May 13, 2021

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“What God Wants”                                                                                         Micah 6:1-12


On a day when we celebrate and honor our mothers, we are engaging with a sobering and jarring Scripture passage about God prosecuting (not persecuting, but prosecuting) his sinful people. How can this possibly be related to mom? The only connection I could come up with lies in the little word “shown” in verse 8. Our mothers were our first teachers, first instructors, first leaders. Didn’t they “show” us practically everything, from how to tie our shoes and brush our teeth, to making our beds and packing our lunches? They have shown us much. What, then, is God showing us in Micah 6?

In verses 1-7, a court proceeding is laid out as God reveals what he wants from his people. A careful study of God’s requirements in verse 8 will reveal to us what God has already done for his guilty people. I think God is showing us that we can even reach a place of peace and joy from the prophetic hot seat we’re on if we rely completely on God’s grace. But we must go to court first. 

God calls this court into session way back in the Eighth Century BC, during the final days of the northern kingdom of Israel. Micah prophesied during the same time as the prophets Hosea and Isaiah. His message is similar to theirs, including the condemnation of Israel’s reliance on empty ritual to appease their obviously angry God. This portion of Micah’s prophecy is unique in its judicial format. And it moves toward the famous, often misquoted and misunderstood, words about what God actually requires of his sinful people. 

In verses 1-2, God summons Israel to court to hear his accusations and to prepare their defense against the charges that follow. This is a picture of God that many of us won’t like very much—God as plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, and stern judge—but it’s part of the biblical revelation of our covenant God. He is not only full of lovingkindness (hesed in Hebrew), but also full of justice (mishpat in Hebrew). And, as we read in verse 8, he calls us to be full of both.


Micah takes great pains to assure Israel that what follows comes from God, not from Micah. “Listen to what the Lord says….”  Hey folks! I didn’t make this up! It comes straight from God. God is calling his sinful people to the witness stand and calling the everlasting mountains to serve as the jury in the case he is bringing against his people. “For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel” (v. 2). 

It is fascinating that this stern summons is followed immediately by a poignant self-defense on God’s part. It almost seems as if God is asking, as most mothers would, “Is your sin somehow my fault? Did I do something wrong that led you astray? Was I unfair or unkind in some way? Literally God asks, “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me” (v. 3). 

God’s answer to his own question actually becomes part of his case against them, because God has done nothing but good. “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery” (v. 4). I provided courageous leaders during that time of salvation in the persons of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. When you were opposed on your journey to the Promised Land by Balak, king of Moab, I turned his own prophet, Balaam son of Beor, against him, defeating your enemy. I gave you the land of Canaan from top to bottom.

Did I, your God, do something wrong, so that you rebelled against me with good reason? No. I did only “righteous acts” (v. 5) on your behalf. You knew those acts, but as you settled into the land of promise and assimilated into the pagan culture of that land, you forgot my “righteous acts.” That’s the heart of your sin; you did not remember me and my work of salvation.  And you took on the religious practices of the peoples among whom you live.

That’s why Israel responds to God’s accusations with an offer of sacrifice. Like the pagans who thought they could appease their gods with a sacrificial system, Israel took the sacrificial system given to them by God and turned it into a stairway leading to God. We are way down here with our sins and God is way up there in his holiness. How can we climb up to heaven? Verse 6 asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?” 

Their answer up till now? “Sacrifices.” Note how the sacrifices mentioned in verses 6-7 increase in cost and volume, beginning with burnt offerings of a year-old calf, proceeding to thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil, and ending with the horror of child sacrifice, “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul,” as did worshipers of the horrific Moloch. Moving from the reasonable (and even commanded by God) to the absurd (and forbidden by God), the guilty Israelites ascended the ladder of sacrifice. If we rely on sacrifices to win back God’s favor, what will it take? How many sacrifices and what kind must we offer?

Now, in fairness to Israel, God did require sacrifices of his people. The Torah is full of rules and regulations dealing with an elaborate sacrificial system. They were definitely part of Jewish religious practice.  But they were never intended as a stairway to heaven, as the way to win God’s favor, earn their salvation, or appease an angry God. And they were never intended to replace the central obligations of the covenant of grace, as laid out in the Ten Commandments, and summarized with memorable brevity here in verse 8.

So, God cuts through all the talk about what kind of sacrifice God wants and summarizes his will for his people of all times and places. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good” (v. 8). In other words, what I’m about to say is not new. It should not come as a shock because I showed it to you long, long ago, but you have forgotten, even as you have forgotten my “righteous acts.” 

“And what does the LORD require of you?” (v. 8). What follows is as neat a summary of God’s will as we will find anywhere in Scripture. Yes, the Ten Commandments spell out obedience. And yes, Jesus’ summary of the Law in two sentences about loving God and loving our neighbor captures the heart of obedience. But these words show us how loving obedience looks in everyday human life: “To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Earlier I mentioned how God is both loving and just, dealing with us in both hesed and mishpat. So, it should not be surprising that God also calls his covenant partners to deal with our fellow human beings in both mishpat and hesed. Made in God’s image, we are to treat others as God treats us.  So, we must act justly, defending the rights of others. And we must love mercy, taking care of the hurts of others. There is so much that we could say about these simple words, but isn’t it true that we want justice, but not always for ourselves? We prefer mercy for us; and a sentence of justice for others. For other people, follow the letter of the law; go by the book. But for us…


As one scholar says, “Doing justice and loving mercy are strained partners.”


A vigorous pursuit of justice leaves no room for mercy. Likewise a soft display of mercy makes justice impossible. Novelist Wendell Berry put it well when he said, “Justice that is not framed by love creates a downwardly spiraling society of anger, hate and brutality. Relationships—families, neighborhoods, communities—simply will not work without a framework of justice that is conditioned with mercy.” On the other hand, is it right to be merciful to someone who has done wrong? Shouldn’t there be appropriate penalties and punishment for wrongs? Should mercy cancel out justice?

Of course, these are exactly the problems that plague our society in 2021. How can we both act justly and love mercy? The answer, I am convinced, lies in the third phrase of this famous verse: “to walk humbly with your God.” Neither justice nor mercy are possible if we don’t walk humbly with our covenant keeping God. We won’t be able to show mercy unless we have experienced God’s mercy. We won’t know what justice is apart from God’s justice. God will keep us from being too hard with justice and too soft with mercy.

It’s kind of fascinating to me that so many people in our country fixate on judicial proceedings. Many of the most contentious issues of justice and mercy in American society will no doubt be adjudicated by the nine justices of the Supreme Court. People hang on the outcome of the latest Supreme Court decision, with passionate pleas for justice on both sides of the case. We want justice and we need mercy, but many of our fellow Americans don’t want anything to do with God the just Judge, or Jesus our merciful Savior. Is it any wonder that we are in such a tangled mess where both sides of complex legal and moral questions claim to be absolutely right?

This is precisely why the culture of which we are a part and our own lives fall so far short of justice and mercy. Because we don’t walk humbly with our God. Many versions of this verse have been used in social justice campaigns, but they leave out those crucial last words. I saw a blog post last fall that was urging people to vote, using this verse. It read: “Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Vote.” No mention of God, let alone “our God.” There can be no genuine humility until we realize how much we rely on God for justice and mercy. Without having a personal relationship with God, the author of justice and love, Micah’s prophecy will be something we can never fulfill—just another impossible burden for an already burdened human race.

Remember all that talk about sacrifice at the beginning of this passage? All our attempts to win God’s favor by sacrificing this or that will never work. But God in his mercy has satisfied his own justice with the ultimate sacrifice of his one and only Son. Perhaps the best way, then, to respond in faith to “what God wants” is to remember what God has already done. The fact is, we will not walk humbly with our God until we embrace our crucified and risen Lord who is God’s perfect sacrifice. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Are you serious about doing justice and loving mercy in this hurting world?

Then quit trying to use God. Ask God to use you. Amen.

(Thanks to Stan Mast for sermon ideas)