Prepare the Way! (part II): Getting Your Just Desserts
A sermon for advent from Micah 3:1-12, Luke 3:10-18
(cf. HC Lord’s Day 32)
December 5, 2010 ~ Tom VanderPloeg
There’s a saying that goes “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” But that’s not a phrase often heeded in today’s world because it seems like people today want just the opposite. They do want to have their cake and eat it too. Or in other words, we live in a world where we want all the blessings and material benefits we can get our hands on, and then we want to keep it all for ourselves. But speaking of cake, there’s this other cliché we have for when those people who do hoard and take all they can find themselves losing it all. We then say that they got their just desserts. We have other ways of saying it; you reap what you sow; what goes around comes around. I have a Hindu friend who calls it karma—if you produce good karma you will receive good karma.
No matter what phrase we want to use to describe it, we see it in today’s passage from Micah 3. There are some rather corrupt people in Israel engaging in some very unjust actions. They have been oppressing the needy and only looking to fatten their own bank accounts. And the word of God given by the prophet Micah is a word that warns them—they are about to get their just desserts.
Let’s admit it; this sounds like a rather dreary passage. There doesn’t seem to be much here that gives us a positive message. This does not feel “Christmasy.” Look at how vivid and searing the prophet’s words and imagery cuts into the listeners. Micah speaks out here in chapter three against the leaders of Israel. And he also speaks out against the prophets who only tell visions of peace and prosperity.
Do you see what Micah recognizes? There is corruption at the top levels in Israel. And look at how serious Micah considers this corruption to be.
Let’s cover the back-story just a bit to understand who Micah is talking to and what he is talking about. It is good to remember that there was a time in Israel’s history when the surrounding Cannonite people would oppress and enslave the Israelite people. Over and over in the book of Judges we read that when Israel would suffer oppression and injustice at the hand of their enemies, the people would cry out to God for help and God would send the judges to restore the people back unto God again. The judges helped remind the people of their covenantal relationship with God. The judges helped restore the people back to God by reminding them that they had covenantal obligations too. The Covenant God made with Israel at Sinai required compliance from Israel to maintain purity and cleanliness before God. And this righteousness prescribed in the Deuteronomic law was more than sacrifices to God. This law also prescribed countless regulations for how the people were to maintain justice and right relationships with one another.
Well, as we move forward to the time after the judges—a time when the kings began to govern and lead the people—we see the evolution of judges in Israel. In 2 Chronicles 19 we read of king Jehoshaphat’s reform of the judicial system in Israel. Look at what Jehoshaphat tells the judges when he appoints them in Israel: “Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the Lord, who is with you whenever you give a verdict. Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.”
I ask again, do you see what Micah recognizes? He does in fact consider this injustice a very serious offence in Israel. It is not just an offence against the people seeking justice from Israel’s leaders, but it is indeed an offence to God. We are reminded from these words of Jehoshaphat that those who judged and ruled Israel did so on behalf of God himself. And their perversion of justice comes as a horrid offence to God.
In fact, I cannot describe just how horrid this injustice is any better than the prophet Micah does in the passage we read here today. The imagery Micah uses is so graphic—so vivid. In verses 2-3 Micah compares the injustice of Israel’s judges to nothing short of cannibalism—they are consuming Israel’s people for their own satisfaction, destroying their very own kind to chase after their unquenchable appetite for power.
Micah doesn’t stop there. He also turns his sights on the prophets in Israel who preach nothing but peace and prosperity…if the price is right. Micah says that their main concern is looking after themselves, and the best way they can do that is to tell the people what they want to hear. In short, Micah goes on to say in verses 9-12 that because the judges and prophets have ignored the statutes of God—because they have perverted justice and prophesied falsely—that God would now bring retribution for their sins.
We see this in our world today as well. We see corruption in our political arena, corruption in the business world, and corruption among relationships within families and friends. We see people making huge profits selling books and filling conferences by telling people what they want to hear to make them feel good. I don’t think I have to work to hard to convince anyone that there is an abundance of corruption and injustice in our world today. We all remember how the economic meltdown in America over the past year has exposed the greed and corruption on Wall Street, and in the mortgage industry. And all the while there are human tragedies happening in places like Sudan and Burma. The injustice thrown upon the powerless people in our world seems to have no boundary.
We need to consider that these injustices we allow—and even take part in—throughout our society today are more troubling than we may want to admit. The injustice in our world that comes from our hands leaves us standing before God having given the same horrid offence to the Almighty that Micah spoke of thousands of years earlier. Look at the sense of denial that Israel embraced in reaction to Micah’s message. In verse 11 we see how the people responded to Micah—that they would “lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us.’”
You see, it can be so easy for us to fall into the mistake of believing that God’s favor comes with no strings attached. Somehow we have been convinced by the culture we live in that we can all have our cake and eat it too. Somehow we gloss over the injustices and abuses of our world and excuse ourselves; we think that God’s love and forgiveness will wipe out any consequence or accountability on our part; that somehow God’s love requires nothing from us at all.
Our confessional teachings give us some guidance here. Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with this very question of what God requires of us. Question 87 of the catechism reminds us: “scripture tells us that no unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like is going to inherit the kingdom of God.” Or in other words, those who claim God’s love has saved them, but yet continue to allow and participate in oppression and injustice in this world have not truly experienced the saving power of God’s love. This is a disheartening, even shocking message for many. It was a shocking message for Israel to hear from the prophet Micah; and it’s a shocking message for us to hear today as well.
But if we were to only look at chapter 2 of Micah’s prophesy—if we were to only look at question 87 of the catechism—then we miss the hope and grace that also follows along with these words. You see, it is in the final lines of chapter 2 that God’s faithfulness is promised to remain with his people. And it is in chapter 4 that the prophet tells of God restoring his presence as a beacon for people to see his glory and to obey his commands. These things frame what we read in chapter 3 and flavor this judgment oracle from Micah with a call to repentance. This is also good news for those who have been oppressed and living under the pressing weight of injustice. For those voiceless ones in Israel who have been suffering because of corrupt judges; for the poor ones in Israel who have not paid the false prophets enough money to receive a favorable vision; Micah brings a message of hope that God will bring restoration. God’s justice will again guide the hearts and minds of men and women who seek his leading.
This is a measure of God’s grace. Even though Micah is addressing the abuses and injustices that are immediately at hand in his time and for his audience, Micah is also prophesying words of a deeper restoration coming from God. Chapter 5 speaks of the one who will come out of Bethlehem; the one who will be God’s peace. This prophesy of Micah finds it’s ultimate fulfillment in Jesus.
So even in words of harsh corrective judgment we find God’s plan of hope and restoration. Even for those living under the oppression of injustice we find words that assure us God hears us and cares for the needs of those who have suffered. Even in these words that brought Israel the message that Jerusalem would be destroyed, it is surrounded by the hope that God would preserve them and bring them back according to his plan. This is an advent message that reinforces for us that advent is about waiting. Advent is about waiting. But it is also clear from a passage like this that waiting for God’s promised restoration does not mean we sit idly by and do nothing at all in the meantime. No, that is because advent is also about preparation. Waiting and preparation; this is what advent should be about for us today as well. This is the whole reason we have this season of advent in the church. It is a reminder that we wait and we prepare.
And what of those who have offended God with such great injustice and disobedience? While there is consequence and accountability for wrongs that have been done, can there also be a hope for repentance and restoration as well? Here again our confessional teachings give guidance. Question 86 from Lord’s Day 32 addresses this question. We can never dig ourselves out of the mess we are in by ourselves. But the catechism reminds us that “Christ has redeemed us by his blood.” There can always be hope for redemption because redemption comes from Christ. Nothing we ever do can earn that redemption. It comes as a gift from God.
Then what about our need to do good? If redemption comes from God and we can do nothing to earn this, then why listen to the words of Micah? Aren’t we left with the same response that Israel gave to the prophet? – that we “lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.’” just as verse 11 says. We cannot ignore the warnings of scripture, but where is the purpose and motivation for us to heed the prophet’s words? Question 86 of the catechism goes on to say that “we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us.” Do you see two themes going hand-in-hand here? On one side of it, the prophets use the waiting and preparation of advent as a call to repentance. These words of judgment from Micah and from John the Baptist come as a call to repentance—a call to change; to turn around. God tells us to turn from injustice and do good. And now then, look at the next piece of this. We are called to repent, we are called to turn and seek justice and kindness and mercy—not because it saves us--but because it is an expression of gratitude for the gift of grace that we have been given.
The message of hope comes to us as well. Where we see injustice and oppression in our world, we are called as ambassadors of Christ to change these sinful ways; not because we can somehow earn eternal security through such actions. But we do these things because we have already been given eternal security through Jesus; and this is God’s way of calling us to give gratitude back him for the gift he has given us.
This is the miracle of Christmas. We have received a gift from God that is immeasurable. This morning we see through the prophets and the teaching of the catechism that the miracle of Christmas is best received when we embrace it with a spirit of gratitude. When we accept God’s gift of salvation to us and respond with a life of gratitude to God, then we best honor the gift we have been given. Maybe we sometimes lose sight of that at Christmas. Sometimes it seems as though Christmas becomes a time of gift-giving that has to match or outdo or go beyond. If someone gives a gift to us, doesn’t it seem like we sometimes feel this obligation to return the favor? When that happens, then we do not receive gifts with a spirit of gratitude, but with a spirit of debt. We feel like we now owe something in return. But that’s not really a gift then is it? If we feel indebted to return the favor then we cannot truly experience gratitude for a gift given.
And so our call to justice—our call to kindness—our call to mercy is not a mandate that arises from a debt that is owed. It is a call that arises from a spirit of gratitude. It is from a life of thanksgiving that we do these things. As we approach Christmas; as we wait; as we prepare the way; we are reminded today that gratitude mean you know how to receive a gift, and it also means you know how to give a gift.
So as it turns out, you can have your cake; and you can eat it too; and there is plenty to share so that all are welcome to the table of God; and all may be fed with his goodness and mercy. Those are the kinds of desserts we long for.