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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rejection and Grace


14th Sunday after Trinity 

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
September 17, 2017

Micah 6:1 Hear ye now what the LORD saith; Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice.


Our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Micah is amazing. Why? It is amazing because when one hears the lesson with the new ears of Christ, one hears wonderful, yet poignant things. One alsoe sees an amazing picture of God and Man. In these eight verses we learn of the perversity of mankind counterbalanced by the overflowing love of God. We also learn what God truly wants from us.

One might, however, be tempted to question such a profound statement. After all, how can one see an Old Testament lesson through New Testament eyes? In other words, how can one see the Chosen People of God, governed by the Law, through the New Testament lens of grace? This is the crux of the matter, yet when we consider Scripture as a single piece, like the woven cloak of Christ – without seam - the issue becomes more transparent.

Let us consider how this passage reveals our paucity of spirit, contrasted with God’s infinite well of grace. Hear this amazing statement, “Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice.”1 The prophet commands the mountains to hear the Lord’s “controversy” with His People. He beckons verbally to the strong foundations of the earth to heed the controversy.

What is the nature of this conflict? What could be so extreme that God is willing to “plead” with Israel? Why would Almighty God have His prophet use such language? The cause is one of extreme injustice and lack of love towards God. Israel has, by this time in history, so corrupted herself with paganism and hypocrisy that God is willing to “plead” with her.
The Jews have so alienated themselves from the Covenant that they have smitten God to the heart; so that Micah asks, “O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me.”2 Do our ears deceive us? Through His prophet, is this God Himself asking his wayward people how He has wearied them?

Recall that this is a people who have become infatuated with every corrupt Canaanite religion, all of them involving ritual drunkenness and ritual fornication, let alone the gross idolatry associated with them. Jewish homes had various pagan images in them, and the great Temple itself was a hotbed of idolatry. Some Jews were even indulging in the vile practice of ritual infanticide to satisfy the Canaanite gods. Meanwhile, our God asks how He has wearied them? It would be laughableIf it were not so very serious.

Yet we know how serious it is. So much so, that Micah has stopped preaching to the people and instead, addresses the hills, mountains, and earth! The People have become so stiff-necked and so hard-hearted that evidently there is no longer any point in addressing them.3 As further evidence of this, John Calvin mentions that the mighty prophet Isaiah was Micah’s contemporary, actually preaching and ministering at the same time.4 Israel’s situation was so bad that God sent two prophets simultaneously to bring the message of repentance and salvation, if only the people would reject their obsession with idolatry. We know from history how bad Israel’s state was, as God finally executed judgment upon them by the hand of the cruel Assyrians.

Having the luxury of looking back at history, we see how strictly the Jews were punished and conversely, how fierce was God’s love for them. It was so strong and so passionate that God Hmself would actually “plead” with His People. God Himself knew how dreadful and how merciless the Jews’ treatment would be in the days to come. He knew how greatly they would suffer for their idolatry.

We see this clearly in God’s patience with them and the untiring efforts of many prophets sent to turn them from their paganism. Yet, as we know from history, the Israelites would continue in their sin cycle until God’s patience was finally exhausted.

Now, we know that God is incapable of being hurt, or suffering rejection, or even having anger and rage. He simply is, in complete serenity. Yet, in order to understand Him even a little, perhaps it is necessary to anthropomorphize, that is, give him human attributes so that we can relate. We know in our innermost being that God sees all of eternity as a single glance, in which His glory is preordained for all time. Yet, in our finite, fractured way we need to think that God feels what we feel. Of course, in the case of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, we know exactly how He felt, because He was one of us. He experienced everything we experience, every joy, sorrow, and temptation, yet without sin.

we know one thing more. We know that God is capable of love that transcends our understanding. He is capable of showing such patience with us that he will hold his mighty Wrath for literally hundreds of years. How do we know this?

This is illustrated very clearly in the passage is God’s treatment of His People. Not only did He deliver them from bondage in Egypt, but he set before them great leaders such as Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Moses was once a great prince in Egypt, and became a prophet and a lawgiver. Aaron was the first of a priestly line that guided Israel. In addition, for all those who think that God is a misogynist, consider the mention of Miriam here, a prophetess and great leader in her own right. In short, God’s People didn’t lack for leadership.

At this point, one may ask, if God so loves his People, how could he allow them to pass through such massive suffering, which was to transpire in the relatively near future? How can a loving God allow this? Two answers suffice for this. First, we know that God’s ultimate Holiness cannot be mocked indefinitely. God’s People could not claim the benefits of the Covenant, that is protection and grace, and still engage in flagrant violation of His laws. At some point, God’s integrity must be reaffirmed in the hearts of his People. Without being tedious, we know that God had to punish His People in order to show that.
His judgment was not done not out of cruelty, vengeance, or even retribution, but out of infinite love. Rather than lose the souls of his People to eternal perdition, he chose to chasten and correct them, so that they might turn to Him.

Yet Man, being Man, always wants to be in control in some way. In fact, Man wants to justify himself in the eyes of God. The Jews, given their ritual system of sacrifice and purification, became the ultimate participants in this game of seeking favor from God. In fact, the Jews not only sought favor from God, they actually demanded it from Him. Their supposed righteousness in following the sacrificial system actually made God a debtor in their eyes. They thought that God owed them forgiveness and expiation of sin because of their righteousness.

Yet, the prophet asks, “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or 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?”5 What does the Lord really care for our religious acts, especially when they are based in arrogance, self-righteousness, or pride? Does anyone really think that God took pleasure in some poor beast’s death in order to wipe away a man’s sin? We think not. Sacrifices merely served to remind man that consequences always exist for sin, not to please God with the shedding of blood.
We come at last to God’s expectation of us. Is this more sacrifices and gallons of holy oil? No, rather He wants a transformation of the heart and spirit. He wants us to walk uprightly, yet humbly before Him. He wants us, in short: “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”6

What an amazing requirement! He wants us to echo His own qualities of love, of mercy and of good will without pride or self-righteousness. He wants us to be reflectors of Him and to let His Light shine through us to the World.

If we do this, it is better than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
AMEN
1 Mic. 6:1
2 Mic. 6:3
3 Calvin, Commentary on Micah , http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/m.sion/cvmic-01.htm
4 Ibid
5 Micah 6:6-7

6 Ibid 6:8

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