by Daniel Harrell
If ever you’ve read the prophet Micah, assigned to the Advent season, you’ve probably read the part in chapter 5 about Bethlehem being the least of the clans of Judah, “yet from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Matthew’s gospel cites this prophecy in its version of the Nativity. You also may have read the verse from chapter 6 where Micah sums up the requirements of the godly life as “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” It’s a noble calling. Micah’s original audience mostly perverted justice, scorned mercy and walked pretentiously pertaining to God. That’s why Micah showed up. You never see prophets around when people are behaving themselves. Micah arrived with all the terror of the holy ghosts of Christmas to ancient Israel’s Ebenezer Scrooge, doing all he could to scare God’s chosen people into being worthy of calling.
Though saved by grace, Israel presumed grace to be permission to do as they pleased. The Lord had picked them and loved them just the way they are. But divine love has never been about preserving the status quo. The Lord may indeed love you just as you are, but he has no intention of letting you stay that way. “Therefore hear this,” Micah howled, “you who despise justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build God’s kingdom with bloodshed, and Jerusalem, her city of peace, with violence; whose judges judge for a bribe, massaging their verdicts to serve political interests and agendas; whose politicians deprive the poor and fawn instead over the rich and the powerful; whose preachers preach for a price, shaping their sermons to fit the religious consumer; all the while posturing and playing righteous while having the audacity to say, ‘Everything will turn out fine. Is not the LORD among us? Is God not on the side of his faithful and upright people?’” That would be a nice Christmas sermon. But instead Micah cries out, “The faithful have disappeared from the land. There is no one left who is upright; everyone lies in wait for blood, and each hunts down the other.”
Micah can be pretty grim. But it’s been a grim week. Sandy Hook has cast a dark pall over our holiday hustle. We’ve watched footage of parents and families and neighbors flocking to one funeral after the other, after packing out church services and vigils. For many, to witness such tragedy and sorrow evinces the absence of God. To keep faith in the Lord in the face of such horror seems ridiculous. But for those who actually suffered the tragedy and sorrow, the Lord could not have been more present, their faith in him more critical. This is why the Newtown churches were so full. Where else do you turn when confronted with such unspeakable loss? Sorrow and suffering are woven into the Christian story—our Savior saves by being born into scandal, rejected by his own family and people, and then being hung to die on a cross. God’s presence is always most palpable amidst tragedy and loss.
To suffer loss is to have your soul pierced. But once pierced, you’re opened up to a transformation that would have been otherwise unlikely. Resurrection only comes after crosses. In Micah, the suffering occurred as a brutal attack from a marauding Assyrian army. The terrified populace fled to the safety of Jerusalem’s walls and barricaded themselves inside as their enemy laid siege and choked off supplies. Starvation set in and all hope was lost, yet the people’s hope surprisingly surged: “Though we have fallen we will rise,” they collectively asserted, “though we sit in darkness, the LORD will be our light. He will bring us out into the light; we will see his righteousness.”
Their hope was based that promise from God back in chapter 5: a mighty and majestic shepherd would emerge from Bethlehem to save his flock. Our passage this morning is Micah’s prayer for God to keep his word. It’s a prayer laced boldly with imperatives: “Shepherd your people with your staff! Let them safely graze as in days of old. As in the days when you came out of Egypt, show us some marvelous things!”
Bibles disagree as to whether Micah or the Lord is the one doing the talking here. Some have the Lord saying “As in the days when you came out of Egypt, I will do marvelous things!” Either way, Micah is confident. “The nations, our enemies, will be shamed and deprived of their power,” he struts, “they will shut their mouths and lick dust like a snake”—a blatant reference to Satan’s own defeat. Not only does God crush earthly adversaries, He crushes the devil himself and grinds evil underfoot. “They all come trembling out of their dark lairs like worms,” Micah says with a swagger, “they all come out in dread of God.” Every shaky knee bows and every disdainful tongue confesses who’s Lord of all.
God saves his people from the sinister forces that tormented them from the outside. They suffered cruelty at the hands of others’ doing. But they also suffered consequences of their own doing. That the Assyrians ran freely over Israel was due in part to their own sinful rebellion. Micah’s prophecies had announced judgment upon Israel for social evils, corrupt leadership, and idolatry. Yet in the end, God still saves them. He can’t stop loving them. Micah is amazed and exclaims, “Who is a God like you?” (This is what Micah’s name means.) “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgressions? You don’t stay mad forever? You delight in mercy? You will again have compassion on us? As with Satan, you tread our sins underfoot! As with Pharaoh’s army in Egypt, you all our iniquities into deep water. You will be true to Jacob, you will show unswerving loyalty to Abraham, just like you promised to our ancestors long ago.”
God’s people are completely surrounded and on the verge of certain defeat, and Micah’s declaring victory. This is usually how Biblical hope operates. Author GK Chesterton wrote, ““As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude. It is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all Christian virtues, hope is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”
700 years after Micah, a virgin girl likewise hoped amidst hopelessness and gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. He would be the promised Shepherd to rule over God’s flock, who would crush the power of Satan and sin underfoot. As the hope and fears of all the years kicked and squirmed in Mary’s womb, her “soul magnified the Lord,” in language redounding with Micah’s own prophetic confidence. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary famously sang, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Notice how Mary gets her verb tenses confused. Instead of singing about a God who will lift up the lowly, who will fill the hungry, who will bring down the powerful and who will send the rich away empty, Mary sings as if all these things had happened already. Jesus isn’t even born yet and already she’s declaring victory.
Except that the victory Mary declared would look a lot more like failure. Mary’s triumphant singing gave way to scandalous hand-wringing as her husband Joseph considered breaking off their engagement. Everybody knew her baby wasn’t his (and nobody was going to believe God did it). Mary ends up giving birth in a feed trough not because there was no room at the Holiday Inn.. Ancient Middle Eastern hospitality would have never permitted turning away a pregnant relative (Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown). But neither would Joseph’s kin be disgraced by this scandal. They had a reputation to protect. You can squeeze into our house, they allowed, but go sleep with the other animals. You’d think the worse was over once Jesus was born, but then they take him to be circumcised only to have their rabbi warn that their son will end up causing the failure of many in Israel. How’s that for a christening? Your child will invite opposition and rejection by many. Oh, and Mary, a sword will pierce your soul too. And yet Mary still blessed the Lord.
GK Chesterton was right. Christian hope is unreasonable. Two days after the Sandy Hook tragedy, CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed the parents of Grace McDonnell, one of the victims. Unbelievably composed, they insisted that hate would not be poison their thoughts going forward. They would hope for new life out of their immense loss. They would live by Grace, they said, remembering their daughter’s kindness and peace and beauty and allow that to pave their way forward. They would forgive.
Their determination reminded me of the last time a tragedy like last Friday’s struck an elementary school in America. Five little girls in a Pennsylvania Amish schoolhouse. As violent and horrific an act as that was, the truly unbelievable part, you may recall, was the act of compassionate forgiveness and reconciliation that followed. A pastor of the gunman’s family described being in the family’s home when there came this knock on the door. It was an Amish neighbor visiting on behalf of their community. He put his arms around the gunman’s father, and said “We will forgive you.” A goodly number of Amish showed up at the gunman’s funeral. The grandfather of one of the girls was quoted as insisting, “We must not think evil of this man.” A father of one victim said to the press: “We don’t know or understand why this happened but we do believe God allowed it. The rest of us, our lives will go on. We will try to work together to support and help the families directly involved… including the man responsible for this tragedy.’’ At the behest of Amish leaders, a fund was set up for the killer’s widow and three children. The West Nickel Mines School were the tragedy occurred was torn down and replaced by a new one-room schoolhouse called the New Hope School.
Such hope is unreasonable. Unimaginable. It is impossible! How can any parent suffer such loss and then show such mercy? From what little I know of the Amish, I understand that their strength comes from being a community devoted to Christ and to the practical implications of the gospel in everyday life: doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with their God. “How can you call me Lord,” Jesus asked, “and not do the things that I say?” Granted, Jesus never mentioned horses and buggies; but he was crystal clear about forgiving your enemies and praying for your persecutors, even though it kills you to do it. Jesus said that following him meant dying to yourself and taking up a cross everyday. From what little I know, the Amish admonish one another toward the daily practice of self-denial and obedience in the little things. They habitually hone their souls so that when the tragedies strike, as they inevitably do, their faith and obedience will not waver. I have to think that by practicing lesser mercies everyday—whether its helping a neighbor raise a barn or forgiving somebody their rude remark or slight—by practicing lesser mercies everyday you can’t help but become a merciful person: The kind of person for whom the only thing unimaginable is withholding mercy. This is why Jesus talks about taking up a cross daily. If you wait until some momentous crisis to take it up, your cross will be too heavy to lift.
Christian hope is unreasonable. It requires believing in spite of the evidence—and then waiting and watching the evidence change. Hope lets us glimpse reality as God sees it. You know what you’re getting for Christmas because you’ve already been given a peek. Christian hope is not generic wishful thinking, but a specific vision of the future presented throughout Scripture as certainty rather than possibility. It’s a future Micah confidently paints where the mountain of the Lord, the heavenly Zion, dominates the landscape. All nations stream to it, learn from it, live by it. Politics are no longer the love of power but the love of service. Economics are motivated by generosity and equity rather than by profit and prejudice. Justice governs with integrity and honesty; there is no corruption or duplicity. Worship is no longer performing on Sundays only to live as you like the rest of the week. Faith infuses every aspect of life. Mercy abounds. Obedience is joy. The Lord himself settles all disputes. Swords are hammered into shovels and semi automatic assault rifles pounded into garden tools because nobody shoots anybody anymore. There is no more war, no more violence, no more starvation, thirst, disease or fear; only genuine peace on earth and goodwill among all people, just like the angels sang.
This confident picture is grounded in the God who created the heavens and the earth and called forth light with his lips. The same God who birthed a nation out of a nursing home candidate named Abraham whose body was good as dead. That God miraculously delivered that same nation out of their Egyptian slavery by leading them through parted waters, and them rescued them over and over again, though they were surrounded by trouble on every side. Our confidence is grounded in a that God who showed up in person at Christmas in scandal, who stuck around to suffer and who fell to an unjust death, only to then rise from that injustice and be crowned King and Lord and Light of all. In Christ our Lord we confidently hope, despite the worst the world can dish out on us and despite the worst we dish onto ourselves. In Jesus Christ our Lord we confidently hope and therefore can speak of a beautiful future using the past tense. So go ahead and open your present. Because of Jesus, you already know what it is.