Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12
Do you ever wonder what God wants from you? In a world where it’s hard enough figuring out what those around us want—those whose voices we can clearly hear, whose faces we can see, whose body language we can read—it can feel overwhelming to try and figure out what God—whose voice we can’t hear, whose eyes we can’t look into, who has no body language for us to read—wants. Who among us hasn’t faced the spiritual dilemma of trying to figure out what God wants from us or what God would have us do?
There is hardly a more famous prophetic quotation from the Hebrew Bible than Micah 6:8. Here at Pullen we have claimed it as our touchstone, practically refusing any other guiding mission statement. You can find it printed on most of our publications. We sing it in our worship services. We quote it in our prayers. Indeed, the words of the prophet have guided us, shaped us, and inspired us throughout our history. For a church committed to social justice—of befriending the poor and fighting injustice—we have looked no further than the prophets’ words to tell us what it is that God wants from us. Doing justice is what we are about. Loving kindness is our deep desire. And walking humbly with God is our greatest hope. We have not only taken seriously the question, “What does God want from us?” we have also tried our best to live out the answer that the prophet Micah gives. Micah 6:8 gives us a very specific answer to the question, “What does God want from us?” To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God is the answer. But I am wondering that if we read Micah 6:8 in the context of the Micah 6:1-8 if there is not a more basic or fundamental answer to this question of what God wants from us.
I talk to people all the time who are asking the question, “What does God want from me?” Sometimes it is in the form of trying to figure out a relationship. Sometimes the question is being asked in the context of vocation or calling. Other times, it is just a wide open question. God knows, I have asked the question a million times. Frustrated, tired, empty, scared, unsure, longing, and lost I have cried out many a night pleading with God to just tell me what God wants me to do. “Oh, God, please, tell me what to do.”
As I re-read the Micah text this week, I had an “ah-ha” moment. You know, one of the mistakes we often make in reading the Bible is that we fail to read what comes before or after a particular passage of scripture. It is easy to get so focused on one verse that we fail to put it into the larger context in which it is speaking. I’m fearful that we have done that with Micah 6:8. I am afraid that we have lost the context in which the people asked the question, “What does God want from us?” and therefore we have misinterpreted the answer. Let me explain what I mean.
As we approach Micah, chapter 6, things are not going well for the people of Israel. Micah, God’s prophet, has been proclaiming to them God’s judgment. His language is especially sharp and pointed, particularly when it comes to the injustices of Israel’s cities. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, he says will be made “a heap in the open country” because it is filled with “images and idols.” But idolatry is not Israel’s only problem. These “pampered children” have “devised wickedness and evil deeds on their beds,” wrongdoing that includes the coveting and the taking of the fields of others. And to top it all off, those who preach—the leaders—continue to refute the warnings of the prophet saying, “disgrace will not overtake us.” On and on Micah rails at the blatant injustices of the smug leaders of the cities of Israel. Sound familiar? Any similarities to our day?
Finally, as Micah’s frustration builds, he imagines a gigantic courtroom where the misguided leaders of Israel find themselves arraigned for their crimes. The Hebrew word translated “plead your case” is rib, a word always used in the context of the court. So, picture the scene. The bailiffs escort, perhaps rather roughly, the defendant, Israel, into the room. Its hands are bound, its feet shackled, as it shuffles up to the box. On Israel’s left is the jury, and a most peculiar one it is. Sitting in the jury box are the vast mountains of the earth, the hills that have stood the test of time. Once everyone is in place, God turns to the jury and proclaims, “I, God, have a case against my people.” God speaks with a powerful anguish. “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” In a divine self-accusation God first wonders just what God has done to bring about the injustices of Israel. However, we learn quickly that it is by no fault of God that Israel has gone bad.
God reminds the people, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery.” From there, the history lesson continues. “I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam”—Moses, the lawgiver and leader, Aaron, the spokesperson before Pharaoh, and Miriam, the song leader and dancer, celebrating the mysterious victory at the Sea of Reeds. In these three people the wonder and power of God’s gift of the exodus from Egypt, the leaving, the surviving, and the celebration is summarized. The historical memory concludes in verse five with reference to the story of the deceptive schemes of Balak of Moab. God pleads for Israel to remember all these “saving and redeeming acts of God.” Have any of these deeds led you to do the injustices you have done in my land?, asks God. How could any people experience such acts of grace and then become what you have become? Or in our own imagined courtrooms, how could we have messed things up so badly? How could we have been so stupid? How could we have gotten it all wrong?
Silence falls over the courtroom as Israel, the defendant, prepares to speak. She begins, not by admitting guilt nor asking for forgiveness. She merely wants a way out; she wants to know what God needs to “get” in order for her to be excused. Perhaps our worship is wrong, she begins. Perhaps we have not been serious enough in our acts of praise. “What do you want from us God?” Burnt offerings, year-old calves, thousands of rams, tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Not enough? Not serious enough? Then, how about my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my life? How familiar does this sound? God, what do you want from me? Maybe I could volunteer one more day a week. Maybe I could work harder and make more money so I could give more. Like Israel, we get caught in wrong thinking asking what can we do more of or what can we give more of.
It turns out that God cares for none of these. No, what God wants from us is our devotion, our love, our compassion, and our attention. What God wants from us is not so much our doing as our being. What God wants of us is for us to know that we are loved by God, that we are enough just as we are, and that God’s deepest desire is for us to be in relationship with God. It really isn’t about what we do or how much we do. It really isn’t about getting it right all the time or even about always doing what is right. What God wants from us is for us to recognize that God is already present, dwelling within us. Richard Rohr says it this way, “You cannot search for what you already have. You cannot talk God into ‘coming’ into you…all you can do is become quieter, smaller, and less filled with your own self and its flurry of ideas and feelings. Then God will be obvious in the very now of things.” This is what Micah 6:8 is about first and foremost – it is about God pleading with us to live in God’s love, and trust that out of that place of love, we are justice, we are mercy, and we are humility. If we get God’s love, if we have the courage and the guts to accept that love, and put down our ego stories of virtues and sins, and most difficult of all, our checklist of redemptive acts; if we can just know and trust God’s love, then we will, by our very being, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
The lectionary pairs this Micah passage with the Beatitudes in Matthew. The lectionary lunch group wondered out loud this week what might be the connection between these two texts. Here’s what I think it is. A beatitude is a blessing or announcement of God’s favor. In the context of the Hebrew scripture, beatitudes can be translated “Happy are those who” or “How fortunate are those who.” In the New Testament, however, it is more appropriate to translate Jesus’ words as an indication of God’s intention, both present and future, of blessing those named. What I mean by this is that when Jesus says, “Blessed are…” he is saying, God has already blessed, and will continue to favor. This is important because it reverses our instinct to turn the Beatitudes into “if/then” statements. If I do this, then I will get a blessing. Instead, it is Jesus saying, these blessings are already bestowed, they already exist. As Fred Craddock has noted, “If the blessings were only for the deserving, very likely they would be stated at the end of the sermon, probably prefaced with the conditional clause, ‘If you have done all these things.’ But appearing at the beginning, they say that God’s blessing precedes all our endeavors. In fact, all our efforts at kingdom living are in response to divine grace, motivated by ‘because of,’ not‘in order to.’” And yet, we have traditionally turned the Beatitudes into a checklist because, in Craddock’s words, “It is more difficult to hear and receive a blessing than to attempt to achieve one.”
In a world where achievement is our identity, in a world that tells us we have to earn our blessings, in a world that makes us feel like we have to do more, that we are not enough, that at our basic core something is wrong with us, that what we do is never enough, both Micah and Jesus proclaim an alternative and radical truth, “Because of God’s grace and by God’s grace, YOU are enough.” Rather than attempting to achieve God’s blessing, maybe for once we could just simply hear and receive God’s blessing. YOU are enough! Blessed are you!Like the Beatitudes, Micah 6:8 is more of a blessing than a mandate. Micah 6:8 is God’s blessing of divine grace motivated by “because of” not “in order to.” Both the Beatitudes and Micah 6:8 are God’s attempt to tell each of us, “YOU are enough.”
Sit with that for a minute. Take it in. And imagine, what might you be able to offer another, if you truly believed you were enough. What kind of forgiveness and justice might you be able to offer? What depth of mercy and kindness? Maybe if we believed we were enough, then justice and kindness would freely flow from us.