The prophet Micah opens the door to a courtroom for us, and we hear the bailiff’s announcement: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.” The Lord has a controversy with his people, and the passionate words of accusation we hear come from a broken heart:
What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
There is no answer, no response.
I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, didn’t I?
O my people, remember now what happened every step of our way together, remember my saving acts, remember my faithfulness, remember me – why do you act like you don’t know me?
Now the people reply, and their testy answer reminds me of bad courtroom tv.
What is it you want? Can we ever even the score? What do you expect in return? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? Rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? What will it take to get you off our backs?
The people get defensive and ugly, as though God were a pesky contractor complaining that he hadn’t been paid. Thank God for voices like Micah’s to remind us that God doesn’t redeem people to keep them indebted for the rest of their lives like credit card slaves. God doesn’t wake us every morning, “Get up, and remember, you owe me.” That’s not our God. Our God frees people to live in covenant with them – and solely because in this covenant relationship life will flourish.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good,” and what is good and necessary doesn’t resemble a divine wish list in some cosmic exchange of goods and services. More and bigger things play a prominent role in our dreams of a good life, but God requires that we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. The focus of God’s commandments is on actions, but not actions that can be checked off a list, “Done that, done that, so now I can finally do what I want.” What is good, and what God requires, translates into a way of life, into covenant-shaped doing, loving, and walking. This is much bigger than occasional acts of lavish piety measured in thousands of something or in rivers of something else: what God requires is a walk that reorients our feet, our desires, and our hope toward the reign of God. Nothing, of course, is harder than this dailiness, this not-just-on-Sunday-ness of faith.
We hear God’s passionate plea before the mountains and the hills, “What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” We don’t know what to say – until we think about justice, kindness, and humility.
You, Lord, have been faithful to us. You have done nothing wrong. You have not wearied us. It’s what we do to each other, that breaks our hearts. It’s the ways we weary one another that griefs our spirits. Justice seems so far out of reach, kindness and humility are so easy to forget. Like you, we mourn the absence of righteousness and peace around us, between us, and within us. But we are like birds that have forgotten their song. Our hope is small and has no wings. We are broken-hearted, poor in spirit, and our souls are thirsty.
A couple of years ago, a mother described a familiar scene. They were in the kitchen, she and her 9-nine-year-old daughter, the little girl eating her cheerios and mom packing her pink Tinker Bell lunchbox into her book bag. The radio was playing in the background, the news was on, and suddenly the child said with great sadness, “Mom, is that war still not over yet?”
The mother wrote, “I could feel my soul draining through the soles of my feet.”
You know that feeling. The little girl gave voice to God’s grief, and you want to protect her, you want to make things right, and in the same instant you realize that you can’t. And so you go to her, and you hold her, and you tell her that it breaks your heart too, and you hold her a little longer before you kiss her on her forehead and say, “It’s gonna be OK, pumpkin, it’s all gonna be OK.”
And off she runs to catch the bus.
And you long for someone who knows all this and gets it. You look up, and there is Jesus, looking right at you, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Oh yes, he is talking to you, and your thirsty soul soaks up his words. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” You mourn, you belong to that community that doesn’t resign itself to the present condition of the world as final. You lament that God’s reign has not yet come in fullness, and you dare to believe that the way of Jesus is the path to abundant life. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Not the proud, the arrogant, or the violent – not those who always seem to bear it away; the meek will inherit the earth. It’s all gonna be OK, because God has vindicated the way of Jesus. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” You are blessed because your desire and God’s desire are one in your hunger and thirst for strong and close relationships between you and God and those around you and all of creation.
Jesus’ words of blessing are not the old kind of wisdom that identifies blessing in fortunate circumstances, like, “Blessed is the husband of a good wife, the number of his days will be doubled.” That kind of wisdom is based on observation and experience. I have an appointment with my dental hygienist tomorrow, and I know she will welcome me saying something like, “Blessed is the man who flosses daily, for he will keep his teeth.”That’s good advice with plenty of evidence to support it, but Jesus’ words of blessing are not that kind of wisdom; he’s not telling us something others simply hadn’t noticed yet about how the world works. Jesus is working about the reign of God. He announces that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and he blesses those who otherwise have no reason for hope or cause for joy. They are blessed, you are blessed because the kingdom of heaven has come near and it bears the face of Jesus. In his healings and teachings, in his compassion for the poor and his meals with sinners, the joy of heaven embraces the earth; the future of fulfillment infiltrates the present and transforms it.
The present conditions of the unfortunate – their poverty, their pain, their lack of status, their hunger and thirst – are all variations on an ancient theme: those who seek to walk humbly with God will suffer, and yet they trust in God to vindicate them.
Words from the prophets and the psalms resonate in the beatitudes of Jesus:
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts … will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Psalm 24:3-4
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath … for the wicked shall be cut off, but … the meek shall inherit the land. Psalm 37:8-11
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? Psalm 42:2
In the life of Jesus these threads of humility and strands of hope all come together; he weaves them into a royal robe and he wears it faithfully throughout his mission. He wears it as he enacts the justice of God’s mercy. He wears it as he embodies the kindness of God’s compassion. He walks humbly all the way, proclaiming with a pure and undivided heart the kingdom of heaven – fearless, because the final word would be God’s.
Soon we find ourselves not at the foot of the mountain where Jesus blesses and teaches, but at the foot of the hill where he has been executed. And again we hear God’s passionate plea before the mountains and the hills:
What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
We have no answer. We only see what we do to each other in the name of justice and for the love of power, and we know that it breaks the heart of God. We look into the face of the man on the cross, and we have no answer. After we have done all that we are capable of doing to each other, the final word must be God’s.
We believe and proclaim that God’s final word has been spoken. God spoke into the darkness and chaos of our guilt, our proud amnesia, and our shame. God spoke into our helplessness and hopelessness. God spoke and raised Jesus from the dead. The end is not our doing, just as the beginning never was. The first and final word is God’s, and because of Jesus we trust that the word is life – beautiful, abundant life.
When we say to the little girl, “It’s all gonna be OK,” we comfort her in her mourning, and we teach her to trust in the God whose face we see in the face of Jesus. We teach her and we remind ourselves that God is faithful beyond anything we do or fail to do. With a simple gesture of healing and a prophetic word of promise we encourage her to live in the company of Jesus, to learn to do justice with him, learn to love kindness from him, and to walk humbly with him – or perhaps run with him. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.” May it be so.