Cloud of Witnesses: Micah (Plus some additional thoughts)

Before I post what I shared today in worship, I’d like to take a little time to say a few things.

I’m a theme and big picture person, and have to work hard to give concrete examples of the things I am talking about. In addition, because my brain constantly takes in information and makes inferences about how all those pieces fit together, I sometimes speak without filling in all the steps or giving all the evidence for why I draw the conclusions I do. So I would like to take a bit of time to add to what I said today, giving some context. I’ll try to clarify any assumptions that I or others may have made and give some more specific arguments/examples from the book of Micah.

What are the specific sins for which Israel and Judah receive a scathing attack from Micah’s prophecies? In chapter 1, Micah answers that very question, saying it is Samaria and Jerusalem, the capital cities of each nation. This implicates everything: the political system of the kings, the religious system centered in the temples, the economic system which resides in the marketplaces of the biggest cities. Micah is saying every system of power is corrupt and will be punished. In chapter 2, the critique is broadened even further to anyone who plots for ways to grab all the land and wealth they can, at whatever cost to those from whom they take it.

Micah critiques the prophets, and really the entire culture of people who believed they were beyond reproach as the chosen people of God. This meant the false prophets and the people believed only good could be spoken about the future of Israel and Judah, because, they thought, God will never abandon us.

Micah joins the true prophetic witnesses in the bible to say (3:1): “Listen you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel. Should you not know justice, you who hate good and love evil?” There is a double meaning here. You as leaders should know right from wrong and act accordingly. You should know/act justly. It also means, you as leaders should know/experience justice. You should be held to account for the way you are oppressing the poor. Right after this comes an image of cannibalism. Micah accuses the rulers of eating the flesh of other people. It’s a grotesquely graphic image describing how the rulers are living in a way (specifically their wealth, and also their pride and their disregard for the poor) which comes at the expense of other people in the nation.

Chapter 5 (verses 10-15) condemn the military power, the witchcraft, the worshipping of other gods that is taking place in Israel and Judah. And then in chapter 6, it returns to the dishonesty of their economic system. The short ephah (6:10) refers to the fact that some would get less than they deserved because the measuring cup was a cheat. Dishonest scales and weights and measures meant different people would receive different measures for the same price.

That’s a solid sampling of the injustices detailed by Micah in the book that bears his name. How do we take prophetic words which were spoken almost 3000 years ago, to the economic and political and spiritual systems of that time, and apply them to our very different world today?

Advocating for a particular political party’s economic platform is not my intent. In fact, in what I said today, I was in a sense making a far deeper accusation than how our different political parties offer different economic solutions.

Take the ephah/measuring cup and unfair scales/weights critique which Micah makes. Our entire financial system uses different measures for the wealthy than the poor, and we are so used to it, we don’t even notice any more. Those who have more money to deposit in a bank get a better interest rate than those who deposit less. Those who have health insurance have large amounts discounted off the exact same procedures that others without insurance pay full price for. (And then after the debt can’t be paid, the health care providers sell the debt for pennies on the dollar, and those with enough money to buy the debt cheaply turn around and make a profit by collecting the original higher prices from the debtor. See this article for a creative way of working this system to help the poor.) I could go on and on. My point is, our system is so big, we don’t see the way injustice is happening. Wealthy people are “treated” differently in our system, and there are ways in which the benefits received by those with money  comes at the direct expense of those who don’t have money. Definitely not all the time! But just the one example I gave about health care debt ought to give us pause.

Perhaps the message I gave today (and that you will read in just a second, I promise) felt as if I was casting wide aspersions on those in power or those from a particular political system. There is one sense where Micah does a similar thing: his words are judgment to all of Israel and Judah for the sins of the rulers and the wealthy. But God will restore, he says. So act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. I wish I had more specifics, more answers, more ways for us to move forward in hope. It is a huge, complex world. But I will stand with Micah and with what I said today: all of us ought to invite God to examine our lives, and be willing to consider ways we contribute to injustice or act unjustly ourselves. And all of us can trust that God will eventually make all things right, restoring true justice in every sense of the word.

All right, enough. On to what I shared today:

So I got all the way to Friday before I realized I had made a fairly major mistake for this morning.

And it was too late to correct it the easy way, so I’m going to need your help to do it the hard way. Please grab your worship folders, this is important. Got them? Hold them up for me. Good.

Now, look down at the message part for today. We’re looking again at someone for our cloud of witnesses series, looking specifically at people who help us prepare in Advent for the coming of Jesus. Each time we look at one of these witnesses, our goal is for their lives to help us follow Jesus more faithfully ourselves, to see God more clearly, which will help us find traces of God on our own journeys.

Today is Micah, so I got that part right too. But it’s right below that where I made the fairly major mistake. So here’s where I want your help, and then I will explain why. Will you please take a pen or pencil and scratch out those specific verse references? I mean it. Scratch them out. If you end up taking those home with you today, it’s going to mess things up. So go ahead.

Ok, thank you. I feel better now.

Here’s what the mistake was. Every single one of those verses came from the “good” parts of Micah, the likable parts of the prophetic words, the areas that focus on hope. There were some legitimate reasons why I had those particular verses selected and chosen. As I was choosing the specific “witnesses” we would look at during Advent, I looked at the lectionary. In Quaker circles, many of us don’t know much about the lectionary, but in many churches around the world, there is a three year cycle of biblical texts for each Sunday of the year that continually rotates. Many churches preach every Sunday from those suggested texts in the lectionary.

One of the benefits is that the cycle intentionally goes to all parts of the bible and follows the cycle of the church year, so it keeps you from just going back to the same parts of the bible that you always like. I look at it every time I’m planning a series, and when I looked this time, Micah was there…and the verses chosen were some of the hopeful ones.

It makes perfect sense. During Advent, as we are preparing to celebrate the incarnation of God as a baby, as we are trying to walk the journey of the people in Israel who were waiting for a savior…during Advent, when we look at the Old Testament prophets, it’s the words of hope and the promise of the coming one that grab our attention.

That’s what grabbed those who created the lectionary, and that’s what grabbed me. So I’d been doing my homework, studying these passages. And then Friday morning, the first thing I did was sit down and read the entire book of Micah.

That’s when I realized the mistake.

If I only talk about the hopeful parts of Micah, I am not being faithful. If you go home and you only read those verses printed on the worship folder, you are not getting an accurate picture of God’s message through Micah. If we think the only role of the Old Testament prophets was to give us predictions, like a fortune teller, about the coming of Jesus, we are missing the point.

Obviously Micah, who lived long before Christ, is not a true witness to Jesus. But Micah is a true witness to God, to Yahweh. His very name points us in that direction, as his name means “Who is like Yahweh?” Micah pushed Israel and Judah, pushes me, pushes us to look at Yahweh’s deep concern for justice. Micah and Yahweh are troubled, angered, deeply moved against the injustice…the economic injustice, the apathetic injustice, the lying injustice…against all kinds of injustice.

So while it would be easier to restrict myself to the verses printed, let’s instead be faithful to look at it all. Because, actually, I think that helps me and hopefully helps us to better grasp the beauty and the power of the hope that Yahweh offers. And when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Messiah in a a few weeks, we will be better prepared to understand and thank God for the hope Christ brings.

One of the things I would love for this series on the cloud of witnesses would be to bring each one of these witnesses to life.

For the ones we look at that are from the bible, sometimes there isn’t much biographical information to go on; and Micah is one of those we don’t know a lot about. The book that bears his name is a collection of his prophetic sayings, put together after he died. It’s not a biography, and it doesn’t really even seem to be in chronological order-the sayings are grouped thematically.

Micah is mentioned a few times in other books of the bible, but they are very brief mentions. From those mentions and from the beginning of the book of Micah, we know which Kings of Israel and Judah were contemporaries, and that helps us realize an important connection: the prophet Micah and the prophet Isaiah were active at the same time.

Isaiah is a towering figure in the Old Testament. While Micah is a relatively small book, Isaiah is gigantic. Isaiah was not just contemporary with the kings-he spoke with them. A nobleman, rubbing shoulders with kings and dignitaries, Isaiah was similar to Billy Graham in our time: a public person very influential with the power structures of the country.

Carefully examining the prophetic words in the book of Micah, we realize that Micah is a strong biographical contrast to Isaiah. Micah was not really well known, coming from a small village in southern Judah about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. He was a poor farmer, or perhaps a small landowner, and he doesn’t speak about the capital cities as if he was comfortable in those places of power. Micah clearly is one of the rural poor, and identifies with them.

It’s even more striking, therefore, that these two opposites – the famous city guy comfortable with kings, the unknown peasant from the sticks – these different men still speak the same message.

Micah joins Isaiah to boldly challenge rulers who have left Yahweh behind, who take advantage of the poor. He attacks so called prophets who give a good message to the ones who pay them well.

And Micah has a flair about him, succinctly and incisively cutting through the trappings of power to speak judgment and to name the misdeeds done by the elite in Samaria and in Judah. With poetic skill, he sustains wordplays through verses 10-16 of chapter 1, using the little villages of his area of Judah as memory devices to bring home his message of scathing critique. It’s simply impossible to capture in English the power of using the names of the towns to bring home the message.

But Eugene Peterson gives it a shot. This is what Micah sounded like to the people of the time, with this exception: where Peterson is making up village names to match the message, Micah was using actual villages to speak the prophetic word.

Don’t gossip about this in Telltown.

Don’t waste your tears.

In Dustville,

roll in the dust.

 In Alarmtown,

the alarm is sounded.

The citizens of Exitburgh

will never get out alive.

Lament, Last–Stand City:

There’s nothing in you left standing.

 The villagers of Bittertown

wait in vain for sweet peace.

Harsh judgment has come from God

and entered Peace City.

 All you who live in Chariotville,

get in your chariots for flight.

You led the daughter of Zion

into trusting not God but chariots.

Similar sins in Israel

also got their start in you.

 Go ahead and give your good–bye gifts

to Good–byeville.

Miragetown beckoned

but disappointed Israel’s kings.

 Inheritance City

has lost its inheritance.

Glorytown

has seen its last of glory.

 Shave your heads in mourning

over the loss of your precious towns.

Go bald as a goose egg––they’ve gone

into exile and aren’t coming back

The point, when you take the whole book into account, is that the main message of Micah is one which attacks injustice and and calls to account those who turn their backs on God.

Micah furiously attacks the sins of the rich upperclass, with their oppression and apathy to the struggles of the poor who have no voice. He joins Isaiah to denounce the way those in power ignore the true prophets who speak for Yahweh, and instead pay false prophets to give support to the party line of the day.

The message of judgment is so strong, so pervasive, that for some scholars, it’s the only possible message of the true Micah. Some scholars draw the conclusion that the hopeful passages must be later additions. I don’t join them; I’m comfortable taking the words we have collected in our bible as God’s prophetic words through Micah. But I bring it up to make the case for just how much Micah is a book of scathing critique of power gone awry, how much of a minority the words of hope and redemption truly are.

Can you see why I had you scribble out the verses on your worship sheet? It isn’t because I want us to forget the words of hope. Not at all. In fact, the words of hope are ones we can hold on to. I didn’t have you mark them out because they aren’t true; I had you mark them out so you wouldn’t have the misinterpretation that Micah’s main message was one of hope.

In a strange way, this is actually more hopeful to me.

In previous years during Advent, I’ve read a collection of all the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. It used to confuse me. When they’re all collected and staring at you on the page, and then you read the gospels, you wonder how dense the people had to be to not realize that Jesus was the Messiah. Hello! He’s from Bethlehem, the stripes on his back, the one who brings peace…it just seems so clear.

But the Pharisees and the people of Jesus’ time knew ALL of the words of the prophets. They knew that the biggest message of the prophets was that God was promising to exert rightful authority to end all the corruption in the places of power. Micah is one of those prophetic cloud of witnesses that held the feet of kings and political power to the fire. He’s one of the prophets who spoke for Yahweh, calling priests to account for their soft ways of earning their living from the rich and powerful and bending the message to what the wealthy wanted to hear.

Here’s an example from chapter 2 that shows that the challenge to live in line with Yahweh extends to more than the kings, more than the priests. It challenges basic human greed.

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance. (Micah 2:1-2)

I hear in that a fundamental challenge to our human need for more. Micah, as a peasant from the country, has seen with his own eyes the defrauding and robbing that has happened because of the people’s greed for more. We can’t be any more biblical than to say, the heart of God is not on the side of gaining wealth at all costs. God is on the side of those who suffer from the effects of human greed.

Pope Francis made quite a splash recently with his first official papal exhortation.

It’s a huge document, and I won’t lie to you and say that I’ve read it all. But there is one section that is getting a lot of press:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

He was immediately attacked by many, with accusations of not being spiritual or Christian, but instead being a Marxist. I would submit to you today rather than call Pope Francis a Marxist, we would be much more accurate to call him a Micah-ist. He’s clearly in line with the teachings of this book. One more quote from the papal exhortation:

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

This is the message of Micah! Those who wield economic and spiritual power in our world (I’ll include myself in that at a minor level as a pastor)…those who wield power in our world are not to be trusted naively to work for the good of all in the world. But God can be trusted to see and condemn injustice. God can be trusted, Micah says, to exert rightful authority to bring an end to oppression.

Micah’s most famous words are verses 6-8 of chapter 6.

Micah begins the chapter speaking in God’s voice at the city gates, the place of judgment, the court of the day. God brings a case against the people, against their spiritual, economic, and moral failings. And then Micah voices the words of response, of people cut to the heart with grief over misdeeds.

What can be done? What can we do? Can we make it up to you God? Can we give away our excess to make up for it? Do we have to sacrifice our own children to make it up to you?

And then comes Micah’s most clear message of the book. Micah 6:6- “He has shown all you people 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.”

Set aside your insatiable need for more, your self-justifying behavior.

Instead…act as God does. Love what God does. And walk humbly with God. In the context of the judgment, the words of hope ring even louder and clearer. God will act! God will rescue us, and bring about a new day, where the lame will be gathered and people will stream to God’s holy mountain. God will teach us his ways, he will settle disputes. Our hatred and violence will end, our swords will become plowshares, our drones will become John Deere tractors.

I’ll end my words today with some of the last words of the book of Micah. As one of the cloud of witnesses, as one who points us to the character of God, who we are called to walk alongside humbly…as one in the great cloud of witnesses, Micah describes the character of Yahweh, our God

Who is a God like you,

who pardons sin and forgives the transgression

of the remnant of his inheritance?

You do not stay angry forever

but delight to show mercy.

 You will again have compassion on us;

you will tread our sins underfoot

and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19)

This is our God! The one who always acts for justice, who loves mercy, and who will have compassion on us.

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3 thoughts on “Cloud of Witnesses: Micah (Plus some additional thoughts)

  1. I appreciated your sermon, Gregg, and am not at all disappointed that you didn’t try to say everything you could say about Micah in one sermon. The big theme piece came through clearly: God is just and compassionate (kind, merciful) and expects us to be the same. God will act against injustice and callous disregard of others and, even in that, will show mercy. Go figure. And all of this will bring the glorious day for which we all hope (Micah 4). The crimes against which Micah speaks were abundant in town and village (compare Isaiah and Amos from the same time) and, frankly, seem contemporary. People still take advantage of the most vulnerable (for example, the poor, immigrants, the aged, broken families, etc.), those who can afford it still buy rulers and judges (and teachers and preachers), merchants still cheat in the marketplace, bankers still game the system with fraudulent loans and usurious interest, etc. We could name names, but these realities endure. And they’re not supposed to. “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” That’s pretty much the prophets in a short sentence.

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  2. “Those who have more money to deposit in a bank get a better interest rate than those who deposit less.” Of course that is because the bank can use the money on deposit, and a larger amount is of more benefit to the bank. Shouldn’t they pay more for that benefit? “Those who have health insurance have large amounts discounted off the exact same procedures that others without insurance pay full price for.” Do you have a source for this statement? I have certainly never experienced such a discount when using private insurance. I think we also have to consider that people who are benefiting from private insurance are paying hefty premiums for it, and those premiums are part of their overall health costs.
    I appreciate the challenge that we often overlook the needs of others and our capacity to help, but I also believe that many of our community are helping others in a lot of unsung, invisible ways. I come from a family of 6 + doctors and a number of nurses. All of them can tell you that their practice regularly sees patients that have no insurance and can’t pay. They receive treatment and pay nothing for it. One patient I know of volunteered that he would pray for the doctor. You won’t see statistics about that, and the patients will probably not mention it.
    Just as we acknowledge that there are inequities in our society, we also should acknowledge that there are many who are quietly doing something to help.

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  3. Thank you Judy!

    I heartily agree that we should acknowledge and celebrate many who are quietly doing something to help. I am very aware of many doctors and dentists and plumbers and lawyers and all kinds of people who give their services very generously to many, and I celebrate those too!

    About the money to deposit comment: Yes, of course you are right that the banks are getting a benefit for which they are paying a little more. I am not meaning to imply that specific act is “wrong”; I was in fact trying to find an example of something where those with “means” gain something which those without cannot get that just seems like a normal business practice. Another example is being able to get a lower price if you buy 50,000 widgets instead of 5. I completely understand why that is and the benefits to both buyer and seller. My point was to try and see where things aren’t on an even playing field. Probably neither example is terribly helpful.

    About the discount on private insurance: I was referring to what I see very often on my “Explanation of Benefits” when our insurance covers some health care costs. Very often I see a deduction listed as a result of the agreement between the provider and the insurance company. I know from talking with doctors that can sometimes be frustrating, as they receive less (but as you rightly point out, there is the issue of paying the premiums up front which may account for this). I know that those without insurance (from working with some on an individual basis) don’t have as much negotiating clout as an insurance company does when they are trying to resolve a debt.

    To take a step back…it’s so hard to try and challenge my own and others’ assumptions, without having someone else feel like I am criticizing them. My hope for myself and all of us is that we recognize we may not always get it right, and that we invite God to convict us where necessary. Unfortunately it seems that even with my additional thoughts above to try and clarify this, I made additional statements which could be seen as being critical of bankers or doctors. I want you and others to know that I am sorry for that, and I am trying my best to rightly challenge without unfairly judging. I know I don’t always get it right and am always open to continued dialogue.

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