This summer, we’ve been looking at the prophets, and today we return to the prophet Micah. Micah is known as a minor prophet because the book is small compared to the large books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – but Micah’s message is anything but small.
The book of Micah is a collection of sermons, preached by one who is deeply involved in the problems of his people. In the eighth century B.C.E., Micah saw a nation of economic prosperity and moral poverty; he saw a growing wealthy class becoming rich at the expense of the poor. In the sermon of chapter six, the Lord takes up the case against the people. Hear now the word of the Lord.
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 ten 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?
The grass withers the flowers fade,
but the word of our God endures forever.
Thanks be to God.
Micah 6:8 is one of the most memorable and timeless expressions of the ethics of our faith: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. The instructions are simple, and like the old Nike ad, they invite us to “just do it.” It’s simple, but there’s a catch: simple does not mean easy. Let me tell you a story.
A few months ago, I met with colleagues who are in a clergy group we call the Community of Pastors. We are twenty-five PCUSA pastors from different parts of the country, and we meet twice a year for friendship and learning and support. We were in Maryville, Tennessee, where one of our members is a pastor, and one day we went over to Tellico Lake to spend the afternoon on boats and have dinner at the home of one of her church members. Somehow, I decided to get into the boat that was going waterskiing – though I don’t waterski. I thought I would just tag along.
For an hour I watched a couple of friends cut and glide through the water in the wake of the boat as we sliced across the lake. It looked fun, it looked doable. I’m not an athlete by a long shot, but our boat driver said that she had taught hundreds of people to waterski. Would I like to try? Sure, I’ll try. I jumped into the water and received my instructions.
Put your feet into the skis, make sure the boots are tight.
Grab the bar and bend your knees. Keep your knees bent.
When the boat starts, the boat will pull you up. You’ll just stand up. It’s easy.
So, I put my feet in the skis, pulled the boots tight, grabbed the bar, bent my knees, and the boat began to move. And just as the driver hit the gas, I went up and over, flat on my face.
Oh, that’s okay, they said. Let’s try again. It’s easy – and they repeated the instructions. About this time, the rest of my well-dressed and dry colleagues on the pontoon boat pulled up to watch. I waved, put my feet into the skis, pulled the boots tight, grabbed the bar, bent my knees, and took a deep breath. And just as the driver pushed the gas, I went up and over, flat on my face.
That’s okay, they said. Are the boots tight? I think so, not really, but I don’t know. Let’s try one more time. By now the instructions were locked in: I put on the boots, pulled them tight, grabbed the bar, bent my knees, the boat started, I went up and over. (But not before someone got a video, which you will never see.)
At this point, the pontoon boat pulled away with a wave. I climbed back in the boat, swallowed my pride and gratefully took the beer my friend offered from the cooler.
Simple is not always easy.
In the beginning of Micah 6, the Lord brings a case against the people. The courtroom is an open field, the mountains are the jury – because they have seen it all. The charge is ingratitude. God recounts all he has done for the people: bringing them up out of Egypt, rescuing them from slavery, giving them faithful leaders, and protecting them from harm.
When he rests the case, Micah stands to make a defense. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow down before the God of the heights?” He lists the most precious things a person in the ancient world could conceive. The sacrifice of calves a year old, or thousands of rams, or ten thousand rivers of oil – even a first-born child. The prophet wonders, if all the wealth of the world were piled up, would it be enough to make amends and show gratitude to God? Could any gift, however large, be what God is looking for? The clear implication is, no, it would not.
Unlike false gods, the living God does not want our stuff. The living God wants our hearts. What Micah says next is what God really seeks. This verse is so familiar, I want us to spend some time with each part of it. It’s printed in your bulletin just after the confession.
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you?” The word translated “required” sounds heavy, like God is a schoolteacher. But it really means “seeking.” What is God seeking from you? What does God want from you and your life? What does God want from human beings? What was the dream, when God dreamed of human beings in the dawn of creation? Micah boils it down to three things.
Do justice. The Hebrew word here is “mishpat.” What does that mean? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that there are two kinds of justice found in the Hebrew scriptures, and this kind –mishpat – means retributive justice. It’s what we would call the rule of law. It is a set of rules that are binding on all people equally, so that innocence and guilt are decided on the basis of fact and not favor, or privilege, or wealth. As Rabbi Sacks says, mishpat settles disputes by right rather than by might. Mishpat is the rule of law, and equality before the law, and equity in the decisions of the law. It is basic justice, and it is the first thing God is looking for in the lives of human beings. Sounds simple enough, but we know it’s not easy.
Let’s move on to love kindness. The Hebrew word here is the famous “hesed,” a word that is sometimes translated kindness, sometimes mercy, sometimes faithfulness, sometimes steadfast faithfulness. You may remember the song we sometimes sing in worship, The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases/God’s mercies never come to an end.” That’s hesed.
The Hebrew Scriptures teach us that hesed is the defining character trait of God. Hesed is the most significant way in which our lives can mirror the life of our creator. Again, listen to what Jonathan Sacks wrote: “[Hesed] is born in the generosity of faithfulness, the love that means being ever present for the other, in hard times as well as good; love that grows stronger, not weaker over time. It is love [expressed in] gestures of help and understanding, support and friendship: the poetry of everyday life written in the language of simple deeds.”
Hesed means every day kindness. It is generosity toward the people in your life, the ones you eat breakfast with, the ones you pass on the street, the ones you love, and the ones you struggle to even like. Hesed is the consistent and faithful expression of kindness in daily life over a long period of time. Sounds simple, but we know it’s not easy.
Do justice. Love kindness. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Walk humbly with your God. What does that mean? Walking humbly with God means living in a conscious friendship with God, so that in our daily life we are aware of an ongoing connection with the God who made us, who sustains us, who holds our future. And to that relationship, we bring a spirit of humility.
The Hebrew language is a poetic language of images and metaphors, and the word that is always translated humbly is more like modest, and the root meaning has the sense of drawing close. To understand this, we need to imagine a culture where people walk and not drive.
During the pandemic, friends in our neighborhood would walk six or eight feet apart, sometimes on opposite sides of the road, and shout to each other. As the pandemic has eased up, people have gotten to a more typical two or three feet apart – though they still shout. To walk together much closer than two or three feet, in other words to walk side by side, where you can whisper and hear one another, you have to be attuned to the pace and movements of the other person. If you have ever noticed two people who are walking side-by-side, you’ll notice that their strides and pace are matched. To walk that closely, their bodies must move together in space. Holding hands actually makes it easier.
And this is what this Micah is getting at when he says “walk humbly with your God.” It doesn’t mean what I always thought it meant – to cower low in God’s mighty presence. It means to match your pace to God’s pace, let your steps match God’s steps and your movements match God’s movements, so that you can walk as close to God as you possibly can, so close you can hear a whisper.
As Micah realized in his defense, God doesn’t want our stuff, God wants our hearts. God wants us to walk so closely so that our lives reflect justice and kindness – the character of God – as part the fabric of who we are in the world.
So three simple instructions, but we know they are not easy. Believing in justice is always easier than “doing justice.” Eventually doing justice, even basic justice, will cost us something; we will have to sacrifice an advantage – and maybe more than we want to pay. “Love kindness” sounds simple enough, but if we’re honest, being ever-present every day for the other, always slow to anger and quick to forgive, is nearly impossible, even with the people we love the most. “Walk humbly with your God” sounds simple enough, and we can walk closely with God for seasons – with prayer and study and worship and service to others. But there are other times we drift apart or wander onto our own path. Walking closely with God over the course of a lifetime is no easy thing to do.
And this is where the simplicity of Micah 6:8, while it is a gift to us, is also a reality check. The simple thing that Micah lays out is impossible for us to do. It stands before us always as the standard of human life, as the pure distillation of God’s will for our lives, and at the same time as an ideal that we will never reach. If we can repeat the instructions, we are bound to fall flat on our face. And so, if we are honest, Micah 6:8 not only reminds us of what we are to do, it also reminds us of our need for mercy.
In the very first verse of Micah 6, the Lord calls human beings to rise and plead our case. The truth is, we don’t have much case to plead – we need mercy. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has stood up on our behalf, and he pleads the case for us. As the Apostle Paul said, “Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us.” Jesus Christ pleads our case for mercy.
And in God’s name, Christ offers to each of us forgiveness for our failure to do the very simple things God is seeking, and he offers us a fresh start every day with him. Christ invites each of us to walk closely with him, so that we can learn from him how to walk closely with God, how to do justice and love kindness.
Many of us are inspired by the simple vision of good life painted by the prophet Micah, and if you are and want to live out that vision, I invite you to trust in Jesus Christ. Rely daily on Christ’s mercy as you try, and fall, and get up to try again. Walk closely with Christ and learn from him the movements of a life that is truly human.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina