Welcome back to those of you who've returned from your weekends away. Life's resumed, and it's busier for all of us. Today I'd like to think about something that's at first might relate more to those of you who are students. In reality, it's something that is relevant for all of us.
What I'd like to talk about is final exams. That's a long way from now, so I hate to bring it up. Having been a student for many years myself, I discovered that you'd want to start thinking about exams right from the start of school. Everything that I learned was filtered through one important question: will this be on the final exam?
Everybody knows that when you take a course, you can't possibly learn everything. You take the average size of one textbook alone, and there is no way that you could master all of the contents of that book. At some point, the professor would usually indicate what was important to remember and what you could forget. I'd try to get what was important down to a few short pages that I could take to Starbucks and master right before the exam.
I remember the feeling of getting the exam in an envelope and opening it up. Before I picked up a pen to answer the first question, I always read through the exam with one question: had I prepared by learning the right material?
Nothing is more important to passing an exam than having mastered the right material.
I've been thinking about this as it relates to our church. Over the summer, I've been doing a lot of thinking about this. You know that a lot of words get spoken here. The average person speaks about 100 words a minute. Since most of our sermons are about half an hour, you listen to 3,000 words during the sermon on an average Sunday. Over the course of a year, if you come here enough, you'll ear 150,000 words. And you'll forget most of them! But what if I, right up front, was open with you about saying, "Try to learn everything you can, but if you forget everything else, remember these few things?" And what if we got what was important down to a few short sentences that you could take to Starbucks and really learn?
Let's take this even further. Forget the preaching here. Think about the Bible. There are three-quarters of a million words in the Bible. Some of you know a lot more of the Bible than others, but nobody here could say they have mastered all the information in the Bible. What if you could get the core of what's important down to something manageable, something that we could all master? We'd obviously want to learn as much as we can, but these would be the most important things we couldn't afford no to know.
In other words, if we mastered nothing else this year, what would be important for us to master?
It turns out that this is actually a good idea, and the Bible actually gives us some hints. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospels, the Bible gives us a summary of what's important. As you'd expect, both summaries are very similar. A large part of what we're going to be doing this year is to try to unpack and really understand and live what the Bible says is critically important. As I've prepared for this coming year, everything has been filtered by the question, "What is it absolutely important for Richview to master?"
After next Sunday, we're actually going to start reading a book together as a church that looks at the New Testament summary of what we need to master if we forget everything else. It's called The Jesus Creed. Between now and Easter, we'll use this book as a tool to help us live what's really important.
Today, though, I want to look at the Old Testament, to the Hebrew answer to this question, given some 2,700 years ago. The passage we're about to look at outlines very clearly what we are to master, what we need to know and to live, if we have a hope of saying we're following God faithfully.
God vs. His Worshipers
To set the scene, picture getting sued by God. Really. Picture one day that we open up the mail at the church, and there's a letter from a law firm on Bay Street that says, "We have been retained by God, and have been instructed to commence proceedings against you." Imagine how strange that would be. That's precisely the scene that we find today's passage. Please open your Bibles to Micah 6.
Micah 6:1-2 says:
Listen to what the LORD says:
"Stand up, plead my case before the mountains;
let the hills hear what you have to say.
Hear, you mountains, the LORD's accusation;
listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth,
For the LORD has a case against his people;
he is lodging a charge against Israel."
In these first two verses, God serves as both judge and plaintiff. He calls the court to attention, calls the mountains as his witnesses. I guess the reason is that they've been around long enough to have seen what's going on. God then announces the fact the he's commencing proceedings against his people.
At this point, I'm wondering, "What's got God so angry? Why is God suing his own people?" Again, picture getting this letter at the church. God's suing us. What's the charge? I don't know, he hasn't said yet. Instead, God rehearses a bit of history, defending His own actions in the case. Verses 3 and 4 say:
My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.
I brought you up out of Egypt
and redeemed you from the hand of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
also Aaron and Miriam...
In other words, "What have I done wrong to you that you are treating Me this way?"
It's funny. We still have no idea what's got God so angry, but in verses 6 and 7, the people God is suing offer their defense:
With what should I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
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 offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
God's asked, "What have I done that you're treating Me this way?" The people respond, basically, "What more do you expect from us?"
Putting it in today's terms, it'd be like saying, "God, we go to church. We give sacrificially to the offering every week. We have our devotions and try our best to follow you with our lives. I know we're not perfect, but what do you expect from us? What will make you happy?"
Probably not a bad question to ask, although maybe not in such an adversarial manner. The longer I'm around, the more I realize the importance of clear expectations. I don't know if you've ever been blind-sided by a review at work when you thought you were doing a good job, and discovered that the boss was really disappointed with your performance. Maybe you thought you were acing a course, and then you get to the final exam and fail.
It'd be sad to go to church every week and to give thousands of dollars to the church and to do our devotions and follow God as best as we knew how, only to find out that we had completely missed the point. There's a book out right now called Adventures in Missing the Point. Not being clear about what God expects while thinking you're okay - that would the ultimate adventure in missing the point!
What Does the Lord Require?
In verse 8, God answers the question, "What does God want from us?" The first part of verse 8 says, "He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you?"
The Message paraphrase puts it this way: "But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do..." God isn't giving us new information. What we're about to read is consistent throughout Scripture. We're going to see something very similar in the teaching of Jesus. This isn't something that's new in Micah, and it's not something that only applied two thousand plus years ago. This is consistent with all of Biblical teaching, from start to finish.
It's consistent. It's also simple. Anybody can remember three things. It gets even easier later, because Jesus takes these three requirements and simplifies them even further. He makes them into two. But still, three's not bad. Any of us can remember these three. There shouldn't be any lack of clarity or understanding about what God requires.
Although these three requirements are simple, I'd guess that God's people have a pretty spotty record at how well they do with these three requirements. In Micah's day, they certainly weren't doing well. There are glimmers of hope here and there. Churches tend to do better in one or two of these requirements, but it's harder to find churches that do all three well.
What does God require of Richview today? Three things:
1. Promote justice
Verse 8 says, "What does the LORD require of you? To act justly..." I've always interpreted this on a personal level. The Message says, "Do what is fair and just to your neighbor." It's certainly important to treat others fairly, but this verse goes further. It's not just the idea of treating others right personally. The idea is of promoting justice. It's a concern for justice in all of society; to work for right relationships and justice for all, especially for the most vulnerable.
The issue with justice is how those who have power and privilege treat those who don't. The reason why this is so important is because when you read the Bible, God always takes the side of the poor. God is a God of justice who pleads the cause of the poor, and requires his people to do the same.
Listen to what God said all the way back in Deuteronomy, when he was outlining how his people should live. Deuteronomy 10:18 says of God, "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing." In chapter 15, he says:
If anyone is poor among your people in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need...Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then, because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything that you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:7-9)
Justice is essentially how those of us who have look after those who don't have. God says, "I don't want people who just come to church and worship me. I want them to do something about the inequity and injustice in this world. I want them to promote justice for those who don't have."
It's surprising that this is number one on the list. It's not something we normally talk about. Yet it's something that's clear through Scripture. After idolatry, defending the poor is the second most prominent theme in the Old Testament. Proverbs 31:8-9 says:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of those who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
If this is one of God's non-negotiable requirements, the question is, are we doing this? How much do we speak up for those who are vulnerable in this world? Churches are usually pretty good at charity, of helping those in need. But some traditions say that every act of charity (meeting basic needs) should be balanced by an act of justice (addressing the causes that led to that need). Charity is showing kindness. Justice is dealing with the root causes that made the charity necessary.
Here are some of the areas where we might work for justice:
- The world is enjoying unprecedented wealth, and yet more than one billion people live in abject poverty, struggling to get by on less than $1 a day. Each day, 50,000 people die from preventable, poverty-related causes. 850 million people go to bed hungry every night.
- Today, 15 million children are orphans because of AIDS. One in six AIDS-related deaths is now a child.
- Every 3.6 seconds, another person dies of needless poverty.
- Today, the richest three people in the world own assess that exceed the combined economic activity of the world's poorest 48 countries.
- If the world had 1,000 people, 600 of those would live in a shantytown.
- A woman in sub-Saharan Africa is 200 times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in North America. That's 1 in 16 in that part of Africa that die in childbirth.
- Closer to home, the disparity between rich and poor neighborhoods in the city of Etobicoke is increasing. There has been a 69% increase in poor families in Toronto over the past twenty years.
We're all aware of other issues of justice: racism, poverty, unjust laws. We're aware of parts of our city not far from here that are in desperate need. I heard a pastor from Africa say recently, "A church cannot be surrounded by poverty and not do something about that poverty."
I wish I could tell you the solutions to all of these issues. The answers aren't easy. I can't tell you the solution, but I can tell you that God requires us to do something. God requires of his people at Richview that we promote justice. In Micah's day, God was so angry about this that he sued His people because they weren't promoting justice.
A good resource on this is the Micah Challenge. They break it down into three steps: being informed, getting prepared, and taking action. They've provided a sample letter to the Prime Minister, as well as something called the Micah Call that you can sign. Take a look at both at the Information Center after the service, or you can go to their website (www.micahchallenge.ca). We also have some Make Poverty History wristbands at the Information Center.
It's more than wearing a wristband or even doing something once or twice. This is a stream that should run through our entire lives and our ministry as a church. We're going to be returning to this theme quite a few times this year.
If anybody should care about these issues, it ought to be God's people, who share His heart and who have received his love. What does God require? That we work to promote justice in this world.
2. Love mercy
Last year, Charlene was out around Burnamthorpe and Dundas when she came across a homeless man. She found out that he hadn't eaten in a while, and offered to buy him a pizza slice. While they were waiting for the pizza to be warmed, Charlene found out that he was planning to sleep at the Coffee Time. Charlene tried to talk him into going to a shelter, but it became clear that he wasn't going to make it to a shelter by himself. So Charlene drove him to the subway. He didn't seem to want to get out, so Charlene drove him to our house so she could look up a shelter in the phone book.
He came in and he drank a pot of coffee by himself. We ended up giving him one of my old coats, and eventually Charlene ended up driving him to a shelter. We've never heard from him since, and we have no idea if we helped him, or what he's doing today.
What Charlene did is a good example of the second requirement of following God: to "love mercy". Justice is working to address the causes that lead somebody like this man to be out on the street. Mercy is actually helping him when we come across him. I don't know the best way to show mercy in every case. You could argue that Charlene took unnecessary risks or that there were other options. That may be true, but she did love mercy that night.
I remember not feeling a lot of mercy myself. I felt bad for him and saw that his need was genuine, but I also felt a bit inconvenienced and annoyed. It's the same temptation I sometimes face when I meet someone with a need. God says to love mercy, to give generously. Proverbs 19:17 says, "Those who are kind to the poor lend to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done." The passage we read earlier from Deuteronomy says, "Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart" (Deuteronomy 15:10). Even when I manage to give generously, I don't always manage to do so without a grudging heart.
Loving mercy means that we walk alongside those who suffer - showing faithfulness, generosity, and compassion. It doesn't just mean showing mercy. It means actually loving it, making it something that's what you love to do. Mercy isn't deserved. We don't look at some people and say, "You don't deserve mercy!" We give them mercy as freely as it's been given to us.
One last requirement:
3. Walk humbly with God
This is amazing. What I would expect to be number one makes number three on God's list. I don't know that these are given in any particular order, but I would have thought that God would dominate the list. What we normally think of as following God makes the list, but it's dominated by how we treat others.
"Walk humbly with your God" includes all the things we normally think of in our relationship with God. It involves intimacy, cultivating a relationship, staying attentive to God's will, putting ourselves in the secondary position to Him. It's about being deliberate about pursuing ongoing spiritual growth and discipleship, of becoming more like Jesus.
If you asked the average person in our circles what following God is all about, this would be it. This is what we normally focus on. God says that it's important. In fact, it's critical. But it's not enough. There's more.
Grading the Test
So these are what God expects from Richview. They aren't ways to earn salvation. They are how he expects us to live: to promote justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with Him.
Later, Jesus simplifies this even more. He tells us the two greatest commandments: to love the LORD with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It's essentially the same as Micah's list. Jesus also taught a lot on what it means to love our neighbor.
This is where we're going to focus a lot of our energies this year. If this is the summary of how God expects us to live, we could do a lot worse than to really master these areas. We'll cover other things, of course, but we'll keep coming back to these three.
The other day, as I was in the middle of getting ready for this message, I came out of Yorkdale. There was a man sitting there, and he asked for a cup of coffee. All the same things came through my mind that normally do: you're a scam artist, you're not going to use this on coffee, what's your real story.
It got me thinking. How much do I promote justice? Do I care about the issues of justice as they relate to this guy sitting at the door? Do I ever contact the government when they make decisions that are unjust to people like this guy?
How much do I love mercy? It's easy to throw the guy a buck and walk away. Do I love mercy, though? Does it flow from a heart that's grudging and condescending, or from a heart that sees the image of God in that person, and who can't wait to share what God has given me?
Am I walking humbly with God? Does my heart reflect God's priorities? Do I see past my own world and see what God cares about?
If these are the big three, how are we doing as a church? How are you doing?
Almighty God our heavenly Father,
Grant us a vision of our world as your love would make it.
A world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
A world where the benefits of civilized life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
A world where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect;
A world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.