St Michael’s & St Barnabas, 29th November 2015
Readings – Micah 1:1-8; Luke 21:25-36
Why is it that the Middle East always seems to be such a major troublespot? Turn on the news, or pick up a newspaper, and I can almost guarantee that sooner or later there will be a story on the latest troubles in the region. This is a part of the world that has suffered, and at the moment there seems very little prospect that the situation will get better.
But then the Middle East has one way or another always been a place of tension and conflict. The simple reason for this is one of geography. Here in a fairly small piece of land where three continents meet – Africa, Asia and Europe. If you want to cross from one continent to another then you have to pass through this region. So for thousands of years, warriors, traders, holy men, refugees have journeyed along its ancient routes, all the while bringing new ideas, new inventions, even new religions. And where there is innovation and change, there is sadly nearly always a battle for power to determine who is right, or at least who is the strongest. At the moment we’re engaged in a bloody conflict with ISIL, but we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that even if, please God, we defeat this enemy, the region will automatically become stable and peaceful.
The Middle East always has been and probably always will be a place of conflict. And it is against the setting of conflict in the Middle East that we come today to the book of Micah. Now the book of Micah is in the Old Testament and it is one of the twelve so-called Minor Prophets that come at the end of this section of the Bible. It was named after an individual we know nothing about except that in verse 1 he is called Micah of Moresheth and that he saw a vision concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. From the list of kings mentioned in this verse we can date when he lived to some time between 740 and 700 years before the birth of Christ. But that is the sum total of our knowledge about him, and as we shall see, in many ways his message was more important than his identity.
What was the Middle East like in those days? As has so often been the case down the centuries, there was a regional superpower bent on expanding its territory and defeating as many other nations as possible. During Micah’s lifetime that superpower was the nation of Assyria which had its capital a city called Nineveh on the river Tigris in what is now Iraq, but which extended its rule as far as what we would call Turkey and Egypt – in modern-day Europe and Africa. And in case you think all this is dry ancient history, just remember that one of the key battle grounds with ISIL today is the same Nineveh plain where thousands of years earlier the Assyrians built their civilisation.
What was life like for God’s people? By the time of Micah, the nation of Israel had split in two. There was the northern kingdom of Israel which had as its capital Samaria and two main worship centres Dan and Beersheba. There was also the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital Jerusalem where the temple of the Lord was located.
And as Micah began his ministry, the threat from the Assyrian empire was already growing. The Assyrians began to take more and more territory from the northern kingdom of Israel until finally in 721BC they invaded the whole land and carried off most of the people into exile. But then if the people had been listening to Micah, these events should not have taken them by surprise. Because as we read in verses 6 and 7 of our reading this was exactly what the prophet predicted:
6 Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of rubble, a place for planting vineyards. I will pour her stones into the valley and lay bare her foundations.
7 All her idols will be broken to pieces; all her temple gifts will be burned with fire; I will destroy all her images.
Micah foretold the complete destruction of the northern kingdom and that is what happened. And this leads us to the first and most important reason why we should read the words of this ancient prophet today. Because his words are the words of the Lord, and therefore they also hold true for us.
How do we know this? Well, we need to realise that way back in Micah’s day there were plenty of prophets who came and spoke in the name of the Lord. Usually they preached a message of peace and assured God’s people of a great victory over their enemies. And, as we shall see next week, they were handsomely paid for delivering such a message. The words of a prophet like Micah were definitely in the minority. Just like today, no-one wanted to hear a message of judgement, and I am sure Micah didn’t earn much from his ministry. And yet…and yet… it was the words of Micah which came to pass, and it was because it was his words that came true, that his message was written down and preserved for us. Maybe a little too late after the events, but nonetheless once everything he had said came to pass, it dawned on folk that the Lord had been speaking through him after all.
But the words of Micah give us so much more than information about obscure events in far-off places long, long ago. Because Micah was also a prophet who looked far beyond his own time. He prophesied not only about Samaria in the north, and Jerusalem in the south, but also, amongst other things, about an obscure, sleepy little village called Bethlehem. Micah 5:2: But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. And what is astonishing to realise is that these very words of Micah came to pass seven hundred years later in the birth of a baby called Jesus who became the ruler that Micah predicted. Isn’t that absolutely extraordinary?
Micah – like so much of the Old Testament – paved the way for the coming of Jesus, and the fact that what he said came to pass should make us understand that here is a book that we also need to read and obey. As the apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness and Micah is no exception. So if we as believers are serious about growing in our faith, then we need to get to grips with the whole word of God. Because here is truth we need to understand and respond to.
How then is the book of Micah relevant to us? Allow me to explain just a little more of the historical background before I answer this question…
We are told in verse 1: The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. So while things were turning grim up north, most of time he was prophesying to the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of three kings. If you want to find out more about these kings you can read their story in 2 Kings 15-20, and there’s plenty more about King Ahaz also in Isaiah chapter 7. But we can sum up their reigns in three simple sentences.
Jotham did all the right things as king but he did nothing to stop the sins of the people.
Ahaz did none of the right things as king and he made the people sin all the more.
Hezekiah did all the right things as king and made every effort to stop the people from sinning.
Not quite a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but fairly close. And I guess it’s fairly easy to see why Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz. The people were sinning, and one of the roles of a prophet is surely to address wrongdoing and call them back to the Lord. But why did Micah prophesy during the reign of Hezekiah? After all, the king was doing a lot of good and it looked like a religious revival was breaking out. Did anyone really need a prophet going round with words of judgement?
The short answer is, that the Lord knew religious reform in Judah was skin deep. Hezekiah could reform all the religious rituals and destroy all the pagan shrines, but there was one thing he could not do. He could not change the hearts of the people. You see, they were looking at events up north and thought they were somehow better than the folk up there. They wouldn’t be affected by rampaging Assyrian armies because they had the Law of Moses and they had the temple in Jerusalem. Those people being taking off into exile, well, they had it coming to them. The worship in Samaria was always a bit dodgy really, but as for us, well we always do the right thing and so we’ll be safe.
Micah’s words to the people of Judah are clear and unambiguous. Listen to what he says in Micah 6:6-8:
6 With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has showed you, O man, 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.
In other words, the Lord isn’t impressed by how much you sacrifice or how costly are the sacrifices that you make. What the Lord is interested in is your heart, and how you stand before Him. If you think you can buy Him off with your religious observance, or if you think you are better than someone else because you appear so good and holy, then actually you are in serious trouble. You may fool yourself that you are leading a decent, respectable life but you can’t fool God. He already knows what you are like on the inside.
And it’s no use protesting you don’t know what the Lord requires of you. Because everything the Lord wants you to do has already been written down for you. In the case of the people in Micah’s day it was the law that we find nowadays in the first five books of the Bible. For us today, it is all 66 books of the same Bible which teach us exactly how to respond in faith to Jesus Christ and to live for Him.
The trouble is, and one of the main reasons why we don’t read the Bible like we should, is that when we realise it is God’s word to us, then it makes uncomfortable. We find ourselves challenged by what the Lord requires of us, and by the message that there are things we need to change. Maybe that’s why more often than not we adopt a kind of pick’n’mix approach to Scripture. We choose the bits we like, about God loving us and God being on our side. But just like the Israelites of old, we’d much rather ignore the message of someone like Micah that the Lord is calling us to mend our ways, that there are things we need to repent of, and that there are hard choices we need to make about how we live.
Yet if we truly understood that the whole Bible was the word of God, then we would understand that we have little option but to make a response. Listen again to the way Micah portrays the Lord in verses 3-4: Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling-place; he comes down and treads the high places of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope.
Now I don’t know about you but when someone shouts “Look!” to me, I usually want to turn round and see what they are pointing at. Micah is here pointing at what we might call the inconvenient truth that one day the Lord will come in judgement. One day He will enter into the history of this world to judge the living and the dead, and every eye will see and every knee will bow before His majesty. And just in case you are tempted to write off Micah off and say that’s just an Old Testament message, let me add that we find exactly the same message in the New Testament.
Jesus tells us in our gospel reading, Luke 21:25-26: There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. That is poetic language describing the same reality that Micah foretold – the day when the Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and great glory.
And if we haven’t understood this point already, then on that day we will finally realise just how great is the problem of our sin and our wrongdoing. We often like to think that sin about being a little bit naughty, or eating the wrong kind of food, and we like to tell ourselves doesn’t really matter. Actually, the message of Micah and of Jesus is the same: that sin is nothing less than an offence against a pure and holy God who has every right to judge us, and who at an appointed time will exercise that right of judgement.
Now today we are coming to the season of Advent. The world has almost forgotten that Advent exists, except as a run-up to Christmas. But the real message of Advent is that the Lord will come and judge the world. He will expose our deepest thought and our deepest desires. We will not be able to come before Him with lame excuses. We will not be able to boast of our good works or our religious rituals. We will not be able to blame anyone else for what we have thought and said and done. The Lord is coming, and He is coming to judge us.
Now I said earlier that we know very little about this prophet called Micah of Moresheth who delivered this message of judgement, and this is true. But one more thing we do know about him is how he responded to the message he had just been given. Reading on to verse 8: Because of this I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl.
Can you, I wonder, relate to Micah’s reaction? I certainly know I can, and I believe that the only proper reaction to this message of judgement is a broken heart as we weep and wail for those who cannot and will not hear the word of the Lord, as we weep and wail for those who reject the news of a Saviour from Bethlehem and celebrate Christmas without Christ.
Because it is only out of a broken heart we can fully appreciate that old familiar story we will be celebrating in a month’s time. You see, if Christmas is simply a nice winter’s tale we share with the children once a year, then it will mean nothing once we have packed the decorations away. If Christmas is simply a cosy tale about God’s love then it may give us a warm feeling for a while, but that glow will soon wear off in the harsh reality of life. But if Christmas is about the only hope for a broken world and about the only one who can save us from the judgement we deserve, then suddenly it becomes a lot more real and relevant. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
So, this Advent, take some time to prepare properly for Christmas. I don’t mean make sure you’ve brought all your presents and stocked up on all your goodies. I mean take some time to reflect on what God is saying to you. Because you need the hope that is in Christ Jesus, and so do your family and your friends, and so does the wider world, particularly and especially in the Middle-East at this time. The word of the Lord tells us that one day He will come again to judge the living and the dead. So do you know Jesus as your Saviour? And if you do, will your heart be moved to share the good news that you have found, so that others too might be spared from the coming judgement?
Let’s pray …