Here's my sermon for tomorrow, on the Old Testament lesson (Micah 6:1-8). Sorry I haven't posted in over a month, Christmas was a busy time!
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Micah 6:8 is one of the more famous verses in the Old Testament. You may have heard it before, or seen it decorating someone’s home. It is printed on t-shirts and coasters. And with good reason — these words are both beautiful and powerful. “He has told you, O mortal, 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?”
Micah 6:8 is probably much more familiar to us than the rest of the book of Micah. We so often hear this verse by itself, removed from its context. The context of Micah 6:8 is important, however, and worthwhile to a deeper understanding of this famous verse.
Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Micah brings a word of warning and condemnation to God’s people. Through Micah, God enumerates the injustice and faithlessness of the people of Judah. The language is of a court case – God is bringing a complaint against the people. Earlier chapters in Micah describe God's charges: prophets leading the people astray, the ruling class perverting justice and even taking bribes for their judgments. The powerful, both in civil and religious life, are abandoning their duty to the poor and powerless. Priests, prophets, and judges are self-serving and determined to maintain the status quo. They preach a message of God's favor to themselves. They do not wish to hear a word of judgment from God; but Micah brings precisely this word.
In the context of this injustice and self-serving religiosity, Micah brings God's complaint. In God's court, the created world is the jury: the mountains and hills themselves stand up to bear witness. “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.” In contrast to the faithlessness of humanity, God enumerates the many acts of salvation and loyalty God has performed for the people: bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, providing them leaders, providing them blessings, and leading them into the promised land. God asks if the people have gotten tired of this saving grace!
The response that comes from the people might sound plaintive: “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?” The people are saying: if God has declared us guilty, what can we do to make it right? They offer up sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to appease God.
Once again, the people display their obstinate ignorance of God's will. They propose sacrificing children in order to buy off God's wrath. But Micah sharply reminds them of the proper response: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good!” God has made it clear what God desires – and it's not human sacrifice. God can't be bought off. This famous verse, Micah 6:8, sums up God's expectation: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
Allow me to take a step back from our Micah text for a moment to tell you a story. A member of this congregation has very kindly taken up the habit of bringing me my beverage of choice from Starbucks every Sunday (chai latte with 2% milk, in case you were wondering). A few weeks ago, as I was enjoying my Starbucks during the Sunday school hour, I looked down and read the back of the cup. “Everything we do, you do,” it said, and proceeded to explain how I had bought some two hundred thousand pounds of fairly-obtained coffee with my one little cup. It's a brilliant marketing ploy on Starbucks' part – not only do I get a drink, I get to feel good about myself, too! My consumerism gets to go hand-in-hand with my philanthropy!
Let me give you another example. The Dove corporation, which makes soaps and lotions, has a campaign targeted to women – you may have seen it. The “Dove Campaign for True Beauty.” This campaign lifts up the unreasonable images presented in advertising – female models who have been made up and photoshopped beyond any semblance of reality. Dove wants us to know that they're in favor of true beauty, authentic beauty. So by buying their products, I'm supporting women and girls!
Yet the company that owns Dove, Unilever, also owns Axe—which presents some of the most offensive images of women in advertising. You ought to smell a stink of hypocrisy on Dove's “True Beauty” campaign. I am quite confident that Dove is more interested in making a profit by whatever means than in promoting healthy images of women in advertising.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's wrong to buy Dove soap or to drink Starbucks coffee. After all, I don't want to start a riot here, and I plan to keep enjoying my chai lattes. There's nothing wrong with drinking Starbucks. But there is something wrong with drinking Starbucks and convincing ourselves that it's the same thing as “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.” Starbucks and other corporations want us to believe that consumerism is identical to justice – but it's not. We can't let ourselves be deceived by marketing campaigns.
The people of Micah's time thought they could buy off God. They thought that making some sacrifices of animals – or even children – would deter God's righteous anger. We may often think, in our modern world, that buying fair trade coffee is enough to stop injustice. We may think we can buy off God as well, fulfill God's demands for righteousness, through our consumption.
Micah then speaks a word of judgment to us just as much as he did to the people of Judah. In the face of our consumerism and self-satisfaction, Micah reminds us, “God has told you what is good!” God has told us what we ought to do. God has told us what God expects. Micah sums it all up in three brief instructions: do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
The instructions of Micah 6:8 are not easy. We should not pretend that they are easy—that we can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God just by spending more money or supporting the right organizations. As one commentator put it, “To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind. On an individual and social scale, in ways large and small, this is a way of life.” Yes, this is a way of life. The expectation of God spoken by Micah is that we devote our whole lives to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
If we take seriously the commandment of Micah 6:8—and I certainly think we should—it’s necessary for us not only to examine the injustices of the world around us, but to examine ourselves as well. We need to consider how our actions affect the planet and our fellow creatures. We can’t be lazy, buying into the messages of advertising, because those messages are fundamentally intended to make money. We should consider how the systems of consumerism which make our lives so comfortable may cause misery for our brothers and sisters around the world.
The prophetic words of Micah were no doubt harsh and troubling to the people of Judah. So too for us today: we may be troubled, even shocked, when we consider our own injustices. The weight of the world’s needs may feel overwhelming or exhausting.
Yet this word is good news, as well. It is good news for the suffering, the powerless and hopeless, that they might see the justice they so deeply desire. A world where people direct their lives to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God is a better world for those who are suffering.
And what about the unjust, self-serving priests and judges? What about the rich and powerful of today? What about our comfortable consumerism? Yes, there is good news for us, too. There is good news that we can be included in Jesus’ blessings: “Blessed are the meek... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... Blessed are the pure in heart.... Blessed are the peacemakers.” Blessed are those who do justice. Blessed are those who love kindness. Blessed are those who walk humbly with their God. Amen.