Sunday 29th January 2017, 4th Sunday after Epiphany
Vicar Matt Huckel
Micah 6:1-81 Listen carefully!, to what the Lord is saying: ‘Get up, strive with me! The mountains and the hills, will hear your voice. 2 Listen O mountains, to the Lord’s dispute; and you too, strong foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people, and he will argue with Israel. 3 My people! What have I done to you? How have I made you weary? Respond to me! 4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent before you, Moses, Aaron and Miriam.5 My people! Remember what Balak king of Moab conspired, and how Balaam son of Beor responded; from Shittim to Gilgal so that you may come to know the righteousness of the Lord’. 6 ‘With what shall I confront the Lord? Shall I bow before God in the high places? Shall I confront him with whole burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, with ten thousand streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn, my rebellion, the fruit of my womb, the sin offering of my spirit?’ 8 He has declared to you, O man what is good. And what does the Lord seek from you? To do justice, love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
For a young person being in court for the first time it can be quite isolating, frightening in some cases and humiliating. Young people as young as thirteen can enter a fairly sterile, formal environment where what you’ve done wrong is spoken over you, you are pronounced guilty, and a sentence is declared and you have no opportunity to respond or talk through anything. My father in law who lives in the U.K is a retired lay magistrate and only relatively recently he had mentioned how he had introduced about 30 years ago a highly controversial and pioneering move in youth court history; he was the first magistrate to engage and talk to a young person and let them speak in court breaking the culture at the time.
The young lad he did this with was only 13 years old. He had been bullied and chased by a gang of youths and then took matters into his own hands and retaliated. This lad had no father, due to divorce and a mother who had very little money and couldn’t control her son. In court, my father in law altered his normal behaviour in the court room and began to connect with him; talking through what he’d done and finding out what was going on in his mind, or even hearing how sorry he felt. After receiving this sentence he never offended again, and his mother thanked my father in law for setting him straight and talking firm with him. My father in law through the youth court was filling a gap in this young kid’s life. A father figure who chose to leave the security of the bench in a sterile court, engaging and talking to him making a real impact and using the opportunity as a teachable moment.
Especially in a legal court setting, it all comes back to families. They are the essential hub of a healthy society. The prophet Micah from the small village of Moresheth in the 8th century BC saw with his own eyes the effects of Israel’s breakdown with God on the family unit. As Israel served other gods and became abusive and corrupt that ripple effect went right down to the everyday family. Conflict, division and fighting was rife. Society was crumbling. Children were taken from parents to be sacrifices to Baal. This is why Micah uses this family dispute scenario between Father and Son in our text to get the message across to the leaders of Jerusalem that all their problems stemmed from them rejecting their hurting heavenly Father; and it was hurting everyday families.
As we hear the Old Testament text this morning we have a scene that looks very similar to a law court setting. We have all the right ingredients; the mountains and hills as the jury, and God as prosecutor who addresses the accused by stating that he has a case against Israel. But if we really study this text closely we find some very unusual elements that don’t at all fit a normal law court setting. Firstly, God actually wants Israel to speak, to engage and argue with God. God is trying to connect with the accused simply to talk things through just like my father in law chose to do with the young lad in the youth court. Verse 1 states that the mountains and hills will hear what Israel has to say too; they are a third party witness to this encounter. They are also high enough to have seen for themselves Israel grabbing young children from everyday normal families and sacrificing them on hilltops to foreign gods. Secondly, there is no cold formal sentence or judgement from God. In fact he seems to yell with pain: ‘My people! What have I done to you?’ How have I made you weary? Say something, respond to me!’ Here is a God going over the top to connect with someone who is stone cold, silent, avoiding eye contact. How many of you have gone a little crazy when someone refuses to speak to you or ignores you. It provokes that sense of desperation in us for that person to say something, anything!
God doesn’t stop here. He keeps going with pain and anguish. He even appeals to the past, and reminds Israel of what God has done; leading them out of Egypt, giving the people Moses and Aaron, reminding them of the amazing acts of redemption as they travelled through hostile territory. This is equivalent to a modern Father saying: I comforted you and rescued you when you were bullied at school. I taught you how to ride a bike, how to build a cubby house. We spent afternoons together watching the cricket, going to the footy.
After hearing such a photo album of memories such as this it would be hard not to feel something deep and profound; that pressure in the heart building up. But I am personally gobsmacked with Israel’s response. It is un-emotional and hurtful. It implies that God is not loving but simply a tyrant God who just demands sacrifices and offerings all day long. So Israel says:
6 ‘With what shall I confront the Lord? Shall I bow before God in the high places? Shall I confront him with whole burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, with ten thousand streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn, my rebellion, the fruit of my womb, the sin offering of my spirit?’
Note that Israel is not personal in his response. He doesn’t even address God directly with the word ‘you’: Shall I bow before you in the high places? No interpersonal talk whatsoever. Israel is also over the top with his language, talking of sacrifices and offerings in the scale of thousands. We can imagine Israel with a business suit and tie, getting out his cheque book and talking to the mountains and hills as witnesses. He says: ‘Ok what will God be happy with? How much shall a make this cheque out to, so that I can pay my ridiculous Father to sling his hook and leave me alone’. It turns out that Israel is up to his old tricks.
In Genesis chapter 32, when Esau comes to confront Jacob, he is absolutely terrified. Jacob, holding that guilt over stealing his brother’s birthright does what he only knows he can do: he offers Esau hundreds of goats, rams, bulls, camels and sheep as gifts to pacify Esau and hope for the best. It seems that Israel is using exactly the same tactic with God. He is trying to create the maximum possible distance using payment to avoid dealing with the problem. This scenario reminds me of one of my Grandpa’s jokes, where a man is waving a coat around over his head in the middle of the bush. A man comes up to him and asks what he is doing. ‘I’m waving my coat around to keep the elephants away’. The man says: ‘But there aren’t any elephants around here for thousands of miles!’ With a grin he replies: ‘There you are see. It works!’
Israel is doing the same thing. By waving his coat around he hopes God will be kept right away. But in verse 8 another voice enters the scene which aims to remind Israel what God actually wants from him: not his gifts or offerings or his first born son, but simply that God wants Israel. God wants Israel to walk with him, with humility but chiefly to do justice and love this idea of mercy and faithfulness. A key word here is justice, called Mishpat in Hebrew. It is incredibly close to another Hebrew word: Mishpachah which means family. God is saying here that doing justice in our world like defending the weak, fighting oppression, maintaining human rights, is actually deeply linked with being family. God is saying to Israel: ‘Let’s not only do justice let’s do family. And as we are family, we need to strive and struggle with this problem and sort it out. I’m your Father and I’m not going to go away. Come on, strive with me!’
It is this kind of language in our text that tells me that this is not really a law court but a family dispute. God is engaging in a Father and Son struggle in order to settle and reconcile. That word in Hebrew for ‘pleading a case’ actually has the root meaning to strive or struggle in a dispute. Almost this sense of a male brawl outside the pub to sort out an issue. Micah uses this word in the text to appeal to the meaning of the name ‘Israel’: ‘he who strives with God’. Israel has disconnected himself and no longer bears that special meaning of his name. But God hasn’t forgotten him. He wishes to strive and struggle and restore his dear lost son.
Friends some of this today might sound very familiar. We all in various ways engage in family dynamics. There is also that Jacob or Israel figure in all of us. He wants to keep his distance from God. He tries to offer gifts and do works to try appease his own guilt. He can feel so angry with God that he shuts down and abandons God. We’ve likely all been there or have experienced parents, siblings or friends leave the room or the house in an argument, either simply to cool down or we’ve chosen to punish our loved ones by abandoning them temporarily or sometimes permanently. People can split in a church by leaving others in anger and moving away. Sadly parents can divorce when they choose not to strive anymore. It is always better to settle a dispute before it gets worse, before it goes to court, or if possible before the sun goes down. Jesus had things to say about conflict in families. He actually quotes from Micah chapter 7 in the Gospel of Matthew those conflicts between Father and son, between daughter in law and mother in law, with enemies being members of his own household. But he also gives us tools to deal with that too. Where would we be if we didn’t have the guidelines for reconciling in Matthew 18 verse 16 with two or three witnesses to help two people sort things out? It shows that when conflict is concerned we are all better when we are together.
The good news is that Jesus understands. Better still, he understands because he feels the acute pain of a relationship rupture. He’s endured heart break after heart break after heart break and yet he never gives up striving for us. He never abandons us. Instead of accusing from a high position, he walks gently down to our level, and talks to us. He shares his heart, he makes an appeal for restoration. If we are convicted by God speaking to us and we want to reconcile then he offers us something very special. As we receive forgiveness and his body and blood in Holy Communion his spiritual body and blood mingles mysteriously with our body and blood as we eat and drink; God’s special embrace in the most deep way possible. In all families it is normal to fight, to disagree and to strive for unity. It is not so much a big deal that arguments happen, but it is more important that we feel safe enough to be able to resolve them with the help of the Holy Spirit.
We may experience some form of argument today; perhaps even when we get home from church. But if we have the skills to reconcile that is what forms a sense of security. This security occurs when people know in their family or church that they won’t be abandoned if they disagree with something or they make mistakes. Our reconciling God is our role model. He killed off the power of that Jacob in all of us on the cross by dying to mend the rupture. He has deposited in us the Holy Spirit, the spirit of reconciliation, and he makes you as people of St Petri a bonded tribe, a clan, a family of God which should never give up striving and reconciling. We are all better together, and may the peace of God help us settle all our disputes in Christ Jesus.
Micah 6:1-8. 1 Listen carefully!, to what the Lord is saying: ‘Get up, strive with me! The mountains and the hills, will hear your voice. 2 Listen O mountains, to the Lord’s dispute; and you too, strong foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people, and he will argue with Israel. 3 My people! What have I done to you? How have I made you weary? Respond to me! 4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent before you, Moses, Aaron and Miriam.5 My people! Remember what Balak king of Moab conspired, and how Balaam son of Beor responded; from Shittim to Gilgal so that you may come to know the righteousness of the Lord’. 6 ‘With what shall I confront the Lord? Shall I bow before God in the high places? Shall I confront him with whole burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, with ten thousand streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn, my rebellion, the fruit of my womb, the sin offering of my spirit?’ 8 He has declared to you, O man what is good. And what does the Lord seek from you? To do justice, love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
It is often the hardest thing in life to be able to confess to a friend, or loved one that you have hurt them and desire reconciliation. Having a heart for the weak, poor, and oppressed is not only displaying societal justice but also displays that family sense of justice which acknowledges that sin and un-forgiveness and brokenness often have their roots in dysfunctional families. What do you think might be the links between people’s ability to reconcile in family settings and the problems people face on a global or political scale?
Israel tried very hard to keep God at a distance, trying to pay off God with gifts to appease his own guilt. Reflect on your own life journey of any conflicts with God. Have you felt so angry at God that you wanted to run away from him? How has God approached you personally and helped you reconcile with him?
Striving with God and with each other in families is difficult, but we have the help of the Holy Spirit who keeps us bonded and together in Christ. In terms of your church family consider ways in which you could contribute in modelling that courage to strive and struggle with difficult interactions with your brothers and sisters in Christ. How could you show Christ’s love with people you find difficult to get on with?