Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Faith in God's Promises: Leadership and Courage

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry; he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them. Then Esther called for Hathach, one of the king’s eunuchs, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why. Hathach went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate, and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews. Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.

Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him. Esther 4:1-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Esther. Our reading on this Second Sunday of Advent is from the book of Esther. I’m curious. How many of you know the story of Esther? (There’s no shame here.)

Esther is the Bible’s version of novellas. It’s like the novellas that are so popular in Mexican culture - stories that, on their surface, may seem a little silly or comedic, but that have serious undertones. Esther is also one of only two books in scripture that are named after women. (Can you name the other one?) And, one more note...nowhere in Esther is God mentioned. But, more on that later.

So, what’s the backstory? The story of Esther is set in roughly the fourth century B.C. We’ve progressed in time from last week’s reading in Habakkuk, which was set before the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Under the Babylonians, the people of Judah were exiled - sent away to other parts of the empire. But, then, God sent another ruler - Cyrus the Great from Persia - to conquer Babylon. The Persians now are in power. Cyrus has allowed some Jews to return to Jerusalem. Yet, there are others who have married, settled and made these foreign lands their homes. Who stay. Who continue to live as a religious minority in the heart of the powerful Persian empire. Within the city of Susa.

This is the setting for today’s story. For Esther’s story. Now, Esther is an unlikely heroine. She is an orphan. Like the exiled Jews, she has no security or identify or family roots. She is taken in by her cousin, Mordecai, who becomes her foster parent. Yet, this living situation is short-lived. Esther is very beautiful. And when the king - King Ahasuerus, who is better known as Xerxes - when he dismisses his queen because she has refused to obey him, Xerxes sends his officials out into the city and surrounding area. To find all of the beautiful women - beautiful virgins - and bring them back. To create a harem. Which will allow Xerxes to audition them. One by one. Until he finds the right one to be his queen.  

Esther is swept up in this search and taken from Mordecai’s home to the palace. It is there that she is thrown into the political and sexual intrigue of the royal court.

Soon it is Esther’s turn to audition. She is prepared for her audition. She is given six months of treatment with pleasant-smelling creams. And another six months with fragrant oils. She is given carefully chosen foods to eat. She is given seven servants and moved with them into the best rooms in the harem. After a year has passed, it is her turn to audition before Xerxes. 

We are told in chapter 3, that the king loved Esther more than all the other women. That she had won his love and his favor more than all the others. He placed the royal crown on her head and made her his queen. And then he held a lavish feast - “the feast of Esther” - for the entire court. He declared a public holiday. And gave out gifts with royal generosity. It was a huge celebration for Esther, the new queen.

But, Esther had a problem. She had a secret. No one, including the king - no one knew that she was Jewish. No one knew that her name really wasn’t Esther, but that it was Hadassah. As she was being taken to the king’s harem, her foster father Mordecai tells her not to tell anyone. Not to share her family background. Or her race. And, so, she hadn’t. She’d kept her secret.

Now Mordecai worked at the King’s Gate. One of the king’s officials was named Haman. Haman was an Amalekite, people who were enemies of Judah. Every time Haman passed by the King’s Gate, all of the workers would bow facedown to him, because the king had ordered it. All of the workers, except one. Mordecai. At first Haman didn’t notice. But, when the other workers mentioned this to him, he began to pay attention, and to see that Mordecai wasn’t kneeling or bowing down to him. Haman became very angry. He decided to kill not only Mordecai, but all of the Jews throughout the entire Persian kingdom.

So Haman went to the king. And convinced the king to issue an order. To exterminate all of the Jews, young and old, even women and little children. This was to happen one day in the near future. All of them would be killed. All of their property would also be seized on that day. The order was posted throughout the kingdom.

It is at this point where our story today opens. When Mordecai learns about the order, he is not silent. He tears his clothes, dresses in mourning clothes, puts ashes on his head, and then goes into the heart of the city and begins to cry out. Loudly. And bitterly. He begins to mourn. As more of the Jews hear about the order, they, too, begin to mourn and cry out.

Word of this reaches Esther in the palace. She sends Mordecai everyday clothing to wear, but he rejects it. Then, she sends one of her servants to go to Mordecai and to find out why he is acting this way. Her servant returns with the full story. It also includes a request from Mordecai to Esther - that she go to the king to seek his kindness and his help for her people.

When Esther hears this, she becomes afraid. Even in her position as queen, she does not recognize her own power and privilege. She is afraid that if she enters the king’s inner courtyard without a direct summons from him, that she will be put to death. Not to mention the fact that the king doesn’t know that she is a Jew.

When Mordecai hears how afraid she is, he sends word to her. He tells her that, even though she is queen, she will not be spared from the order. But that, because of her position, she is in exact place she needs to be to help her people. “Maybe,” Mordecai says to her. “Maybe it was for such a time as this that you came to be part of the royal family.” Finally, Esther sends word back. “Tell the Jews to fast and to pray for me. I will go to the king. Even though it’s against the law, I will go to him. If I am to die, then die I will.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the book of Esther, as I mentioned before, is that nowhere in the entire book is God mentioned. Nowhere in the book are there any theophanies - where God appears to a human. Nowhere in the book are there any angels who appear, saying, “Do not be afraid.” Nowhere in the book are there any prophets sent directly to the people by God. God is hidden in Esther’s story. Just as God is often hidden in our stories.

But, just because God is hidden, doesn’t mean that God is not at work. Esther’s story is a story about how we are to live as people of God. People who have been freed through the gift of life in Jesus Christ, given to us by God. But people who must still live and act in this world. How are we to act as people of God when the forces of death, evil, and violence seem so prominent. And the forces of God - the forces of life - seem so hidden. How are we to act?

Luther speaks to this directly in his writings on the two kingdoms. That our lives are a struggle between two cities: the city of God, which consists of those who love God and are obedient to God. And the city of the earth, which consists of those who love themselves and are dominated by the sin of pride. How are we to live and act in this world as God’s people especially when the values of this earthly kingdom conflict with our understanding of God’s kingdom?

How are we to live and act as countries put up border walls, yet we know that in God’s kingdom there are no borders? How are we to live and act when people are called “illegal,” but we know that God has created all people, and that Christ died on the cross for all people, and so that, in God’s kingdom, no one is illegal? How are we to live and act when the world tells us to find our security in weaponry, yet we know that our security is to be found in God? How are we to live and act in the world when the forces of death, evil and violence seem so prominent. And seem to be winning. And the forces of God seem hidden.

Perhaps it is for such a time as this. Perhaps it is for such a time as this that you and I have been called.  Like Esther, to act on the side of life. Even when it seems that God is nowhere to be found. Perhaps it is for such a time as this that you and I have been called to a place of courage. And leadership. And discipleship. Called to act on the side of life. On God’s side. Together. Even when it seems that God is hidden. Knowing that God continues to be at work in our world. Through us.

Perhaps it is for such a time as this. Amen.

Preached December 9, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 2
Readings: Esther 4:1-17; Matthew 5:13-16

Faith in God's Promises: Waiting and Watching

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen?
        I cry out to you, “Violence!”
            but you don’t deliver us.
Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish
        so that devastation and violence are before me?
There is strife, and conflict abounds.
        The Instruction is ineffective.
            Justice does not endure
            because the wicked surround the righteous.
        Justice becomes warped.

The Lord responds:
Look among the nations and watch!
        Be astonished and stare
            because something is happening in your days
                that you wouldn’t believe even if told.
I am about to rouse the Chaldeans,
        that bitter and impetuous nation,
            which travels throughout the earth to possess dwelling places it does not own.
The Chaldean is dreadful and fearful.
        He makes his own justice and dignity.

I will take my post;
        I will position myself on the fortress.
        I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me
        and how he will respond to my complaint.

Then the Lord answered me and said,
Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet
    so that a runner can read it.
        There is still a vision for the appointed time;
            it testifies to the end;
                it does not deceive.
    If it delays, wait for it;
        for it is surely coming; it will not be late.
Some people’s desires are truly audacious;
            they don’t do the right thing.
        But the righteous person will live honestly.

God comes from Teman
        and the holy one from the mountain of Paran.
His majesty covers the heavens
        and his praise fills the earth.
His radiance is like the sunlight,
        with rays flashing from his hand.
        That is the hiding place of his power.
Pestilence walks in front of him.
        Plague marches at his feet.
He stops and measures the earth.
        He looks and sets out against the nations.
The everlasting mountains collapse;
        the eternal hills bow down;
        the eternal paths belong to him.
Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
            and there’s no produce on the vine;
        though the olive crop withers,
            and the fields don’t provide food;
        though the sheep are cut off from the pen,
            and there are no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
        I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.
The Lord God is my strength.
        He will set my feet like the deer.
        He will let me walk upon the heights.  Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:3b-6, 17-19 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

As we began worship today, I mentioned that one focus today was the issue of injustice. We will get to that topic in a moment. There is a second focus in our text this morning from the prophet Habakkuk. (How often have we read from this prophet?) That second focus is the topic of waiting.

Waiting. Who here likes to wait? Anyone? What are some of the things that we wait for? 

Sometimes it can seem to take forever for something to happen, especially if we’re hoping for something good. Time can seem to slow to a standstill. At the time that Habakkuk was written, God’s people had been waiting a long time for a savior. For a Messiah. They’d been waiting for centuries. They envisioned a powerful leader. A king who would defeat their enemies. And restore their people and the kingdom. 

They trusted God. But, just like us, it was hard to have patience. It was hard to keep the faith. As they witnessed more and more injustice in their world, it was hard to believe that this promised Messiah would come. It was hard to wait. 

It is here where Habakkuk opens. With a lament. “How long, O Lord? How long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us.”

We know very little about this prophet. We believe that Habakkuk lived in southern Judah just before Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Babylonians. Like the other prophets we’ve heard from, he was no stranger to the unfaithfulness of God’s people to the covenant. But, unlike the other prophets, this wasn’t his primary focus. Rather than speaking out against Judah, Habakkuk questions God. And God’s methods and timing. “Lord, how long? There is strife and conflict abounds. The Instruction. Or the Torah. Or your Word! Is ineffective. There is no justice because the wicked surround those who are righteous. So, justice has become warped. How long, God, will you allow this to be?”

Have you ever lamented like this to God? Have you ever cried out, “How long, O Lord?” We look out at a world where it seems evil has the upper hand. Where those who are wicked seem to be winning in this world. Where those who are good are the losers. Where the faithful suffer. Where bad things happen to good people. And so, we cry out to God, “How long?”

God responds. But not in the way that Habakkuk wants. “Behold,” God responds. “I am sending the Chaldeans (or the Babylonians). That fierce and impetuous people who march through the earth. Who seize dwelling places that are not theirs. They are dreaded and feared. They create their own justice and authority.”

“What?!?” Habakkuk cries. He believed that God was going to end injustice, not raise up another people who build their entire empire on injustice. He could accept God judging the guilty, but the Babylonians are even worse than the Assyrians. Or Judah. 

So, then, Habakkuk makes his primary complaint against God. In verse 13 of chapter 1. “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil. You cannot look on wickedness with favor,” he says to God. “Why are you silent when the wicked swallow up the ones who are more righteous than they are?” Habakkuk demands an answer from God. He describes himself as a vigilant guard at his post on the watchtower. Waiting for God’s response. 

Then, in this continuing back and forth between Habakkuk and God, God responds a second time. “There is still a vision for the appointed time,” God says. “It testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late.” 

God tells Habakkuk to write down this vision. To write it onto tablets so that everyone can read it. A vision about an appointed time when God will bring judgment against Babylon. But, not just Babylon. Like the other prophets before him, Habakkuk uses cosmic language. Language that goes beyond only Babylon, or any single nation, but language that confronts the horrific and unjust practices that are shared among all evil nations. “Doom to those who plunder, who obtain gain through evil means. To those who build towns by bloodshed. To those who humiliate others. To those who trust in idols. Doom to them!” 

God stands above and against all this evil. Habakkuk’s God. Our God. Whose majesty covers the heavens. Whose praise fills the earth. Whose radiance is like the sunlight with rays flashing from his hand - the hiding place of his power. Who destroys pestilence and plague. Who looks and sets out against evil nations. For whom the mountains collapse. The hills bow down. The paths belong.

“So, be faithful,” God tells Habakkuk. “Because, I will hold them to account. In the meantime, be faithful. Because, even though others do evil, the righteous will live by faith.”

The righteous will live by faith. Sometimes, it’s easier said than done, isn’t it? This faith thing. When we look at our world and it seems as though everything is evil. Or it seems that God’s Word no longer is effective. Or the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Or even when we look at our own lives, and it feels as though everything is falling apart.  Sometimes this living by faith is just hard. What are we to believe? How does this vision help us when we are struggling with injustice, whether it is injustice in our broader world or what just feels unfair in our own lives?

To answer this, I will need 3-4 volunteers. Come together in a circle. It is here, in the center, where God is. Now stay exactly where you are, but turn around, facing out. When I tell you to take one step, everyone should take one small step out. 

Injustice has a tendency to separate us from God and from others around us. When we see poverty and try to protect what is ours. (Take one step.) When we pretend we don’t see a bully or an abuser. (Take one step.) When we mistrust someone based simply on their appearance. (Take one step.) When we see suffering or lack of hope in another and do nothing. (Take one step.)

Do you see how injustice separates us from each other? How it isolates us from others so we see only ourselves and no one else. And, especially, do you see how it separates us from God?

What happens when we turn back to God? When the central focus in our life is God?  (Everyone turn around.) When we share the blessings God has given us with others. (Take one step in.) When we stand up to those who are being harmed by others. (Take one step in.) When we see others who are hurting, others who are created by God, and seek to comfort them. (Take one step in.) This is what happens when our focus is back on God. (Volunteers may be seated.)

In this time between. Between the breaking into the world of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ. Emmanuel. God with us. Between Christ’s first coming to deliver and redeem us and the time when Christ will come again and God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness. In this time between, as we wait for the day of distress to come against the people or those things that attack us, we are called to be faithful. To put our focus on God, our gracious God. To worship God fully, with our whole hearts. And to work for justice. Because when we do this, we are doing God’s will. We are becoming more fully who we are meant to be as God’s people. We see those who are suffering and we reach out to them. And we are all brought together. With God in our midst.

“I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.” Habakkuk proclaims. “The Lord God is my strength. God will set my feet like the deer. God will let me walk upon the heights.” Amen.

Preached December 2, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 1
Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:3b-6, 17-19; Matthew 26:36-38.

God's Plan for Peace: Peace in Troubled Times

Assyria’s King Sennacherib marched against all of Judah’s fortified cities and captured them in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah. Assyria’s king sent his field commander from Lachish, together with a large army, to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. He stood at the water channel of the Upper Pool, which is on the road to the field where clothes are washed. Hilkiah’s son Eliakim, who was the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Asaph’s son Joah the recorder went out to them.

Then the field commander stood up and shouted in Hebrew at the top of his voice: “Listen to the message of the great king, Assyria’s king. The king says this: Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you. He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us. This city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’

“Don’t listen to Hezekiah, because this is what Assyria’s king says: Surrender to me and come out. Then each of you will eat from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own well until I come to take you to a land just like your land. It will be a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, ‘The Lord will rescue us.’ Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Did they rescue Samaria from my power? Which one of the gods from those countries has rescued their land from my power? Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?”

When King Hezekiah heard this, he ripped his clothes, covered himself with mourning clothes, and went to the Lord’s temple. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son. They were all wearing mourning clothes. They said to him, “Hezekiah says this: Today is a day of distress, punishment, and humiliation. It’s as if children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through. Perhaps the Lord your God heard all the words of the field commander who was sent by his master, Assyria’s king. He insulted the living God! Perhaps he will punish him for the words that the Lord your God has heard. Offer up a prayer for those few people who still survive.”

When King Hezekiah’s servants got to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your master: The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid at the words you heard, which the officers of Assyria’s king have used to insult me. I’m about to mislead him, so when he hears a rumor, he’ll go back to his own country. Then I’ll have him cut down by the sword in his own land.”

This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In the days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war.  Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, we began the first of three weeks talking about peace. More specifically, talking about God’s plan for peace and how we, as God’s people, are called to be participants in that plan. It’s easy, I think, to work towards peace when times are good. When economies are good. When relationships with others are good. When our lives are going well.

What happens, though, when everything seems to be falling apart? How are we to be peacemakers in the midst of conflict? Or challenge? Or difficulty? When things feel completely hopeless?

It is that context where we find Jerusalem in today’s story. We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about the advance of the Assyrian empire. Last week, in our text from Micah, we learned that the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen into the hands of the empire. And how the empire’s army had continued to advance into Judah and to get ever closer to Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been able to withstand the reach of the empire by paying tribute to the Assyrians. Paying them off. Buying their freedom. 

As our story opens today, Jerusalem is surrounded by the Assyrian army. They have ravaged Judah - knocking off fortified city after city. Forty-six of them in all. People from the villages surrounding Jerusalem have fled to Jerusalem. It has become overcrowded. Resources are stretched. Food is scarce. Water, too. The temple treasury has been depleted by tribute demanded by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. Even the treasure of Judah’s king - King Hezekiah - has been depleted. The city is under siege.  

At the command of his emperor, the Assyrian field commander approaches the city. Hezekiah sends out three of his high officials to meet him. But, the Assyrian field commander isn’t really interested in talking to them. His plan is to sow distrust. Rather than speaking to Hezekiah’s emissaries, he goes directly to the people. He speaks in Hebrew - their language - to the men watching from on top of the city’s walls.  “Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you,” he says. “He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the LORD by saying, ‘The LORD will certainly rescue us.’”

He goes on to call for their surrender. For peace and an end to the battle. With promises of food and drink. It’s a clever tactic. A strategic attempt to win over their “hearts and minds.” What are they to do?

We know - and they know, too - that peace isn’t found by surrendering to a superior force to avoid conflict. True peace is God’s shalom - part of the fabric of God’s kingdom. It is an essential part of God’s promise and God’s plan for us and for the world. In the Isaiah 2 passage, we heard a description of what that true peace means. It means putting down swords and spears and other instruments of war. And re-fashioning them into farming tools. So, that the earth might be cultivated and flourish. And bring forth fullness and life for everyone, not just the few in power. 

But, this is not the peace that the Assyrian commander is offering. He is, instead, offering appeasement. Giving up to his demands simply to avoid conflict. This is a misguided kind of peace, because it ensures that the powerful are still in control. And that injustice and oppression will continue.

What are they to do? Hezekiah shows them. And us. He turns to Isaiah, God’s prophet. Asking him to pray for God’s help. Because his trust is not misplaced. Hezekiah’s trust is not in his own abilities or in the promises of his Assyrian enemies. Hezekiah’s trust is in God. It is a well-placed trust. God delivers Jerusalem from the Assyrian army.

This story is intended to give us a glimpse into God’s vision of peace. A glimpse into what God’s kingdom is to look like. A kingdom initiated with Jesus. A kingdom that God has promised will, one day, come into fruition. A kingdom of peace. And fullness. And flourishing. A kingdom of shalom. God’s desired kingdom of shalom

If you’ve been paying attention this week to the news, you might have heard the growing count of lives lost in the fire in northern California. The growing number of people missing. The growing number of homes and other structures destroyed. In one story, a pastor there told of an experience he had with one of five people staying in his office - a young 21-year-old man, who fled with only the clothes he was wearing. When this pastor took him to the local KMart to purchase clothing items that he couldn’t get at Goodwill, the young man turned to him and asked, “Are you sure you want to spend this money on me?” 

In times like this, when it seems like all hope is lost, when people’s sense of worth has been beaten up whether by natural or manmade disaster or by other challenges, how do we, as God’s people, begin to help our neighbors, whether they be next door or across the world...how do we help them begin to experience shalom? To find a sense of hope in God’s promise - promises of peace, of fullness, of flourishing for all people. In the midst of challenge, of war, of injustice, of devastation, and of uncertainty, where is hope to be found? (Read Wangari’s Trees of Peace.)

Small steps. Hope is found in the small things. In the planting of nine seedlings that would turn into a reforestation movement across Africa. In taking someone shopping in KMart, someone who has lost everything, so that they might begin to find hope and belief in their future. Or to give out 144 turkeys to those who might otherwise not have been able to afford to share Thanksgiving dinner with their families, so that they, too, might have a taste of the abundance of God’s kingdom. Hope is found in the small things. In small steps.  

We may run into resistance. Resistance that comes from our sin and brokenness. Resistance from those who have grown tired and cynical. Or from those who are afraid to relinquish power. Or from those who lack God’s vision of shalom

Yet, even in the midst of conflict and resistance. Even in the midst of troubled times, God calls us to trust. To trust in God and in God’s plan for peace. And to continue doing God’s work. So that all people might taste shalom and that the world might be given a glimpse of God’s kingdom. A glimpse of God’s plan for peace. Day by day. Step by step.


Preached November 18, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 26
Readings: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4; Matthew 5:14

God's Plan for Peace: Practicing Peace

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today, with our reading from the prophet Micah, we make a shift. It’s actually our third shift this fall. We began in September in the Torah - those first five books of the Hebrew scripture that are the instruction manual for Israel - instructions that teach them about who God is and who they are to be in relationship with God. 

In October, we shifted into the historical books of the Old Testament. The books that tell us about the history of God’s chosen people, Israel. About their nation and their leadership. And, especially about Kings David and Solomon. Then, last week, in our story of the Prophet Elisha and Naaman, we began to make a shift - a transition that becomes complete today - from the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures to the prophets. Books like Isaiah. And Jeremiah. And Habakkuk (that’s one we don’t read often!). And, today, from the Prophet Micah.

So, what do we know about Micah? Anyone? He is in the list of those we call the “minor prophets.” Now that’s not intended to be a derogatory term. It just refers to the length of the prophets’ writing. The smaller books are called the minor prophets. Books like Hosea, and Joel, and Amos, and, of course, Micah. These are in contrast to the larger books, what we call the “major prophets” - like Isaiah and Jeremiah and a few others.

Micah is what we call a pre-exilic prophet. This means that he lived and wrote in the times before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people. 

Last week, we talked about how, after Solomon’s reign, the conflict between the northern and southern tribes of Israel had grown to the point that the kingdom split in two. Permanently. In the north was the kingdom of Israel. The capital of the northern nation of Israel was Samaria. 

The southern kingdom was known as Judah, named after one of the twelve tribes. Its capital was Jerusalem. Elisha, whom we learned about last week, was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel. He had been sent to the northern tribes to warn them about the coming threat at their northern border by the Assyrians.  

By the time we get to Micah, about 100 years has passed. Israel and its capital city, Samaria, have fallen to the Assyrians in the north. In a series of power-building moves, Assyria had proceeded to move south and annex more territory. This included lands near Jerusalem - tribes who had refused to pay tribute to Assyria. The Assyrians are edging closer and closer to Jerusalem. The only thing, so far, that has helped Jerusalem avoid the fate of its neighbors to the north is that its king - Hezekiah - has agreed to pay tribute to Assyria, so that Jerusalem can remain independent.

But, there is a another threat, a growing threat, to Jerusalem coming from the south. The Babylonians are approaching. It is at this point in time where we first hear from Micah. He was a contemporary of Isaiah. The difference between the two of them was that Isaiah was a city boy - born in Jerusalem. And Micah, well, we might call him that “country bumpkin.” He was from a small, rural village in the south, called Moresheth. So, you can imagine the response to him by those in the city - in sophisticated Jerusalem - as he warned them of impending doom. A warning in the opening verses of Micah. 

Look! The Lord is coming out from his place;
        he will go down and tread on the shrines of the earth.
Then the mountains will melt under him;
        the valleys will split apart,
            like wax yielding to the fire,
            like waters poured down a slope.
All this is for the crime of Jacob
        and the sins of the house of Israel.
        Who is responsible for the crime of Jacob?
                Isn’t it Samaria?
            Who is responsible for the shrines of Judah?
                Isn’t it Jerusalem? Micah 1:3-5 (CEB)

Micah was trying to warn Jerusalem that it would soon suffer the same fate as Samaria in the north. That it would fall, like the north, because of its sin - because of its idolatry and, particularly, of its injustice. This was the primary focus of Micah’s challenge to them. The injustice that its leaders engaged in. Political. And religious leaders. Micah claims its rulers abhor justice. And pervert equity. They are susceptible to bribes. Its priests, he says, teach for a price. They offer visions for a price. They prophesy “peace” to those who pay them well. But declare war against those who do not pay. 

Both the political and the religious leaders have an inherent desire for power. They can all be bought for a price. Their priorities are to gain power and wealth for themselves and not to practice justice for the community they serve. They destroy the people who depend upon them. They devour them. They use them. They abuse them.

Power can be a very seductive thing. Abusing it even more so. When, I worked in the courts in the 1990’s, we saw it. Frequently. We jokingly called it “black robe disease.” When a judge became seduced by his or her own power and began to abuse and misuse it.  Often completely unaware that they had caught the disease. Because power is not only seductive, it is deceptive.

This is what Micah was confronting the leaders about. Because he knew that corrupt leaders are sometimes responsible for the fall of nations. And churches. And so Micah speaks the prophetic word. Word that is intended to enrich the life of the whole community. Word that is, particularly, about justice and equity for those who are powerless.

But, Micah’s word is not only gloom and doom. It is also one of hope. Micah goes to Jerusalem, not to destroy their hope, but to re-center it. To give the people a vision of the future, a vision of hope. We read in chapter 5.

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace.  Micah 5:2-5a (CEB)

We hear these words - these words often from Advent - we hear them with 20/20 hindsight. Yet, for Israel, they were a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Of how God had previously kept God’s promises to them, delivering them out of slavery, and raising up a lowly shepherd from Bethlehem, Jesse’s son. King David. Micah’s words were a reminder for them of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. And, yet, they were also a new promise - a promise of a new king, one who would rule the earth. And One who would bring peace.  

It is to these words of hope, then, that the people respond. From Micah, chapter 6. 

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  Micah 6:6-8 (CEB)

“What do you want from us?” This is really the question they are asking. Perhaps they are bargaining, sensing that they are in the midst of a massive national upheaval. They feel the threat and understand the need to be saved. “What do you want from us?" they ask. And then they begin their offers. Offers that begin with a year-old calf, which would be a normal offering, like a tithe. But, then, offers that become extraordinary. From thousands of rams and many streams of oil - massive offerings - to the very personal. Pieces of themselves. Their first-born children. 

“What do you want from us?” the leaders ask. 

It’s simple, Micah tells them. What the Lord requires is very simple. Three things. To do justice. To love kindness. And to walk humbly with God. Three things that are so simple. But, three things that are not easy.

You and I - we have that gift of hindsight. We know that God’s plan for peace would not rely on Judah’s leaders, or on us, to do these three things. We know that God’s plan for peace would be a one-sided plan. One in which God would come down to us, as God always does, in the most humble way - as a child. A child who would grow up to bear our sin and the sins of the whole world. Who would die on the cross for us. And, through whom, we would understand the true nature of God. Grace. Forgiveness. Love. And peace.

Because that is God’s dream. A dream of peace. It is also our best response in a world that for us, too, seems to be in great upheaval. But, how do we do these three simple things, especially when we know they are not easy. Sometimes, we find deep truth in places other than scripture. In simple places. In children’s books, such as in one written by Desmond Tutu, entitled, “God’s Dream.” 

May we, who have been freed through God’s grace, continue to do God’s work. Of justice. Of kindness. Of walking humbly with our God. So that God might smile and we might see more rainbows. Amen.

Preached November 11, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 25
Readings: Micah 1:3-5, 5:2-5a, 6:6-8; Matt. 9:13