I ask Micah’s question. Don’t you? What does the Lord require of me? If I am to be faithful, what does God really want from me? From you?
This question can rustle in our hearts at almost any moment of life. But often it seems to knock on the door of consciousness when things are uncertain and we have decisions to make. What does God require of me — now?
A new kid moves into the neighborhood and becomes friends with your kid. They start to play together. The new kid hangs around your house. Soon you become aware that the new kid is kind of rough and has values and practices that worry you. Yet you sense that the new kid really needs the kind of stability and love that you have in your home. You wonder whether you should try to discourage this friendship or whether you should invite this kid into your circle of relationships. Do you risk damage to your own child in the hope of helping a neighbor? What would God have you do?
A boss catches an employee dipping into the till. The boss knows that the employee has a family and responsibilities and a respected place in the community. So what does the boss do — turn in the employee to the police? Does the boss fire the employee but not take the case to court? Does the boss talk privately with the employee, expressing disappointment and working out an equitable system of repayment? What does God ask in such a situation?
A pastor in a county-seat congregation steps into the chancel during the prelude and settles into the high-back pastor’s chair. The pastor looks into the faces of the congregation. There are some who have lost their farms. Bankrupt. Scratching for a living now. There are some who work in the bank that foreclosed on the farms. What should a pastor say? What does God require?
Micah’s question is mine. And I’ll bet it is yours.
Micah had a special reason for asking it. He was living at a frightening time. Micah’s land, Judah, was about to drop into the garbage disposal of history. From the outside the mighty, savage armies of Assyria were coming (
Inside the land, Micah saw chaos. In the ancient world, land was a sacred inheritance, but the rich were weaseling away the land of the poor (
The priests and prophets draw their paychecks on Friday and stand in the pulpit on Sunday and pass the hand of blessing over this theft and bribery and exploitation. “God is with us,” they say. “No harm shall come upon us” (
But now Assyria is at the door. The land is in chaos. Micah asks, what can we do about our situation? “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What does God want from us?
Micah thinks first of things the people could bring to God. He makes a list. Each item on the list is a little better than the last: burnt offerings, calves a year old, thousands of rams (get that: thousands of rams), ten thousand rivers of oil, my firstborn child. These are major league offerings. Is that what God requires?
Did you notice that almost all the items on this list are things that people give to God in worship? If Micah would write such a list for us, it might go something like this: cut the church lawn so that every blade of grass is the same height and bends the same way; sing a solo in which every note is in perfect pitch; fill the offering trays with 90 percent of your income. Instead of collection plates, we would need wheelbarrows to take up the offerings.
Micah never says there is anything wrong with such things. In fact I have heard some soloists who could have enriched the worshipping atmosphere with a little more practice prior to the service. And at its best, worship symbolizes the fullness of our life with God. The praise that we sing out of the hymnal is a miniature of the praise we render in the kitchen and at the desk. The grace that we receive from the Lord’s Table is a token of the grace we receive in a bright sunrise or in a child’s embrace. The offerings we drop in the collection plate are a prototype of the offerings that we make as we change diapers or march to end social injustice.
But sometimes worship gets cut off from life. From Sunday to Sunday, God slips from our minds. Worship no longer represents our life with God. Instead, we let the acts of worship substitute for the fullness of our life with God. We put a big check in the offering plate instead of giving ourselves with heart, mind, soul and strength to God’s ways. And that cannot calm Assyria from without or the chaos from within.
So Micah asks, “What does God require but to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God?” (
Now, it occurs to me that in talking about what God requires, I may leave the wrong impression. You could make the mistake of thinking that we do these things because we need to do so in order to win God’s friendship. You could get the idea that justice, kindness and humility are tests that we must pass in order to be welcome in God’s house. No, Micah is thinking of what comes from you because of who you are. A peach tree does not give peaches in order to prove that it is a peach tree. It gives peaches because it is a peach tree.
We spent one summer in Africa. While we were there we visited a school where there was a student who was at odds with arithmetic. In fact, the multiplication tables and long division seemed to stand between her and the rest of life. So, one day, during an exam, her eyes wandered across the aisle to the paper of the student next to her. As her eyes wandered back to her own paper she met the eyes of her teacher. Not only did she fail the exam but the teacher told her parents that she cheated.
The parents said to her, “You are a Bemba and you are our daughter. You will always be a Bemba and you will always be our daughter. But a Bemba does not cheat. We can get you help. You can take an extra year in this grade. There are many things we can do. But whatever we do, we want you to remember that you are a Bemba.”
Who are you? Who am I? Beloved of God, we are people whom God loves without condition, without reserve, without fail. Earlier in
To do justice. That’s right relationship in community. Dealing with a question similar to Micah’s, Moses says that the test case of whether a person or a community is just is how we treat the orphan, the widow, the stranger, those who are legally helpless (
To love kindness. The Hebrew word we translate kindness is hesed, a word which refers to closeness within community, to empathy and identification with others, to intimate and heartfelt affection. In the Bible this word sometimes describes how God relates to us: with loving kindness. Feeling our suffering. Rejoicing in our rejoicing. Someone describes it as “devotion grounded in love which goes beyond legal obligation and can be depended on to the utmost.”2
To walk humbly with God. To be humble is not to abase yourself as if you should get up in the morning and look at yourself in the bathroom mirror and spend fifteen minutes telling yourself how insignificant and worthless you are. No. There are already too many people in the world whose self-esteem is crippled. To be humble is simply to acknowledge that you are a creature and not the Creator, that you are finite and not infinite, that you are human and not God.
I am humble when I recognize and accept my own limitations. Much as I want, I cannot do everything. I cannot think every great thought or preach every great sermon. I am humble when I recognize that I am not the source of all the wisdom that I need, and I turn attentively to God for guidance and direction in life.
What does God require? Justice. Kindness. Humility. I know these things do not answer every question about every situation you meet. They do not tell you simply and directly whether you should continue to invite that worrisome kid into your circle of relationships. They do not automatically tell the boss what to do about the employee who has been caught with a hand in the till. Micah does not write the sermon for the pastor who must speak to the bankrupt and the banker. But if we want to do what God requires, then in each instance we must ask, “Where does justice seem to lie here? What best expresses loving kindness? Where is the path of humility?” How do we seem best able to express who we are?
More often than not, Micah points a positive way forward. As we meet this morning, mothers are imprisoned. Usually they grew up in impoverished homes. Many suffered from racial prejudice and poor education. Before they were equipped emotionally or economically, they had babies. Now they are in jail but have no money to hire attorneys. And so there they sit — two, three, four, five, even six months without a hearing and without even talking to a public defender. And all the while, their babies and children are outside the jail, getting passed around from one caretaker to another. Does anyone hear a cry for justice?
You’re watching a television interview with someone who has AIDS. And that person says, “You know, ever since I was diagnosed, it was like I don’t have any more friends. Everybody just disappeared. I might as well be the only person alive.” Do you hear a plea for hesed?
Suppose that you are a minister. After worship, you’re standing at the door as the people are filing out. And you’re shaking hands and trying to remember all the bits and pieces of information they’re telling you and smelling their perfume. And somebody comes along and gets you in a bear-like grip and says, “My goodness, Reverend! That was the best sermon I ever heard. The Lord Jesus Christ never made God seem any more real.” And your buttons start to pop and you imagine yourself in the pulpit of the denomination’s flagship church and preaching at the national convention and signing autographs of your latest book and praying on national TV at the inauguration of the President.
But then you think about the lavishness and steadfastness of divine love, and the relative feebleness of your own efforts. What can you do but write that compliment in the memory book of your heart, and walk humbly back to your office?
What does God want from me? What does God want from you? To remember who we are. And then to fill the offering trays with justice, loving kindness and humility.
1. Hans Walter Wolff, Micah, translated by Gary Stousell (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990), p. 180.
2. C. L. Mitton, “Grace,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by George A. Buttrick, et. al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), vol. II, p. 467.