Monday, August 5, 2013

"Jonah: The Unwilling Prophet" by Richard R. Crocker

Jonah - The Unwilling Prophet
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
August 4, 2013
Jonah 1:1-17

                You have all heard the story, I am sure, of the boy scout who reported at the weekly troop meeting about his good deed for the week. He said that he had helped an old lady cross the street. His friend immediately reported that he also had helped the old lady across the street, whereupon the scoutmaster said, “Why did it take both of you to help her cross the street?” To which they replied, ‘”Because she didn’t want to go.” It’s an old joke, and I apologize for inflicting it on you. But it is a fitting introduction to the last of our sermons on the minor prophets. Today we consider Jonah, the unwilling prophet, the prophet who did not want to go.

            Jonah is different. If you have read the earlier prophets we considered – Amos, Hosea, Zephaniah, Micah, and Haggai-  you will note that the book of Jonah is very different. Jonah is the first prophet we have considered who directs his words not to the Jews, but to the Assyrians. And his book does not consist of a series of sometimes mysterious oracles. Instead, it tells a story – a brief, fascinating, interesting, fantastic story. Some have said that it’s the biggest fish story ever told.

            Biggest or not – it is a story. I expect that, of all the prophets we have considered, you are most familiar with this book – because it tells a story. The bible contains many kinds of literature, and this is a story – a story with a message. Scholars date this book as the latest of the minor prophets: it was written, they say, after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. It is “post-exilic”. Yet the story takes place at least 200 years earlier - back in the time of Amos and Hosea. The story is about Jonah, a relatively unknown prophet, who receives a call to go to Nineveh, that great city. We know that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria – the empire that preoccupied Amos and Hosea, and that finally conquered the northern kingdom. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh to cry out against its wickedness. He was not eager to go. Indeed, he was determined not to go. So instead, he went to the seashore at Joppa and booked passage to Tarshish, which is like someone today booking passage to Timbuktu – in other words, a place as far away from Nineveh as he could possibly go. But his trip was interrupted by a gigantic storm that struck so much fear into the boat’s crew that they decided the gods must be against them (obviously they were not Jews), and they drew lots to identify the offender. Now this logic seems strange to us. We do not assume that storms are caused by God to get the attention of one particular person – but, as I said, this is a story, and in a story, we are quite willing to suspend our disbelief.  When the lot fell  upon Jonah, he admitted his fault and showed that he was not a coward, "Throw me overboard," he said, "and the storm will stop." They did and it did. And the crew was semi-converted by the miracle.  But God wasn’t done with Jonah. He was preserved and protected  - and given a time out – by being swallowed by a great fish, where he spent three days surveying his situation. When Jonah had time to reconsider things, the fish spewed him out, and Jonah was willing to go to Nineveh – that great sinful city, to cry out against its wickedness.

            Now it is a surprising thing that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. But it is even more surprising that, when he got to Nineveh and cried out against its wickedness, the people, including the king, immediately believed him and repented. As we know, this was unusual, even for the people of Israel – much less for Assyrians. They repented, and God changed his mind. But Jonah pouted. Here he was, going to all this trouble after having been swallowed by the fish, and all, and making the great journey, and crying out against wickedness , and what was the result? The Lord changed his mind and didn’t destroy the city.
What a bummer for Jonah! He went outside the city and built himself a little hut to watch the fireworks, but nothing happened. A bush grew up to shelter him- overnight, and he was happy under the bush, but the next day the bush disappeared and he was hot and angry. So God asked him why he was angry, and Jonah said; “I knew you would spare them. That’s why I didn’t want to come. Why did I have to do all this and come over here just to watch you spare them? Dog-gone it, I am mad.” To which God makes this wonderful reply that ends the book:

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
(Jonah 4:9-11)

Aren’t we glad that we have the story of Jonah? Aren’t we glad that the picture of God presented in this story is a picture of a God who is forgiving, who is concerned for all creation? Doesn’t this story give all of us hope – especially after we have heard so many prophecies of destruction and doom which went unheeded by the people of Israel and Judah? Well, we ought to be, but often we aren’t. Jonah wasn’t glad and neither are we. We are often people who do not want the salvation of our enemies, but rather take pleasure in their destruction.

I think of two present situations that illustrate this point.

            First: Jonah going to Nineveh would be like to Benjamin Netanyahu going to Tehran.  Literally. Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria, which is contemporary Iran. The fact that peace talks between Israel and Palestine are possible once again should be a source of great rejoicing to everyone. But taking initiative to start peace talks with one’s enemy is hardly ever a popular political position. It’s not popular in Israel, or Palestine, now, even though everyone knows that the present situation is untenable. So also, of course, are the situations in Iran, and in Syria. Who knows what to do?  What prophet would want to be sent to Damascus? Any volunteers? We are quite willing to send weapons, even perhaps soldiers, but we don’t want to send peacemakers and negotiators.  What would have happened in Iraq ten years ago if we had trusted the United Nations inspectors who told us there were no weapons of mass destruction there? How many lives would have been saved?

            Second: a few months ago, retired Bishop Gene Robinson spoke at the Dartmouth baccalaureate service. During his remarks, he made one observation or assertion that I found both provocative and strangely true. Bishop Robinson, speaking in reference to Jesus’ first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth – the one where you remember the townspeople got so angry that they tried to throw him off a cliff, said this:

“When you preach a God who is too merciful, too kind, too loving, too accepting, too inclusive, there will be hell to pay, and you will get into trouble, I promise you. You can preach a vengeful, hateful God and nobody will mind one bit. But you talk about a God who is too loving and I promise you you will get into trouble.”

I think the Bishop was speaking from his own experience.  And certainly Jonah seems a case in point.  Jonah preached a message calling people to repent or face destruction, then sat and watched, waiting for the destruction. When it didn’t come it made him so angry – that God was far more loving and accepting and forgiving than Jonah. It is probably true that some of us are unhappy with the mercy of God.

Some of us have been far too exposed to hateful preaching and not exposed enough to loving preaching. We take pleasure in the threat of God’s punishment, especially if it is directed at other people, and take offense at the suggestion that God truly loves sinners. And yet, of course, that is the essential Christian message – a message foretold In the story of Jonah, where God’s acceptance and forgiveness went far beyond the bounds of Israel to the people of a wicked city – and even to their animals.

            In a sense, this is a great story for us to end on, isn’t it? But it’s also a challenging story. It does not eliminate the call to repentance, does it? The message that Jonah preached was one of repentance – of turning from evil. But the tragedy was that he had a very hard time hearing that message himself – even though he was the spokesperson for it.

The bishop said that you will get into trouble when you preach a God who is too loving. He’s right: it is a challenge to proclaim the love of God in a way that is not simply indifference. A God who is simply indifferent to the reality of evil is no God at all. But a God who teaches us, inspires us, and helps us to overcome evil with good is a God who saves us, and whose forgiveness is so inclusive that even our failures are forgiven too.

You know, I am very heartened – as I think many of us are - that it seems that we Protestants have a pope who wants to include us – a pope whose genuine concern for all people goes beyond traditional Roman Catholic boundaries. His recent remarks (“Who am I to judge?”)  have been exceptionally inclusive. I wonder if those remarks will get him into trouble?

So, let us end this series by drawing a few conclusions. I hope you have learned from considering these six sermons that we must read the Bible in its context. Taken out of historical and literary context, many of these passages are mysterious at best and very misleading at worst. To read the prophets, especially the minor prophets, you need an annotated study Bible.
            Second, all the prophets we have read, including Jonah, proclaim both God’s love and faithfulness and God’s judgment. Love and judgment go together; they are not unrelated.  In our modern context, we often assume that loving people means making no judgment about them. That is only partly true. If you see a car speeding down the road toward a bridge that is washed out, it is a loving thing to try to stop them and tell them that the bridge has washed out. The prophets are people who know that the bridge is washed out.  Their warnings are meant to turn us toward God’s love. Mercy and judgment are all part of God’s love for us. Amos in his demand for justice, Hosea in his drama of marrying a harlot, Zephaniah in his demand for humility, Micah in his reminder of what God really requires of us, Haggai in his encouragement to those who have experienced devastation, and Jonah in his pouting spoke to our ancient ancestors about the mercy, love, and judgment of God. These are messages not only for them, but also for us.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Haggai: Starting Over" by Richard R. Crocker

Starting Over
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 28, 2013
Haggai 2:1-9

            When I first thought of doing this sermon series on the minor prophets, it was partly because I had never heard such a series. Now I know why. I have been able to muddle through Amos and Hosea, Zephaniah  and Micah, but now I have come to Haggai. I bet none of you have ever heard a sermon on Haggai. Me either. It’s a short book – only two chapters long, practically invisible as you thumb through the Bible. “What,” I thought, “can I make out of this?” But I quickly discovered that this short book was preserved in our scriptures for a reason. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of its brevity, it has an important message, both for its time and for ours.

            This is a sermon for people who have experienced devastation. It is a sermon for people who have had to start over. There are many kinds of devastation, of course. Let me list only a few:

losing a loved one;
the ending of a friendship or marriage, particularly on bad terms;
a life-altering illness or injury, for you or a member  of your family;
unexpected unemployment;
facing up to an addiction;
the loss of your life savings in the stock market;
a house fire;
a tornado or hurricane that levels your home;
a flood that invades your home;
a war – particularly a war where you, or your loved ones, are combatants, or where your home land is invaded;
the theft or loss of something you have prized your whole life;
or, if you are in college –
the ending of a romantic relationship;
getting a D in organic chemistry;
not getting a fraternity or sorority bid that you wanted.

This is only a start – certainly not a complete list. I expect many of you have, at some time in your life, experienced devastation; perhaps some of you are in the midst of it now.

If so, Haggai is for you.

We left off last week with Micah, who prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah around 700 BC. Micah predicted the fall of Jerusalem, and, sure enough, in 586 BC, it happened. The Babylonians, the kingdom to the southeast of Judah, across the Jordan – modern Iraq, finally conquered the resistant Judeans, killing some its citizens, maiming others, and carrying the most prominent citizens into captivity in Babylon. The beloved temple, the center of worship, which many thought guaranteed the perpetual safety of Jerusalem, was totally destroyed – leveled. A remnant of Jews was left in Jerusalem, but they were poor, distraught, and bereft. Those taken into captivity were devastated as well. You remember, perhaps, that plaintiff psalm, recounting the grief and anger of exile: it’s psalm 137 – one of the most beautiful, haunting and troubling psalms in our bible

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!

The first part is haunting; the second part is troubling – troubling, but very human. The desire for revenge against those who have hurt us is very deep, and it is not easily appeased by the thought that two wrongs do not make a right.  Our rationality is sometimes overwhelmed by devastation and we only want revenge – and this psalm reflects that reality. Is such a desire right? No. Is it natural? Yes. We are struck by stories we hear of people who have undergone enormous  loss and who have been able to forgive the offenders. I think especially of the Amish community in Pennsylvania here, several years ago, a group of school children were killed by a deranged person. The community gathered to express its grief, but also its forgiveness toward the offender. As Christians, we see in them the example of Christ and the forgiveness of God. But such stories are striking because they are exceptional. The more common ones are stories of revenge. There is nothing more natural in the world than to say to someone who has caused us great loss: “may you suffer as you have made me to suffer.” 

            I think, for example – and it is only an example -  of that battle in Gettysburg which occurred 150 years ago this month, the hot July of 1863  – the greatest battle of our civil war, where 8000 soldiers were killed and almost 50,000 were wounded, maimed, or missing. It is, of course, only one of many battles in many wars, but it is one that somehow captures our imaginations and our sympathy. But I also recall the occasion 100 years ago, in 1913, fifty years after the battle, when veterans of both sides gathered at the battlefield, wearing their blue and gray uniforms, if they had them, standing at the line of Pickett’s charge, grasping hands, and weeping. It took them fifty years.

            The exiles from Judah spent about fifty years in Babylon – fifty years of servitude, and then the comforting prophecies of return were fulfilled. Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered Babylon, and one of his first acts was to allow the Jewish captives to return to their homeland. This was, to the captive Jews, both a miracle and a fulfillment of prophecy. So when they returned, finding some of their relatives still there in a devastated land, they faced the challenge of starting over. Their temple had been reduced to rubble. They thought their way of life had been reduced to rubble. Into this breach stepped the prophet Haggai.

            We know nothing about this man, except his few, very specific words. His writings are comprised of four very specific oracles, which he dates precisely. The first of them he received “in the second year of king Darius, on the sixth day.” The second one, which we read, came precisely one month and fifteen days later. The oracles instructed Haggai to speak to Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the Persian-appointed high priest.  These two messages, and the remaining two that followed, all concern the state of depression, confusion, and destruction that the returning exiles faced, along with the Jews who had not been in exile. The message is simple: Get busy and rebuild the temple. The temple that was destroyed, do you remember it? How can you pay attention to building your own houses but neglect rebuilding the temple? And we know that, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, whose books we also have in the Old Testament, that the returning exiles did exactly that. They went through the several years-long process of rebuilding the temple, and, by some accounts, it was a grander temple that the first. Only when the temple was built were the Jews able to regain their sense of cohesiveness and the religion that bound them together.

            Now we are dealing here with historical facts. The original temple, build during the reign of Solomon around 1000 BC, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. It had lasted around 400 years. It lay in waste for at least fifty years – maybe 100 years. It was rebuilt after the exile and was the center of Jewish religion and worship for another 500 years, until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70- AD. And, as we know, it has not been rebuilt. What is referred to as the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem today is the remaining wall of the second temple built by these returning exiles and destroyed again by the Romans. The temple wall, or wailing wall, is a source of contention because holy Muslim sites, including the Dome of the Rock, were later constructed on the temple mound. This of course makes the rebuilding of a Jewish temple extremely problematic.

            There are a couple of lessons for us in this story of rebuilding, which Haggai in some ways spear-headed and promoted. The first is simply the scale of time, and what it means for us. The first temple lasted almost five hundred years; the second also lasted five hundred years. It has now been almost 2000 years since it was destroyed. Empires rise and fall: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. None of them endures forever. We Americans pay little attention to the past; we are obsessed with the present and future. But we need to know and remember things that have happened – such as the Civil War. Our country is only 237 years old. The first European settlers arrived less than 400 years ago. We are now an empire. We do not like to think we are, but we are. And like all empires, we will have our day, and then, usually because of over-reach, the empire fades. We live in the heyday of the American Empire. If it continues to behave as an Empire, it will eventually fall – perhaps not into ruin, or insignificance, but like the British empire, as a shadow of itself. Such has been life on this earth, and such it will continue to be. Our life-times are short. We face devastation both as individuals and as nations, and, no matter what, we must start over. Sometimes we simply do not have the strength, as individuals, to do it, but we find strength in reaffirming our community. 
Second, destruction is never final. When we face devastation and loss, we may become angry, depressed, sad, hurt, despairing. This can and does certainly happen. When the loss is a material one – of money or possessions, we can at least think of rebuilding. So, for example, the homes lost in Hurricane Irene, despite the sadness, have been and are being restored. People are adjusting and starting over, with help from their neighbors and our government. But when the loss is immaterial, it is hard to know how to start over. When a loved one has died, or when a reputation has been lost, or when a symbol of our being has been destroyed, no material restoration can give us new strength. Such losses are spiritual losses, and they can only be borne by spiritual strength and comfort. Thus, when we face the death of a loved one, as we surely have and surely will, we instinctively reach out for the assurance  of eternal life – or life beyond the dimensions of time. For Christians, this is an explicit part of our faith. But even people who claim to have no religion, even those who call themselves atheists, seek some sort of ultimate meaning that allows them to face this loss and move on – start over. If there is nothing that allows us to do this, we are stuck in the saddest kind of paralysis. By no means does this mean discounting or overlooking the loss. By no means. Grief is essential to human life, but so is hope. And hope was, for the Jewish people, centered in the temple. In some ways it still is.

            Another way of saying this is that, after devastation – whether it is a failed marriage, an addiction, a death - no matter what it is, we must rebuild our spiritual center. Just as the Jews rebuilt the temple after their exile, we also must reconstruct the center of our being after it has been destroyed. Nothing else really matters until we reconnect and reconstruct the spiritual center of our lives, where lives the faith that sustains us in all of life. Haggai’s word to the returning exiles is also a word to us – a word to remember:
Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts …. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. (Haggai 2:4-5)

            It is appropriate that we also remember the words of another prophet who spoke fifty years ago, next month, about a dream that he had for America and its people. That speech was born out of faith, coming after hundreds of years of injustice. Dr. King would not live long, but his words and his faith endure – reminding us, as Haggai did, that we must work to rebuild the spiritual center of our lives.  Amen.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Micah - Picking and Choosing" - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
Picking and Choosing
Micah 6:6-16
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 21, 2013

            Those of you who were raised, as I was, in a Bible-centric culture might be familiar with the old practice called sword drills. We did them often in youth fellowship. The idea was that we each held a Bible, which was our sword, and the leader called out “attention!”, then “present swords”, at which point we held the Bible between our hands, and then the leader called out a random verse of scripture, such as “Micah 6:6”, and then said “Charge!”. The first person who could find that verse stepped forward and read it.  The person who was first most often won.

            The other practice that I sometimes heard about occurred when people wanted guidance about a problem or dilemma and sought it in the Bible. Rather than thinking about what Jesus may have said, or pondering the ten commandments, the practice was simply to open the Bible at random. cover your eyes, and point to a verse. Whatever that verse said was deemed to provide the needed guidance. This technique produced rather haphazard results.

            This way of looking at the Bible both rests upon and perpetuates a uniformly revelatory view of scripture, where very single part is seen as equally revealing the word of God, and those who read the Bible differently are often condemned for “picking and choosing.”  “You can’t pick and choose”, we are told. “You have to believe the Bible from cover to cover, every single word.”

Such a way of reading the Bible can be extremely na├»ve, unhelpful, and sometimes dangerous. Every part of the Bible is enriched when we know the context of the scripture we are reading, when we do not pick isolated verses, but when we place passages into context, compare them with other passages, and use our minds and spirits to discern the truths that such serious study reveals.  One result of reading the Bible through, from beginning to end,  as some of you have done, is that you may find it very uneven in its helpfulness. Some passages stand out as more helpful, more beautiful, truer, and more useful than other passages.  Some passages seem odd, useless, or even horrible. Christians, for example, pay little attention to the rule in Exodus and Deuteronomy (Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21), which tell us that we should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk, while Jews see this injunction as an important part of their Kosher laws. Christians and Jews alike reject the injunctions to stone criminal offenders, including Sabbath breakers (Leviticus20:2 ff and Numbers 15:35). It is impossible to read the Bible without picking and choosing.

            And nowhere is this more evident than in reading the book of Micah. I chose for our scripture reading for today a passage in Micah that is familiar to all of us.  It is perhaps one of the most familiar passages in scripture - much quoted and much loved, and probably very helpful. But you will have noted that the scripture reading did not end with those familiar words. Rather, it proceeded to the next “saying”, which I would venture to say you have rarely heard and which may not be as helpful to you. Let us consider them both.
            It would probably be helpful today if in fact you took out one of the pew Bibles and opened it to the book of Micah and followed along with some of the passages that I will mention. Now, since you were probably never trained with sword drills, you may have trouble finding the book of Micah. (Like Howard Dean, who said that his favorite book in the new testament was the book of Job, New Englanders are not known for their Biblical literacy). So I will tell you that the book of Micah begins on page 866 in your pew Bibles.
But first, let us remember: Micah prophesied in the southern kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah around 700 BC, The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom, under King Hezekiah, had also been invaded by Assyria and made a vassal state. It was a time of turmoil, confusion, anxiety and distress.
            Biblical scholars, using the tools of linguistic and historical analysis, have concluded that the book attributed to Micah actually contains sayings from a number of different writers from different time periods that were all collected into this single book (or scroll). The earliest sayings are near the beginning of the book. The passages after chapter 4 come from a variety of sourses – so  that, ironically, the some of the most well-known passages in the book may not come from Micah himself. That is really not a problem for us, is it? It’s like my house in Lebanon. We say that it was built in 1858.  But in fact, only part of it was built then; additions were made at a later time since they didn’t have indoor plumbing in 1858.  It’s still one house that we live in, and Micah is still one book, - a complex house, a complex document. Would we expect anything else?  After all, most of us know very little about how the books of the Bible were selected, put together and transmitted, do we?  Most of us know very little about architecture and how houses grew.  And most of us don’t care. We just want to have a house to inhabit and a Bible to anchor us in our faith.

            So, if you look in Micah, chapter 6, beginning with verse 6 –  the passage that was read – you see the words that have become a watchword for what constitutes true worship – words that cut to the essence of worship rather than the periphery. “What does the Lord require of us?” Does God require that we bring burnt offerings? Does God require offerings of calves or rams or oil? – Remember that these were some of the offerings customarily made at the temple in Jerusalem. Would God even require that we give up our firstborn child – a practice that was not unknown in the middle east at that time – and a practice that is reflected in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. NO – we are told. God doesn’t requires any of these things. Rather, God has told us very simply, that what is required is simply that we do justice, love kindness (or mercy), and that we walk humbly with God. You will note that these words make no mention of religious ritual. What is required is an attitude of humility as well as actions of justice and kindness. Most of us feel comforted and reassured by these words – challenged also to examine our lives, but mainly comforted and encouraged. But then look at  the verses that follow immediately upon this passage.

It is helpful to read them again. They are directed at the city of Jerusalem:

9 The voice of the Lord cries to the city
   (it is sound wisdom to fear your name):
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
10   Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
   and the scant measure that is accursed?
11 Can I tolerate wicked scales
   and a bag of dishonest weights?
12 Your wealthy are full of violence;
   your inhabitants speak lies,
   with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
13 Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
   making you desolate because of your sins.
14 You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
   and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you;
you shall put away, but not save,
   and what you save, I will hand over to the sword.
15 You shall sow, but not reap;
   you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil;
   you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.
16 For you have kept the statutes of Omri
   and all the works of the house of Ahab,
   and you have followed their counsels.
Therefore I will make you a desolation, and your inhabitants an object of hissing;
   so you shall bear the scorn of my people.

These words are not as familiar to us, are they? Why? because they are not as comforting, or because they are not as helpful? Perhaps because the earlier words are universal, applicable to all times and places, whereas the latter passage is aimed directly at Jerusalem. Micah is famous for having prophesied the fall of Jerusalem, which did indeed happen in 586 BC, when the Babylonians invaded, laid the city waste, destroyed the temple, and took the most prominent of its citizens into captivity into Babylonia. Certainly the words of this prophecy are accurate in anticipating and describing the devastation of that event – so accurate, in fact, that some scholars see them as having been written after the fact. Certainly they were preserved after the fact. But sometimes prophecies like this are seen as applying not only to that time period, but to all. Consider, for example, those who see this prophecy as applying not only to Jerusalem, but to New York City. Does it accurately describe the greed and dishonesty of Wall Street and the financial industry? Does it tell us of the certain doom that will happen unless we repent? Some people think so. Their interpretation of biblical prophecy allows them to do so. I think we may well see these as words of warning to any society in which greed becomes rampant, and when the poor are ignored. That is a proper use of prophecy, but thinking that the events of 9/11 were prophesied in the book of Micah is probably a stretch.

Let us look at one other very famous part of the book of Micah – the prophecy contained in chapter 5, beginning with verse 2. You have all heard it, I am sure.

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Where have you heard this before? From the Gospel of Matthew, of course; we hear it every Christmas – where it is quoted as a prophecy about the birth of the Messiah. When the wise men are seeking Jesus, they ask King Herod where he shall be born. Herod seeks advice from the biblical scholars, and  they quote this prophecy. Obviously, it seems to us to refer to Jesus, the prince of peace, our messiah. It’s right there in the Bible, isn’t it? And certainly the writer of Matthew’s gospel, and Christians ever since have thought of it that way. Many now see it as referring not only to the birth of Jesus, but also to the second coming of Christ.

While Christians are free to view the prophecy this way, it is unlikely that Micah intended the prophecy to be fulfilled 600 or 2600 years after he spoke it. Rather, he (or one of his followers) was speaking a word of hope to a discouraged people – a word that indicated that not all was lost, and that, just as King David was selected by the prophet Samuel in a very unlikely setting in the little town of Bethlehem, there would be another great king yet to come.  We Christians of course hope that Jesus’ birth will usher in a reign of world-wide peace. At the moment, though, after 2000 years, it hasn’t happened. I wonder why? Well, if Christians really acknowledged Jesus as the prince of peace and as their Lord and Master, and if they refused to make war in his name, there would be a lot less war, wouldn’t there?

This brings us back to the problem of picking and choosing when we are reading the bible. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe we should see every single word, every single letter of scripture as fully revelatory, and any problems or contradictions this method produces are due to our lack of understanding. At the other end are those who believe that we should pay attention only to those words and verses that we happen to agree with. Studying the prophets teaches us a different way. Some of their words and images are limited to a time and place which is merely historical. What was deemed acceptable human practice 3000 years ago is not deemed acceptable today. But, at the same time, we should not see our era, and our sensibilities, as the epitome of perfection. In some important ways, we have not advanced at all. I dare say that greed is more fully rampant and more deeply ingrained in our society than it was in the Jerusalem of Micah’s and Amos’s time. Their insistence that greed, violence, and disregard for the poor would lead to the destruction of society was true then, and it’s true now.

            No doubt Micah was right. For all time, for all people, in answering the question, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” the answer is simple -. The Lord does not require our material offerings. What the Lord requires is that we do justice, love mercy (and kindness), and that we walk, every day, in humility before our God.

            Those words are as applicable to us today as they were 2600 years ago. These words grab us. In a way, we don’t pick and choose them; they pick and choose us. Now it’s up to us to live by them. Amen.