READ : Micah 6:6-8
If you’re someone who is interested in the “bottom line,” here’s the bottom line on what God requires of you: to do justice, love kindness, and live in humility before him.
Following the glory days of David and Solomon, the nation of Israel went into decline. It was split in two, and the subsequent period of the divided kingdom was marked throughout by conflict, instability and change. But from out of the turmoil of that chaotic time came the Old Testament prophets, some of the greatest religious teachers the world has ever known. Micah, a preacher of justice and righteousness, was one of them.
THAT OLD –TIME RELIGION
“Give me that old-time religion,” goes an old gospel song, written in reaction to the modernism that swept through the Christian church over the past hundred years. But what exactly is it that we look back to? How old should our “old-time” religion be? Should we go back a generation to our parent’s day; or a century; or to the Reformation 450 years ago; or to the early church? How about going all the way back to the Old Testament, to the religion described by the prophet Micah as the word of the Lord. That’s some really old-time religion!
Micah was a younger contemporary of Isaiah. But where Isaiah was a member of the nobility who spoke to kings about deep issues of theology and national policy, Micah was much humbler. He was a country boy who came from the village of Moresheth-gath, some twenty miles from Jerusalem. Micah was a friend of the oppressed, a prophet for the poor, who combined Amos’s passion for justice with Hosea’s heart of love. The times in which he lived were not good ones for the kingdom of Judah. Hezekiah reigned in Jerusalem during part of Micah’s ministry. He was a good king who did his best to reform his society, but despite his efforts, social and moral sins in Judah were fast approaching the level that had earlier brought God’s punishment upon Samaria and the northern kingdom.
What were some of the things that shocked Micah when he appeared on the scene to call his nation back to God? The list sounds very contemporary.
- The abuse of power by those who held authority as a public trust.
- The corruption of justice through widespread bribery.
- The fleecing of the poor by the rich.
- The mindless pursuit of materialism.
- Priests and prophets who dispensed false but soothing teaching for a profit.
Did Micah’s people need the old-time religion? I’m sure you would agree that they did! Purity and justice, mercy and kindness were all missing from their society. People just didn’t seem to care about those things any longer; they had lost their way. I wonder: Have we also?
SOMETHING TO BELIEVE
So we need to be reminded, called back, to true and authentic religion, as did the people in Micah’s time. But what is that? What does authentic religion involve?
In the first place, it involves something to believe. Biblical religion always starts with God’s saving action. The primary focus is on what God has done, not on what we’re supposed to do. I remember one day in college being given the assignment to write a one-sentence definition of religion. After a bit of head scratching, I came up with this effort: “Religion is man’s search for God.” That may do for some of the world’s religions, but it doesn’t describe the story of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t tell about our search for God, but about God’s search for us! The gospel is the good news that God has saved us from sin when we were helpless to save ourselves. That’s not just the story of the New Testament; it’s the theme of the Bible from cover to cover.
Listen to what Micah says in the sixth chapter of his prophecy. In the opening verses he pictures God as presenting a formal accusation against his people because of their immorality and idolatry. The imaginary trial is not set in a courtroom, but in the arena of creation itself, with the mountains, hills and the very foundations of the earth making up the jury that will listen to the case the Lord has against Israel.
“Israel, listen to the Lord’s message. . . . ‘Stand up in court. Let the mountains serve as witnesses. Let the hills hear what you have to say.’ Hear the Lord’s case, you mountains. Listen, you age-old foundations of the earth. The Lord has a case against his people Israel. He is bringing charges against them.”
God begins his case by reminding his people of all he has done for them. Have they any cause for their unfaithfulness? Why have they turned to other gods? Has the Lord ever harmed or mistreated them? No, all he has ever done for them was good. Verses 4 and 5 recite some of the mighty acts of God on behalf of his people Israel, the “righteous acts of the Lord” as Micah calls them. First, God liberated his people, setting them free from slavery in Egypt. God did that for them; they contributed nothing. The story of the exodus isn’t a jail break. It isn’t that the people managed to free themselves. No. It was completely due to divine deliverance. And then God led his people; he gave them Moses and Aaron and Miriam (and others later on) to guard, guide and keep them. All those human servants were agents really of the Lord himself, the Good Shepherd who himself brought his own flock safely through the wilderness. Finally, God preserved his people from the threatening schemes of their enemies. He protected them all along the way; he brought them, the prophet says, from Shittim to Gilgal, from their last camp in the wilderness east of the river Jordan into their first camp west of the Jordan in the promised land. All of this Micah describes, reminding the people of everything God did to liberate them from slavery and bring them to a new homeland. And this Old Testament salvation event prefigures the greater deliverance that comes to people through Christ’s death and resurrection in the New Testament.
The point is that with biblical faith we always start with something to believe, before we do anything. Before we get to morals and behavior – all the “do’s and don’ts” of religion – there is a story to hear first. It’s a story about rescue, about what God has done to save us. God is the main character and the hero. We figure in that story only as needy victims. The story describes all of God’s saving acts, the wonderful and mighty things his love has caused him to do to free us from slavery and death.
The chief difference between biblical faith and human religion is that religion starts by telling us to do something. The Bible starts by telling us to remember what God has done for us. Much religious teaching urges us to be good. What it doesn’t do is tell us how. But the gospel of the Bible does. It tells us about how God saves us. It reminds us that all our obedience and service don’t make God accept us; rather, they are a way of thanking him for loving us even when we might have behaved as badly as the people in Micah’s time.
The gospel also tells us about the Holy Spirit who turns us toward God, cleanses our hearts, renews our minds, and empowers us to live for him. So the old-time religion of the Bible starts with accepting and believing God’s salvation and receiving the gift of God’s Spirit. That is the beginning of biblical faith and religion.
SOMETHING TO DO
But true religion doesn’t stop there. Faith without works is dead, the Bible tells us. Religious teachers of every kind are not wrong in urging us to be better people. That is exactly what must and will happen when we come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. When we really and truly believe the gospel we can’t help but begin to live differently. For several years Words of Hope has broadcast gospel programs in the Nepali language. Our partners with whom we work in India in this ministry report that several churches have been started among converts resulting from those broadcasts. That’s thrilling, but what intrigues me is the name they have chosen for these congregations of new Christians: “The Church of Reformed Lives.” I like that. The term “reformed” has to describe our lives as much as it does our theology and beliefs.
The sixth chapter of the book of Micah, in one of the most famous passages in the whole Old Testament, offers a capsule version of what God requires of us in our “reformed” lives. First, he reminds us what the Lord doesn’t require:
“What should we offer the God of heaven when we bow down to him?
Should we take burnt offerings to him?
Should we sacrifice calves that are a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?
Will he take delight in 10,000 rivers of olive oil?
. . . Should we sacrifice our own children to pay for our sins?”
The people of Israel were bringing these extravagant offerings to the Temple in accordance with the Law, but at the same time they weren’t giving God what he most wanted. It was all an empty ceremony, just outward show. They were giving God gifts of the highest quality (calves a year old), and quantity (thousands of rams and rivers of oil), but they were withholding their hearts. They thought they could satisfy God by a tremendous flow of things, without really changing themselves. They would give all this money but go right on trampling upon the rights of the poor and feeling no shame or guilt about their cruel, greedy and dishonesty lives. Some people are willing to give God rich offerings, provided he leaves them alone and doesn’t make them really change. But sacrificial giving won’t do you any good, unless and until you also make a gift of yourself.
The right answer to the question, “What does God really want from me?” is beautifully outlined in Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, 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?” (rsv). That answer has three phrases but only two parts. The first part has to do with right relationships with the people around us, our families, neighbors and friends. To “do justice” is to live with integrity and fairness in all our dealings and relationships. It also includes working to see truth and righteousness prevail in our communities and in our nations. To “love kindness” means to go beyond the sometimes harsh demands of justice to demonstrate mercy as well. Notice that we are to do justice, not just admire it or talk about it. And love kindness and mercy, not just offer them begrudgingly only when we are forced to. So this is the first part of what God requires – right relationships with other human beings.
And then comes the second part, a right relationship with God himself. We must “walk humbly with [our] God.” The Law’s Ten Commandments are divided into two sections. The last six cover our duty to our neighbor, and the first four our responsibilities toward God. Just as Micah has captured the essence of how we should treat others, so he summarizes those first four commandments with this beautiful phrase, which could be translated literally, “Humble yourselves in walking with your God.”
Jesus said the same thing even more simply: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Give me some of that old-time religion.