God Advice

Micah 6:1-8 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

6 The Lord said to his people:
Come and present your case to the hills and mountains.
2  Israel, I am bringing charges against you— I call upon the mountains and the earth’s firm foundation to be my witnesses.
3  My people, have I wronged you in any way at all? Please tell me.
4  I rescued you from Egypt, where you were slaves.
I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to be your leaders.
5  Don’t forget the evil plans of King Balak of Moab or what Balaam son of Beor
said to him.
Remember how I, the Lord, saved you many times on your way from Acacia     to Gilgal.
6  What offering should I bring when I bow down to worship the Lord God Most High? Should I try to please him by sacrificing calves a year old?
7  Will thousands of sheep or rivers of olive oil make God satisfied with me?
Should I sacrifice to the Lord my first-born child as payment for my terrible sins?
8  The Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands: “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”
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Have you worried lately about whether or not you  are pleasing God?
When I chose this text for today, I was drawn by verse 8 “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”  It is a well-known verse.  I’ve seen it lettered and framed and hanging on a wall.  A lot of Christians like to use it as a motto and model for behavior.
But as I reread the text, I looked at the questions in vs. 6.-7
6  What offering should I bring when I bow down to worship the Lord God Most High? Should I try to please him by sacrificing calves a year old?
7  Will thousands of sheep or rivers of olive oil make God satisfied with me?
Should I sacrifice to the Lord my first-born child as payment for my terrible sins?
The people are wondering how they can please God.  They name the most extravagant offerings they can think of.  A year old calf.  Thousands of sheep.  Rivers of olive oil. A child.
These responses are headed in the wrong direction.  They show a lack of relationship with God, and understanding of what pleases God.
It reminds me of David wanting to please God by building a temple.  It reminds me of Herod wanting to please his Jewish subjects by rebuilding the temple.  It reminds me of estate auctions.
You know what I see at estate auctions?  I see stuff that somebody’s Grandma had in her home.  I especially see a lot of stuff that is almost brand new.  I see gadgets and appliances and pictures and jewelry, barely used.  There’s always at least one George Foreman Grill. Everybody wants to get Grandma a birthday present and a Christmas present to make her life easier.  Her children and grandchildren want her to have the best of everything, they want her to be able to complete every task with ease.  So she gets a Kitchen Aid mixer to replace the handheld mixer she’s used for thirty years.  She gets a VitaMix to replace her old Hamilton-Beach blender.  She gets a cashmere afghan to replace the one her own mother knitted for her fifty years ago.  Her family wants to please her, but they look at what makes them happy, not at what would make Grandma happy.
What did Grandma really want?  Not much. A phone call once in a while.  A visit.  A letter. Her values were based on relationships, not dollars.
The Israelites didn’t do any better.  They looked at their own values of wealth and goods and assumed God would like more stuff, just the way we assume that stuff is the measure of success.   A year old calf.  Thousands of sheep.  Rivers of olive oil.  A Kitchen Aid mixer.  An iPad.  A George Foreman Grill.
Giving becomes a contest to prove that we make enough money to be able to give the most and the best gifts.
The Israelites were commanded to give to God out of their own earthly wealth.  Olive oil. Sheep.  Cattle.

In fact, the required sacrifices at the temple were designated according to one’s financial value.  If you were poor, you had only to bring a couple pigeons. If you were wealthy, you were expected to bring a nice fat calf.  In Micah’s lesson today, we see that devotion to God has become for the Israelites a once a year obligation with no thought of its original purpose.  But there was more to the sacrifice than bringing in an animal or some grain.
Here is a good explanation from the website, Judaism 101. ) http://www.jewfaq.org/qorbanot.htm)
There are three basic concepts underlying qorbanot (sacrifice): giving, substitution and coming closer.
The first the aspect of giving. A qorban requires the renunciation of something that belongs to the person making the offering. Thus, sacrifices are made from domestic animals, not wild animals (because wild animals do not belong to anyone). Likewise, offerings of food are ordinarily in the form of flour or meal, which requires substantial work to prepare.
Another important concept is the element of substitution. The idea is that the thing being offered is a substitute for the person making the offering, and the things that are done to the offering are things that should have been done to the person offering. The offering is in some sense “punished” in place of the offerer. It is interesting to note that whenever the subject of qorbanot is addressed in the Torah, the name of G-d used is the four-letter name indicating G-d’s mercy.
The third important concept is the idea coming closer. The essence of sacrifice is to bring a person closer to G-d.
This third concept is the concept that the Israelites had forgotten.  And it is the same concept that could be our biggest weakness in our faith.   How and what is my relationship with God? How do I stay close to God?
Do I please God?  Do I try to please God?  Or do I just try to be a good person?
There is a difference.  Anyone, believer or not, can be a good person.  Anyone can take food to the food bank, anyone can visit the sick, anyone can give money to a charity.  But pleasing God goes beyond that.  Micah says this that to truly please God, there are three rules:
“See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”
See that justice is done.  How do we do that? Have you seen any injustice lately? What can you do about it? How far does your influence reach? One of the hot topics on the news these days is refugees. But they are so far away and I don’t have a boat big enough to bring them here, nor do I have houses for them.  So what can I do?  Not much.
But are there refugees in our own communities? People who are new to town or people who are looking for a place to just be?   Is there somebody who wants to belong to a community?  St. Paul’s in Davenport has just welcomed a refugee family. What could our little congregation do? The refugee doesn’t have to be from across the ocean. The refugee could be someone wanting to get their family out of a dangerous neighborhood.
Or what about just using our own words?  My favorite form of combating racism or another kind of discrimination is just a matter of asking questions.  When someone tells a joke whose meaning depends on a stereotype, pretend you don’t get it. Say, I’m sorry, I’m kind of dense, what do you mean? Could you explain the punchline to me?  As the person explains that all blacks or all gays or all women are such and such, she becomes aware of her own stereotyping.
A somewhat similar example of this made the Quad-City Times this week.  A high school teacher had made some derogatory comments on his Facebook page which alarmed some of his students and their parents.  I bet the poor guy had no idea that his comments were harmful, and he may still not understand why, but it turns out that his Facebook comment was typical of his classroom comments and justice has been done for those students who were the the target of his “jokes.”
It seems like a small thing, doesn’t it. Words are so fleeting.  We can’t see them when they are spoken.  And yet, just as we can’t see the rain after it soaks into the soil, the words soak into to hearts and souls and brains.
Justice…making sure that all God’s children are loved and know that they are loved.
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Let mercy be your first concern.  Your first concern.  Not punishment.  Not getting even.  Mercy.  Mercy even to the person who offends you.  Mercy to the person who tells the joke, who makes fun of the gay kid or the girls in the class or the kid whose words are pronounced differently.  Mercy.  Mercy towards people who operate out of cruelty or selfishness or envy.  Mercy towards people who annoy us. Even mercy toward people who frighten us.
Mercy does not cancel out justice; it’s a matter of attitude. It’s “love your enemy.”
I read an interesting article yesterday, written by Fox News columnist, Curt Anderson:  “Five Essential Lessons for Republicans in the age of Trump.”  He may not have had mercy in mind; he was thinking more of the survival of the Republican party.  Here are his five suggestions:
Don’t help the Democrats.  Show restraint. Give the President a chance.  Limit your dissent to serious policy matters. Respect the president.
“Don’t help the Democrats.” might not show mercy.  But the other four certainly show mercy: Show restraint. Give the President a chance.  Limit your dissent to serious policy matters. Respect the president.
If we are motivated by mercy, how does that change our hearts?  In my heart, mercy puts out the fires of bitterness and revenge.
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Humbly obey your God.   The most important word here is “humbly.”  Humility, being humble, is tricky. You may think that being humble makes you a doormat for everybody else, that being humble means other people can push you around.  How can you be humble and still stick up for yourself?
Being humble does not mean that you think less of yourself. Being humble is about relationship, about how you treat other people.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were made to feel as if you didn’t know anything, or as if you didn’t have anything to contribute?  Let me give you an example, one that still grates on me a little.
I was invited to lunch, or I insinuated myself into lunch with three ordained, male ministers, all friends of mine. We went to a really neat restaurant, had great food and wonderful conversation.  We talked about our calls to ministry—except mine; we talked about our educational experience–except mine; we talked about our current pastoral situations–except mine.
By the end of lunch I was NOT feeling humble.  I was mad.  I had two counts against me: I was not ordained and I was female.   If I had been humble, I would not have been mad.  I would have accepted, with grace, that my situation was different, and that the three men had much in common, AND that I could support them.
Being humble is not what you think other people think or say about you.  Being humble is being secure and thankful for who and what you are.  In other words, you are comfortable in your own skin; you like who you are.
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So, I return to my original question:    Do I have a good relationship with God?  It’s hard to have a relationship with someone you don’t talk to, or write to, or think about.
Think about the relationships in your life.  Which are the strongest? My strongest relationships are with my family, because I see them the most, I talk to them the most,  I think about them more than I think about anybody else.  I have good relationships among friends, among business associates, and, of course, among you.  These relationships don’t just happen.  And maybe these relationships flourish because justice and mercy and humility are the foundation of what I say, what I see, how I act.  I hope so.
God doesn’t expect sacrifices.  When I think about those auctions filled with all kinds of gadgets and gifts, (some of which end up in my home, by the way) I think of what any person really wants.  When I think about the food we give to the food bank, I think about what the family who eats the food really wants. It’s not stuff.  It’s justice; it’s mercy; it’s being welcomed as an equal.
This week, I want you to think about justice and mercy and humility. But I really want you to think about your relationship with God, about how you and God walk and talk together. God is, after all, the God of justice and mercy. Is God humble? Yes.
In Philippians 2: 8 we read
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
God takes God’s own advice. May we be wise enough to do likewise.  Amen.

Kings, Kings, Kings

2 When Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem in Judea, Herod was king. During this time some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and said, “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard about this, he was worried, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem. 4 Herod brought together the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?”
5 They told him, “He will be born in Bethlehem, just as the prophet (Micah) wrote,
6’Bethlehem in the land of Judea, you are very important among the towns of Judea.
From your town will come a leader, who will be like a shepherd for my people Israel.’”
7 Herod secretly called in the wise men and asked them when they had first seen the star. 8 He told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, let me know. I want to go and worship him too.”
9 The wise men listened to what the king said and then left. And the star they had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 They were thrilled and excited to see the star.
11 When the men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him. They took out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and gave them to him. 12 Later they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they went back home by another road.
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Today’s lesson has all kinds of kings. In verse 1 we meet King Herod and the three kings from the East. In verse 2, it turns out they are looking for another king, the king of the Jews.  And, hovering in the background of the Israelite national conscience is the knowledge of the long line, long-expired, of Kings Saul, David, Solomon, all the way to Jehoiahchin. And even though we know that every king enters the world as a baby, this baby that the wisemen seek is one-of-a-kind. And the kingdom He will build is one-of-a kind.

King Herod is a sorry guy, as kings go.  His ancestry was barely Jewish and I’m guessing that was what made him attractive to Caesar—he wouldn’t cause any trouble  to the Roman government. He was also mean and greedy and insecure.  To make himself appear great, he built his own city for his residence and, to win favor with the Jewish establishment, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem.  But he was never secure. If he served God, it was to call attention to John the Baptist and to Jesus.

The kings of the ancient Israelites were men of God,but they all had faults and flaws, and even as God guided them, he could not force them nor the people they served to be faithful to his commandments.

The wise men were probably not kings; more likely they were the first century equivalent of scientists.  They studied the stars, which was one of the highest forms of science at the time.  But because they brought expensive gifts, some scholars assumed they were kings.

What if we sang songs about The Three Scientists?  “We three scientists of Orient are, bearing chemicals we travel afar.”

This little baby, so ordinary and so unique, was the object of all these kings.  King Herod feared him as someone who might steal his throne and his kingdom. King David was his proclaimed ancestor.  And the three kings were seeking him because this little baby would become the king of the Jews after all these years of oppression.

We know all about this King of the Jews who turned out to be much more than the king, ruler of a kingdom that knows no limits, no boundaries, no racial limitations, no laws beyond love God and love your neighbor.

In this lesson, the omnipresence of God is apparent.  Earthly rulers, earthly kingdoms, earthly prophecies are all mixed together, and the result is a new world order, a new kind of being human, a new way to survive, a new way to thrive.

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Frederich Buechner is one of the finest writers and theologians in our modern world.  If you are looking for some good reading, you can choose from among thirty of his books, including novels, sermons, biography and daily meditations.
I want to read you his reflections on the visit of the Three Wise Men.

THE WISE MAN

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” —MATTHEW 2:1–2

“‘Beware of beautiful strangers,’” said one of the magi-astrologers, the wise men, “‘and on Friday avoid travel by water. The sun is moving into the house of Venus, so affairs of the heart will prosper.’ We said this to Herod, or something along those lines, and of course it meant next to nothing. To have told him anything of real value, we would have had to spend weeks of study, months, calculating the conjunction of the planets at the precise moment of his birth and at the births of his parents and their parents back to the fourth generation.
But Herod knew nothing of this, and he jumped at the nonsense we threw him like a hungry dog and thanked us for it. A lost man, you see, even though he was a king. Neither really a Jew nor really a Roman, he was at home nowhere. And he believed in nothing, neither Olympian Zeus nor the Holy One of Israel, who cannot be named. So he was ready to jump at anything, and he swallowed our little jingle whole. But it could hardly have been more obvious that jingles were the least of what he wanted from us.
“‘Go and find me the child,’ the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. ‘Because I want to come and worship him,’ he said, and when he said that, his hands were still as death. Death. I ask you, does a man need the stars to tell him that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. ‘Yes, of course,’ we said, and went our way. His hands fluttered to his throat like moths.
“Why did we travel so far to be there when it happened? Why was it not enough just to know the secret without having to be there ourselves to behold it? To this, not even the stars had an answer. The stars said simply that he would be born. It was another voice altogether that said to go—a voice as deep within ourselves as the stars are deep within the sky.
“But why did we go? I could not tell you now, and I could not have told you then, not even as we were in the very process of going. Not that we had no motive, but that we had so many. Curiosity, I suppose: to be wise is to be eternally curious, and we were very wise. We wanted to see for ourselves this One before whom even the stars are said to bow down—to see perhaps if it was really true because even the wise have their doubts. And longing. Longing. Why will a man who is dying of thirst crawl miles across sands as hot as fire at simply the possibility of water? But if we longed to receive, we longed also to give. Why will a man labor and struggle all the days of his life so that in the end he has something to give the one he loves?
“So finally we got to the place where the star pointed us. It was at night. Very cold. The Innkeeper showed us the way that we did not need to be shown. A harebrained, busy man. The odor of the hay was sweet, and the cattle’s breath came out in little puffs of mist. The man and the woman. Between them the king. We did not stay long. Only a few minutes as the clock goes, ten thousand, thousand years. We set our foolish gifts down on the straw and left.
“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest. “And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?”
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Reading this story by Frederick Buechner reminds me of the mystery of the birth of Jesus.  From the ancient prophesies to his conception to his birthplace, everything about Jesus’ birth is a mystery.

Think about this: a thousand miles apart, Hebrew scholars are studying Hebrew scripture, while Oriental scholars are studying Oriental science. What does that suggest?  My conclusion is that God is the universe. God reaches out to each of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter what we’ve done.
I stand in awe of a God who knows us all, who forgives us all, who loves us all.  Amen.