When our children were little, we loved reading Dr. Suess books. One I remember so clearly was the Zax. It was a short parable about a north going Zax and a south going Zax who met on the road and refused to budge to either side to change their direction. They stood, facing one another, unable to move forward, while the rest of the world built up around them. Even children could figure out that this was a silly way to operate!
Isn’t that the prophet’s basic question to the people of Israel and to us today? Where and how are we walking? Like the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea, Micah uses the metaphor of a court setting, imagining God as the plaintiff, the people of Israel as the defendants, and the mountains, the hills and the foundations of the earth as the jury. A good sized court room! This is basically a lawsuit over a breach of contract. The people have not kept up with the covenant God had offered to them. Last month we touched on the events at the end of the book of Joshua, when Joshua asked the people who they were planning on serving—God or other idols. They had insisted that they would follow God. Three times.
But now God has a list of complaints against God’s people, there are multiple charges in this lawsuit. First, they have forgotten what God has done for them in the past—the multiple times God has gotten them out of a pickle which could have easily brought an end to Israel and Judah. Second, they seem to think that the quantity of offerings and sacrifices offered to God will get them what they want. Third, they erroneously think that God will forgive their sins if they offer up these physical acts of piety.
Through the prophet Micah, God says to God’s people: what have I done to you to deserve this kind of treatment from you? How have I gotten on your nerves or bothered you too much? It is a way for the prophet to make the message clear: it is not God who has gotten on the nerves of the people. It is the people who have forgotten, misconstrued and misunderstood the direction, the speed and the end point of what it means to be walking with God.
Before we get too judgmental, as human beings have a tendency to become…. maybe we need to give the people a little credit. Their grandparents had gone through attacks from Assyria, Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Babylonians, and they are likely living in exile in Babylon when Micah delivers his message to them. So, forgetting the saving acts of God might be understandable. So, trying to heap up the sacrifices to get God to stop punishing them might be understandable. They have endured catastrophe after catastrophe.
It kind of reminds me of our brothers and sisters in Cuba. When Nzinga and I were visiting last weekend, we learned more details about what the Cubans call the Special Period. It is not special at all, unless you want to call it especially bad. When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990’s, Soviet support of and trade with Cuba stopped, like almost overnight. Castro and his government had leaned very heavily on Russian imports for at least 30 years since the US stubbornly would not trade with Cuba, and Cuba stubbornly did not want to trade with the US. Which continues to be the case, but that is another sermon for another day. Supplies dried up, food was very scarce, and daily life became extremely difficult for most Cubans. Even those with family in the US could expect a visit or money or goods only under special circumstances, receiving outside support with much more difficulty than they do now. This began the Special Period—the period of even greater hardship, the period of scarcity, the period of extreme isolation. Some people told us they see the Special Period as just now beginning to draw to a close with the opening up of more channels of communication and an easier flow of supplies into Cuba. That is a long Special Period.
So maybe we can understand why the people of Israel are in the position they are in, but God is clearly upset with them. They are on the stand in front of all of creation, getting a tongue lashing from the God who created them, who loves them, and who saves them over and over again.
God’s message is so simple that it reminds me of the two greatest commandments identified by Jesus in the New Testament: love God and love neighbor. Fulfill those and you have got them all covered. Here are the words through Micah: love tenderly, do justly and walk humbly with God. Perhaps these words could be a summary of the entire Old Testament prophetic tradition.
This year we are talking a lot about loving your neighbor, and HRPC is really good at focusing on doing justly. So this morning I’d like to focus a little sharper on the third item that God expects from God’s people. And of course that is not just the people of Israel living in exile in Babylon, but the people of Cuba living under a communist regime, the people of Baltimore living in fear of harm on their own city streets, any people in any place. God expects us to walk humbly with God. As Eugene Peterson says it in The Message: don’t take yourself too seriously, take God seriously. According to the book of Proverbs, humility goes with wisdom, honor and prosperity.
If you are going to walk humbly with God, then you are not in charge, but you are in step. Not behind, not in front, but side by side. So you have to pay attention. It is like the army recruits learning to walk in step with one another at boot camp. It takes time and it takes practice. You are working on walking in the same direction—not in opposing directions like Dr. Suess’ Zax characters!—walking where God is walking. Maybe it is walking into something you have never tried before. Maybe it is checking off a new form of service on your time and talent commitment card that you will bring forward this morning when you come up for communion. These cards are not one per family. They are one per person. There should be enough in the pew racks for everyone to get one. Maybe it doesn’t include the gift or talent you would like to share with Hunting Ridge this next year. Add it in on the bottom or the top! Be sure to give your name and contact information so the ministry team leaders can contact you!
Walking humbly with God is also walking at the same speed as God is walking. Oooo, this one is so hard. We either want to rush it or we drag our heels. I am really bad about going on ahead and effectively leaving God behind me when I try to move too fast or to skip too many steps, and therefore sometimes end up neglecting feelings or proper etiquette or worse! You may be a rusher or you may be the kind of person who is slow to move away from your current location—either spiritually, emotionally or even physically. Have you been thinking about stopping by the corner some Saturday morning? If you wait too long we will be in recess for the cold winter months and you will have to wait for spring. By waiting this long you missed a great chance for live music with the Stroupes and Bill Webster yesterday. Both too fast and too slow are not keeping in step with God.
Walking humbly with God is also walking toward the same destination that God is heading toward. What do you imagine that destination to be? Is it heaven? Ultimately, yes. But what about intermediate destinations, or stops along the way? What is your next destination? Is it a place, a condition, a situation that God is heading toward as well? Or does it seem to be off kilter for the kind of place, situation or condition that God would expect of you?
No one is saying that walking humbly with God is easy. It appears to require lifelong practice. It appears to be easier when we walk together, when we can support one another or challenge one another when we veer off course or move too fast or too slow. Yet this is what God requires of human beings. The word in the Hebrew in v. 8 is translated, man or mortal. It is Adam, the name used for the first human created, and the word used to mean all human beings. God expects us to love tenderly, to do justly and to walk humbly with God. God expects us to remember the saving acts God has done on our behalf. God expects us to uphold our part of the covenant agreement. Love tenderly, do justly, walk humbly with God. Amen.