If you, like me, have some friends who are not church-goers and who lovingly push back on your spiritual lives and beliefs, or if, also like me, you sometimes ask yourself questions about your own faith and devotion, “Why do we read this old book today? How could it ever be relevant?” I hope today’s readings help answer those questions. A call to do justice, the counter-cultural declaration that God is with the poor in spirit, the one who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, these are the words that the church and the faithful have been given by God to speak into a nation where the president signed an executive order that “suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.” (from the New York Times, “Judge Blocks Trump Order on Refugees Amid Chaos and Outcry Worldwide,” By MICHAEL D. SHEAR, NICHOLAS KULISH and ALAN FEUER, JAN. 28, 2017)
These are the words for us to read, picked long before the executive order was signed, long before the protest of humble walkers began, long before a stay was enacted by federal judges to prevent some new arrivals from being sent back to possible death in their own homelands. But these ancient words in this old book, this call to faithful action on behalf of blessed children of God, have hardly ever been as relevant as they are right this minute. Right this very day.
God’s courtroom drama played out in the pages of Micah was likely a shock to the people of Israel. The prophecy itself points out that they were not irreligious people. They weren’t lacking in their practice of their faith, but actually the opposite was true. They were faithful with their sacrifices and activities in the temple. They knew all the right things to say to God and really were talking about their faithfulness pretty publicly and pretty loudly. They were doing all the right religious things. That a challenge or judgment or question of their faithfulness to God and obedience to the law would be posed to them would be hard to swallow.
Imagine if a prophet came through the doors of our church right in the middle of worship when we are doing the very thing we know God desires and told us that God has a case to lay out against us in the heavenly courts. Here we are gathered for worship, just as the church is called to gather. Here we are offering our songs and our prayers to God. Listening to God’s word. Making commitments of discipleship. Growing in faith. Offering our gifts. Doing all the right things we have been asked to do. How could a prophet find anything to question?
The people of Judah never saw it coming. They THOUGHT they were doing everything just right. They THOUGHT they were being faithful. They were making sacrifices in the temple. They were waiting for the Messiah. They were telling others about how they worship God. They THOUGHT they were on the right track, checking all the boxes.
It’s an easy trap for anyone to fall into, turning the life of faith into a religious check list. Sing “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art?” Check. Read 2 chapters from the Old Testament and 3 from the New? Check. Attend Sunday worship? Check. Sign up to usher? Double check! Make it for a communion Sunday? Hat trick! Three checks! Put money in the offering plate? Check. Bow head and pray at every meal? Check. Say bedtime prayers? Check. Make it to “Amen” before falling asleep? Bonus check!
But this is the behavior against which Micah speaks. It’s exactly this bone that God has to pick with us. God calls us out on it turning the majestic landscape of creation in a divine courtroom. God calls us to step out before the bench of the mountains, the jury box created by the hills and answer a few questions. The tables are turned on the creation that has cried out “How long, O Lord?” This time the creator is weeping, “O my people, what have I done to you?” that God’s people have gone so far astray, that they have forgotten what it is like to be the ones in need of God’s mercy, in need of redemption, in need of the saving acts of the Lord.
But the people of Judah were relying on what had turned into empty acts of devotion. They were going through the motions, following the letter of the law, maybe, but apparently not the spirit of the law. Their sacrifices are noticed; their offerings received, but somehow those rituals have reduced a relationship to checklist. A way of life to a “get out of jail free” card.
And that’s not the point. It’s not supposed to be about trying to figure out what rituals we need to perform to get by or what doctrines we have to agree to in order to meet all the criteria. God is wearied when we try to rely on our rituals to save us. God’s goal is not just to count the rear ends in the pews and check off all our names, calling us good because bothered to show up week after week after week. Just making it to worship and even participating is just not the point. There’s another whole level to go.
There are a lot of video games in our house. On the computer, on the game consoles, on Mom and Dad’s phones. Even the earliest versions of video games, those with much less complexity than the games of today, worked by challenging gamers to complete increasingly harder and harder levels. Remember Pac Man? The little yellow circle who moved around a maze eating dots and avoiding ghosts? Well, when you ate all the dots on one maze without getting captured by a ghost the game wasn’t simply over. There was another maze, a more complex maze, and the ghosts got faster. Each time you leveled up there was more to do, more challenges to conquer, more skills to develop and put to use.
In a way, being a disciple of Jesus can be thought of in a similar way. Knowing about Jesus is one thing, but following him is taking it to the next level. Hearing about Jesus is the warm up round, believing in him moves the game forward, and accepting the challenge to go with him is more difficult, but at the same time more rewarding. It’s taking it to the next level.
Take it to the next level, Micah reports for God. Do more than just honor God with the ritual bare minimum. Do more than just try to cover your bases with your worship, your public sacrifices, and your private prayer. Take it to the next level and really live this faith we proclaim; follow God’s lead, placing your footsteps right next to Christ’s, and move on to the harder challenges of justice, mercy, and humility.
God desires more, so much more, than our empty words and our mindless ritual. God desires more than our affirmation of memorized doctrine and the lowest common denominator of belief. God desires our relationship. God desires our actions on behalf of those whose spirit has been drained from them by violence and oppression. God desires that we submit ourselves to the divine will, that we humble ourselves by letting go of our emphasis on what we need to do to just get by or look good in front of others so that we can instead seek opportunities to enact God’s justice and to reveal God’s mercy to the world. And those opportunities are all around us. Even today. Especially today.
In presenting God’s case, Micah refers to particular acts of God, asking the people of Israel and us if we remember these saving acts of God. He brings to their mind and to ours these stories that aren’t just accounts of days gone by, but accounts of what God does even now, what God does for us.
God brought the slaves out of Egypt. God spoke to Pharaoh on their behalf when they had no way to speak.
- Remember how God is all about justice, freeing those who are bound up, releasing captives, lifting up the oppressed? Remember how God stood up for us when we had no voice, no power, no strength?
Next Micah brings to mind another story that is probably even farther back in our minds, if it was ever there are all. He prods our collective memory of the time when God got in the way of a foreign king who was trying to curse Israel. In fact, God even used the prophet of an enemy, a foreigner, to bless us to show us God’s redeeming love. God used an alien to bring blessing to Israel.
- Remember the times God used a foreigner, an alien, a refugee to bless our lives?
Lastly, as evidence Micah brings up the way Joshua led the people across the Jordan, FINALLY into the Promised Land. He recalls how after generation upon generation first of slavery in Egypt, then as a people wandering around in the desert wilderness, the promise of God was fulfilled. After walking faithfully and humbly with God, not always know why they were doing what they were doing, how they were going to make it where they were going, they were finally brought to the land of God’s blessing.
- Remember how God’s footsteps led us right where we belong? Remember how God never left our poor, questioning side?
Yes, one of our greatest callings and privileges as the body of Christ and individually members of it is to glorify God, worship God, give praise and honor and make sacrifices to God. But what God requires of us, what will take away God’s frustration and sadness over our personal attempts is when we take it to the next level. What does God require of each of us? That we enact God’s justice on behalf of the poor and the forgotten. That we show God’s mercy to those cast aside and left out. That we walk with faith and humility wherever God chooses to take us.
The blessings of God don’t come to us because we are completing the right checklist. That would be the way the world operates. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Instead God’s blessings are with those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are merciful, those who work for peace and righteousness and the unexpected ways of God. God asks us to take it to this next level, and the world in which we live, unfortunately, is giving us plenty of opportunities to practice. God asks us to step up to this greater challenge with this greater reward – – that in stepping up to the challenge we will be filled with Christ’s love enough to share.
Photo meme circulating anonymously with picture taken from a collection for the International Rescue Committee.