A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
Primary Text: Matthew 17:1-9
The Olympics are just winding up, and most of those world class competitors are going home disappointed. It takes an amazing amount of drive to reach that level. They all want to win, but the inescapable math of moment means most of them won’t. Lots of competitors, only three medals, only one gold.
Did you know that bronze winners are measurably happier than silver? You can see it in their faces. The bronze winners are thinking “Whoo hoo! I got a medal!” The silvers are thinking, “Could’ve had a gold.” Mathematically, it makes no sense, but in our heads third feels better than second. How we think about it changes how we experience it.
Today we celebrate mountaintop experiences through the lens of the Transfiguration. If you grew up in church, you’ve heard this story before. How Jesus took his closest friends up a mountain, and in an instant their whole perspective changed. We tell it every year because it happens to all of us. Not the shining person on a mountaintop thing, the perspective shift.
Maybe it was the day you found out you were pregnant. Maybe it was “I do.” Maybe it was graduation, or your first kiss, or the day you retired. Maybe it was the first day you realized that life has hard limits, not just in general, but for you. Thankfully, others have walked this path before us. We don’t have to walk away from the great moments of our life feeling like losers.
The first thing to know about mountaintop experiences is we are not in control. Moses was called up the mountain by God. Jesus invited the disciples to join him. The call always comes first. Moses could have climbed the mountain any day he wanted, the disciples climbed plenty of mountains in their lives. It only became a moment worthy of scripture because God invited them. First we listen. Then we move.
Christianity recognizes God as a Trinity, which means God is not just the unknowable other, God is not just an amazing teacher, but God is present, guiding our hearts and opening our minds, resonating in the stillness of prayer. Because we believe this, we search for the echoes of that voice in the distilled wisdom of tradition, in the ancient words of scripture, and in honest fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Not to abdicate our individual agency, but to exercise wisdom worthy of the responsibility.
You have been invited to the mountaintop because God sees something in you that you don’t yet see yourself. And even though you don’t always understand, and sometimes you make mistakes, none of that matters. God called you. God knows you. God loves you. When we accept that, accept that we’re not in charge and that’s OK, it frees us to respond joyfully.
Second thing to learn about mountaintop experiences. The rest of the world will not understand. Did you see that American figure skater fall? His name is Jeremy Abbott. He took a brutal fall. Then he got up, skated through pain, and scored a personal best. He didn’t medal, but he walked off with his head held high. And when some folks online started making fun of him, saying that he choked, he had this to say:
“They’ve never had to do what I had to do. Nobody has to stand center ice before a million people and put an entire career on the line for eight minutes of their life when they’ve been doing it for 20-some years. And if you don’t think that that’s hard, you’re a damn idiot.”
“So some people can handle it better than others, but everyone has that mental struggle, everyone goes through the same doubts. I am not alone. They just come at different times and different moments. Some people have their moment at the Olympics, and some have theirs at the national championships.”
“I’m proud to be standing here. I’m a four-time national champion and a two-time Olympian, and no one can take that away from me. So whatever people have to say about me, that’s their own problem because I’m freaking proud of what I’ve done and I’m not going to apologize for any of it.”
When you answer the call, to become what you believe God is calling to you to be, the people around you will not get it. They just won’t. The other disciples didn’t understand. And the people Moses left behind? “Oh look, he’s off to talk to God, face to face. He’s been gone a long time though. I know. How about we make a giant golden idol and throw a party!?” Because that always works out well. He’s up on the mountain talking to God. Did you think he wouldn’t notice?
Expect that people won’t get it. They weren’t there. They didn’t see what you saw. They didn’t hear what you heard. That experience changed you, and you can spend the rest of your life pretending like you’re still who you used to be, limiting yourself to everyone else’s expectations, or you can live your life. At the end of days, only one person will have to answer for the life you built and the world you made. [whisper] It’s not them!
The third thing to know about mountaintop experiences is that you cannot live there. Peter’s reaction is so amazingly textbook. “Lord, let’s build three shelters. One for you. One for Moses. One for Elijah.” Let’s capture this moment and keep it… or share it! Imagine if we could bring everyone else up here. It would change everything! The whole world could come and consult Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for advice. Wouldn’t that be great?
It would be great, except that dream is infinitely too small. The Transfiguration was never about giving advice to a tiny corner of the world. It was about giving Jesus and the disciples what they would need to persevere, through a work so difficult and so important that we’re still talking about it 2000 years later. Their work didn’t actually start until they came down off the mountain. That’s where the water flows. That’s where the cities rise. That’s where life is lived.
If you stay on the mountain, you never change anything! A wedding is not a marriage. A funeral is not grief. Graduation is not a career, regret is not reform, and baptism is not faith. Life starts after you come down from the mountain top, and step into the dirt.
But even though you can’t stay there, you can bring something with you. Moses brought the Law, and it changed his people. The disciples came back with no physical thing they could hold, but with an idea. It was the slowly dawning realization of what would become a fundamental article of the Christianity faith. The core claim of Christianity, consistent for 2000 years, is nothing more or less than this: when you look at Jesus, you see God as God truly is.
It’s an idea that was born on a mountaintop, but it didn’t stay there. It means there’s no difference between the Son of Man walking in the dirt and the Son of God shining on that mountain. It means the light isn’t shining down from above, it’s standing right here next to us in the dirt, and it’s shining out into the night.
We do not have the privilege of a quiet, personal religion, because we do not follow a quiet, personal God. We follow a superstar who shines at us from a mountaintop two thousand years in the past. Then the light went out, he came down from the mountaintop and shone all the brighter. Friend of sinners, breaker of chains, and healer of harms. We are his hands and his feet and this world, and our playing small helps no one.
Answer the call. Expect opposition. Accept how you’ve changed, and then take it out into the world. Even when you fall, you can hold your head high, because your life is not defined by one day, or one choice. Life happens in the valley.
Primary Text: Leviticus 19
We’ve all heard the phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Very good advice. Unfortunately, the next line is usually, “And it’s all small stuff.”
If it’s all small stuff, then so is the phrase, “it’s all small stuff”, which makes the entire thing a big meaningless loop of stupidity. The only reason we can ignore the small stuff is because there is big stuff.
Like truth. A truth that exists beyond our mind. A truth that we can touch but never fully grasp. A truth we can approach, but never own.
Or justice. A justice that gives us purpose, pushing us beyond ourselves and our family, beyond our town or our nation, beyond our culture or class.
Like love. A love that resonates with the pain of the broken and sings that pain into the community, so that together we can grieve, and together we can heal.
Or choice. The freedom to learn from our mistakes. The difference between a God of wrath and a God of mercy, between a warning and a threat.
These things matter. And today it’s my job to wrap all of it up in a box with a cute little bow. Make it simple. Make it clear.
There’s only one problem.
It’s not simple.
If it were, we wouldn’t need a book, and a cross, and two thousand years of preaching to figure it out… But I’ll do what I can. :)
This is as simple as I can make it. You ready?
Our reading from Leviticus features a refrain. Did you notice? Look back at Leviticus 19. Find the single sentence that repeats, again and again, through the chapter.
“I am the Lord your God.”
Last week, I told you we can read the whole Bible as a warning or as a threat. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. It’s the part we focus on, because it’s the part about us, but it’s not the whole story. This right here, this sentence is the story.
“I am the Lord your God.”
All of scripture in one sentence.
Ok? Ok! Glad that’s done. Our hymn of response is #418, Take Time to be Holy…
What? You want more?
Exactly. That’s why it’s not simple. You can break the whole book down into one sentence and you’re still left with questions.
“I am.” Who is? What does that even mean?
“I am the Lord.” What kind? And who asked for one?
“I am the Lord your God.” Whose? Mine? Ours? Theirs?
That’s what the rest of the book is for, to take that one sentence and expand it. The entire Bible, from beginning to end is God’s self-revelation. Or let me put a finer point on that. The entire Bible, from beginning to end, is the human record of our progressively dawning acceptance of God’s self-revelation.
“I am the Lord your God.”
Look at Leviticus 19. This is who God is. Respect your parents. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Blah blah blah. We’ve heard it before, right? Don’t be a jerk. That’s what everyone says this book is about. Just don’t be a jerk and you’ll be fine.
Ok, then explain to me verses 5. “When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up.” What in the world does that have to do with not being a jerk?
The first thing you have to know is, this was an optional sacrifice. The second is that it was the only time you were allowed to eat meat. If you killed an ox, a lamb or a goat, you made this sacrifice. The fat went to God, one leg and the breast went to the priests, and the rest went home with you.
And you weren’t allowed to keep it more than two days.
Do you get it?
How many of you can eat a three quarters of a cow in two days? How about a sheep? Maybe a goat, like if it was a runty little ones that faint when you scare them, but even that’s a stretch. You only have two days. Anything left on day three has to burn. So what do you do?
You share. Why? Because, “I’m the Lord your God.”
Look at verse 9. “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner…”
Do you get it? You don’t squeeze every ounce of profit from your enterprise. You don’t put up gates and fences to keep all the people away. And you sure don’t dump your surplus fruit on the ground and let it rot to drive up the price.
Or look at it the other way. Do you take all your effort and profit and turn it over to the priests and let them distribute it evenly? Do you let the whole world pick over your crops and then take whatever they happen to leave behind? No. You run your business well, and you intentionally leave some slack so that people with gumption can get out there, do some work, and get enough food to get by.
It’s not communism and it’s not capitalism. It’s not Republican. It’s not Democrat. It’s personal, and respectful. It’s empowering for both sides and it works best in a small town where people know each other. But we don’t like this solution. It’s a loss for us and a hassle for them. We don’t want this answer. So why should we do it? Because, “I am the Lord your God.”
Verse 13 “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.”
Do you get it? You can cuss out a deaf guy. He’ll never know. You can trip a blind guy. What’s he gonna do? Go down to any Home Depot next summer and ask the day laborers how often they get stiffed after they finish a job. There are systematic differences built into the world. There are power imbalances that make it possible, that make it easy, to take advantage of people. Not for you. Why?
“I am the Lord your God.”
Don’t favor the poor, or be partial to the rich. Be fair. Don’t judge each other, warn each other. Love your neighbor as yourself. Give people the same second chance you want for yourself. Don’t just avoid evil yourself. Build good in the world. Why?
“I am the Lord your God.”
This is not God beating up on you, or laying impossible demands on you. This is God being who God is. This is God teaching us who God is, as far as we can grasp it. And because the Lord is our God, this is God shaping who we are, as far as we can stand it.
Which explains verse 20. “If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord.”
These verses horrify us, and they should. The ideas that some guy could rape a slave and make it all OK by killing a ram should make us sick. But before you walk away, show me the place in there where the slave gets punished or killed, which is what would have happened, what still happens to slaves today.
You can’t find the part where she’s punished, because this law places the blame exactly where it belongs, with the one who had the power. This law exists to protect the woman who didn’t even have a choice.
Remember. I didn’t say this is the literal, inerrant, verbally inspired word of God. It is the word of God as written by human fingers. It is the voice of God as heard by human ears. It is the dream of God for what this world could be as glimpsed by human minds. Thank God those minds are still growing.
Each verse, each progressing chapter says, “This is as much of God’s truth and justice, love and choice as a human mind was able to hold on the day these words were written.”
Wait a second, doesn’t that put us in a position to judge scripture? What’s to keep people from just picking the verses they like and leaving all the rest?
This book is not the ultimate self-revelation of God. The second person of the trinity is the ultimate self-revelation of God, as stated in the prologue of John, and confirmed in Nicene Creed, he is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father,” He is the ultimate revelation of God.
Every time we read the phrase, “I am the Lord your God.” What we’re really reading is the name of Jesus written across centuries in progressively clearer letters. Every day more truth. Every day more justice. Every day more love. Every day more freely responsible choice, because that is who God is.
There you have the whole book from beginning to end, as simple as I know how to make it. That is as much of God’s truth and justice, love and choice as a my human mind was able to hold on the day these words were written.
Ask me again tomorrow. :)
Primary Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
We’re approaching the end of our winter series, “Do Sweat the Big Stuff”, but I have to warn you. For some of you, this is going to be the most frustrating sermon in the whole series. For others though, it’s going to be the most useful. Just as this scripture offers a choice, today I’m offering you one too.
Did anyone here grow up with something hot in their house? A stove? An oven? Something like that? How many of you were warned not to touch it? What were the exact words? Do you remember? “Don’t touch that. If you touch that, you’re going to get hurt.” How many of you heard that warning more than once? Ok, now for the fun part. How many of you touched it anyway?
Take it up a level. What about money, and planning for your future? What rules of thumb did your parents or your teachers try to teach you about money? Save more than you spend. Buy low, sell high. Balance your checkbook. And by show of hands how many of you went out there, did exactly what you were told and now you’re all millionaires? No? You tried it your way, you made some mistakes and you learned.
Take it up a level. What about relationships: friendships, and significant others. Anyone give you advice about that? Don’t change who you are just to be with someone. Don’t stay in abusive relationships. If you’re out on a blind date, watch how they treat the staff, or kids, or animals. Keep your pants on and take it slow. And how many of you followed that advice, found the love of your life straight out of the gate, and lived happily ever after?
Are you getting the pattern here? What if we take it up another level? Finding your place in the world, becoming your best self? The world is overflowing with advice about how to live life well, which only serves to reinforce the point. We don’t follow advice.
We listen to it, go make our mistakes, and if we’re lucky, we learn.
It’s no accident that everyone in the room shares some kind of hot stove memory. Learning the hard way is the fastest way to learn. Everyone knows this, but we don’t stop to think about why. Break the story down. You get the warning, you do it anyway, you experience consequences, and then you learn.
The thing we don’t notice is that every step matters. Suppose I set up a big cast iron stove in the center of our house, fired it up and walked away. My three-year-old Emma would burn her hand. When that happened, not if, when that happened, what would she learn? Not to touch the stove? No. She’d learn that she is not safe. Our home is not safe, and her parents are not going to protect her. She wouldn’t be able to put it into words, until 20 years and lots of therapy later, but that’s what she’d learn.
The warning limits the loss. “Don’t touch the stove. If you touch the stove, you’ll hurt your hand.” Without the warning, you don’t know why you got hurt. Is it only stoves that hurt? Only things that are metal? Does it only hurt once, or every time? What else out there might hurt me? You don’t know! The warning limits the loss, and the consequences confirm the relationship.
“I told you not to touch that. Now come here and I’ll fix you up.” You with me so far? The fact that somebody warned you proves they are worth listening to. Not only are they smart, they tried to protect you! The consequence confirms the relationship.
Now take that entire idea back to Deuteronomy, “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” God isn’t threatening us. God is warning us. This is how we learn. The warning limits the harm, and the consequence confirms the relationship. This is parenting on a global scale.
Start at the basic, physical level. If you steal from people, and murder people, you are going to experience physical harm. Don’t do that. Next level, basic security. If you live in a preliterate society and you refuse to honor your father and your mother, you abandon your social safety net. Don’t do that. Next level up, belonging. All those rules about how you dress and cut your hair, all the rituals and festivals that define a culture. Abandon those and you’ll find yourself alone. Don’t do that. Esteem and self-actualization. Go live a petty, selfish little life, constantly defensive and never safe, always consuming and never content, rush and rush until you fall over dead and complain how you don’t have enough time. Hate yourself and everybody else. Treat the greatest gift in the universe like it’s some unwelcome burden.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Protect the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Become the restorer of broken walls and the rebuilder of neighborhoods. Wake up, and grow up, and live. God made you to live!
So now you know. There are two ways to read this text. Either God has a list of rules, and punishes rule-breakers. Or God built the universe with rules, and we experience consequences. Angry God gives us clearly written rules so we will be without excuse on judgment day. Loving God gives us clearly written rules, so that the consequences we experience will not poison us toward life, but will turn us back toward God.
If we believe in an angry God, that makes Jesus the one who protects us, by standing in our place and taking our punishment. If we believe in a loving God, Jesus is the one who reveals just how far God is willing to go to win us back from those things that destroy us. My point today is dead simple. We can read the Bible, the entire Bible from beginning to end, as either a warning, or a threat. Either God is saying, “Watch out, or I’ll punish you,” or God is saying, “Be careful, your choices matter.”
But wait a second.
Isn’t that a false choice? Either God punishes us for breaking the rules, or God made a system that punishes us for breaking the rules. Isn’t it the same thing?
If I made a list of rules that were impossible to keep, and then punished Emma for breaking them, you would be right to call me a monster. But what if I built a house with absolutely no potential for harm? No sharp corners or hard walls. No loud noises or food that required chewing. No responsibilities or consequences. Even if she somehow managed to grow up without lasting psychological harm, would she ever be able to leave? Now way! To warn is not the same thing as to threaten. Not by a mile. Choice is risk. Choice is life.
You can read the Bible both ways, so how do we choose? Remember, Jesus is the standard by which we judge scripture. He put people over the law. When he could have punished, he forgave. And the one time he got angry and started turning over tables, the guys he went after weren’t actually breaking the law. They were providing a “service” to the poor, for a “small extra fee”, and sharing a cut with the priests. If we look at that Jesus and see God as God truly is, then God cares more about people than about rules.
The world is full of little choices that don’t really matter one way or the other. This is not one of them. Is God warning you, or threatening you? Your answer changes how you see God, how you treat people, and how you feel when you look in the mirror.
However, just because this book is a warning, and just because the warning is for our good, don’t get confused. It’s still a warning. God loves us with a relentless, creative love. God turns night into day, brokenness into beauty, and death into life. That’s what God does. That’s who God is, was, and ever shall be. But our actions still have consequences. They have to. That’s how we know the love is real.
Benediction: Now you know why I hate this over-protective helicopter thing we’re doing with our kids nowadays. You can’t have a stove in your house without building a wall around it to keep the kids away. You can’t have a teeter totter or a merry go round because someone might fall off. Round off all the corners and cover them with foam, and while you’re at it, cover all the ground with wood chips or rubber, because heaven forbid someone actually experience grass. Half of them don’t know how to throw or catch because no one is allowed to walk to the park and play a pickup game. We are desperate to create a world without risk, or harm, which is to say a world without choices or growth. Reduce risk? Sure. Limit harm. Absolutely. But eliminate it? First off, impossible. Secondly, stupid. Risk is choice. Choice is life. So go, not to protect people from the world, but to prepare them for it.
Primary Text: Isaiah 58
It’s been a tough week. Two funerals, and one more not too far away. It’s good work, important work, but it’s hard. This week, our church has been a home for the hurting, and a comfort to those who grieve. Someone asked me, “How do you do it?” How do you speak to the life of a person you barely knew, or hold it together for someone you did?
If you hold a tuning fork in a space vibrating at the proper note, the tuning fork will sing. That’s what we do. Someone is going through one of the hardest days of their life, and we come alongside. We tune our heart with their life, and then we sing that note into the community so that everyone can, in some way, be a part of it too. We did good work this week, important work. Thank you for that, and well done. That’s love in action.
This is week three in our series, “Do sweat the big stuff,” where we examine some of the big-picture statements of Scripture. This section from Isaiah fits the bill perfectly.
Thousands of years ago, way back in the time of Isaiah, people were asking very familiar questions, “Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” A modern translation might be, “Why do all this religious work, when it doesn’t work?” We still get sick. Our loved ones still die.
And God’s response is difficult for us to hear. Not because God speaks in a still small voice, but because we don’t want like what God has to say. This is Rob’s loose translation. “They seem to want me near. They keep asking for advice.” Do you hear the pain in that word? They seem to want me near?
This is what we talked about last week. God wants a relationship. If mindless obedience were the goal, why make humans at all? I’ve never seen a rock disobey. Not once! They stay where you put them. Try that with a four-year-old, or a teenager. It might work with an old codger, but only if you unplug their little scooter first. If God wanted obedience, making us was a big mistake.
I don’t think God makes mistakes.
Look at verse five, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to The Lord?” In case you missed it, that’s God being sarcastic.
Everyone knows hypocrisy is false religion, but we often fail to recognize that humiliation is the other side of the same coin. Self-hatred isolates us, leaves us licking our wounds in the misery corner. That’s not Christianity. If that’s where you are, it’s where you are, but it’s not God’s dream for your life.
If God is triune, then isolation is a horrifying loss. If God put on flesh and lived among us, then sitting still and believing is just plain not good enough. True love moves.
Look at verse six. Again, Rob’s loose translation,“This is the religion I want: to break the chains of injustice and lift up the oppressed, to share your food with the hungry and your home with the wanderer. To clothe the naked, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.”
If you were here for the funerals this week, you heard with your own ears some amazing examples of this principle at work: lives of quiet love, people who saw a need and refused to walk away, families who gave everything to take care of each other.
If you were here for the funerals this week, you saw a church living these principles. But if we claim this book as our own, then our faith cannot stop at helping individuals in need.
Yes, Jesus helped people. He also confronted power. He didn’t just fix problems, he attacked systems. In short, he did exactly what these verses told him to do. And if we carry his name, so do we.
Be careful now, I’m about to get political. You might want to daydream for a little bit. This is a tourist town. On our best days, we offer rest for the weary, and entertainment for the stressed. But some days, we just sheer sheep and swindle suckers.
We live in a land of great natural beauty and fertility. On our best days, we protect and cultivate those gifts, but some days we just eat the fruit and don’t worry too much about who picked it.
If all we are, is a church that takes care of each other, and gives good funerals, then we are already dead. We are not just this community’s chaplain, we are its conscience.
That’s why we meet. If personal piety were everything, we could do that at home. But helping the hurting, and addressing systems of inequality, those are problems too big for one person, or one family, to handle alone.
We do share our food and shelter. We do feed the hungry. We don’t turn our back on our flesh and blood. These things we already do, and we already try to do more. But if we become everything God means for us to be, a church that loves God, one another, and the world, then hear the promise of scripture.
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will protect your back…. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Rebuilder of Broken Walls, Restorer of Neighborhoods.”
Rebuilder of Broken Walls, Restorer of Neighborhoods. Sound good?
Primary Text: Micah 6:1-8
Every once in a while, someone asks, “Why don’t you just make it simple? Just break it down and make it simple.” That’s what this series is about. Do sweat the big stuff. In a few special places, Scripture has summary statements. The 10 Commandments. The Golden Rule. The Shemah. This is one of them. Micah 6:8.
“Listen to what the Lord says: “Stand up, plead my case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say. “Hear, you mountains, the Lord ’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.”
Tons of legal language in there. Pleading a case. Calling a witness. Lodging a charge. But what comes next is not. God says, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me!”
Is that court room language? In any of the billion and one TV court room dramas, have you ever seen a lawyer address a witness like that? No, its more like couples counseling. In fact, that’s my advice for you. Read this entire section as if you were overhearing a couples therapy session.
God says, “My love. What have I done? Why are you so angry with me?” Then God lists all the ways that God has cared for Israel throughout their history. The Exodus. The wandering in the desert. Crossing the Jordan into the promised land. God has led them, and protected them from harm, and given them good leaders: Moses and Aaron and Miriam. O look! A woman in a position of authority. Shhhhh. Don’t tell anybody.
Israel answers, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?”
“How about burnt offerings? Would that be enough? All your nitpicky little rules? How about baby cows? While they’re still nice and tender, before we can get any work out of them. How about a thousands of rams? How about 10,000 rivers of oil? How about my first-born child? Would that finally be enough for you? My child, for my sin?”
Can we just pause for a second to say, “Whoa. This relationship is broken.” He feels like he’s done nothing wrong, and she feels like she’s not good enough. They are talking right past each other. It brings me comfort that I’m not the only one who has conversations like that. God lives that too.
And that’s the moment when the prophet steps in, the marriage counselor, and says. “He has shown you, O mortal, 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.”
Is that some big surprise? Isn’t that just, “Don’t be a jerk,” written in fancier letters? No. We only think that because we read, “Act justly,” And what we hear is, “Do justice.” Those are not the same thing at all!
When we act justly, we are keeping ourselves in check. When we do justice, we are fixing someone else. When we act justly, we are looking out for the little guy. When we do justice, we are taking people to court. This is light years beyond, “Don’t be a jerk.”
Our job is to treat all humans like humans, with decency and dignity, and above all, mercy. We love mercy… for ourselves. Which means we don’t really love mercy at all. We love getting away with stuff. If we truly love something, we want everyone to experience it.
Ask any geek about whatever it is they geek out about and you won’t get them to shut up for an hour! They want to share it. They are desperate to share it. They get joy out of watching you experience it. If we truly loved mercy, we would want it for everyone.
But I’m leaving something out, right? Act justly, love mercy, and…
God has no interest in being married to a bunch of miserable downcast people who hate themselves and do nothing. Would you want to be married to that?
It doesn’t say, “Walk humbly.” It says, “Walk humbly with your God.” That was the point all along. We are not needy teenagers desperate for a date to the prom. We are already married. God already chose us, already called us, already loves us. All we have to do is believe it enough to live like it.
It is impossible to love that kind of God and hate your fellow human being. Who are the witnesses to this entire couples therapy session? The mountains, and the hills, and the foundations of the earth. Not angels, places. Physical places.
What is the evidence that God offers to prove his love? Egypt. The Red Sea. Mount Sinai. The desert. The Jordan. The promise land. Not promises. Places. Not freedom from hard times. Company through the hard times, in the dirt and sweat of real life. Not just in the future, but already, in the past. Not just the past, our personal past.
What’s has God already saved you from? Stop trying to be a person worthy of God’s love, and start remembering all the ways God has already loved you.
Stop trying to be a person worthy of God’s love, and start remembering all the ways God has already loved you.
I love this text, because it shows that the message has been consistent from the very beginning. Jesus does not replace the Hebrew Scriptures. He is illuminates them. He takes what was already there and makes it even more visible.
Micah says, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Jesus says, “Love God with everything that’s in you, and love your neighbor as yourself.” His disciples ask him how to pray, and he replies, “forgive us our sins as we…” Yes! “…forgive those who sin against us.”
It’s the exact same message! We cannot love the creator, and hate the creation! Including us. Well, we can. We do. But that is the brokenness. That’s the talking past each other. That’s God saying, “What if I done to offend you?” And us answering, “What must we do to appease you?”
God is not a sick judge waiting to be bribed with an ever more costly sacrifice. What was spoken clearly in Micah, was etched across history by Christ. Religious scorekeeping is over. All that ever mattered, and all that ever will, is love made real in sweat, and dirt, and blood. That’s what God has been doing from the beginning, and that’s the partner, that’s the marriage, God is looking for today.
Without justice, there can be no mercy. Without mercy, there can be no justice. To love God is to love our neighbor. To love our neighbor is to love God. That’s as simple as I know how to make it.