The One of Peace

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b, 53-54 My soul proclaims the greatness of God… God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty. God has come to the help of God’s servant Israel, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy… 

Introduction 

It’s nice to be in charge, right? It’s an ego boost to be the boss, the one where the buck stops. It’s fun to be the leader, the one who decides this and that, and here and there, the one who tells this and that person what to do and what to say. The more power the better, right? For isn’t it in the acquisition of power and dominance—the incessant climbing of the occupational ladder—where I achieve my true human liberty and freedom? As I climb up, I’m freed from the constraints of the lower echelons of human existence, and I finally have that long awaited liberty where none can tread on me. The higher up I move along this ladder, the more I acquire the rewards and accolades of this system, and the more I’m lifted out of the muck and mire of obligation to anyone else. (There’s something wrong with someone who is content with the middle or, God forbid, the lowest rung of the ladder; who wants to stay there?) Here, at the top or near the top, I’m my own law. Here, I am respected. Here, I’m freed from the tyranny of others. Here I’m that which I have strived for: powerful. I get to holler at subordinates and underlings, echoing Eric Cartman from the cartoon series, South Park, “Respect my ah-thor-ah-tah!” It’s nice to be in charge, right?  

Or is it… 

Once I start seeing my leadership in the schema of the personal acquisition of power—and the continual pursuit there in—I will ignore that the ladder I am hoisting myself upon is always made up of the human bodies I was charged to guide and lead in the first place. The bodies will be used to an end to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of a bloated and an autonomous self, untethered from the mores of being human: the humility of existence made tangible in the willing and sometimes not-so-willing self-surrender of the self to other humans in the activity of love. To climb that ladder as far as I can, I must turn off the “human” part of my humanity, which—if you are doing the math—renders to near zero “humanity.” And the farther-up I go pursuing the acquisition of power and privilege, the deeper-in I’m pushed into what can only be described as a solitary confinement with walls built of competition and fear– it only takes one slip (slide?) to fall from that glory. It’s nice to be in charge, right? 

Or is it…. 

Micah 5:2-5a 

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great 
to the ends of the earth; 

and he shall be the one of peace.  

Micah 5:4-5

The bulk of Micah’s message (from the beginning of the book to the end) is embedded in Micah’s mission to expose the sins of Jacob and Israel, being the first prophet to declare the destruction of Jerusalem.[1] What sins does Micah expose? In short: moral corruption. The long of it is that there is violence (from the wealthy and powerful) and the proliferation of lies.[2] And the even longer of it is: the heads of the houses of Jacob and the rulers of Israel “abhor justice and pervert equity” and the brick and mortar of their cities are the wrong-doing of the leaders and the spilled blood of the people.[3] And, according to Micah who is emboldened by the passionate Spirit of God in the face of such violence,[4] God will not tolerate this depraved leadership, profiting off of the bodies and souls of God’s beloved.[5]

In the prophesy, Micah, so moved by God’s Spirit, transitions from exposing sins and naming the trespasses of Israel’s and Jacob’s leaders to speaking of one who will be raised up from the small clan of Bethlehem of Ephrathah. This one will be of old and of the ancient of days. This humble one from a humble tribe will be called out to lead God’s beloved in the name of God and in the Spirit of God: delighting in unconditional and unceasing love, forgiveness, mercy, and humility.[6] Specifically in our portion of the text, Micah’s prophesy moves toward a God who rejects the idea of letting iniquity run amok[7] even if the city itself is complacent.[8] so, God comes, and in that God comes, there will be forgiveness and peace because when God comes, so to comes the true leadership of Israel defined not by humanity but by God, the one of peace.[9]

Conclusion

Micah’s words haunt me. Israel’s leadership has run away with Israel for its own power and privilege. And God is coming to rescue God’s beloved. Woe to that leadership so bent on self-aggrandizement and power and authority and privilege; violent leadership that uses the beloved as a means to their own end will be exposed in God’s light of truth. Leadership so bent in this way is in direct opposition to God and God’s conception of leading and can meet no other end in God but death. God has a very specific interpretation of what it means to lead, especially leading God’s beloved: it is done through mercy, kindness, humility, love, and forgiveness. To be completely frank, God doesn’t like it when human leaders forget themselves and become drunk with power and abusive and violent, resulting in the oppression and marginalization of God’s beloved. God will come and rescue the beloved from such domination. Thus, the judgment of this prophecy is targeted at me, the leader of God’s beloved—and others like me holding power and authority. God will come for the beloved and in that the beloved is sought and liberated from oppressive and violent leadership, so too will the violent and oppressive leaders be liberated. It’s nice to be in charge, right? Or is it?

With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, 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 6:7-8

It’s into the presence of God I am called. I am pulled off my ladder of power and am dragged onto the carpet; I am beckoned into the light; I am exposed by the Spirit’s prophetic utterance still fresh on Micah’s lips. I am asked to come close and to hear and to see what means to be a good leader. And, it’s not defined in the way that I think it should be: through the acquisition of more and more power and lording it over those under my charge. It won’t look like making people feel small so I can feel big. It won’t even look elite, special, or privileged. Rather, this good leader will look remarkably like a humble and vulnerable infant wrapped in meager rags, laid in a manger, dwelling among the creation in its earthy glory, surrounded by dirty shepherds and an exhausted woman of color. I am asked here: can you lead like this? For here lies the true leader, the one from the ancient of days who knows no end of time but is now a tiny baby in swaddling clothes: humble and accessible to anyone; can you lead like this…of the people for the people? Can you love them like I do?

That this prophetic utterance of Micah is for me it is for you, too. Because divine love does not remain dormant when the beloved is in need: hope exists. We can, right now during this season of Advent in 2021, hope. We can hope because we dwell in and are invited into a story of God acting on behalf of the beloved by coming in the judgment of God’s love to give life to all the beloved trapped and held captive in violent systems—when the captive is set free, so too will the captor be set free through death into new life. We are all beckoned—leaders and the lead alike—to walk humble with God and like God, in love and mercy and forgiveness and humility. And we are called to walk this way not just here in this place, but out in the world, furthering the elastic reach of divine love in the world and for the beloved out there.

O come, Desire of nations,

bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease

and be thy self our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


[1] 1 Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Micah” New York: JPS, 1962. 98 “Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, apparently regarded the purpose of his mission to be ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin’ (3:8). He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem.” 

[2] Heschel Prophets 98. “In his eyes the fatal sin is the sin of moral corruption. The rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants speak lies: ‘Their tongue is deceitful in their mouth’ (6:12).”

[3] Heschel Prophets 98 “The prophet directs his rebuke particularly against the ‘heads of the house of Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity.’ It is because ‘they build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’ (3:9-10) that Zion and Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

[4] Heschel Prophets 99. “To the soul of Micah, the taste of God’s word is bitter. In his love for Zion and his people, he is tormented by the vision of the things to come…” 

[5] Heschel Prophets 99. “Here, amidst a people who walk haughtily (2:3), stands a prophet who relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders as well as for the nation, maintaining that ‘her wound is incurable’ (1:9), that the Lord is ‘devising evil’ against the people: ‘It will be an evil time’ (2:3).” 

[6] Heschel Prophets 99. “Micah does not question the justice of the severe punishment which he predicts for his people. Yet it is not in the name of justice that he speaks but in the name of a God who ‘delights in steadfast love,’ ‘pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression’ (7:18).” 

[7] Heschel Prophets 100 “Yet, there is reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity. This is God’s apology to Israel. He cannot forget ‘the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked’ or ‘acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights’ (6:10, 11).”

[8] Heschel Prophets 100 “‘Answer Me!’ calls the voice of God. But who hears the call? ‘The voice of the Lord cries to the city’ (6:9), but the city is complacent.”

[9] Heschel Prophets 101 “Together with the word of doom, Micah proclaims the vision of redemption. God will forgive ‘the remnant of His inheritance,’ and will cast all their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’ (7:18 f.), and every man shall sit under his vine and ‘under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid’ (4:4).”

Playing our Part as Witness: Homily on John 3:22-30

John 3:22-30 Jesus and John the Baptist

27 John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

The Gospel of John spends the better portion of its introductory scenes in chapters 1-3 distinguishing between the Christ and not the Christ. Like a well-written play, the characters are clearly and quickly identified. There is the Christ and there is Not the Christ. Consider John 1:6-9

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

And John 1:15,

“(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’)”

And John 1:19-20,

“This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah’”

Chapter 2 demonstrates the divine power of Christ in both the miracle of the water turned into wine and the cleansing of the temple. The miracle at the wedding of Cana is the manifestation of Christ’s glory. The overturning of the tables in the temple and clearing out the temple of establishes Christ’s authority as prophet, priest, and king. “This,” writes the gospeler, “is the Christ, and I am not him.”

Chapter 3 continues the witness as to who the Christ is in Christ’s encounter with Nicodemus in the dark of night (the son of man that has descended from heaven and the one who will be raised and lifted up John 3: 13-15) and the establishment that this son of man, the Christ, is the one sent from God because God so loved the world (John 3:16).

Why is there so much upfront work establishing a relationship of Christ and not the Christ in the first few chapter of the Gospel of John? A good knee jerk response would be: to establish witness. In order for John to be a good witness to the Christ, a distinction must be made (and made firmly) about who John is and who the Christ is. John is the rejoicing friend to the bridegroom and not the bridegroom (John 3:29). John is not the Messiah but the one sent ahead of Messiah (John 3:28). John’s entire ministry is about pointing and witnessing to the one who comes after him, the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie (John 1:27b).

John is not the Christ and should not be confused with the Christ because John is the one witnessing to the Christ. To confuse the two, to confuse the proclamation with the one proclaiming is to conflate the message with the one witnessing and this means the message is lost. If John doesn’t draw a thick line in the sand between him and the Christ, the good news we just heard yesterday, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16) is lost, completely lost. And surely, this is not the news you want to lose.

In perfect dramatic sequence, John speaks one of his last lines for this portion of the drama that is unfolding for the audience. “‘He must increase, but I must decrease’” (John 3:30). And very literally, John decreases from center stage. He steps stage left and out of view, picking up the role of witnessing narrator to the works and deeds of Jesus Christ, the son of man, the son of God, the messiah come to save the world.

In a very real way, we are invited into this moment as fellow witnesses with John. I don’t want to take away from our very real and very good desire to be more like Christ in our own lives and in our lives toward others. But in this moment, let us step in to the place left for us: the witnesses of Christ. Let us follow John’s lead.

In our real life and our virtual worlds, there is a huge pull and desire to build our own platforms and personal image, to draw attention to ourselves. And this isn’t merely a “you students” thing, but is an “all of us” thing. It is very hard to resist the urge and the pull to promote ourselves, to be overly concerned with our reputations and images. We want to increase; decreasing isn’t an option for us in a world that demands we prove our value, our worth, and ourselves. And this is surely an exhausting rat race to be in, with no trophy, no end, no rest because the world is never satisfied, “More!” it cries, “Give us more!”

But here, in our passage with John pointing to the Christ and witnessing to Him, we are invited to witness and to be witnessed to. Hear John’s words for you and rest in those words: for God so loved the world, so loved us, that God broke into our timeline and created such an impact that the ripples of that event are felt in every sector of existence then, now, and tomorrow. The first are last, the last are first; hierarchies overturned; oppressors condemned and the oppressed set free.

But don’t stop there; find the activity from that rest in understanding that this is all about Christ. We exist as the body of Christ corporate to point others to him and what he has done for the world. And we point to Christ not just with proclamation with words of the gospel (those words are very important) but also with our actions of walking in mercy, humility, kindness, and justness (Micah 6:8).[1]

And I want to be clear, Christ’s increase and our decrease isn’t about being so overpowered by the divine encounter that we lose ourselves so completely as to cease being and having ourselves. For in God, in union with God, we are more fully ourselves in all of our quirks, eccentricities, and uniqueness. We receive ourselves back in an active and living and witnessing way.

The fun part about this active witnessing is that as we stand pointing to him, directing others toward him we are freed up in a radical way to enjoy our lives in their multifaceted brilliance and with a deep abiding, completely free joy: in the classroom, in our myriad performances, in our various athletic commitments, at home with our family or out and about with our friends.

Let our voices and lives come together with John and let us play our parts as witnesses: Come! Come and meet the Messiah, the Christ who came into the world to save it because he loves us.

 

 

 

[1] “He has told you, O mortal, 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?”