Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,and let the hills hear your voice. 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.
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
“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 tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
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?
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
ll was not well in Israel. The land was filled with corruption and greed. The King grew wealthy off the evil that was allowed to prosper. All around invading armies stormed, growing ever closer to the Promised Land. It seemed imminent that Israel itself would come under siege.
In this time of need, the King did not turn to God. In this time of need, the people did not turn to God. In this time of need, the people built idols and worshiped them. In this time of need the people trusted in their own strength and in their king.
The words of the prophet, Micah, reverberated throughout the kingdom of Israel. And they echo across twenty-seven centuries to alight upon our ears today. Hear what the Lord says!
Rise my people and defend yourselves! Let the purple mountains majesty be witness to your words! Let the golden waves of grain that stretch from sea to shining sea hear your case! Let all of creation feel the weight of your words and judge between you and your God!
O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!
Was it too much that I brought you up out of the lands of oppression and persecution, out of the grips of famine and war, and delivered you, wave after wave, on these shores that you now slam closed the very doors that once welcomed you in? Was it too much that I delivered you from the hands of tyranny and fascism that you now allow fascism to speak unchallenged in your streets and make yourselves supplicant at the feet of tyrants? Was it too much that I blessed you so you might bring the blessings of freedom and peace to the world that you turn your back on my blessing, giving away your freedom and sowing discord among the nations?
Perhaps now you are beginning to see why the prophets were never very popular in their own times. What is striking about the prophet’s words, besides the salient content, is the audience to whom the words are addressed. For they are not spoken to the king, or the king’s advisors and cabinet, nor to the governors and mayors of the land. No, my friends, the prophet’s words are spoken to people like you and like me. The prophet speaks to us.
Now this may seem a bit odd, as it is not people like you and me who write laws. We are not the ones who set national agendas or create policy. We do not make royal decrees or write executive orders. And yet the prophet does not address those people who do those things. The prophet speaks to us.
The reason is simple. God has not made a covenant with our leaders and rulers. God did not gather together our kings and queens, our presidents and prime ministers on the shores of the Red Sea and proclaim, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” God did not promise the rulers of the nations to make their descendants as numerous as the grains of sand in the dessert or the stars in the night sky. And God did not deliver to a council of kings, to a gathering of parliament, or to a session of Congress the Ten Commandments by which we are to order our lives. No, God made those promises with the People of God. God forged those covenants with the People of God. God covenanted with us! God promised us!
After all, kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents, are as numerous as the leaves of forest. Like autumn foliage, they are brightly colored and for a time they dazzle us and hold our attention. But soon enough they fade and fall away. Soon enough they are forgotten and lost into the depths of history. But God’s people remain. God’s people endure. And God’s covenant with us endures.
So my friends, how shall we respond to the prophet’s words? How will we respond to God’s charge? Shall we promise to come to church every Sunday, to tithe our income to the Lord? Would it please God to build a church on every corner, to turn away from our work and devote every moment to worship so that our prayers might drown out the evil in the world? Shall we give up all that we have and send away our first born children to become monastics, lost to the cloistered halls of stone?
No, my friends! God has told us what is good! What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God?
This verse has been referenced in a thousand different ways across the church. It is etched in stone archways, emblazoned on the front covers of religious books and bookmarks, and adorns the bodies of not an insignificant number of people as a tattoo. It is a beautiful verse, to be sure. But the English translation of the Hebrew doesn’t quite do it justice. The truth is that we don’t actually know the exact meaning of the word in Hebrew that is translated as “humbly.” It is a word that appears only once in the written record; it exists only here in the words of the prophet, Micah. But we can make an educated guess. By looking at similar words in similar languages, we can gain better insight into the prophet’s words. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk with intention with your God? To walk with purpose with your God?”
What is our faith? It is something that we must choose every day. It is not something we do absentmindedly or accidentally. Our faith requires purposefulness. It means that as a people, we remain true to the covenant God forged with us, even when that is difficult to do. After all, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking with God are not hard to do when times are good. But fair-weather faith does not mean much. Fair-weather faith is not what God wants from us.
Faith that is stronger, faith that can persevere against injustice, faith that can weather hatred and fear, faith that can stand up tall in the faces of powers and principalities that would lead us astray, requires intentionality. It requires that we choose each and every day to walk with God.
I recognize and appreciate that this sounds markedly different from the expression of the church in the last century. To do justice, love mercy, and walk intentionally with our God does not sound like pleasant mornings in church with men wearing suits, women wearing fancy hats, and children with carefully combed hair. It does not sound like tea-time socials or book clubs. It does not sound like sensible and perfectly forgettable sermons delivered by genteel priests.
No, the faith to which the prophet call us back sounds uncomfortable. It sounds like being pushed out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe. It sounds like being sent into the world. It sounds dangerous.
It would be perfectly understandable if we were to pause and question whether we wanted to go down this path. It would be understandable for us to ask if we could just go back to the way things were before. After all, that is what it means to be intentional. But in this, my friends, there is no choice for us to make. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
The followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision. The only decision possible for them has already been made. Now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus […] their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, DBW Vol. 4, 113]
Seven hundred years after the voice of the prophet rang out for the last time, another voice could be heard echoing in the wilderness. Jesus spoke to his disciples on the mountaintop as he watched the gathered crowds below. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Now, when we speak of blessings, we commonly think of them as gifts that God has bestowed upon us. We are blessed with children. We are blessed with a home around us. We are blessed with food on our plates. But to read the blessings of which Jesus speaks in the Beatitudes in this same way would be a mistake, for it would be to read that God had bestowed upon these people a poor spirit, meekness, or injustice. It would be to make the mistake of romanticizing the afflicted.
No, I believe that when Jesus say that these people are blessed, he is making a claim about God’s orientation to them. When Jesus says that these people are blessed, he is saying that God is with them.
God is with the poor in spirit. God is with the meek. God is with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God is with the merciful. God is with the peacemakers. And how do we know that God is with them? We know because Christ is with them. These are the people to whom Jesus came. These are the people to whom Jesus taught and proclaimed the Good News. These are the people whom Jesus healed and made whole.
See, my friends? We have no choice! We who are called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk intentionally with our God have no choice. We know where God is. We know whom God is with. If we are to call ourselves disciples of Christ, then we too must seek out God in those same places. We too must be with those same people.
We must be with the poor in spirit. We must be with the meek. We must be with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We must count ourselves among the merciful. We must count ourselves among the peacemakers. We must be among those who are persecuted because they pursue righteousness. We must be among those who are reviled on account of our discipleship.
When we do, then we will be living into the fullness of our covenant with God as the people of God. When we do, we will finally realize our own blessing and become a blessing to the world.
Preached by Adam Yates