Court and Covenant
Scripture: Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Jan 29, 2017
The lectionary on this fourth Sunday after Epiphany is in our sermon series called "New Beginnings." On this day we have two rich Scriptures before us: Micah 6:1-8 with its famous, "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." And then from Matthew 5:1-12 the opening words of Jesus' first of five great sermons in Matthew's gospel, the Sermon on the Mount.
Micah, the "right in the middle," sixth of twelve "minor prophets," minor, not in significance but in "length" compared to the major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Micah, written by the prophet Micah of the village of Moresheth, 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, coming to the holy city about 710 B.C. to preach judgment and salvation under the reign of good king Hezekiah. There will be a quiz on this after the service!
The setting of Micah 6 is a court of law and the parties involved are God and Israel. Israel is called by God into the courtroom to adjudicate a fractured relationship between the Lord and Israel. God begins in verse 1, "Rise, plead your case... you mountains, you hills listen for the Lord has a controversy with his people." Then Israel is invited to speak, but is given no chance to answer!
The Lord takes the stand again, and the Lord gives testimony in verse 3, "O my people, two questions, 'What have I done to you?' and 'In what have I wearied you?'" Now it's Israel's turn to speak, but again, it's the Lord who keeps talking! God reminds Israel that the Lord was a redeeming God, from slavery in Egypt, a protecting God from Israel's Canaanite neighbors in the Land of Promise. God has been relentless in saving Israel from destruction. Finally in verse 6 Israel gets an opportunity to respond with a series of questions. And these questions of Israel make it clear that the nation has completely misunderstood its relationship with the Lord. Israel thinks and acts as if God, like other, foreign, Gods, could be bought off: "What shall I come before the Lord? Burt offerings? Calves a year old? Thousands of rams? Ten-thousand rivers of oil? Our first-born children?" Israel has missed the point! God does not want "stuff" from Israel. You see, Israel is thinking commodity, and the Lord is requiring covenant. God is seeking a promise from Israel that they, in their hearts and with their hands, they would do three things: "Do justice": that is to be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world to correct the systematic inequalities that marginalize some and enhance others. Do Justice. Secondly, God asks Israel to "Love Kindness": it's that Hebrew word "hesed", better translated "covenant loyalty," meaning to reorder Israel's life into a community of accountability and faithfulness, less "me and God" and more "us and us and God." Love covenant loyalty. And thirdly, "Walk humbly with God": to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge daily that life is derived and dependent on God. Israel was thinking commodity. God is asking for covenant.
I had a dear friend in New England who is now with God. Ted, in many ways, was a simple man, a certain straight-forward man. He didn't wear his faith on his sleeve, but he often quoted this verse in his life of faith. Micah 6:8, "He has told you, O man what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Israel is offering money. Yahweh, the Lord, is asking for hearts and obedience. An illustration may be as easy as this: When you were a child, you went to scout camp or church camp, I did, and spent an afternoon in the craft tent making a lanyard. And you probably presented your lanyard to your mother, who profusely thanked you, but after she tried it on, did you ever see her wear it again? Your mom, my mom, didn't love the lanyard, she loved you and wanted you to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God." So God is not seeking our commodity but our covenant with God: justice, kindness, humility. I have a disturbing memory of making a dustpan for my mom in Jr. High Shop, so heavy she could bench press with it... but I digress.
On to Matthew 5:1-12. Last week Daryl Fisher-Ogden took us through Matthew 4:12-23: the arrest of John, the emerging Jesus proclaiming repentance and the Kingdom of God drawing near. Jesus calls his first disciples: two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John. Matthew 5-7 constitute Jesus' preaching and teaching called the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew tells us that "when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up to the mountain, sat before his disciples, and began to teach." In Luke 6, Jesus preaches Luke's version of this same sermon but in Luke, Jesus preaches not on a mount but "on a level place." So, in Luke it's the "Sermon on the Plain" P-L-A-I-N, not P-L-A-N-E. I've often written sermons on the plane but they've never made it into the Bible. I digress again.
So, what is this Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel? Are these blessings, Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. "Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled. Are they are a "moral exhortation," like Steve's small group questions this week: be this sort of person and if you do them, then the Kingdom, comfort, the earth, fulfillment, mercy, seeing God, becoming children of God and more Kingdom, all that will be yours. Are these ideals to be pursued, "moral maxims" to achieve? - Two things: if we take the "moral exhortation" interpretation, the promises of comfort and fulfillment and mercy don't always work. We can be merciful to someone and don't get mercy back. We can mourn, and we won't be comforted. And secondly, if Jesus were giving us "moral maxims" here, I'm (you'll) feel pretty guilty. How many here when persecuted rejoice?
Rather, God is a God who cares about the poor in spirit, the humble, those yearning for the right things to be done, the merciful, the single minded, the peacemakers, and God cares and loves those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. God will not abandon such people nor leave them hopeless.
So, who are you today, poor in spirit, mourner? And who will you be this weak, hungry for justice for those without power? without voice? merciful? single hearted? And what do you pray for, our country, what world would be? peacemakers? joyful in persecution?
The Gospel on this fourth Sunday after Epiphany is that we believe, love, follow, worship a God in Christ by the Spirit who is blessed and is a blessing to all.
Westminster Presbyterian Church