Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Prophetic Witness - Micah's Story

What’s in a name?

Micah has within it a powerful question that goes to the heart of a faith that is focused on God.

‘The name “Micah” is itself a vigorous affirmation of YHWH in the form of a question: “who (mi) is as (c) Yahweh (ah)? To which the implied answer is, ‘no one’ (Walter Breuggemann, An Introduction to the OT page 233)

That play on words comes into the climax of the book of Micah

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over the transgression
of the remnant of your possession?
He does not retain his anger for ever,
because he delights in showing clemency.

Micah is a contemporary of Isaiah and faces the same issues and major problems that Isaiah faced.

The word of the LORD that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.

I think sometimes if we are to navigate our way round the Bible it’s useful to have some landmarks to look out for. Lots of those landmarks are easy to spot – the five books of the law, the former prophets – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings. The latter prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.

I for one begin to get a bit lost when I get to those minor prophets who make up the book of the Twelve.

One helpful way to get your bearings in those prophets is to associate three of them with each of the three great prophets.

Isaiah of Jerusalem carried out his task of speaking truth to power in the Eighth Century. The three minor prophets you associate with Isaiah are Amos and Hosea in the Northern Kingdom, and Micah in the Soutthern Kingdom. Those four prophets Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah are often known as the great Eighth Century Prophets.

Micah comes from a small rural village, Moresheth, just to the South East of Jerusalem. He is located in the southern kingdom. And he speaks God’s words during in the days of King Jotham, King Ahaz and King Hezekiah of Judah. It is in that period that the northern kingdom, often called as here in verse 1 Samaria, fell to the Assyrian power.

Micah has that rhythm you expect in the prophets – of stern critique of what’s going wrong in the powers that be, judgement, and also of hope.

It’s the stern critique that comes to the fore as so often it does in the former prophets of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the latter prophets too.

It’s intriguing to reflect why that should be.

The story of the people of Israel is the story of the Kingdom of Israel under Saul, David and Solomon. Read their story and each comes in for heavy criticism and stern critique in Samuel and Kings. Following the death of Solomon, the kingdom divides and the sotry of the divided kingdom makes sorry reading. Most of the kings come in for stern cricitism.

And we will find it in Micah too.

I think that’s worth reflecting on.

As soon as we see the word ‘kingdom’ living in our culture, in the United Kingdom, we cannot help but think of kings. There is something particularly in the way English history is taught that holds up the kings and queens of our history and looks at them with adulation. There are those rulers that list the kings and queens. Some historians tell the story as the story of kings and queens. But actually the people from one reign to the next don’t change – another way of telling the story is through the experience of people. Take a village – Kibworth – and tell the story of the people who make up that village and the history of the land emerges as well.

It is interesting that the people who put together Samuel and Kings and told the story of the Kings of Israel land Judah did not hold their punches. They are immensely critical.

Interestingly – the Bible does not contain the annals of the kings – the state archives are now lost. What the bible contains are the writings of the people who stood their ground over against the kings and held them to account in the name of God.

Those are the prophets.

You can argue that it is not so much the story of the kings as the story of the people who in Gos’ name hold the kings to account – the prophets that takes centre-stage in the Bible.

Jesus lays claim to being in the line of the prophets and fulfilling the prophets.

So when he ushers in the kingdom of God what Jesus is doing is not returning to the golden age of the kings – there was no such thing. He is, rather, shaping the kingdom in the way the prophetic voices of dissent through the Hebrew scriptures called for.

It is fascinating to see the role that ‘dissent’ played in the life of the prophets and in the kingdom of God as Jesus ushered it in.

We should be wary of a Christian faith that lines itself up with the powers that be. An authentic Christian faith will find itself in mould of the dissenter and will speak out against the powers that be.

What shape should such dissent take?

The critique we have to offer our society has a great deal to learn from the critique of these prophets, not least Micah.

There is critique of society as social evils are denounced in chapter 2.

Micah provides a study of the corruptions that come from power. 2:1ff-

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance.

This is not just those in power do …

Chapter 3:1ff is an indictment of wicked rulers and also of those tame prophets who don’t stick their necks out and who are too compliant with the powers that be …

Listen, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Should you not know justice?—
you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin off my people,
and the flesh off their bones;
who eat the flesh of my people,
flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a cauldron.

Micah has a vision of the way things should be. He describes the kind of shape the kingdom will be that is worthy of God … this is the kind of vision taken up by Jesus in his talk of the kingdom of God …

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

What’s fasincating is that this is the shape of the kingdom that Jesus himself models and is recognised in Jesus too …

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

This is the vision of peace we will be looking to as Christmas approaches.

But that gives rise to a practical question.

If that is the vision. If this is the shape of things as they ought to. What must we do about it?

It is the Jurgen question – when Jurgen was with us he wanted to add into preaching the practical question – what should we do then?

That’s exactly what Micah does in chapter 6.

‘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 tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, 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?

That’s the verse to underline in Micah.

That’s the one to remember.

And that is the practical thing we must seek to do in the week that lies ahead.

What does the Lord require of you,
But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

Do justice. Justice is at the heart of what we are about as Christian people. Issues that we must comment on.

And we are to love kindness. We have heard a lot of criticism of hospital provision for older people. But you also see wonderful care. And I’ve seen it this last couple of weeks. People have made a point of telling me in this last few weeks – the care they have received in hospital – the kindness of nursing staff, often over-worked. What act of kindness can we do?

And then to walk humbly. The humility that honours God, and withdraws is a humility to look out for and to live by.

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