Many years ago I overheard a dinner table conversation between my in-laws that stuck with me. This was back in the days before bucket seats and consoles with gear shifts and cup holders began dividing the front seats of cars like the Berlin wall. For those who don’t remember those good old days, the front seat was a bench seat and dating couples could snuggle up close to each other while driving. We didn’t need cell phones to be guilty of distracted driving. My in-laws had been married for many years at this point, and my mother-in-law was reminiscing about their dating days and how she used to sit over in the middle right next to her beloved. And she asked, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” Her husband got a mischievous grin on his face and said, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”
As we consider how we find our way back to God the first thing we need to remember is that God isn’t the one who moved either. And our text from Micah addresses the question of how we make that journey.
We sometimes move away from God because we are searching for purpose and meaning for life in a scary confusing world. What is our passion, our purpose for living? What gets us out of bed in the morning saying? And how we answer that question is one of the keys to finding our way back to God when we feel lost and like running away.
The most familiar verse in the book of Micah is one attempt to wrestle with the search for the meaning of life and our relationship with God. Micah 6:8 says, “God 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? That verse is Micah’s reply to the question raised two verses earlier – “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” This is familiar format for an entrance litany as Jews prepare themselves for worship – asking what must we do to please God, to make ourselves worthy of God’s presence and blessing?
Part of our struggle when we feel removed from God is centered in that basic question – am I good enough? And when we feel like we are not, what does God do about that? When we mess up do we get what we deserve from God? I hope not. And if we feel like we don’t have a clear purpose for our lives or we are failing to achieve it, it’s hard to feel all warm and fuzzy about God.
What is your why for living? Unless we can answer that question we are just going through the motions in some kind of cosmic rat race, and that feeling of meaninglessness is not conducive to closeness with God.
Micah prophesied at the beginning of that time when Israel and Judah were in the deep trouble that eventually led to the Exile. The Assyrian empire was threatening their very existence; the rulers of Israel had put their trust in foreign alliances instead of in the ways of God, investing vast sums in armaments instead of taking care of their own citizens, going into crippling debt by borrowing from the Assyrians. Sound familiar?
Listen to how the NRSV introduces the book of Micah: “Micah offered a theological interpretation of the dizzying events near the end of the 8th century: the fall of Samaria, the expansion of Jerusalem fueled by emigrants from the north, and the international situation made unstable by an aggressive superpower, Assyria.” So this question about the meaning of life and what we must do to please God was not some idle Sunday School discussion topic for Micah – it was a matter of life and death, and it still is.
Micah begins chapter 6 with an Imperative – “Listen up people to what the Lord says.” He then portrays the situation of Israel being on trial for breaking her covenant relationship with God. Then follows a quick review of God’s salvation history with Israel. Micah begins with the seminal event in Israel’s history, how God chose Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Secondly he highlights a much less familiar, at least to us, story of Balaam’s encounter with King Balak of Moab during the long wilderness journey of the Exodus, and wraps it up with a reference to two cities representing the crossing of the River Jordan, Shittim on the east side of the Jordan and Gilgal on the west in the Promised land.
If you’re like me, the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan are familiar stories, but the Balaam and Balak reference, not so much. We’ll come back to it because it’s a really cool story, but for now let’s just say Micah uses it to remind the people of one of many times during the 40 years in the wilderness that God rescued the Israelites and helped them overcome obstacles and enemies that stood in their way to freedom and promise.
So with a God who has done all that for his people, people are asking why have things gone so sour? Their world is going to hell in a handbasket. They feel abandoned and alienated from this God who has been their deliverer and savior for centuries.
They need to remember, God isn’t the one who moved – God is faithful and just forever; so when we feel separated from God, the question is what do we need to do to get back next to God.
Micah responds by turning to the question of worthiness and atonement. Verse 6 says “With what shall I come before the Lord.” How can I find my way back to God? And then follows a litany of sacrifices that gets increasingly ridiculous – the best calves, 1000 rams, 10000 rivers of oil, and first born children. You see, the Jews are big on laws. We’re familiar with the top ten list from Mt. Sinai, but those tedious books of Leviticus and Numbers that we don’t often read spend a lot of time explaining the 10 commandments and trying to legislate specific rules and regulations for daily life in order to fulfill what God requires. There are 613 laws the Jews tried to live up to –- and they didn’t’ have any apps to keep track of those. So obviously, being the imperfect fallible human beings they were, they needed a way to make amends with God when they messed up, which was often.
And their system for getting back in God’s graces was offering sacrifices to God. These were ritualistic acts of worship, but as Micah and the other prophets point out, to attend church regularly and perform all the necessary rituals doesn’t mean squat if you go on living unjust, sinful lives the rest of the time.
So finally we get to verse 8 where Micah summarizes what the faithful life looks like in three short phrases – what does the Lord require? – do justice, love mercy or kindness, and walk humbly with God. That’s the way to a life of meaning and purpose, that’s the way back to God. It’s not just something we can do but encompasses who we are called to be. I heard a wonderful sermon once that took its theme from a Frank Sinatra song, “Strangers in the Night,” and in particular from the profound refrain to that song that just says, “do be do be do.” The preacher said if you change that phrase and take out the “be” all you have left is “do do.”
We are not human doings – we are human beings, and faithful living is a holistic process that encompasses all that we are, not just some segmented religious part of our life. Micah lists justice, mercy and humility, qualities that include active doing – working for justice, treating others with mercy and kindness as a way of being –not out of sense of duty or obligation, but simply because in a faithful, loyal relationship with God, we take on those qualities of being.
Pope Francis is a fascinating example of what Micah describes here. The Pope is beloved by so many people because of his humility. He has rejected the usual pomposity of his office, traveling in a little Fiat, taking time to listen to a little girl trying to keep her immigrant parents in this country, spending time with the homeless, washing stinky feet. He walks the walk and because he does so he can also advocate for justice in the halls of Congress and get a standing ovation for the golden rule from a badly broken and partisan legislature.
Francis has been criticized for being too political, but that’s where justice has to happen, in the political arena where too often the rules that perpetuate poverty are passed by the powerful for the benefit of the powerful.
We sometimes use separation of church and state as an excuse for not getting our hands dirty in the messy business of politics, but that’s a misunderstanding of the first amendment to our constitution. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It doesn’t say religion can’t influence the making and implementation of the laws and policies we live by. In fact Micah and the prophets and Jesus are all very clear that God wants laws that are just and that part of the free exercise of our faith is to help make that happen.
Speaking of church and state, let’s go back to King Balak and Balaam for a moment. The whole story is in Numbers 22-24, and I’d encourage you to read it. It is no accident that Micah uses this story in this section about justice and mercy and humility. The short version of the story is that the Israelites are on their way through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land and one of the many hostile territories they have to pass through is Moab. King Balak sees the vast number of these illegal immigrants heading into his country and orders the prophet Balaam to curse them and drive them away. (Sort of like building a big fence?) But Balaam consults a higher authority, and God tells him, don’t curse these people for they are blessed. In a humorous scene, when Balaam’s faith wavers a bit his faithful donkey sees God’s angel blocking their path when Balaam can’t see the angel, and the donkey prevents Balaam from giving in to King Balak.
Three times Balak pleads and begs with Balaam to curse the Hebrew people, trying to bribe him with great wealth and power, but Balaam holds fast and tells this powerful ruler that he must do and say only what God has told him. Instead of cursing the Israelites he blesses them and they continue on their way toward the Promised Land.
What does the Lord require of us? Balaam and his donkey’s kind of courage and steadfast faithfulness – refusing to give into unjust, unethical demands of the world, even when it would seem to benefit us to do so. And how do we do that? By walking humbly with God as our constant companion and spiritual guide.
Finding God’s meaning and purpose for most of us is not about one burning bush moment. It’s a journey not a destination. It’s about a total body of work, a life of working for justice for the least and lost, of being kind and merciful to everyone, and doing it all not to earn brownie points with God but to simply share God’s love with the world.
John Wesley famously said when he was kicked out of the Church of England, “The World is My Parish.” And he took his ministry to the streets and to the open fields where people who did not feel welcome and worthy in the church were looking for their purpose and trying to find their way back to God.
On this World Communion Sunday, when our world seems to be on the way to the same destruction that befell Samaria and Jerusalem, the Word from God is this: Listen up People, I have not moved, trust my ways. Do not be overwhelmed or despair. I know your sins and they have not driven me away and never will. Don’t worry about paying for your sins, that has already been done by Jesus Christ, and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be Christ-like in humble, merciful service, to work for justice in whatever part of my world you are in – I’m right here with you always.
Benediction: May God grant us the vision of Balaam’s donkey to see that God is not the one who has moved. God is on this journey with us to empower and lead us. By our own strength we cannot live just and merciful lives all the time, but if we humbly walk with God, he will show us the way. That is our purpose. Let’s go.