St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 6th December 2015
Readings – Micah 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-14
The God of judgement
It’s very easy when reading a book like Micah to think it doesn’t apply to me – to assume it was written for someone else or for a different age.
Last week we began our Advent sermon series in Micah, chapter 1. We saw how Micah was a prophet who lived 740-700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. He was a man who predicted a terrible judgement for the Northern Kingdom of Israel and for the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He foretold the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians in 722BC and warned that a similar judgement would befall Judah.
And as we also saw last week, the reason why Micah’s words were preserved was because ultimately they came true. When Israel fell to the marauding armies, the people who should have listened suddenly realised his words really were the word of the Lord, and they had a significance far beyond the world of the eighth century BC. Here was a prophet who spoke the inconvenient truth that the Lord had the right to judge in every age – and yet also in some mysterious way was a God of grace and mercy.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that in fact Micah was one of the many Old Testament prophets who paved the way for the coming of Jesus. It was he who spoke of a deliverer from Bethlehem, of a ruler who would shepherd His people and enable them to live in peace. But – and this is the message we need to take on board – just because Jesus has now come as Saviour, we must not make the mistake of thinking we can somehow now ignore what Micah says about judgement. Indeed Jesus Himself warns us that one day He will return in all His glory and that we will have to give an account for our actions.
So why exactly is the Lord coming in judgement? We get some important answers to that question as we come today to Micah chapter 3. Now again the temptation we face when we read this passage is to assume that somehow it doesn’t apply to us. Micah here is addressing the leaders and prophets of his day, and most of us here this morning would make no claim to be either a leader or a prophet. But if there’s one thing that the Bible teaches us it’s that no one person is better than, or different from anyone else. I could, I suppose, use this passage to preach about politicians or church leaders, or anyone else out there in positions of authority, but the more I look at this passage, the more I can see that Micah is addressing faults and failings which exist in each and every one of us.
So without any further ado, let’s turn to our reading and look more closely at what Micah says about leaders in verses 1 to 4:
1 Then I said, “Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel. Should you not know justice, 2 you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; 3 who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin and break their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot.” 4 Then they will cry out to the Lord, but he will not answer them. At that time he will hide his face from them because of the evil they have done.
Now you may ask what right Micah had to address the rulers of the house of Israel in this way. His words are pretty strong stuff, and it’s quite a thing to accuse someone of loving evil and hating good. Indeed, I am sure that when the leaders heard his message, their first response would have been, “Who are you to judge?” No-one likes being told what they are doing is wrong, let alone feel that they are being judged.
Besides which, didn’t Jesus Himself go on to say in the New Testament, Do not judge, or you too will be judged. If you’re going round accusing other people, then you have to make sure you are on firm ground yourself. And yet… and yet… it’s important to realise that Jesus never told us to stop making judgements about other people. After all, we have to make judgements about people the whole time. Will that car driver notice me stepping out onto the crossing? Can I trust that person selling me double glazing? We have to make right judgements the whole time, and we need to able to discern good from evil.
What we can’t do is go round blindly criticising as if we were somehow better than anyone else. That’s what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 7:1. But we can’t do either is deny the truth of God’s word. Because what God’s word gives us is an objective measure of what is good and what is not good. That is what Micah is talking about when he says in chapter 6, verse 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. He is telling his hearers that they should already know the right way to live because they already have the word of the Lord. And the reason why he addresses the leaders so harshly in chapter 3 is because they are acting contrary to God’s ways and they have no excuse.
But why did the leaders of Israel and Judah act so unjustly? After all, they thought they were religious, and I am sure none of them set out to deliberately defy the Lord. This is where we need to understand what Micah means when he talks about them eating the people’s flesh and stripping off their skin. He is using graphic imagery to make a simple point. These leaders have come to love their position more than the people they serve. And when you begin to enjoy power for its own sake, then the inevitable consequence is that others suffer.
Listen to what Micah goes on to say in chapter 7, verse 3: Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire – they all conspire together. That’s a striking expression the powerful dictate what they desire but isn’t that exactly what we see happening in the world around us? Men and women using their authority to get exactly what they want, without any thought for anyone else. Micah could just as easily have been talking about governments or organisations today, or even the church.
After all, let’s not forget that Micah’s words were addressed to those who thought they were the Lord’s people, people who assumed that, so long as they followed the right forms of worship, the Lord would be pleased with them and they would be kept safe. Micah’s message to them in verse 4, however, is clear:
Then they will cry out to the Lord, but he will not answer them. At that time he will hide his face from them because of the evil they have done.
One day disaster will strike and at that point all this false religion will be seen for what it is – totally and utterly useless. But again, if you are tempted to think this is just a message for the folk way back then, then I would urge you to think again. Because sadly there are too many people today who have what I would call a “fire alarm faith”. They keep the Lord in a little box on the wall in case of emergencies. They call themselves Christians but they don’t allow any element of faith to influence how they live. They believe that when trouble comes they can break the glass and call upon the Lord, and He will turn up to deal with the situation.
Now if that in any way describes your faith, then Micah’s words are addressed to you. If you don’t bother to listen to the Lord day by day, if you don’t let Him affect what goes on from Monday to Saturday, what right have you to presume He will listen to you when the chips are down? As John the Baptist says to the Pharisees in the gospel reading: produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:9). In other words, don’t just talk the talk about your faith, walk the walk as well. Otherwise, one day you may find yourselves in big trouble, and you may not get the help you were expecting.
Of course, Micah’s message begs the obvious question, where were the vicars and the bishops of his day? Why weren’t they speaking out about the injustice in society and the falseness of religion?
The answer comes when we move on to verse 5:
This is what the Lord says: “As for the prophets who lead my people astray, if one feeds them, they proclaim ‘peace’; if he does not, they prepare to wage war against him.
Quite simply, the prophets had become part of the institution. They saw their role as giving people the message they wanted to hear. The leaders and the rulers wanted a message of peace so that is what they gave them, and they expected to be handsomely rewarded as a result. They did speak out from time to time, but only when that reward was less when they were expected, when they weren’t receiving the privileges they thought were due to them.
Now again I expect none of the prophets deliberately set out to give a false message, but then: isn’t it easier to give a message that others want to hear? To provide reassurance and comfort, rather than to confront and to challenge? The trouble is, once you have started to say what you think that person wants, it becomes a hard habit to break. You get a reputation for being nice, and for being a good listener, but really all that means is that you never offend anyone, never call anyone to faith and repentance.
And the end result is that your relationship with the Lord dies. Listen to verses 6 and 7:
Therefore night will come over you, without visions, and darkness, without divination. The sun will set for the prophets, and the day will go dark for them. The seers will be ashamed and the diviners disgraced. They will all cover their faces because there is no answer from God.
Without a real relationship with the Lord, there is no revelation, no insight into God’s plans and purposes. And I find Micah’s words a frightening illustration of the fact it is perfectly possible to apparently have a good and godly ministry, to give the impression of being a fine preacher or prophet, and yet never to know the Lord about whom you so confidently claim to speak.
Some of you may know the story of John Wesley’s conversion. In a famous passage from his journal he tells us that: About a quarter before nine… I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. What is less well known about his conversion was that John Wesley had already been in ministry for some years. He had come back from serving as a missionary in America, disillusioned by his lack of success.
And John Wesley’s story is not unusual. Over the years I have heard several stories of ministers who were converted after being in post for quite some time. I don’t know how you pray for me, but please pray that I would continue to know the Lord, and would continue to want to know the Lord more and more each day. And to the extent that we are all priests in the household of God, let’s make that our prayer for each and every one of us. Let none of us claim we know the Lord when in fact we do not. Let none of us aim to please other people more than God, or to proclaim peace when there is no peace. And let all of us consider how we can be more like the prophet Micah and follow his example.
So what it is that makes Micah’s ministry different from all the other prophets?
The answer comes in verse 8:
But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.
Micah was someone in a right relationship with the Lord. He knew that he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit. And the proof that the Holy Spirit was at work in his life was not in supernatural gifts or spectacular works. It was in an assurance that the words that He was speaking came from the Lord. His role was to confront God’s people with God’s word, and to speak the message they needed to hear.
And to that extent Micah was the forerunner of John the Baptist who as we heard in our gospel reading called those who came to him to take practical action in readiness for the coming of the Lord. He was also the forerunner of Jesus Himself who, when He began His public ministry proclaimed: The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15).
Micah’s message was no doubt deeply, deeply unpopular. He pointed out all that was wrong in the society and religious institutions of his day. Verse 11: Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. He exposed how false and worthless was all the worship and ritual in the temple. Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us.” And he did not flinch from giving an uncompromising message of impending disaster.
And yet…despite all that, we actually know Micah’s message was listened to and acted upon. How? Well, jump forward about 150 years or so to the time of Jeremiah and the events of chapter 26 in that book. Like Micah, Jeremiah was someone who spoke against the leaders and prophets of his day. He exposed the falseness of their worship and brought a message of disaster. By the time we reach chapter 26 the people have had enough of his message. They have seized Jeremiah and decided he should be sentenced to death. But this decision is not unanimous.
Let’s pick up the story at verse 17:
17 Some of the elders of the land stepped forward and said to the entire assembly of people, 18 “Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “‘Zion will be ploughed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.’ 19 “Did Hezekiah king of Judah or anyone else in Judah put him to death? Did not Hezekiah fear the Lord and seek his favour? And did not the Lord relent, so that he did not bring the disaster he pronounced against them? We are about to bring a terrible disaster on ourselves!”
Micah was filled with the Holy Spirit of God. He spoke the truth, and the people responded. As for what happened to Jeremiah, well, I’ve leave you to find out for yourself. But the point I want to leave with you is this. Micah dared to be different. He did not give the message that other people wanted to hear. He was prepared to stand up for justice and goodness. And through his courageous witness the life of the whole nation was changed.
Is there not a lesson here for our own day? I believe too often the church has acted as an institution proclaiming peace when really there is no peace. We have not spoken out in the power of the Spirit to challenge and confront in accordance with God’s word. And then we complain that the church today seems so weak and ineffective.
This Christmas time many will hear a sweet little tale of a baby born in a manger, and sing all too familiar songs about stars and angels, and shepherds watching their flocks. Dare we, I wonder, tell people the truth about the birth of Jesus? Will we show in our own lives how practical and relevant is that message to our day? In short, will we allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit and point others to their need of a Saviour? Because it seems to me that only in that way will we, like Micah, be able to touch the nation with the good news of the Messiah.