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QUESTIONS TO PONDER: WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE?

February 8, 2009

                       

Questions to Ponder:  What Does the Lord Require? 

Micah 6:8

 

            Today is Scout Sunday, and on this day we come to a passage of Scripture that is quite familiar to all of us, a passage that has a special appropriateness for the Boy Scouts.  Micah 6:8 applies to every single one of us, but especially to young men who are seeking to become leaders in our society, perhaps leaders of our government. When I was planning this sermon, I often thought about our Scouts.  I want to read from a Bible that I have cherished for a number of years, a Bible I have used at National Jamborees and at National Order of the Arrow conferences.  I like this particular translation for this one verse from the prophet Micah:  “He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

            The question Micah poses is simple:  What does God require?  What does God want of me?  What does God want of you?  Perhaps you have committed this verse to memory.  The answer to Micah’s question seems so simple.  All of us should be able to answer it.  The three component parts of this verse tell us that God wants justice, mercy, and humility.  I have a wise old saying I created:  For every complicated question, there is a simple answer, and it is almost always wrong.  The real answer is usually deeper than what  meets the eye.  That is true in this case.  The answer leads us to think more deeply about what pleases God, about what God wants from us as His people. 

We can better understand the answer if we look at the context.  In Verse 3, we see that God has asked a prior question:  “O my people, what have I done for you?”  God raises this question in order to remind His people of their past.  Micah provides a brief history lesson here, with God saying, “Remember that I have been with you as my people for a long time, for decades, for centuries.”  Micah reminds them especially how God delivered them of their wilderness wandering, staying with them during their exodus from Egypt and during the period of the Judges.  Micah reminds them that God has never failed them, that He has always been with them.  In light of God’s past faithfulness, the answer to Micah’s question is that God requires justice, mercy, and humility.  

            This verse in Micah is important for people of faith, people who call themselves religious, especially at this time in our life as a nation.  Micah stood right on the edge of hard times.  The people of Jerusalem had known years of prosperity and peace, but Micah has already told them earlier in this book, “Things are changing.  Life is going to be harder than it has been.  Economically, politically, there has been an upheaval.”  It is in that context that Micah raises the question “What does God expect from you?” 

Micah’s question is also one for our nation.  What happened so long ago in the eighth century B.C. is not so different from what is happening now in our nation.  We are coming out of a time when it was not uncommon for CEO’s of large financial institutions, large corporations, to make salaries that could only be stated in eight figures.  It is a time when sports heroes and movie stars make similar salaries, eight figure salaries and above.  It is also a time in which many in this country are hungry, homeless, and helpless.  We might say they are at the bottom end of the economic food chain, suffering while people of wealth prosper.  We often receive news of yet another politician who has cheated on his wife, cheated on his taxes, cheated on his constituency.  These occurrences happen almost weekly.  We, too, must face these issues in our time, just as Micah did in his time.

            In Verses 6-7, Micah asks, “Do you think you can please God by the form and the substance of ritual?  Do you think that just by your religious practice you can please God?”  He asks specifically, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down 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 ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  Micah’s questions go all the way to the extreme, using Aramaic hyperbole to overstate the issue.  He asks, “Can I really please God, simply by following the sacrificial system that has been in place for so long?  Can I please God by going through the form of worship, or does God require something else?”

             A queen, the monarch of a divided country, was Roman Catholic.  Numerous people in the country were Christians, primarily Catholic.  Many others were members of the Communist party.  The queen went one day to worship, of course, with her entourage.  Guards, much like Secret Service agents surrounding our president, protected her.  As she knelt in church to pray, she noticed one guard moving his lips, as if he, too, were praying. 

She turned to him and asked, “Are you a Catholic?” 

He answered, “In belief, yes.  In practice, no.” 

The queen then asked, “Are you a Communist? 

He answered, “In practice, yes.  In belief, no.” 

What a disconnect in the life of faith!  A disconnect between what we believe and what we practice exists for many people.  Micah affirms that what we believe and how we behave must be in sync.  What we believe and how we behave must match.  Otherwise, we have only the form of religion, not have what God requires.

            What does God want from us?  We can make this a question not only for our nation, not only for churches, but also specifically for us as individuals.  God wants all three to “do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly” before Him.  He wants the priorities in our churches to be in the right place.  He does not want us to be involved in show business.  He does not want churches to get caught up in glitz and entertainment.  He wants us to speak the truth.  He wants us to call people to what we might refer to as true religion, religion that takes care of widows and orphans, religion that does justice to the hungry and homeless, religion that has a heart of compassion and mercy, religion that is centered on a humble walk with God.  Every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, we declare that we believe in “liberty and justice for all.”  God wants us to live exactly as we profess. 

Doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God require a certain lifestyle.  We might call it the Six:Eight Lifestyle, named for Micah 6:8.  I have a firm conviction that it is only out of an intimate relationship with God that we can ever hope to be people of justice and mercy.  It is only as we come into the life of prayer that we can have justice and mercy as a part of our lives.  I have learned this primarily from some of the great Quaker writers of devotion: Douglas Steere, Thomas Kelley, John Woolman, and more recently Richard Foster.  We must place emphasis on a close relationship with God, a life of devotion characterized by a commitment to Scripture, an understanding of what God has said to us in His Word, and a life of prayer.  In prayer, we must not seek to enter into a monologue in which we tell God what we want Him to do but instead seek to enter a relationship in which prayer becomes conversational.  We are to listen as much as we speak.  We must be attuned to the voice of God in our daily lives.  As we pray, especially as we pray the prayer of Gethsemane, “not my will but Thine be done,” we enter into a kind of spiritual front-end alignment.  Our direction, our desire, our intention, our will is brought into alignment with God’s will.  We can have much more clarity about what God wants from us, about what He wants us to do once we have that kind of spiritual front-end alignment.  We can certainly have less friction in our lives.  We can find a deeper reverence, a deeper peace. 

If we have any hope of achieving a life characterized by justice and mercy, we must begin with a humble walk with God.  What does it mean to walk humbly with God?  What does it mean to have a spirit of humility?  Walking with God is like walking with a little child.  If you have ever taken a walk with a two- or three-year old, you know that a child sees every bottle cap, every rock, every piece of broken glass, every frog, every butterfly and dragonfly.  Children do not miss a trick.  Walking with God is at a slower pace, one that allows us to see what God wants us to see, to pay attention to what we might miss if we were not in step with our Father in heaven. 

Dan Vestal talks about a time when he traveled to Calcutta, India, determined to see Mother Theresa.  He went inside the place where the Sisters of Mercy had their lodging and the hospital that served people who were sick on the streets of Calcutta.  He spoke to somebody at the desk, asking if he might see Mother Theresa.  She came out to speak with him; and in their few moments of conversation, Vestal asked Mother Theresa about her life of prayer.  She gave him a little card and explained, “This is my business card.  I want you to take this with you.”  The words on that card caused him to think deeply about the life of faith:  “The fruit of silence is prayer.  The fruit of prayer is faith.  The fruit of faith is love.  The fruit of love is service.  The fruit of service is peace.” 

I believe, as do many Quaker writers, that if we are ever going to find justice and mercy in our lives, if we are going to be agents of justice and mercy, we must have a humble walk with God. 

Justice is important.  Liberty and justice for all – is that really what happens in this country?  Is it what happens around the world?  You know and I know that that is not the case. 

Before the Revolutionary War, John Woolman, a Quaker writer, realized that the white settlers’ greed and treatment of Native Americans was eventually going to cause great conflict and terrible suffering.  Woolman also knew that the way settlers were treating Manhattan Island was going to cause pollution and filth there.  He was right on both accounts.  Woolman saw that the institution of slavery was wrong.  A literate man who could read and write, he was often asked to make wills for other people.  He would perform this service at no charge provided that person would agree, upon death, to set free any slaves that person owned.  He was responsible for releasing a number of slaves, simply by writing wills. 

When our life of prayer is deeply meshed in the will of God, when we seek to do God’s will, we begin to understand justice in another way.  We begin to see that every person is the same.  Who may walk into this Sanctuary and worship with us?  My answer is that every person for whom Christ died is welcomed here.  If I read John 3:16 correctly, God loved the whole world.  Every person can come to the cross.  Every person can come to Christ.  The ground at the foot of the cross offers no place for hierarchy, no place for status.  Nobody is better than anyone else.  We are all the same.  We are all people who have fallen short of God’s glory.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level.  We neither look up to anybody nor look down on anybody.  We look straight across at everybody, treating everyone the same.

             A woman looking at a proof of herself told the photographer, “These photographs just do not do me justice.”

            The photographer took a long look at her and replied, “Madame, it is not justice you want.  It is mercy.”

             How do mercy and justice come together?  In the Christian life, a balance must exist between the two.  We must expect what is right.  We must do what is right with compassion. 

I can think of no better example to illustrate the balance, the connection, between justice and mercy than the story about Mayor LaGuardia of New York City.  While mayor, he would sometimes actually sit on the bench and preside during night court.  One night while presiding, a man accused of theft came before him. 

Mayor LaGuardia looked at him and said, “You are charged with theft.  How do you plead?”

            The man answered, “I am guilty, your honor.  I stole a loaf of bread.”

            “Why did you steal bread?”

            “My sister and her children are hungry.  I stole it so the children could have something to eat.”

            Mayor LaGuardia replied, “You do realize that stealing is a violation of the law.  You must be punished.  The punishment for theft is $50.”  He then added, To think that we live in a city where a man has to steal a loaf of bread in order to feed children is a shame, an outrage.  I am going to fine everybody in this courtroom $5, including myself.”

The mayor put $5 inside his hat and passed it around the crowded courtroom, collecting almost $250.  Then he gave that money to the man and said, “You must pay the $50 fine, but the rest of that money is yours to keep.”

            Though we all fall short of the glory of God, though we all sin, God has given us unmerited love.  He has given us grace, which is the flip side of mercy.  Mercy is not receiving what we deserve.  Grace is getting a love we do not deserve.  Justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin. 

            A professor at Harvard Divinity School, teaching the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, gave no test during the semester.  However, his final exam consisted of two questions.  The professor told the students they would have fifty-five minutes to write their answer to the first question, a ten-minute break, and then fifty-five minutes to write an answer to the second question. 

The students wrote furiously as grad students will do, filling blue books on the first question.  During the break, students went out into the hall where they got a drink of water, went to the restroom, and talked with each other.  As these students refreshed themselves and conversed, not one paid any attention to an old man, dressed in ragged clothes and appearing quite disheveled.  They did not acknowledge him as he sat against a wall with his head down in his arms.  When the break was over, they returned to the classroom and wrote furiously on the second question. 

About a week later when the students received their grades, every one of them failed the exam.  The test was not their response to the two questions.  The real test for this class in moral philosophy was how they treated the man sitting against the wall. 

We know what God wants.  We know what God expects.   He expects justice and mercy.  He expects our belief and our behavior to match. 

How can we change so that we do not fail in that regard?  The only way I know is to look to Jesus.  If we begin with a sense of humility and follow the path of justice and mercy, then we will come back to that life of devotion, to that humble walk with God.  The supreme example is Jesus himself.  The way Jesus lived on this earth for thirty-three years becomes for us an example of how we are to live.  He asked, “Woman, does no one condemn you?”  “No one, sir.”  “Then neither do I condemn you.  Go your way and sin no more” (John 8:10-11).  Repeatedly in the life of Jesus, we clearly see a balance between justice and mercy.  He was at one with the Father.  The Apostle Paul worded it this way:  “He did not seek equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6).  We are talking about the King of kings and the Lord of lords taking the form of a servant in humility.  We, too, are called to be a servant in humility.  Jesus came to die so that he could save us all from our sins.  He came to be raised from the grave to give us all the hope of eternal life.

            This life of devotion will lead us to know the heart of God.  It will lead us to know the mind of God.  It will lead us to have the eyes of God.  When our hearts are opened, when our minds are opened, when our eyes are opened, we will see things we would not otherwise see.  We will see injustice and want to respond with justice.  We will see brokenness and pain and want to respond with compassion and mercy.  We will become what God wants us to be, living with all three requirements:  justice, mercy and humility.  These Scouts have requirements for every badge they earn.  Every student has requirements as a part of classes in school.  Every adult knows the requirements associated with April 15.  The most important requirement from God, “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” begins when we accept Christ as our Savior and acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord of our life. 

Kirk H. Neely

© February 2009

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