We’re very nearly at the end of our Advent journey. For the past three weeks we’ve been spending time in the company of the Hebrew prophets, pausing on the Advent road toward Bethlehem, to sit at their feet awhile and let them prepare us for what God is up to, keep us attentive to what God is doing in and around us. Tomorrow we’ll creep to the stable door, to see this thing we’ve heard about, to see the strange way that God responds to the deep desires of our hearts—the hopes and fears of all the years. But we’re not there just yet. We’ve got one more prophet to listen to.
So far we’ve heard Jeremiah comfort the afflicted, and Malachi afflict the comfortable; last week Zephaniah invited us to begin to live God’s promised future now—to live now as things will be, to be strange enough in this world that when God gets the world God wants, we’ll fit right in. He made real the possibility that Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven could be more than a line that most of us have had memorized for longer than we can remember; that it could be a prayer we’re actually called and able to put some flesh to.
This week it’s Micah. It seems right that Micah would wait ‘til last, and that we’d get this passage in particular. If anyone knows any passage from this prophet I’d bet dollars to donuts that it’s: What does the Lord require of you, but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. And well we should know that, have it written on our hearts—what a beautiful vision of the life of faith, what it looks like to love God and neighbor with everything we’ve got!
But Micah gives us that commission while he’s looking at a world where those things, simple as they sound, are not happening. He says this about the leaders in his time and place, the people whom God’s people are looking to, to help them live faithfully: Judges sell verdicts to the highest bidder, priests mass-market their teaching, prophets preach for high fees, all the while posturing and pretending dependence on God: [saying carelessly] “We’ve got God on our side. He’ll protect us from disaster.” (Micah 3:11, The Message). Micah looks around Jerusalem, what is supposed to be God’s holy city, and doesn’t see a situation that looks very much like the God he knows—the God of love and justice and righteousness. Instead, he sees people using and abusing one another to get ahead; he sees injustice: the rich getting away with murder while the poor are found guilty at every turn; he sees a complete disconnect between what people claim to care about and what they actually do. Again, if we listen carefully, like the other prophets we’ve heard from, this ancient world that Micah’s looking at is not altogether unfamiliar.
And what seems to be deeply concerning for Micah is not simply that the rulers of the people, the political, religious, and social elite are acting poorly. That’s nothing new. What is concerning is that regular folks are following their example. Selfishness and greed are becoming so commonplace they’re hardly noticed. Injustice has somehow been repackaged as “justice,” and purchased wholesale, creating a kind of indifference to those who need protection the most. The stuff of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control—have been traded in for less demanding and costly ways of dealing with one another.
God has called God’s people into a challenging, vibrant way of living, a way that will be a light to the nations, to show what God is like—this God who so loves the world, whose dream is its wholeness, who made people to be full of life that is truly life. But instead, they’ve looked at the world around them and realized that there are faster ways of getting ahead, more effective and efficient ways of moving through the world, ways that make a lot more sense if you think about it just right: ways of power and self-protection, ways that justify looking out for number one, building higher walls instead of longer tables. Micah looks around and sees that this people tasked with a holiness that points to who and how God is, are not witnessing to the God who made the heavens and the earth out of an overflow of divine love and who created women and men to share in that love and magnify it in all the world; they’re witnessing to rather smaller idols. They’re giving their lives to less than they’re made for.
Micah looks around and recognizes that if God’s going to have a people who will show what God’s will on earth as in heaven looks like, then a new kind of leader is required. It must have been a prayer that came from deep down. And God graciously gives him the vision that we heard today, this promise of a king after God’s own heart. One who will seek justice and love kindness and walk with a bold humility.
He sees that this One won’t come from the centres of power, won’t be born into an obvious kind of authority. While the rest of the world looks to the powerful and the celebrity, Micah is drawn to a backwoods town, and an overlooked people. But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah. And that, somehow, is where God’s shepherd king will come from. The One who will come from this impossible place is the One whose origin is from of old, from ancient days, Micah says; One who will embody God’s ancient dream of chaos shaped into beauty, a dream for a world that teems with life, of humans flourishing, of heaven and earth all mixed up together.
I think that the reason Micah makes a good partner on this last leg of the Advent journey, is that he reminds us that we’re not just waiting for a glimpse of the world made new. Our hope for what God wants isn’t in a kind of magical utopia, but in a person. The sign that God is keeping God’s promises to make the world what it’s meant to be, is not a new and improved political platform, or a more effective infrastructure to get our best will and effort off the ground; the sign that God is keeping God’s promises is a baby, born in a nowhere town, far from the centres of power. The world God wants is somehow, mysteriously birthed in this birth.
There’s a good reason that the Church latched on to this Micah passage pretty quickly to explain what we experience in Jesus. And there’s good reason to cling to this prayerful vision as we ready ourselves to join the shepherds and angels at the manger’s edge. He reminds us that as a people called to join in the work of showing the world what God is like, we don’t go it alone. We’re not left to sort out the kingdom of heaven on our own. We are called and we are led. We don’t just look towards a future that is beautiful but kind of vague; we look to a person: the ancient Word that takes on flesh and moves into the neighborhood to show us how God is, to show us how to let God’s hope, peace, joy and love come to life in our lives. It matters that God’s dream for the world doesn’t come to life in abstract—it’s not just a vision—but in the very real, very physical birth of a baby. It tells us something about how all this will be worked out.
I think Micah is a good companion for this last Sunday in Advent, because he reminds us that Christmas isn’t just a pleasant holiday; it’s an act holy mischief. Of course, he didn’t know anything about Christmas, but as he peered prayerfully into the future he must have known what an unlikely thing he caught sight of. He may not have known just what he was looking towards, but I imagine that when he was preaching his vision that there was a bit of a rebellious smile on the corners of his mouth. Because this is not what anyone really expected; I’m not sure it’s what we expect yet. It’s still a little hard to take seriously, this idea that the salvation of the world, the king who will show the world what God is like, is the One who will be born far from the centers of power, without any of its trappings. Set aside that he’ll be conceived outside the proper order of things, and brought into the world in poverty and powerlessness, and laid in a feed box. Even without all that, it’s still awfully hard to believe. And yet, Micah, giving the angels something to sing about, invites us to come and see.
And the wild promise is that if we will come and see, if we’ll make our way outside the boundaries of expectation, there we’ll find the One our hearts are waiting for. We’ll come to see the One who will lead us in paths of righteousness, help us walk the road that’s narrow with a love that’s wide, guide us in the way of life that is truly life—a way contrary to so much of what we have been taught and pleased to believe: a way that is good news for the poor, and the pure-hearted, and the peacemakers; a way lined with mourners made glad, the meek made strong, the merciful exalted. Perhaps it’s a way that had to come in such surprising, undermining circumstances, precisely because it’s a way that draws us in a whole new direction. There’s a reason that the gospel message begins with John the Baptist calling people to repentance, which simply means to turn and go another way, to reorient our hearts. This shepherd king is leading us to rather different pastures, a way we wouldn’t otherwise know.
It’s a way that needs to be birthed; it’s nothing less than new life. That image really matters. Birth is not always straightforward and it’s never easy. In fact, it’s messy and hard, often dangerous, before it’s beautiful and miraculous. Micah sets this image of birth in the middle of his promise, as if to remind us that life doesn’t come without struggle. The wonder of birth is hard-wrought. What seems to be sure if we follow this shepherd is that we’re not going around the dark valleys. Blessed are those who suffer persecutions for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, he’ll preach. But the promise is that this is the shepherd who won’t cut and run when things get bad or worse. This is the One who walks relentlessly with us, who is unflinchingly God with us, Emmanuel—who leads us through the uncertain shadows and dangerous mists of sin and death and into a place wider and lusher and brighter than we can imagine.
Micah is good company this day before Christmas Eve because he draws us into the good news that this season is about quite a bit more than nostalgia; it’s about more than the joy and struggles of family; it’s about more than a temporary break from the chaos of life and a day or two off of work; it’s more than has been advertised or can be bought. It’s an invitation to come and see the strange way that God is. It’s a call to walk in a new way, not grasping towards an unseen future, but following the voice of the One who leads us into God’s promise. It’s a call to receive the One who fills our deepest hungers, and satisfies our deepest thirsts; the One who will heal our hurts and dry our tears; the One who leads us in the way marked by all the hope, peace, joy, and love of heaven. It’s a call to keep our eyes not on our best will and effort, not on our goals, but on God’s—trusting that God’s desire for us is more than we can ask or imagine, more than we’ve dreamt for ourselves, as unexpected as angels in Bethlehem, as surprising as a king in a feed trough.
Micah invites us to be surprised again by the promise of God with us and for us. In his company, tomorrow’s story can’t just be a temporary distraction from the way things are. He invites us to make this promise our own, to live it. What stands out to me this year is the promise that in the company of the One who is coming they shall live secure (v 4). I feel like the world is hungry for some security. Though, I don’t think this is the kind of security that we often chase after, the stuff of stock markets and military budgets, or barriers that keep us from undesirable neighbors and our stuff safe. That certainly doesn’t seem to be the kind of security that Jesus calls us into. He tends to ask us to give that stuff up for something else.
Instead Micah draws us draws us into the promise that no matter what—no matter what we’ve done or not done, no matter if the world rants and raves around us, through the mountains fall and the seas roar—God is with us and for us. God is on our side. In Micah’s company, this is no trivial thing. It’s not a trite bit of religious talk. St. Augustine famously prayed: Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you, O Lord. I think Micah paves the way for us to know that a little more deeply, and to receive it a little more surely. He invites us to come to the manger and look in to the face of the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, who loves us more than we can imagine, and offer him all we are and have in exchange for a peace, a security that’s beyond all circumstance and understanding. He invites us to follow this One born far from the centres of power and let him lead us in a new way, to let the deep peace that our hearts yearn for come to life in us; release the restlessness that keeps us grasping after things that do not satisfy and let ourselves be nourished and fed by the One who feeds his flock in the strength of the Lord.
He invites us to let our guards down and join with Mary and Elizabeth in their singing and dancing, as they are overcome by the wonder and mystery of the God makes promises and keeps them, the God who does more than we can ask or imagine; to let our souls magnify and our spirits rejoice, our hearts find rest in the One who has done, is doing, will do great things for us, and this beloved world.
Let us pray: Lord, give us boldness to come and see what the angels will sing, what the shepherds will dance, what Micah saw, what you promise: that You are with us and for us; that You long to plant your peace deep inside us and let it come to life in our lives. As this Advent season ends and we prepare ourselves to make our way to the manger, prepare us to lay down there anything that keeps us from receiving Your hope, peace, joy, and love. In Jesus’ name.