Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly
A Sermon preached by Rev Chris Williams on 14 January 2018
Listen to what the Lord says:
‘Stand up, plead my case before the mountains;
let the hills hear what you have to say.
2 ‘Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation;
listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.
For the Lord has a case against his people;
he is lodging a charge against Israel.
3 ‘My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.
4 I brought you up out of Egypt
and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
also Aaron and Miriam.
5 My people, remember
what Balak king of Moab plotted
and what Balaam son of Beor answered.
Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.’
6 With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
If you’ve been a Christian any length of time, you are likely to know this passage and especially verse 8 – which is our verse of the year:
He has shown you O mortal what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
The words are addressed to ‘O mortal’ – to everyone. This is a universal rule for all people and all time. And you’ll see in a moment that both the context and the content could not be more applicable today than it was 2700 years ago when it was written by Micah.
It’s a ancient soundbite – it’s 138 characters long so could even be a tweet – or maybe a verse for the year! But if it remains a soundbite – just words – then it has no power. These words are meant to be put into practice.
But first some context:
Well, we have a courtroom scene: the people of God are in the dock before God.
We are told earlier what crimes the people were charged with: the powerful covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away. There’s a graphic metaphor in verse 3:2 ‘they tear the skin off my people’. They send violence on the poor; the political leaders take bribes and the religious leaders sell out for money. Has anything changed?
Although it begins with a word of judgment – the tone is more that of a loving parent pleading with a child who has forgotten how much the parent loves them:
“My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.”
He then goes on to list the things he has done for his people: he loves them, he brought them out of slavery and into a home. But they have forgotten God and his kindness.
Micah puts it thus: With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? That is the question that is posed in these verses. So, what can be done? How can the bridge be mended between God and his people?
Well we then come to this dramatic – almost humorous part where the prophet Micah, representing the people offers a solution.
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
A reasonable and biblical response (at least it was in those days!), But the prophet goes further:
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?
A bit extreme perhaps? But then he goes off the scale and into an area that was actually forbidden by God:
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
To lose the family herd and flock, the family olive grove – in fact the family itself – in a bloody, oily, screaming bath of sacrifice may certainly make an impression on God – indeed on anyone! It’s not an image one would want to recreate in an all age service!
But they had missed the point. They are religious, but they have no idea what their religion means in as far as God’s hopes for them. They think its about worshipping correctly. And, of course, some Anglicans can be like that – we get lost in the ritual and liturgy and what we think is good practice, but it’s not what God wants of us.
So how to bridge the gap between God and the people? What does the Lord require?
Well the answer is, as we have seen, short and oh-so-simple (seemingly!)
He has shown you O mortal what is good, (and he has. The actions referred to here are in tune with what we already know God wants from us in the OT, Jesus and the New Testament writers ) and what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
Act Justly. The justice here more restorative justice rather than retributive justice. It isn’t so much about punishing people for their wrongdoing – getting their just desserts. If it was, it would jar too much with the next line about mercy – indeed it would stand in the face of God’s mercy and forgiveness in this whole scene. Justice is still justice, but it seems more about righting the wrongs of which the people were convicted in the first place.
The charges God brings against his people were ones of injustice where the rich and powerful were abusing their power. So what does God’s justice look like in the face of that? Here justice must mean standing up for the oppressed, the unprotected, the widows and foreigner. Fighting for the rights of the disabled, minorities, the elderly and the poor. Indeed, for every person treated as less than God’s child.
Try saying some of those statements in the first person: ‘I will stand up for the oppressed, I will stand up for the foreigner, the poor, the disabled, the minority…’ It must be more than words – more than a tick in an online petition. What acts of justice are you involved in for God?
One of the biggest areas of influence in this area of justice is what we do with our money. How, and on what we spend it. In a world where money is king, we can make a difference with our money – choosing to buy ethical or fairly-traded goods and food, choosing not to buy things that we know are at the expense of others – often many thousands of miles away. To whom, or what, do we give? Where do we save? Act justly in your finances.
And surely justice must have something to say about our lifestyles that are feeding climate change?
There are many other areas, but that’s just a couple of challenges. Next week I am continuing our look at this passage and there will be chance to discuss some of these issues.
So, Act Justly, Love mercy. The question is, is it right to be merciful to someone who is in the wrong? Shouldn’t there be appropriate penalties for someone who has done wrong? We’ve already seen the answer. Micah was prepared to go to great lengths to pay for his sin – but it wasn’t enough. It never is. If the life of Jesus tells us anything it’s that there is a better and more holy way – and it is expressed in mercy. And mercy is never needed unless there has been a wrong.
The Hebrew word translated ‘mercy’ here is hesed and is often translated loving kindness. In this instance it is a call to love in action and which is relational and social in its essence. Mercy is not an abstract concept but an action – of setting free those who don’t deserve it by those who know they have also been set free by the mercy and loving kindness of God. Fortunately, this morning we are all on the receiving end of God’s mercy and loving kindness. To be Christ-like is to be merciful, loving and kind. It seems so simple in the face of the misdemeanours we do, say and think, but it is so powerful … life-changing… world-changing!
Act Justly, Love mercy and walk humbly with your God
“Walk humbly” is a description of the heart’s attitude toward God. God’s people depend on Him rather than their own abilities (we see that earlier in Micah). Instead of taking pride in what we bring to God, we humbly recognize that no amount of personal sacrifice can replace a heart committed to justice and love. In the face of overwhelming love and acceptance and mercy, how can we not walk humbly with God – as we recognise that all we have is down to the unearned grace mercy and call of God.
Recognising that we can do nothing we choose to follow – to walk humbly with God. Where will he lead you? What may happen? We are never promised an easy road, but we are promised that God will remain with us for the duration of the journey. We are promised that he will give us his life and peace and joy to sustain us on the journey.
These three challenges really are best approached from the other direction: walk humbly with God, love mercy and act justly. If we are walking humbly with our God we will find our hearts naturally predisposed towards mercy and loving kindness and that, in turn, will inform how we do justice.
So, a challenge for us all at the beginning of this year – actually it’s a challenge for the rest of our lives – and one we can delve into a little deeper next week at our Third Sunday.
Walk humbly with your God