silhouette of person walking under white clouds

Walking Humbly

I preached this sermon at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, NJ on April 21, 2013.

Everywhere he turns he sees people slipping away from God. The leaders just take more and more land and taxes, making the poor poorer. Wickedness prevails but the spiritual leaders have been cautioned not to preach against it and to not rock the boat. The places of worship have lost their heart for God and those that lead and attend are more and more caught up in the form of worship rather than worship God with their lives. The one-time faithful are becoming more and more secular and are giving themselves over to the worship of worldly idols. Sounds like a story from today’s New York Times doesn’t it?  Perhaps it could be, but it is not. It is reported, but by our intrepid prophet Micah from the 8th century B.C.

God called Micah to speak to the people of Israel about how they have fallen away from him. Micah speaks with a fury about the wickedness consuming Israel. His harshest criticism is reserved for the evil of Israel’s cities and the leaders of the government and the temple. Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, will be made “a heap in the open country”, because it is filled with “images and idols”. Micah relates that these “pampered children” have “devised wickedness and evil deeds on their beds” and evil that includes the taking of the fields of others as well as the “oppression of householder and house”. Moreover, Micah asserts that the leaders have deluded themselves that what they are doing is not a problem, reporting that they have said “do not preach—one should not preach these things; disgrace will not overtake us”. And Micah is just gathering steam in recounting the sins of the people and leaders of the cities of Israel.

When we reach our passage, Micah 6:1-8, Micah employs a well-known literary convention of the day – a trial. He starts with God challenging the Israelites to plead their case against his charges. The mountains and the foundations of creation stand as the jury. God then testifies to the covenant he has made with Israel and how he has shown them what the righteousness of the Lord means. And then, our representative of Israel answers. You can almost hear the frustration and the gulf of ignorance and arrogance that their sin has built between them and God. Completely misguided into thinking that serving God means just adding more ritual, he pleads: What more do you want God? Burnt offerings of year old calves? Ten thousand rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? Must I offer my first born to free my soul from sin?

What follows is Micah’s response, as the prosecutor for God:

He has showed you, O man, 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.

Micah’s response is so familiar to us that, as we view it now through the prism of the modern church, we may miss just how much Micah was upsetting the apple cart of his day. The established practices of temple worship had raised the temple ritual as the goal. The focus in worship was the proper completion of the rituals, not the development of a deeper relationship with God. The representative of Israel at the trial offers even more rituals to satisfy God, but Micah flatly rejects the offer, emphasizing instead three qualities of inward piety essential to establishing the right relationship with God: justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God.

The emphasis frequently placed on this passage is on acts of justice and mercy. Sermons defining what constitutes actions of justice and mercy are legion. Walking humbly with God, however, is the overarching characteristic that Micah emphasizes. An individual who walks humbly with God is someone who has a right attitude toward God and a determination to be in continuous fellowship with him.  Can we be in continuous fellowship with God and be unjust? Can we be in continuous fellowship with God and be unmerciful? No. To be just and merciful we must start with God.

Micah is calling the Israelites to first realign their relationship with God, and then realign their relationships with their neighbors. Walking humbly with God means not trying to please God with acts of worship of any kind, but rather consistently coming before God with a contrite heart, seeking forgiveness and guidance. Acting justly or mercifully to please our own sense of purpose or to gain the praise or acceptance of others, is no different than completing worship rituals by routine. If we do not first place our lives and purpose in God’s hands, if we are not walking humbly with God, then when we act, no matter how just and merciful by our own standards, we are no different than the Israelites condemned by Micah.

Micah called the Israelites away from self-centeredness. He called them away from doing what they thought pleased God, away from their own distorted sense of justice and mercy, if they had any sense of it at all. The Hebrew word for justice in this context is mishpat. It does not translate easily, but it essentially means demonstrating the attributes of righteousness in the character of God. Pursuing acts of justice without first living a life grounded in a relationship of obedience and submission to God, walking humbly with God, so easily leads to acting on our own concepts of righteousness. The snare in Micah’s message is that it is so easy to substitute our own sense of justice and mercy in place of God’s. If our agenda becomes effecting social justice and mercy ahead of our walk with God, we become easy prey for self-centeredness. That is, we easily slip into pursing our sense of justice and mercy but claiming it as God’s.  And we are caught in that snare when we put as our first priority acting as we think Christians should act instead of grounding our relationship with Christ in the Holy Spirit and the Word.

If you doubt how easy it is to do that just look at how easily we Christians have politicized, and divided, Christ’s church. Just take for example the current debate on gun control. You do not have to spend much time in research to find Christians defining our responsibility to act justly toward the poor as requiring us to support gun control as the poor are so frequently victims of gun violence. Yet you will find similar arguments by Christians opposed to gun control.

Climate change is another area full of snares. Many Christians and entire denominations have embraced climate change and the environmental movement as perfectly representative of the Christian’s responsibility to act with justice regarding the distribution and stewardship of resources. Yet other Christians advocate with equal fervor that the advocates of climate change are ungrounded in science and act unjustly toward the poor by making resources more expensive.

So how is it that the Church and Christians are supposed to be on both sides of issues, all in the name of justice?  I cannot say that there are not issues where there is division in the Church, but that the division is between those who have replaced God’s justice with their own own, and those who rightly are pursuing God’s mercy. Perhaps the most telling and easily understood example is the reaction of the vast majority of Christians toward the actions of the members of the Woodsboro Baptist Church. Members of that church frequently attempt to disrupt funerals and other public events holding signs that say that God hates gays and screaming that message. That they have replaced God’s justice with their own and placed themselves on the throne of judgment, where mercy finds no home, is patently obvious. For judgment divorced from mercy is not justice. The pages of history are littered with death, torture, and persecution in God’s name by people such as these. Christians and most churches today have rightly condemned them as not of God.

But I can also say that when we see groups within the Church each claiming to be acting justly and mercifully in the name of God, yet on opposite sides of an issue, we should beware and be cautious that we may be in the sphere of politics rather than the Gospel. And we should be doubly wary when those groups are calling for Christians and the Church to become involved in political efforts to use the power of the state to force acceptance of their positions on all people. I cannot say that God’s righteousness and public policy never align, but I can say that a Christian that enters the political arena claiming to be pursuing God’s justice walks a path that is a minefield of self-centeredness and a difficult one on which to maintain a humble walk with God. God does not need the power of government to accomplish his will…but we may to accomplish ours. We may not be wrong in doing so as a matter of public policy, but we may be wrong in claiming that we act for God.

In our reading today from Matthew Jesus delivers almost precisely the same message to the Pharisees that Micah delivered to the Israelites. Indeed, he was probably consciously echoing Micah as he emphasizes justice, mercy, and faithfulness as the key characteristics to life under God’s law. As with Micah, Jesus criticizes the reliance of the Pharisees on temple rituals and outward acts of piety instead of aligning themselves inwardly with God.  According to Jesus, anything else is self-indulgence.

Our passage for today from Micah demonstrated to the Israelites that they had failed to live in their covenant with God. Immediately before our passage for today, however, Micah told the Israelites how they would be led back to God. It is an equally familiar passage from chapter 5, verses 2 through 5.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.

            And he will be our peace…

Micah knew that Israel would never be able to walk humbly with God until it followed the shepherd he proclaimed. The message of Jesus and Micah are the same.  Acting without faith at the center of our lives is acting for ourselves, not God. We find life and our ability to walk humbly with God through Jesus, the shepherd proclaimed by Micah. Live in Christ and God’s love, justice, and mercy will flow through you. We cannot reach God without following and trusting in Christ. We cannot act in God’s righteousness and mercy outside of Christ. That is the good news that Micah brought also. And that is the good news of Christ that we proclaim. Walk humbly with God through Jesus our Savior. In Jesus, act with justice. In Jesus, act with mercy.


© 2013 Thomas M. Trezise


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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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