This morning, I’d like for you to think about something that, at first, may seem to relate only to those of you who are students. But it’s actually something that is relevant for all of us. I want you to think for a moment about final exams. Now, I realize that if you’re in school, that’s probably a long way from now, but having been a student for many years myself, I’ve learned that you need to start thinking about exams right from the very beginning of school. As a student, I tended to filter everything that I learned in class through one very important question: will this be on the exam?
Because everybody knows that when you take a course, you can’t possibly learn everything. You take the size of one textbook alone, and there is no way that you can master all of the contents of that book. And so, at some point, the teacher will usually indicate which are the parts that are most important to remember. And so, I would try to take notes on what was most important so that I could take that back to my dorm room and master it right before the exam.
And I can remember the anxious feeling of going to class and being handed that final exam. And as I read through the exam, I had one thought in mind: did I prepare well enough by learning the right material? Because nothing is more important to passing an exam than having mastered the right material.
So, I’d like for you to think about this as it relates to our spiritual lives. I’m sure you’re aware that there are a lot of words spoken from this pulpit. All of you listen to somewhere between 3 to 4,000 words during every sermon that I deliver on an average Sunday. That means that over the course of a year, if you show up every week, you will hear almost 200,000 words. And the truth is, you will forget most of them!
But what if, right up front, I was to tell you, “I want you to try to learn everything you can this year, but if you forget everything else, I want you to remember these few things”? And what if we could get what is really important down to a few short sentences that you could take home and really study and focus on?
Let’s take it a step further. Think about the Bible. There are three-quarters of a million words in the Bible. Some of you know a lot more of the Bible than others, but I don’t think anybody here would say that they have mastered all the information in the Bible. But what if you could get the core of what’s really important down to something manageable? We obviously want to learn as much as we can, but these would be the most important things that we absolutely have to know and get right.
In other words, if we didn’t master anything else in our lives, what would be the most important things for us to master? And it turns out that this is a pretty good idea, and the Bible actually gives us some hints as to what those things might be. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, scripture gives us a summary of what’s most important.
One summary that is probably familiar to you is found in Matthew chapter 22 where Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is. And I’m sure you remember what his answer was. First of all, it is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And secondly, to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said those two commandments are more important than any of the other commandments. If you don’t get anything else right, make sure you remember those two things and you get them right.
There’s another summary that’s found in the book of Micah that may not be quite as familiar to you, but it is just as important. God said to his people, “What does the Lord require of you but to….” And then God goes on to list three things that he absolutely requires of his people.
Before we take a look at what those three things are, I want to take a look at the background to this passage. And to do that, let’s take an overview of the entire book of Micah, and then I’ll be back to talk about those three very important requirements.
We’re going to be reading this morning from Micah, chapter 6. As I read through this chapter, I want you to imagine getting sued by God. Literally. Imagine that we check the mailbox, and there’s a letter from God that says, “I have charges to bring against the Cruciform Church of Christ and I intend to take you to a court of law.” Think about how strange that would be. But that’s exactly the scene that we find in our text this morning.
In Micah chapter 6, beginning with verse 1:
“Hear what the Lord says:
Arise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord…
for the Lord has an indictment against his people,
and he will contend with Israel.” (Micah 6:1-2)
In these opening verses, God calls the courtroom to attention. He calls on the hills and the mountains to be the jury in this case. Then God announces that he is commencing proceedings against his people. The New Living Translation says, “He has a case against his people. He will bring charges against Israel.” (Micah 6:2, NLT)
Now, at this point, you may be wondering, “What is God so upset about? Why is God suing his own people?” Well, we aren’t told just yet. First, God goes over a bit of history, defending his own actions in this case. In verse 3:
“O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” (Micah 6:3-4)
In other words, God says to Israel, “What have I done wrong to you to cause you to treat me this way?” In verses 6 and 7, the people of Israel give their defense:
“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?” (Micah 6:6-7)
God asks Israel, “What have I done to make you treat me this way?” And the people respond, basically, “What more do you expect from us?” Putting it in today’s terms, it would be like us saying, “God, we go to church. We put money in the collection plate every week. We read our Bibles and pray every night. What more do you expect from us?”
The people of Israel are saying, “We offer our sacrifices just like you told us to. What do you want, more sacrifices? How about if we give you thousands of sacrifices? Or ten thousands? Or maybe you want us to take our children and put them on the altar to sacrifice to you? God, what’s it going to take to make you happy?”
Now the question they’re asking is rather sarcastic, but the question itself is actually not a bad question to ask – What does it take to make God happy? It’s important that we know what’s expected of us. Perhaps some of you have been blind-sided by a review at work when you thought you were doing a good job, but you discovered that the boss was really disappointed with your performance because he had some expectations that you weren’t aware of.
How tragic it would be for us to go to church every Sunday and give thousands of dollars to the Lord and read our Bibles and pray every night, only to find out that we completely missed the point, that God expected something else altogether.
So, what does God expect form us? And in verse 8, God answers that question. The first part of verse 8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you…? (Micah 6:8)
The Message translation paraphrases it this way: “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do…” (Micah 6:8, MSG). It’s important for us to see that God isn’t going to give any new information here. What we’re about to read is consistent throughout Scripture. This isn’t something that’s new in Micah, and it’s not something that only applied 2500 years ago. What God is going to say here is consistent with the teaching of all of God’s Word.
Not only is it consistent, but it’s also very simple. It’s just three things. Anybody can remember three things. There’s no excuse for any of us not understanding what God requires. But, as simple as these three requirements may be, the sad reality is that God’s people have a pretty poor record at how well they do with these three requirements.
So, what does God require of us? Here’s his answer — “… to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). I want to suggest to you that there are six very important words here. First of all, there are the three big words that jump off the page – justice, kindness and humility.
But there are also three other important words. They are do, love and walk. Micah is not calling us to talk about justice, kindness and humility. He’s calling us to live out those three traits in our lives.
So, if these are the three things that God requires, what do this look like in our lives? Let’s take a look at these three requirements, one at a time. First of all,
1. DO JUSTICE
Don’t just think about justice, or wish for justice, or want justice. God tells us that we are to do justice. That’s an action, it’s something we live out. We should be a people who do justice.
But, what does it mean to do justice? The Message translates it this way – “Do what is fair and just to your neighbor.” (Micah 6:8, MSG). In other words, Micah is calling us to treat everyone we meet fairly, viewing them as someone who is just as worthy of God’s mercy and grace as we are.
And I think that’s part of it. But I believe what Micah is calling us to do goes further than that. It’s not just the idea of treating others right personally. Rather, it’s a desire to work for justice for everyone in society, especially for the most vulnerable.
I want to repeat something that I said a few weeks ago in my sermon on Amos. We tend to think of justice primarily from a punitive standpoint – in other words, justice is when you punish the bad guys. But, more often in scripture, justice makes sure that those who are neglected are treated fairly.
We see this in Isaiah 1:17 (NLT), “Seek justice. Help the oppressed; defend the cause of orphan; fight for the rights of widows.”
Psalm 82says, “Give justice to the lowly and the orphan; maintain the right of the poor and the destitute! Rescue the lowly and the needy. Deliver them from the power of the wicked!” (Psalm 82:3-4).
The issue with justice is how those who have power and privilege treat those who don’t. The reason why this is so important is because when we read the Bible, we see that God always – always — takes the side of the underdog. God is the defender of the poor and the oppressed.
God’s justice reveals what is in his heart. And so, God calls us to be a just society where everyone is treated fairly, where the neediest are taken care of, where no one feels left out or abused. If anybody should care about these issues, it ought to be God’s people, those of us who share his heart and who have received his love.
It may surprise you that this is the first requirement on God’s list, but it’s something that’s clear through Scripture. After idolatry, defending the poor is the second most prominent theme in all the Old Testament.
Justice is how those of us who have look after those who don’t have. And God says, “I don’t want people who just come to church and worship me. I want them to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of those who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)
Churches are usually pretty good at charity, of helping those who are in need. But someone has made the point that every act of charity (meeting basic needs) should be balanced by an act of justice (addressing the causes that led to those needs). Charity is showing kindness. Justice is dealing with the root causes that made the charity necessary.
And so, God requires of his people that we do justice. Second…
2. LOVE KINDNESS
The word here for “kindness” is actually a very difficult Hebrew word to translate. Some translations say “love kindness” or “love mercy” or “love faithfulness” or “love goodness”. The Hebrew word is one that you may have heard of – “chesed”.
The idea of this word, according to most Biblical scholars, is a kindness or a mercy that is loyal, unfailing and that does not give up even when the person we are being kind to doesn’t deserve our kindness. It’s a covenant love. In other words, I love you because I have promised that I will love you. I have made a commitment to love you. And so, my covenant love will cause me to be kind and merciful and caring to you no matter what.
Micah is calling his people to a love that reflects God’s commitment to love us. Our God is merciful and kind and faithful to us every step of the way through every circumstance in our lives. And that’s what God requires of us as we deal with people around us.
To put it another way, to love kindness means that I will always go the extra mile to care for others because I have made a commitment to do so. I will always go the extra mile in showing kindness and mercy because I have made a promise to God.
And, when we see it that way, then we see that Micah’s second requirement of “loving kindness” is actually one step beyond “doing justice”. To “do justice” means to treat others in a way that is fair or right. But, to “love kindness” mean to be kind and good to others even when they don’t deserve it, and to do what no one but God would expect for us to do. It’s going that extra mile.
I wish that I could tell you this morning that just getting by with God and with others is sufficient. I wish that I could tell that just doing the absolute minimum would be enough. And I think we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve tried to do the minimum in our spiritual journey, in our church life. And it may be easier to live that way, but it’s not very satisfying, it’s not very effective and it rarely makes a difference in the world.
You can probably think of a store or a restaurant or a business that provides a service, that goes above and beyond what is expected by delivering a quality of customer care at a high level. And when we find that, we recognize it, we appreciate it, and we respond to it. Almost all of us have a few businesses that we will go out of our way to patronize because we appreciate their quality of customer care.
But when’s the last time you got excited about doing business with a place that just gets by? We don’t serve a God of the bare minimum. We serve a covenant-keeping God. We serve a God who has promised to be faithful and loyal and committed to us – no matter what. A God who loves us with a kindness and a mercy that exceeds our expectation, that defies what we deserve and that surprises us in its mercy more times than we want to admit.
That’s the kind of love that God has called us to show to the world around us. And when we become a people who go the extra mile in showing kindness and showing mercy and extending love to people who don’t deserve it, the world will take notice.
Do justice, love kindness, and then, finally….
3. WALK HUMBLY WITH GOD
I don’t know about you, but I’m a little surprised that this is the third requirement on the list and not the first. I don’t know that these three things are given in any particular order, but I would have thought that walking humbly with God would have been first. But, instead, God chose to put it after the way we treat others.
And none of these three requirements are easy, but this one seems particularly difficult. How do we keep humility in a culture that puts such high value on having it all, being it all, climbing the ladder of success? We live in a culture that just screams, it’s all about me,
In 1881, Booker T Washington became the President of Tuskegee Institute. Soon after, he was walking down the street when a woman stopped him. She didn’t know who he was and thought he was a day laborer. She told Washington that she needed some wood to be chopped at her home and asked if he could assist her. It just so happened that Washington had a rather free schedule that afternoon and so he said that he would be glad to help.
And so, Booker T. Washington, the President of Tuskegee Institute, went to this woman’s home and chopped her wood. In fact, he went so far as to bring some of the wood inside and neatly stack it beside the fireplace, ready to be used.
According to the story, at some point, a young girl recognized Mr. Washington and revealed his true identity to the woman who had asked for his help. She was completely embarrassed, went to him and asked his forgiveness. To which he shrugged her off and said that he was glad to help a friend and that he enjoyed the chance to do some good, manual labor.
I think that story serves as a wonderful example of what it means to walk humbly with God. There are three words in that phrase that are important.
First, the word “walk”. As I said at the beginning of this lesson, Micah doesn’t call us to be a people who merely embrace the virtues of justice, kindness and humility. He calls for action. We’re to “do justice”, “love kindness”, “walk humbly”.
In the story of Booker T. Washington, he practiced humility. This lady who encountered him didn’t attend a lecture at Tuskegee where Washington spoke for an hour on what it meant to be a humble person. Instead, she experienced in real life a president of a university who never told her who he was or reminded her of his title while willingly coming to her home and doing a very menial task of chopping wood.
Second is the word “humbly”. This is the obvious part of the Booker T Washington story. He was willing to take on a lowly task, with joy. I think that’s what’s embedded in this idea of “walking humbly”. Our call is to be people of faith who are willing to lower ourselves, a people who serve others, not acting like we’re better than anyone else. Furthermore, it is to do so with joy and to see it as a privilege.
The final word I want to emphasis is “with”. Micah doesn’t call us simply to “walk humbly”. He calls us to “walk humbly with God”. I have little doubt about where Booker T Washington’s humility came from. Washington was a person of deep faith in God. His humility with the woman was the result of his attempt to walk humbly with God.
Humility with others doesn’t happen by reading self-help books. Rather, it comes as the direct result of living in a humble relationship with God.
Micah invites us to walk humbly with God, but the humble are never passive. As we humbly walk with God, we are in the world doing justice and loving kindness.
So, the answer to the Israelites’ question, “God, what do you expect from us?” comes down to just three things. God says, “Here’s what I expect. I expect you to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with me.” So, if you don’t remember anything else I say this year, I hope this will stick with you – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
And what is clear from Micah is this — It’s not enough for us to think about it, to talk about it, to wish it, or even to pray about it. We are to do it, and love it, and walk it. When we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God, we play a role in helping to bring God’s kingdom here to this earth.
Would you bow with me in a word of prayer:
I pray that you would give us a vision of our world as you want it to be.
A world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry;
A world where the benefits of civilized life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
A world where different races and cultures live in mutual respect;
A world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
And finally, I pray that you would give us the courage to work toward creating that kind of world,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.