“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 then 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?
Today, we are beginning a 3-part series of messages on how to become great. Today, we’re looking at step one. Next week, we’ll look at step two, and can you guess what we’ll look at the week following?
This series has one question at its core: How can we be great in the kingdom of God? Now, I am making some assumptions about us today. I assume that everyone here wants to be great in the kingdom of God. I assume that because I sent out my e-pistle earlier in the week, and here’s what I said: “Please don’t come to worship for the next three weeks if you’d rather be great in your own eyes or in the eyes of the world than be great according to God’s design. You’re only going to end up getting angry, because you’ll be told to re-orient your life’s priorities around God’s desires and not your own. I’d rather avoid a mob of angry people outside my office who are comfortable with the status quo and don’t want to change in the ways God wants them to, so only come if you want to hear what God says about how you can become truly great.”
So, I assume that everyone here today is here because you truly want to be great in the kingdom of God. But, perhaps you got confused about what we’re going to do today, and you really don’t want to be transformed into a great person in the eyes of God and would rather continue to live your life your way and not God’s way. If so, feel free to leave now. I want to be clear about what today is about. It’s about being truly great in the kingdom of God. And here’s a hint: it’s not about becoming great in business. It’s not becoming great in power. It’s not about becoming great in wealth. It’s not about becoming great in bed. It’s not about becoming great in parenting. It’s not about becoming great in the church – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. So I’m giving you one last chance – feel free to get up and leave through those doors and not come back for the next two Sundays, because you won’t be interested in what we’re doing.
Today, we’re looking at the first step of becoming great in the kingdom of God, and we find that the first step is the Great Requirement, found back in the Old Testament prophet of Micah. Written 800 years before the birth of Jesus, Micah calls the people back to their roots and recovering the very identity they seem to have so readily lost and ignored. Micah, whose name literally means, “Who is like the Lord,” calls the community to remember the things that are truly important in the eyes of God, and that’s what we’re going to do for a little bit this morning. May we pray.
OK, so everyone here wants to be a great person in the kingdom of God. Are we in agreement? Is that what we’re all here for this morning? Do you think what God has to say about being great in the kingdom of God is important? Do you think it’s something worth paying attention to? Then let me invite you to do a few things. If your cell phone is currently on, turn it off – not to vibrate – completely off. The exception to this is if you take notes on your phone as I sometimes do or are planning to send text messages to other people in the congregation about things in the sermon. If you have photos you wish to share with the people around you, let me ask you to put those away until after worship. Please put away your to-do list, your shopping list, your crossword puzzles, or whatever else it is you’re working on that’s not related to what we’re doing now. Please stop talking to the people beside you or in front of you or behind you, and if the person near you is doing something that is distracting you from participating in worship, you have my permission to ask them, kindly and politely and in all the Christian love you can muster, to stop.
Now, if the phone call you are expecting is so important that you must leave your phone on, if whatever list you’re working on is so important, if that conversation is so important you feel compelled to have it now, please leave now so we won’t be a distraction to what you feel is so important. Take a look around – none of us is the only person here today! Maybe, just maybe, the person sitting next to you would like to pay attention. Maybe they have something they want to know today. We are here as part of a community, which means that our actions necessary affect those around us. And this, of course, brings us back to our text.
The people of Israel often exploited the vulnerable rather than care for them; they embraced violence and war, instead of loving their enemies; and they worshiped idols and not God alone. In short, the people have broken their covenant relationship with God, and such a fracture has devastating effects on the lives of those around them.
The people have been living lives that are far from what God wants, but what is most distressing is that they think their conduct has been exactly what God wanted. Weren’t sacrifices the way to keep a god in the ancient world happy – what more could God possibly want?
But for the people of Israel, sacrifice was not a way to magically appease God. By themselves, sacrifice did not achieve reconciliation with God; Psalm 51:15-17 makes that abundantly clear: O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Sacrifice was not the way to earn God’s favor. Rather, it was the celebration of God’s grace – a recognition of what God had already done in the heart and disposition of a person – a sacramental act of response in which the worshiper acknowledged her relationship with God and made a recommitment to live in covenant with God – and necessarily, in covenant with everyone else.
We see that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. Think of the process of breaking a wild horse. What is being broken? The horse’s wild, rebellious nature, of course. The process of breaking a horse is about training it and bringing its will under submission – about breaking its will, so to speak. Or, think of breaking in a new pair of shoes. Why do we break them in? What are we breaking in? We are trying to break the shape of the shoe that resists against the shape of our foot, and give it the opportunity to conform to our foot.
The same is true of a broken spirit before God. Our wild, rebellious wills need to be broken and brought under submission to God. The shape of our will that resists against the shape of God needs to be broken and conformed ever more into the image and likeness of God.
And here’s the crux of the issue: the people thought they were worshiping God the way God desired. They thought their praises and sacrifices were pleasing and acceptable to God, because they thought that’s all God wanted. Sacrifices and outward expressions of worship were only a small part of what God wanted, but they had so elevated their role that they forgot God truly wanted their hearts. God wanted the center of their affection and disposition to be turned toward God, and God wanted them to live that out in their relationships with those around them.
They thought that if they just showed up to church on time, put in their hour sitting in worship, dressed nicely and looking like a respectable member of the community, that was enough. But God is clear – worship is not only about sitting in church and participating in the community’s celebration, even as important as it is to do so. Worship is something God desires for us to do 24/7. It’s not just singing songs, praying prayers, hearing the Word of God, and giving an offering; every aspect of our lives should be an expression of worship. What we do on Sundays here in this place is great, but Micah reminds us that how we live our lives when we walk out of this place is even more important.
The real issue here is idolatrous worship in which the people have replaced the worship of God in living their daily lives with only lip service on Sunday. By reducing worship to a single act or a single hour, we, like the people of Micah’s day, can slip away from worshiping God while we are supposedly worshiping. If we think showing up for an hour a few times a month is all God desires, we will have substituted the process for God or the means or the institution or the church itself for God, and we will have begun worshiping something other than God.
Friends, our worship on Sunday means nothing if it has no effect on how we live on Monday. If we come and sit in these pews week after week and are not transformed through the grace of God to live lives that are pleasing to God, our worship means nothing. We of all people are most to be pitied if we sit in these pews week after week and are still the same people we were when we came in.
The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken heart – when’s the last time you let down your guard and truly allowed God to break your heart? There are things we need to let go of – our pride, our anger, our resentments, our arrogance, our mean spirits – in order that God can break our hearts and mold them. If these are things that persist in your life, as your pastor, I’m begging you to let them go. If you insist on hanging onto them, I can’t even begin to describe the damage you’ll do to others, this church, and yourself. Please, let them go. In fact, right now, close your eyes and take a deep breath. What is that thing that keeps God from being able to break your heart? In your mind, name it. Imagine that thing wrapped like a hard shell around your heart. Now, imagine God taking a big hammer and breaking that hard shell into tiny, unrecognizable bits and sweeping away the broken pieces. Now, picture God gently, lovingly, patiently, carefully molding your heart – your attitudes, your disposition, the center of your being, your values, the things that you feel define you – imagine God molding them upward toward God, and outward toward everyone else around you.
In our text, the people ask, “What does God want?” The response comes back, “He has shown 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?”
God, who is immortal, who is wise, who is loving, who is kind, whose ways are higher and greater and nobler than our ways, who formed paths that are yet unknown to us, has shown us what is good. What does God require? Repeat after me: Do justice (reply). Love kindness (reply). Walk humbly with God (reply).
My sisters and brothers, if you want to be great in the kingdom of God, the first step is following this Great Requirement – to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. There’s no way around it. It’s a requirement. Life is full of requirements. Get used to it. No arguments. No fuss. Quit making a stink about it. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, the Great Requirement is step one.
The requirements of God are not some sort of strict legal list we can check off and tally the points to see if we have earned enough to please God. The requirements are placed in the framework of a relationship with God and with others. Micah defines God’s requirements in terms of general principles rather than specific actions. While some might argue that this interpretation lessens the requirements, in actuality, for those who truly follow, in only increases the responsibility. The Great Requirement outlines for us the way of extreme commitment and discipleship – this is only for people who are serious about following God. But how do we follow it?
The first part is to do justice. No doubt you’ve heard the story of a woman who went to a photographer to have her portraits done. When she received the proofs, she complained, “These pictures don’t do me justice.” The photographer replied, “Lady, you don’t need justice; you need mercy.”
The call to do justice rings throughout the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” Amos thunders as he compares it to a raging river flowing over a parched desert of injustice (Amos 5:24).
Justice is not a legal term here. It is a relational term. It comes out of an understanding that we are all bound together in community. Part of our mission statement is that we are a Christian community, and one of the cornerstones of community is justice. It means the full inclusion of everyone in the community, it’s about restoring the marginalized to their rightful place as full participants in the community. It involves the basic needs, requirements, or even rights of people living together in community. It is, therefore, decidedly social in nature. In short, doing justice is about looking out for the others in our world.
Those who are following God wholeheartedly will do justice. We have an obligation to rectify the inequities of a society that allows some to be oppressed to the point where they are deprived of the basic needs and requirements that would allow them to function as part of the community.
Let me be very clear about the cost of doing justice. Sometimes because of our commitment to God’s truth and justice, we must stand against the tide. We may find ourselves at odds with our respectable social circles. Because of our commitment to God’s truth and justice, sometimes we are called to stand against the tide. Doing that always has consequences, but if that happens, and if we are faithful – God can speak words through us that will never be silenced.
Can you forget the powerful photograph that must have appeared in every newspaper in the world in 1989? A street in Beijing, empty except for a menacing column of tanks, and a young student unarmed and alone, blocking their way with outstretched arms. We don’t know his fate, but knowing regime, we can be sure that he suffered. We don’t even know his name, but nothing the government does can silence the ringing witness for freedom spoken by God through him on that day.
And justice is not the same thing as fairness. Perhaps you remember Jesus’ story about laborers in the vineyard. The landowner went to the marketplace early in the morning, and hired laborers to come work in his vineyard and agreed to pay them the standard daily wage. He went back several times later in the day, and kept hiring laborers to work in his vineyard. At the end of the day, he paid the workers who had come latest and done the least work first, and he paid them for an entire day’s work. Finally, at the end of the line came the workers who were hired first, and the landowner paid them exactly the same thing, and they were furious, because those who had done far less work than they had received the same reward.
Justice is not about what’s fair. The kingdom of God is not a business deal. It’s not a contract. It’s a covenant. As soon as we start looking at bottom-line and asking “What’s in it for me?” we have stepped away from doing justice and expect the kingdom of God to have the same rules of hard work and reward as the world.
How quickly we begrudge God for giving the same reward to those we perceive have done less than ourselves. Of course, I compare myself with those who have done less than I have. I never compare myself with those who have done more. How quickly I forget that I have also received more than I deserve, how quickly we forget that we have all received more than we deserve. If we’re always focused on our bottom line, we will never be able to do justice.
However, when we realize how greatly we have been rewarded in spite of the ways we have failed God, it is easier to do justice. If we are truly following God, if our hearts have been broken and we have allowed God to shape our hearts, we will do justice. The witness of the prophets is clear: a follower of the Lord does justice. Period. End of story. It’s a requirement.
The second part of this Great Requirement is to love kindness. The word translated “kindness” could also mean mercy or faithfulness. It is a word used to describe God’s love for us, even when we waver in our love and devotion to God. God calls us to love kindness in all our relationships, with strangers, with friends, with our families, and with God.
What does it mean to love kindness? God is not saying, “Have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone.” For one, that’s just impossible because so many people are just downright irritating, and they’re not going to have warm fuzzy feelings for you because you’re downright irritating, too! Being loving is about being focused on the other person instead of on myself. It’s about being externally-focused rather than internal. It’s about making a choice, a conscious effort, to place the needs of others above my own. It’s about being committed to a quality of life that is governed by principles of mutual respect, helpfulness, and loving concern, especially toward people who are different from us, with whom we may disagree, and especially those we just don’t like very much.
Do you have people you just don’t get along with? You wanna really screw with their heads? Try being nice to them all the time. Go out of your way to be kind. They’ll be so confused they won’t know whether to scratch their watch or wind their butt! But moreso, we do it because God requires us to love kindness. The witness of the prophets is clear: a follower of the Lord loves kindness. Period. End of story. It’s a requirement. Quit whining about it.
Finally, if we want to be great in the kingdom of God, we are required to walk humbly with God. Walk – don’t run, don’t rush ahead, don’t get ahead of God. At the same time, don’t drag or lollygag or throw yourself into dead weight. Have you ever tried to pick up or carry a child who has decided to resist going along and has become dead weight? Don’t be dead weight when God has invited you to walk alongside!
Walk humbly with God – not with your nose lifted high above others, but neither staring at your bellybutton in defeat.
Walking is a place where relationship happens. Think about your relationships – don’t you love to take a walk with the people who are important and matter to you? When you walk, you talk, you spend time together, you learn about each other, you learn to care about the things the other person cares about.
Walking humbly with God is a call to come and spend time living life with God in ways that leave their mark on every aspect of our lives. It is an invitation for our hearts to be broken by the things that break the heart of God, a deep desire to see the world through the eyes of God, to act in the world as God would act.
A very wise person (Ashley Pickerel) put it this way: “I think of it kind of like when we realized earth wasn't the center of the solar system; the sun was. Walking humbly means we can finally see that we are not the center and life/existence/reality is far bigger than we first imagined. Then the movement happening all around us begins to make a lot more sense! It's all about God, not just us and with that realization we can become better participants in the whole of God's story!” Or Kathy Sherrill: “It is allowing God to be the center of all one does, every decision, every word, every action. Seeking to be the vessel through which God's love is poured out into the world. Never needing others to know why you are being who you are – simply being in God's love. Living & loving like Jesus.”
There is one important word in this last sentence. Walk humbly with YOUR God. Now, God is not your possession and does not belong exclusively to you. There are a whole of people who are also in relationship with God, it turns out God is walking along with a whole lot of other people, too, but while God is not your possession, God is personal with you. God knows your name. Walk humbly with your God – your God who made you, your God who walks every step with you, your God who walks to the top of the tallest mountain with you and in the valleys of life, even the valley of the shadow of death. Your God, my God, our God, and even the God of people we don’t like very much – walking with each of us, knowing our name, inviting us into relationship. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty special.
The witness of the prophets is clear: a follower of the Lord walks humbly with God. Period. End of story. It’s a requirement.
If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, the first step is to live out the Great Requirement. What does the Lord require of you? Repeat after me: Do justice (repeat). Love kindness (repeat). Walk humbly with your God (repeat).
“If you look at the lives of the prophets, the strength of their witness lies not only in the weight of their words. It was their willingness to suffer for what they proclaimed that allowed God to speak so powerfully through them.” (Peter Storey)
On the wall of the grubby Memphis motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, there is a small memorial plaque, inscribed with the words from the old story of Joseph the dreamer in Genesis: “Here comes that dreamer. Now is our chance; let us kill him . . . Then we shall see what will come of his dreams.” (Genesis 37:20)
The fullness of King’s dream may not yet be realized, but his dying for that dream has guaranteed that it will continue to haunt the people of this country year after year.
Never underestimate the words that God can speak through your life when you walk humbly with God, when you love kindness, and when you do justice. Through such lives, the word of God speaks.