January 29, 2023

Micah 6:1-8
Matthew 5:1-12

“First Comes Love”

What does the Lord require of you? That’s an important question that comes up in the Scriptures frequently, and it was likely a priority concern for ancient people.

Most, if not all of them, would have believed in God or in a variety of gods, and they needed to know how to keep the gods happy with them so that they would be blessed. How should they worship and honour the gods? What offerings must they bring to satisfy and please the deities?

The success of their lives depended on these gods – whether their crops would grow, whether their families would grow, whether they would have good health and happiness, and stay safe from other tribes that sought to do them harm.

The prophet Micah addresses this question as he instructs the People of Israel: What does the Lord require of you? The situation there is that the people are really NOT pleasing God at the time. It’s not that they have failed to worship properly or to bring enough gifts and offerings. Rather, God is displeased with them because of their behaviour towards one another.

Micah was living in a time of major socio-economic change in Judah, including an increasing gap between rich and poor (sound familiar?). He was especially concerned with injustice, and in particular, with idolatrous corruption among the religious and political powers that be.

In making his argument, the prophet asks the questions that are likely on the minds of the people. If they have done wrong things that have upset their God, what must they do to appease the Lord and get back in the good books?

Micah puts it like this: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

But then he says, no, that’s not what God wants from the people. God doesn’t want us to bow and scrape and give offerings that are useless to a spiritual being. Instead, Micah reminds the people of what God has already told them, again and again, through the commandments of old:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

It’s a message that God has told to us many times also, in the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments, in the words of Jesus, and through the example of how he lived his life and loved in the world. God doesn’t want our pious shows or our religious rites, but God simply wants us to love one another by working for justice, loving the way of kindness, and walking humbly, learning and growing throughout our lives as we respond to God’s love for us.

And that’s the other important point: Our determination to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God is our response to God’s love for us. It’s not a list of ways to earn or obtain blessing from God, but it is a response to the blessings God has already given.

Through Micah, we hear God reminding the people, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…” And I might remind us today, that God sent Jesus into the world to love us unconditionally and draw us back to God through no merit on our part. And God sent us the Holy Spirit to comfort, encourage, guide, and inspire us every day.

The SALT Lectionary Commentary puts it like this: “God is the giver of all good things, the font of every blessing. The proper human role, then, is not to pretend to be God’s benefactor, or to attempt to maneuver into God’s good graces, but rather to recognize that we are God’s continual beneficiaries, gratefully living out responsive, fully human lives of justice, kindness, and humility.”

First comes love – God’s love for us, given freely and unconditionally, just as we are.

Next comes gratitude – Our thanks expressed, perhaps in worship and praise, as we are doing this morning.

And then comes our most important response – To choose to live in God’s way, to listen and learn from the Spirit’s wisdom, to watch and follow where Jesus is leading us to make our world a place filled with justice and kindness for all. God has shown us what is good and what the Lord requires of us.

But first comes love. I’m sure that’s what Jesus was feeling in today’s Gospel text when he saw the crowds gathering to listen to him and coming to him for healing and help. In other places in the Gospels, Jesus’ feeling is described as compassion – that deep sense of being with them and sharing their pain and suffering, and loving them. Then Jesus began to speak, and he taught them.

Now, the people may have expected to hear from this great Teacher or even Messiah, about what they could do to obtain God’s blessing. Many of those gathered were people who were suffering. Some were sick, and others were their caregivers. Many were poor, and struggling to get enough to eat for their families. Likely all of them were persecuted, as a people living in an occupied territory. These folks, like many in our community and in our world would have loved to know how they could get God on their side, receive God’s blessing, and get out of their difficult circumstances.

“To the extent that his listeners are expecting Jesus to lay out an account of divine blessing that reveals how to get it and keep it, the Beatitudes come as a confounding surprise… Jesus paints an utterly counterintuitive picture of blessedness.”

We are inclined to look around the world, then and now, and conclude that the “blessed” are the rich, happy, strong, satisfied, ruthless, deceptive, aggressive, safe, and well-liked – and yet here’s Jesus, saying that despite appearances, the truly “blessed” are actually the poor, mourning, gentle, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted, and reviled.

And it can be a confusing teaching from Jesus if we are expecting a set of instructions about how to acquire divine blessing. It’s not a list of commandments or a “how to” manual for living as a child of God.

“Items in the list like ‘those who mourn’ and ‘those who are persecuted’ help make this clear: Jesus is hardly recommending that his listeners go and create conditions of mourning or persecution for themselves! Rather, he’s delivering good news of consolation and assurance to those already in mourning or persecution, or those who, through no efforts of their own, find themselves in such circumstances later on.”

Some of us here today may feel just like the folks in the crowd that day. We’re struggling too with disappointment, with anxiety, with grief, with racism, with acute or chronic illness. And as much as we are experiencing any of those things, Jesus’ heart is going out to us. He is filled with compassion for us, and proclaims to us with the authority of God that WE ARE LOVED. WE ARE BLESSED – not because of anything we have done to earn God’s blessing, but simply because we are God’s children.

Meanwhile, some of us here today are suffering and struggling a little less. We have what we need for daily living: supportive families, good friends and community, healthy incomes or savings in the bank, and we are privileged in many ways that shield us from the harm that others are suffering.

And God’s love came first for us too. Just as God brought the People of Israel up from the land of Egypt and redeemed them from the house of slavery, God has loved and redeemed us through Jesus Christ and surround us with love every day through the Holy Spirit.

But now, we are called to respond to that love with gratitude and with our discipleship lives of justice, kindness, and humble walking with God. We are invited to join our hearts with the heart of Jesus who had compassion on the suffering people. We are invited to join our voices with the voice of Jesus who told them that their struggles were not a punishment from God. We are invited to participate with Jesus in his ministry of healing, helping, and lifting up those who were pushed down, those who were left out, those who suffered from persecution, revulsion, and all kinds of evil.

There are myriad ways that we can do what God requires of us today, in our community, and in our world through giving, sharing, advocating, and always being willing to listen and learn humbly as we walk this journey through life with God. I don’t need to try to list them today because God has shown us what is good and what the Lord requires of us.

As we seek to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, may we remember that first comes love. God has loved us first, and God loves us still as we imperfectly, humbly, but faithfully strive to do what God has shown us to be good.