New Testament word, ‘justification’. Justification, for us Baptists, means getting saved: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not by works lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9.
God has justified us, made us right, with God because of God’s mercy toward us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but to what end? End-of-life security of going on to be with God in Heaven is pretty big benefit for sure, but that’s not God’s purpose for justifying us and bringing to birth God’s own Eternal Life within us.
The purpose of God justifying us with God is so that God’s justice might reign here on earth, as in heaven, as least among somebody on earth. Get enough people together in whose lives God’s justice reigns, and you got a shot a living in a just society.
God’s justice on this earth goes a-begging because God’s people and the great majority of God’s ordained messenger will not touch the dreaded third-rail of biblical justice for themselves and their communities.
Let me offer this illustration about biblical justice. [MANUAL TYPEWRITER ON STAND NEXT TO PULPIT, COVERED]
Some of you may have only seen these in the movies. This is called a manual typewriter. It’s what people in the last century used when they needed to print out a text-document. It’s sort of like a clunky laptop that has its own built-in printer.
Everything you type on a manual typewriter is automatically left-justified. It’s built-in by the mechanics of a manual typewriter’s construction. The carriage gets to the end of its run, the little bell dings, you take hold of the return lever, and it slides so easily back to the left-hand margin.
The challenge of word-processing on a manual typewriter is when you want to center your text so all the words fall neatly between the left and the right margins. Even more challenging is when you want to right-justify your text, so all the lines end in perfect alignment with the right-hand margin.
On a computer, centering text or right-justifying text, is the easiest thing in the world. You just click on a setting, and then you forget about it. The software takes care of the rest. Just like that! All your text beautifully centered or justified with the right margin.
On a manual typewriter, though, you’ve got to commit yourself to some work for all that to happen. Remember how you center text on a manual? You count the number of letters and spaces you want centered and divide by two; then, you move the carriage over to the center of the paper, and backspace by that number of spaces, and then you type.
Right-justifying text was just a downright pain in the wrists. First, you had to count up the number of letters and spaces in each line. Then, you moved the carriage all the way over to the right margin, and you back spaced the entire line and then you typed it in. It took some real motivation before you’d right-justify much text.
What God’s people have to remember is this: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God, is like typing on a manual typewriter.
That built-in left-justified margin so easily done on a manual? That’s us on our own, apart from God. Lining up our lives with our own values and goals…that’s human nature; that’s the mechanics of how we’re built. We come already set left-justified.
That right-hand margin? That’s God’s values and goals. That right-hand margin is what God wants in our justness and our mercy and our humility with God.
New Testament justification so important and so essential to us? Well, that’s God giving us a clean sheet of paper to start writing a whole new life, a life we’ve committed now to live as God desires, a life that is right-justified.
There’s still that good old built-in left margin; we can still keep justifying everything we write on that clean sheet of paper over there. We call talk about being self-justified. But, remember: we’re now justified with God. Whatever we now write from that point on, we are seeking to right-justify with God’s margin.
This life-vocation to follow Jesus, to be God’s person on this earth, is not like composing text on a computer with its wonderful word-processing software. We can’t get set ourselves once, right-justified with God, and then just forget about what comes next.
We’ve got to do the hard work of starting every line of our lives now, aligned under God. We’ve got to figure out, counting letter-by-letter, space-by-space, how far over toward that built-in left-hand margin we can go and wind up every line of our lives aligned with God’s values, God’s goals, God’s three-fold call, “…to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk in all humility before God.”
Pretend for a moment, that you could take break from typing out your life. You’ve been busily composing on that fresh piece of paper God gave you in that moment you professed your faith in Jesus. You pull the paper up to where you can read it.
How many lines of your life are all nicely right-justified over here with God? Truth be told, for each of us, there’s going to be an embarrassing number of typos of all kinds. Not every line is going to be perfectly right-justified; we can give each other that bit of understanding. But, on the whole, does your piece of paper at least show a good-faith effort and at least some degree of being right-justified?
Or, as with many of us, does it look like you’ve been trying to center all the text of your life? You know where your personal, pre-Jesus, left-margins lie, and you know where the setting for God’s right margin is, and it looks for all the world like you did the math to find that middle way, like you struck a deal with God: God’s gets a little bit of your text, and you get an equal amount, so on balance, it’s all good.
Sorry, doesn’t work that way. God justified us so that we would henceforth live out our lives justified with God. God’s spiritual concerns are the concerns not just of our Sunday worship, but our Monday to Saturday personal relations and business and professional relations and our civic relations. Again, don’t take my word for it, read God’s word on it.
What is true for us as individual followers of Jesus, is most certainly true for us a community of Jesus. University Baptist Church, you are indeed a people of biblical humility. With all the ways you give yourselves and your resources to help others, you are recognized as a church of biblical mercy.
What about that third leg of the stool, that third-rail? Will you also be known in the larger community as a people of biblical justice?
It’s your story to write.