He has told you, O Mortals, 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. Micah 6:8
My text this morning is one of the high water marks of the Old Testament. The problem is that Micah’s words may be so familiar that repeating them leaves us unmoved and uninspired. In Martin Luther King’s sermon notebook, he counseled against ever letting that happen. King called Micah’s description of the will of God as among the most sublime “in the whole history of religion.”
We don’t know much about the prophet Micah. We do know, however, that at some point in his life he left his small village in ancient Judea to take a blistering prophetic message to the capital city of Jerusalem. He spoke of the judgment of God on a nation that was in the midst of a deep spiritual and moral crisis. Micah was outraged that judges ask for a bribe; that merchants cheat their customers; that the wealthy steal the land of poor farmers; that widows are expelled from their homes; and that lies are the standard form of communication. All the while, the political and religious rulers try to cover over their greed and exploitation by sanctimonious words and showy religious rituals.
Against all this rot in personal and public life, Micah thundered: the Lord has told you what is good: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah, you see, had a concern about the soul of his nation. If we are honest with ourselves, his words awaken in us today a concern about the soul of our own nation.
In my thoughts on this text this morning, I want to emphasize first of all that Micah’s famous words begin with good news. This may sound surprising. Isn’t this a text about what God requires of us? Yes, there are unmistakable commands of God in Micah’s declaration. And yes, there are warnings of a divine judgment to come if those commands are ignored. But what I want us to hear first of all is the good news in this text that precedes and forms the basis of the commands and the warnings. And the good news is this: God has told you, O people, what is good. God has shown you, O people, in word and in deed, the goodness of God and provided you with the standards that are to guide your life in response to God’s goodness.
This is the pattern of the biblical story from beginning to end: it proclaims first of all the grace of God, and then it summons us to live in a way that befits that grace. The Bible is not first and foremost all about duties, requirements, and obligations. It’s not first and foremost about laws to be obeyed: do this, do that; don’t to this, don’t do that. The Bible always tells us first and foremost about the goodness of God, the undeserved gift of God, the amazing grace of God, the jaw dropping gift of God’s forgiveness. The summons to respond to this gift comes after the gift is given. And when the gift is truly received, it motivates us to respond with joy.
As the apostle John writes: We love because God first loved us. Because we have been given a great gift, there is for us no longer a maddening mystery about what kind of God we have to do with. God has shown us God’s goodness, and calls us to bear witness to God’s goodness in our lives and in our relationships with others.
Well, where has God shown us what is good? There are several answers to this question. First, God has shown us what is good and what God requires of us by creating us in God’s own image. That means God has etched a fragment of the knowledge of God’s will in the soul of every human being. Call it conscience; call it a fragile moral sensitivity. Every human being, who has not entirely lost his humanity, knows there is a difference between good and evil, between justice and injustice, between cruelty and kindness, between arrogance and humility. Tragically, in the sin that afflicts all of us, we may and often do blur or even deny the difference between these lines. But in the depths of every human soul, we are reminded that there is a line. At some level of our being, we feel shame, or at least are made uneasy, when we cross that line. We know that torture is wrong, and when we engage in torture for whatever reason, we violate not only the person we torture but we violate our own humanity created in the image of God. We know that coerced separation of a child from its parents is wrong, and when we engage in or condone such acts we violate not only the children and parents involved, but also degrade and defile our own humanity. That human beings, created in God’s own image, have some intimations that they are morally accountable, is good news. God has told us, God has blessed us with a mark of God’s presence and God’s will in the depths of our soul, and we disregard this fact at the peril of losing our humanity.
But second, God has shown us what is good in an even more explicit way than in the stirring of our conscience. God has manifested his goodness in the ten commandments given to Moses and through Moses to all people. Micah is surely thinking of these commandments when he declares: God has told you, o people, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. These commandments form the moral constitution of God’s chosen people. But we must never forget the preamble to the ten commandments: “I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Which is to say, “I have been gracious to you, O my people. I have blessed you; I have liberated you from injustice and cruelty and the arrogant abuse of power.” It is in the light of this good news of what God has done to free God’s people that they are now called to obey God’s directives for the kind of life God expects of them. We have been told in the ten commandments--written in stone--that there is a world of a difference between murdering a fellow human being and offering a helping hand to someone in need. We have been told in these commandments--written in stone--that there is a world of a difference between lying and telling the truth, that when for whatever reason we slander and bear false witness against others, we betray the God who has shown us God’s goodness, and we violate the moral order of the universe as ordained by God.
So what our conscience may only intimate, the ten commandments make explicit. God has shown us God’s goodness and God’s will in words and in actions. We not left in the dark about whether in God’s eyes there is a difference between justice and injustice.
We are not left to wander aimlessly through the world asking whether there is really a difference between cruelty and kindness. We are not abandoned to the haunting fear that, if there is a God, he sees no real difference between the arrogant and self-serving use of power and the humble sharing of life and love with others. No, God has made plain to us what is good, and that is good news.
But now in the third place, and most importantly, we who are Christians read Micah’s prophetic words in the light of Jesus Christ. He is God’s supreme gift to us and the supreme embodiment of God’s will. In Jesus, God has shown us the goodness of God in human form. He has lived out the goodness of God and offered his life as a gift that by the power of his Spirit brings into being a new humanity marked by justice and kindness and humility. In the ministry of Jesus, in his healing the sick, in his solidarity with the poor, in his blessing of the children, in his forgiveness of sins, in his message of God’s coming kingdom, in his struggle against those who distort religion, in his opposition to those who exploit their power for their own gain, and supremely in his death and resurrection—Jesus has shown us and continues to show us once and for all what is good. The gift of Jesus, above all, is very good news.
So, it is in the light of the moral conscience God has etched on the soul of every one of us; it is in the light of the commandments God has given to Moses and the children of Israel and through them to all people; and supremely it is in the light of Jesus Christ, that we this morning hear the words of Micah: God has told us, O my people, what is good and what does the goodness of the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.
To do justice. Notice the requirement is not that we are asked simply to think about or talk about justice. It is not that we should simply read books about justice. All that may be helpful. But mere talk of justice and mere debates about various theories of justice doesn’t meet God’s requirement. God’s command is that in light of what he has shown us and done for us all, we are to do justice. And what does doing justice look like? Jesus does justice in feeding the hungry. Jesus does justice by bringing hope to the poor. Jesus does justice by proclaiming the liberation of the oppressed. Jesus does justice by attending to the needs of the lame and the sick. And Jesus sums up what doing justice means in the golden rule: in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.
If we follow the justice-doing of Jesus, doing justice involves living and acting in recognition of the God-given worth of other people, whoever they are, and wherever they come from, rather than ignoring or demeaning them. Doing justice involves supporting and working for the common good rather than simply looking out for ourselves. Building walls and turning away needy people may make us feel safer and stronger, but it is not doing justice. Refusing to make health insurance available to people who have medical preconditions may save insurance companies bundles of money, but it is not doing justice. Injustice tears people apart. Doing justice brings people together. Injustice is like a cancer in the body politic. Doing justice is like a healing medication. Injustice creates despair; doing justice builds hope. Injustice brings endless conflict between people. Doing justice builds what Martin Luther King called the beloved community.
We cannot pretend: doing justice is seldom easy; it sometimes exacts a heavy price. But the price of injustice is far, far greater. For both the victim of injustice and the perpetrator of injustice, the cost is the degrading of our humanity as created and loved by God.
The good that God has shown us calls us also to love kindness. Notice again that the command is not that we simply feel kindly toward others. Now to be sure, it is better to feel kindly toward others than to harbor resentment and be hostile toward them. But the command asks for more: it’s not that we are asked simply to feel kindly toward others, or simply to praise an act of kindness displayed by someone else. We are called to be kind; indeed, we are called to love kindness, to be so moved by the spirit of kindness—which is God’s Spirit bearing witness to our spirit--that it shows itself in our everyday life in our relationships with others. You remember the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the priest and the Levite pass by the victim of a robbery on the road to Jericho. Who knows? They may have felt kindly toward the poor man, they may have had pity on him; they may have wished him better luck in the future as they passed by on the other side. What is certain is that they did not love kindness. The Good Samaritan stopped and helped the man because his kindness moved him to minister lovingly to the wounded man on the road. This past week, the world was given a modern parable of kindness in the actions of the Thai seal divers who worked to rescue the twelve Thai boys lost in a cave. A cynic might say: Well they were trained to undertake this sort of mission. It was their job. That may be partly true, but even so, undertaking that mission wasn’t something they were compelled to do, and it wasn’t a slam dunk. It was an extremely dangerous mission, and as you know, one of the divers lost his life.
It’s an understatement to say that in our society today we are moving further and further away from the love of kindness in our dealings with one another and especially with strangers or people who are different from us. There’s road rage on our highways; there’s gun violence in our malls and schools and churches; there are persons in high public office who regularly slander and vilify their opponents. And so the word of Micah hits home, and its message it this: A person, or community, or nation that dismisses the doing of justice as a threat to its freedom and safety is in danger of losing its soul; and likewise, a person, or community, or nation that scoffs at the love of kindness as a fairy tale told by weak and sentimental people and chooses instead to show indifference or outright cruelty toward the stranger, the vulnerable, and the weak is in danger of losing their God given humanity. Micah spoke truth to power, and the truth is that God has shown us what is good and has called us in our personal relationships and in our social institutions to cherish and to build up our life together by acts of compassion and kindness.
There’s one more command in Micah’s declaration. I think it brings us to the heart of the matter. The good that God has shown us comes to full flower in our personal and common life by walking in humility with God. Now for a final time, we have to pay close attention here. Everything depends on who or what is the God with whom we walk. Is it the God of success? Is it the God of winning, always winning, while pitying the poor losers of the world, as though the ultimate meaning of life is taking home the pot of money after a poker game?
Is it the God of being first, no matter how many people we have to trample over to get to the goal line before they do? Or…. is the great God with whom we walk majestically humble?
Now humility, as the Bible understands it, is not the same as being a doormat. Jesus was humble, but he wasn’t a doormat; he stood up to the religious hierarchy and the money changers when he cleansed the temple. Jesus was humble, but being humble before God; he stood tall against Pilate, the representative of the all-powerful Roman Empire. Mahatma Gandhi was humble, but he wasn’t a doormat; embracing non-violent resistance, he was a rock of opposition to the entire British Empire, and shamed it to its knees. Rosa Parks was a humble woman, but she wasn’t a doormat; she wasn’t about to sit in the rear of the bus when there were empty seats in front.
The humility Micah is talking about is not sheepishness in face of abusive power. We are called to walk humbly with our God who reigns from a cross. The humble person is one who knows that God is majestically humble. As believers in this God, we do not aspire to be a mimic of some arrogant and vindictive God. Arrogance is the opposite of the humility of God. Arrogance is essentially wanting to be like a god who is not the true God but a sorry image of our sinful self. Whether it is in our relationships with our family, or with our fellow workers; whether we happen to be the mayor of a city, or the governor of a state, or the president of a country, arrogance leads only to self-delusion and misery. Walking humbly with our God means letting the majestically humble God be God. This is the great secret of the abiding courage of those who stand up for justice and truth and kindness in personal and political life.
We walk humbly with God in the presence of Jesus who humbled himself for the salvation of the world.
In Jesus Christ, God shows us God’s justice. In Jesus Christ God shows us God’s love of kindness. And in Jesus Christ God shows us God’s humility. Sincere recognition of the humility of God spells the end of all human arrogance, all abuse of power, all proud refusals to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. My friends, Micah spoke truth to power in his day, and we all know, if we are honest with God and with ourselves, that we personally, and our nation collectively, needs to hear this truth spoken to power today. God has told us what is good: to do justice, to love kindness, and at the heart of it all, to walk humbly with God, as followers of the humble God. Amen.