January 29, 2023
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 29, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
From the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you?” I speak to you in the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and sustaining Sanctifier. Amen.
This year’s Epiphany Season invitation to follow Jesus, to be Christ’s light and through how we choose to live, be evangelists – living proof - of Christ’s ongoing and life-changing presence in our communities and throughout the world, goes much deeper in today’s scripture lessons. And that invitation challenges the very values of our culture and society, and frankly, it’s difficult to hear.
See, our culture today has embraced the notion that being poor instead of rich, powerless instead of powerful, in a place of need versus reveling in bounty, is somehow proof that one is not blessed of God, but rather cursed; that one is not in a right relationship with God, doesn’t pray hard enough, or hasn’t repented or, in the case of the homeless and unemployed, it’s their own fault and not our concern nor our responsibility. Today’s scripture lessons challenge those notions and beg us to think differently as people of God, people of faith, as Christians: as followers of Jesus.
The Prophet Micah arrived on the scene about 700 years before the birth of Christ. He was called to minister specifically to the Southern kingdom of Judah which had, through the reforms of King Hezekiah, begun a return to God’s ways. A time of peace and prosperity was starting to take hold throughout their nation. Micah arrived urging people to remember that prosperity can lead to complacency and complacency can open the door for false teaching and a falling away from the things, the ways, the values of God.
And he was right. Within a generation, people believed and asserted – in fact they were taught by their civic and religious leaders - that being poor, unemployed, or having trouble making ends meet, was a sign of one’s disfavor with God or a lack of prayer, and, therefore, one’s own fault and one’s sole responsibility to fix. Once again, it became common to look down upon, and sneer at, the neediest of society and say, “it’s your own fault, it’s your problem, not mine.” And slowly an entire culture embraced the notion – a notion our own culture today often espouses - that power, beauty and wealth are the only signs of God’s blessing. Anything less means either you are not praying hard enough nor repentant enough. Micah says, “No” to such false teaching. He says God’s people are always and forever responsible for the care and welfare of others regardless if the origin of their need is their own doing, or systemic.
In today’s reading, Micah says that a day of reckoning is coming. God’s people have ignored their responsibility to their neighbors prompting Micah to say, “God has a controversy with you.” Now, while an accurate translation of the Hebrew text, the word “controversy” today means little more than a disagreement. But, in ancient Hebrew, to bring a controversy against someone was to accuse them of a felony. Micah says God has levied an indictment against the Judeans because, in God’s own words, “I have done everything for you. I have given you everything.” I have been faithful to my promises. I brought you out of slavery and enabled you to become a great nation. And you (have repaid) me with disdain for your neighbors. So, I charge you with unfaithfulness, and you know you are guilty and will be punished. Again, Micah was right: within 20 years the kingdom of Judah had fallen into economic and social ruin.
This wasn’t a situation where people weren’t praying hard enough, or not going to Temple, or not offering enough sacrifices. They were doing all the right religious things, the outward things. But none of that affected how they chose to live, what they thought, how they spoke, or what they valued. Micah says one can never offer enough burnt offerings or rivers of oil to atone for sin because God’s indictment isn’t about religious observance. It is about the heart’s relationship with God. What God requires of us, Micah says, is that we don’t just seek justice, we actually do it and insist upon it. God’s people love mercy, or kindness as the NRSV says, and we walk humbly with our God because we realize that while created in God’s own image, we are dust just like everyone else, and none of us is better than any other human being. God’s people take responsibility for the plight of their neighbors. God’s people seek to change society, to remedy injustice, to be merciful and be humble because according to the scriptures, that is what God calls God’s people to do and be. According to scripture so doing, so being, is what it means to be in a relationship with God and I will add, what Jesus says it means to follow him.
St. Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth, says we can have all the wisdom and education possible; we can work miracles and offer signs of God’s majesty; but no one is more important or better than anyone else. If we are going to boast, we can only boast in God who is the ongoing source of our life, the source of all wisdom and, by the way, our wisdom is foolishness in God’s eyes. Paul says that the miracle of the Cross with its crucified Messiah is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The whole idea that the people of Israel would give up their promised Messiah to be tried and executed as a common criminal is scandalous to them, and utter stupidity to the highly educated Greeks. And that, Paul says, is exactly God’s point: our wisdom, our way of doing things means nothing. We have been invited and have accepted a call to be in a relationship with God that is based not upon our skills and abilities, but rather, humility – a humility of heart and mind – a humility that submits every aspect of our lives to God and God’s ways of justice and mercy. A humility that remembers salvation is not of our own doing, but by God’s own faithfulness alone.
Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, offers one of the most counter-cultural statements in the entire Bible. Society and culture today says people who are blessed by God are wealthy, pretty, educated, powerful and of eloquent speech. How often has someone’s good fortune been described as, “Oh, they are really blessed of God.” Now, life itself is a gift and blessing of God, but Jesus says that the truly blessed are not the wealthy, not the full, the well-to-do, or those esteemed by others, but rather, the truly blessed are those in need: those who hunger and thirst; those who are reviled and looked down upon by others. Now, like me, I am sure some are wondering how on earth can these poor folks be ever considered blessed? The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, and let’s add the unemployed and homeless are blessed because they have been humbled and remain humble enough to realize that their ability to live beyond today is by God’s grace alone. They recognize their total dependence upon God’s justice and mercy just to get through the day. Jesus says, “They are blessed.” Like them, Micah says, the blessed are those who love mercy, those who do justice, and walk humbly with their God. They are God’s true people.
The Psalmist says God’s true people live differently. They always do what is righteous; they always speak the truth from their heart; they never utter any slander nor do wrong to others. They cast no slurs; they do not change their mind; they don’t lend money expecting interest; nor do they take bribes, and they keep their oaths and promises even when it hurts. The Psalmist says, “Whoever does these things will never be shaken.”
As difficult, as challenging, as these words are to hear, I cannot help but wonder like Micah, “So what does the Lord require of you? Of me? This morning and every day? See Christianity is not a means to advance the American dream, or achieve riches or power. It is a faith that says humility – in heart and mind - is the only way to walk as God’s people. This may be foolish to some, but our lessons this morning affirm that is God’s way: a way that through our commitment to not just seek but do justice and insist upon it, and be merciful will uphold the welfare of all people. God’s justice and mercy embraces all people and must be the very fabric of every Christian Church, every follower of Jesus Christ. So, what does the Lord require of us this morning?
You know, throughout this Season of the Epiphany, we have prayed that God would enable the light of Christ to shine forth so brightly in and through us that our lives will bring change to our communities, nation, and the world. Our lessons this morning remind us that making any difference in this world will only be possible if and when we humble our hearts and minds, and refuse to be complacent to the needs of others. To that end, in our desire to follow Jesus, may our Lord urge us to do justice, to love kindness and mercy, and thereby, forever walk humbly with our God and our neighbor. Amen.