Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5: 2-5a (CEB)
As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. 3Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. 4He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth; 5he will become one of peace.
It may not be totally obvious from these few short verses, but Micah is mad; like rip-roaring, hoppin’ mad. But before we get into what it is, exactly, that Micah is mad about, we need to talk for a minute about the role of the prophet in ancient Israel. You see, for us, a stereotypical prophet is someone who receives a vision or message from God (usually having something to do with some future devastation), and then the prophet goes around announcing this message. The Book of Revelation in the New Testament is a great example of our idea of a prophecy. But the thing is, that’s not the only way the prophets of ancient Israel operated. Certainly, sometimes there was a vision from God that, when delivered by the prophet, gave the people a picture of something that was to come in the future. But just as often, the prophets delivered a message of reminder. They spoke among the people to remind them of their covenant with God, and what their obligations were as a people in covenant relationship with God.
Micah’s prophecies were mostly of the latter type. He was observing the leaders, the people, and their actions. He saw how “off-base” the Israelites were, and it made him angry, so Micah’s prophecies are words of reminder about who God is and what that means for the people who claim the one true God. As we have heard the prophecies of the coming Messiah over the last few weeks, many of those were delivered around the time of the Babylonian exile in the 500s BC. But Micah prophesied over 100 years before then, at the time when Sennacherib led the Assyrians in an invasion and attack of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then later the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
So here Micah is, in the midst of an invasion by a foreign force, and he’s angry. That seems reasonable enough, right? But the twist is that Micah’s not angry so much at the Assyrians as he is at the leaders and the kings of Israel! You see, the problem for Micah is that the rout by the Assyrians has been terrible, but the Israelites have responded with violence as well. Micah is looking around him at this picture of total devastation, and he sees this terrible cycle where violence begets violence. Where we pick up this morning near the end of Micah’s prophecy, he’s essentially bringing the people back to the drawing board; taking them on a journey to a different beginning with a different outcome.
For generations, Israel has been ruled by one corrupt king after another. These leaders are concerned only with their own power and prominence, and they will do anything to defend it. They build these massive armies on the backs of the poor and vulnerable in their midst. These kings only bother with taking care of themselves while many in their kingdom suffer. They engage in battle only for their own pride, but the price are civilians killed on the frontlines. Micah is fed up, so he delivers here a vision of something completely different.
There was a story in the news a week or so ago that was really amazing. It was about this homeless guy in Philly who was giving away $100 bills. Have I got your attention? A generous donor essentially employed this homeless man. The donor gave the man $3,000 in $100 bills; the donor also paid the man. The job of the homeless man was simply to give the money to whoever he felt was deserving of the generous gift. The man took some of the money to local charities or soup kitchens where he had received help in the past. But mostly the man gave the money out on the streets. He sat on the sidewalk as he usually did, soliciting help. For any who bothered to pay the homeless man any attention, he would return the kindness with a kindness of his own, a $100 bill. Sometimes if the man noticed someone who seemed to be down and out or having a bad day, he would just pop up into their path and present them the $100 gift, along with a hug. I don’t think I have to tell you that in every single case—every single case—the reaction was complete and total surprise, even shock. Who ever expects a homeless person to be giving out $100 bills? Never, right? This is a complete reversal.
That’s the same sort of unexpected message that Micah brings in his prophecy. For years, the Israelites have been ruled by these selfish, corrupt kings; they have been ravaged by violence, not only from invading kingdoms, but also violence perpetuated by their own leaders. And into this reality, Micah offers a vision of something completely different; a total reversal of everything that has been for generations. Micah goes back to Bethlehem, but Micah brings forth a vision of a new king. This isn’t just another earthly king in the line of David. “The promised ruler shall come from David’s birthplace, but God” will call him as a new beginning. This will be a radical departure from the existing history of kings. The prophet makes a point to mention that Bethlehem is in Ephrathah, the least significant of the tribes of Israel. In other words, Micah is making clear that this king is not looking to be a conqueror; this is not a leader going for a power grab; this is not someone who will perpetuate the violence of the invading forces.
For the Israelites, all their notions of power and might were based upon oppressive violence. They had been taught by the invading nations around them, and even by their own leaders, that peace comes only through violent suppression of the enemy. So their expectation of a savior who would bring peace and relief was a hope for a king who would conquer and vanquish all of their enemies. What Micah proposes here, though, is completely different from the expectations of the Israelites, a startling and even shocking reversal. As he stands among all the burned out ruins of Israel and Judah, Micah tells of the coming of the long hoped-for ruler—but this is a ruler who trusts in God rather than in military might.
The king Micah describes will be a shepherd who feeds his flock. Having watched the Israelite kings exploiting God’s people for their own personal aspirations and gain, Micah foretells of a meek, even lowly, ruler who has no personal desire for gain, only a desire to serve his people. His strength will be in God and God alone, and the result will be a new era of peace and comfort. “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth.”
You know, as I read and studied this text this week; as I was reminded again of Israel’s volatile history and how they were constantly being invaded by these powerful nations that surrounded them; as I considered this particular moment in Micah’s time when the Assyrians were tearing through the Promised Land, leaving a wake of destruction, what came to my mind was modern day Syria. You all have seen the pictures. You all know how violence is perpetuating violence there, and every time there is a new attack, each side blames the other. It seems like every village, and town, and even city is nothing but a pile of rubble. There are hardly any hospitals or schools still standing, much less homes. The citizens caught in the middle are hungry, they can’t get the healthcare they need, their children aren’t going to school, and they live in constant fear that at any moment a bomb might fall on their makeshift home. Just imagine for a moment Micah speaking into such a reality. “Look,” the prophet might say, “a new ruler is coming. And he will take care of you. You will eat. You will be safe in your homes.” Then, the best part of all, “he will become one of peace.”
When all you have known your whole life is war and violence and destruction, how comforting would it be to hear these words? God always works in the most unexpected and miraculous ways. So when your expectations are just for more of the same, how wonderful would it be to know that God is going to really shake things up? It’s so beautiful, really, completely overwhelming, I think. And look at just how right Micah was. Sure, Jesus was born in the line of David, a shepherd-boy, but the Messiah’s entrance onto the world stage was even lowlier, and even more unexpected. Christ didn’t charge in on a great stallion, with his sword swinging at every Roman soldier. The Messiah was a baby, born out of wedlock to a poor carpenter and his nobody fiancé from Nazareth. Jesus didn’t build great chariots or raise up an army. He went around inviting the outcasts to dinner and healing the sick. And the moment of his greatest glory was not some coup d’etat where he overthrew the oppressive Roman Emperor; it was when he died, crucified on a cross by the very enemies everyone expected him to overthrow. He is “one of peace.”
Friends, I don’t know that I can stress this enough. In a time when vengeance is king; in a time when the answer to every attack is a bigger attack; in a time when wars still rage and innocents are oppressed, we need to hear again this message from Micah. Our salvation is not in attacks, or violence, or oppression. Our salvation will not come because we were somehow able to get power over someone or something. Our strength is in the Lord, who will shepherd his flock. Then we will dwell secure. We will know salvation when we know peace, and when we know peace, we will know the Messiah.