Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, September 20, 2020
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The Sacrifice God Wants

 Micah 6:1-8

Micah was one of the early “writing prophets.” He ministered from approximately 740 to 690 BC, which was roughly the same time period as Isaiah. This means that he was early enough to address both Jerusalem and Samaria. Many of the later prophets only dealt with Jerusalem and Judah.

This scene he describes here is a “covenant lawsuit.” This form of prophecy appears other places in the writing prophets. Prophets were basically “covenant enforcers.” They were called by God to go to the people and say, “Hey! You’re not keeping up your part of the covenant. God has been faithful; but you have not.”

So the scene is a courtroom. On one side is God, with Micah as his “lawyer.” On the other side is Israel, the covenant people. And God calls the hills and mountains to serve as witnesses. Hills and mountains might have a double meaning. On one hand, the mountains are enduring; they’ve been around to see God’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. But there might also be a second meaning. The hilltops, the high places, were the places where idols were worshipped in ancient Near East culture.

Idolatry was easy. Idols didn’t demand a personal relationship. They didn’t expect obedience. You just made sacrifices. It was easy. It may have been expensive, but it was easy. And that’s how people wanted to treat God. Just make the sacrifices. Just do the rituals. And then God will bless us. It was a “national insurance policy.”

God’s charge to Israel was, basically, “What have I done wrong? How have I failed you that you would run out of patience with me?” And then God lists the things he’s done for Israel. As in everything in the Old Testament, it goes back to the Exodus. I brought you out of slavery in Egypt. I gave you leadership: Moses, Miriam, and Aaron.

I protected you. Balak, the King of Moab, hired Balaam, an internationally famous prophet from Carchemish in Mesopotamia, to curse Israel while they were in the wilderness. Instead God told Balaam to bless Israel.

Interesting side note here: Archaeologists have found inscriptions naming Balaam the son of Beor. Here’s a prophet that lived more than 3000 years ago, and we know he was real. History records it. Some people say the stories of the Bible are just made up. But here’s a case where we know this guy was a historical figure. Interesting!

And God brought them safely through the Jordan River from Acacia, which was also called Shittim, to Gilgal, at the end of the wilderness journey.

“I did all I could to teach you my faithfulness.” God hasn’t failed them. Israel’s reply begins in verse 6, and it’s basically, “What can we do to make this right? What gift can we bring?” The answer, in their minds, is more sacrifice, more ritual.

Is ritual bad? No. But it’s also not good. It’s all about how it’s used, and what lies behind it. The problem is we often attach more importance to the process of the ritual than we do to the heart’s intent behind it. Ritual isn’t the problem; empty ritual is. Ritual that is just done out of habit, as an insurance policy, as a substitute for real love and obedience; that’s the problem. We may not make sacrifices anymore, but we can still be guilty of empty ritualism. We can go to church, read the Bible, and pray as empty rituals. These things can be a substitute for real love and obedience.

Israel insists, “Sacrifice must be the answer.” They keep upping the ante: Year old calves, thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, the sacrifice of our firstborn children. The sacrifice of firstborn children was common in ancient Near East culture. God forbade it, of course, instead requiring that firstborn children be redeemed. If a mockery of genuine faith isn’t good enough, then a bigger mockery should do the job. “We will atone for our hypocrisy with even greater hypocrisy!”

No, God has shown you what is good and what he requires. Do what is right and just. Worship and sacrifice without justice is a mockery of God. We can’t worship God while we mistreat our neighbor!

Love mercy. Mercy is loving-kindness. It’s more than justice. It’s not just that we do no harm to our neighbor; it’s that we love our neighbor and seek to do good for them. Jesus told us even to love our enemies: Pray for them and do good for them.

And walk humbly with your God. God requires relationship and obedience. Idols did not. That was the appeal of them. They were easy. Think of 1 Samuel 15:22, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

I find this verse reminiscent of John Wesley’s “Three Simple Rules” for Christian living: Do no harm. Do all the good you can. And attend to the ordinances of God, which basically means to obey God. I have to wonder if he used this verse as the starting point for his Three Simple Rules.

God’s requirements are simple. Do what is right. Practice mercy. Walk humbly with him. Those are simple things. But simple and easy are not the same. These simple rules are far more difficult than idol worship, far more difficult than empty ritualism.

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