Micah 6:6-8 CEB
With what should I approach the Lord
and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
A quote attributed to John Wesley says: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” A good start as we move into looking at this second of the three simple rules, “Do Good.” What does it mean to do good? What is good anyway? We all have our own ideas of what is good for us and what is good for our neighbors. Our world has ideas around what goodness constitutes and is glad to tell us and even sell us this idea of the good. The prophet Micah gives another standard altogether, a definition of what is good that stands outside of ourselves and in opposition to the world. Micah ties doing good back to the God we worship, who is good and is the source of all goodness. Apart from our Lord, there can be no understanding of what the good is, nor can we even make an attempt to do good. Through our God, we learn that the good stems from the divine example, one that involves the love of God and the love of neighbor.
In trying to understand the rule to do good, we could do worse than to start with one of the many prophets of God. Micah probably prophesied back in the 8th century BCE to the people of Judah during the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and during the invasion of the Assyrians into their kingdom. Like all prophets, Micah lifts up before the people’s eyes the things that they have done that have caused God distress and anger. They have been consumed by their own selfishness. The rich have gotten richer, on the backs of the poor. The justice system has been perverted by the rich and by corrupt officials. There are those who have robbed their neighbor by taking away their land and their houses, leaving them destitute. People have pursued their own selfish gain, their own good, at the cost of their neighbor.
What could possibly change this kind of behavior, so that people no longer seek their own good but the good of all and the good God desires? What I find fascinating here is that Micah then says something different from many today who bemoan the state of our country and world. Often, when problems crop up today, it is not too long before you hear the cry that if this country or this world or this place were more Christian, these problems would no longer exist. If this were true, then the world should have fewer problems in times when more people went to church and more of the trappings of Christianity pervaded our culture. If this were true, we would see fewer troubles and more good in times and places where there were more Christians, but this is not at all what we see. As a student of history, I have never found a time where troubles and turmoils, injustice and cruelty, sin and hatred have not been the product of God’s children wherever they may be found.
At best, we ended up with a kind of cultural Christianity that failed to shift our understanding of the good from our own selfish desires. People attended church, practiced the outer trappings of Christianity but it did not change who they were or how they lived. We ended up with people who knew of God but did not live out God’s commands. Micah grieves this same surface religion of “burnt offerings,” made up of “thousands of rams, and with ten thousands of rivers of oil,” and even of one’s own “firstborn.” All the frills of temple worship were not enough to satisfy the Lord, not enough to show that we had a true relationship with God. It was not that the people were not religious enough, but rather we have a God who does not desire religion but relationship. God asked for them to have a new relationship by following his ways, but instead, they answered with empty practices. Rather than the things of religion, God has outlined what is good, “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Any understanding of doing good must rest entirely on the good actions desired by God. None of these three things mentioned by Micah are passive, and all of them are a departure from the self-serving good that led to evil and wickedness in Micah’s time. Friends, how do you do justice if you do not understand what is just for your neighbor? To do what is just is to do what is right, not right for yourself but right for another, to seek their good above your own. The same is true of mercy, it requires us to put ourselves in another’s shoes to ask ourselves where compassion can be shown and received. Our purpose is not to punish but to forgive and show lenience so another may be restored into a relationship with God. Finally, it is something to walk humbly with our God, not to race ahead and try to pull God where we want to go, but to walk beside our God as we are led to where good needs to be done. All of these things are active, all of them seek to put our neighbor and our God ahead of ourselves, and more importantly, all of these qualities of justice, mercy, and humility find their origin in the very character of God.
To pursue these things means that we must deny that which only serves our interests, and to pursue the good of God will put us at odds with the world as well. My friends, have you ever seen a commercial that made the promise that if you only bought this product, this car, this cream, and this food you would finally have what is good in this life. You would be happier, healthier, richer, more whole, and more respected than ever before. My goodness, we have even started to sell religion this way! If you would only believe in God, you would be happier, healthier, richer, more whole, and more respected than ever before! That’s not at all what our God promises. Those that followed God most closely, like the prophets, knew lives of suffering and hardship. Jesus, the very Son of God, followed God to the cross and into the grave.
For you see, to do good is to conform this world to God, by seeking what God desires for each and every one of us, and that is to be in relationship with our God. You see, to follow the trappings of religion, to rely on the sacrifices as Micah puts it, finds us only with the knowledge of God, the vague facts of what is good. That is not what God desires. God desires to have a relationship with us, that we might experience God’s grace fully! To have a relationship is to open ourselves fully to the workings of the Spirit, of Christ, and our creator, God Almighty. This is why both the Old and New Testaments place emphasis upon two things, to love the Lord your God, to have that relationship with your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Remember, both of these loves find their complete and highest expression in action. To do good is to love, for what can be good outside of the loving grace of God?
Grace is perhaps the thing we should carry with us today in trying to understand what is good. We cannot do what is good without it, and doing good is the surest measure that we have grace. I say again, none may do good without God, and it is God’s grace that enables us to do good. For how else could we try to be in relationship with God, relationship to each other as children of God, and restore this world to God without the very grace and power of God? It is by grace that we can love God, and it is by grace that we can love each other, not in spirit but in the doing and ultimately in the practice of good.
Friends, God calls us all to do good. God calls us all to practice justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our Lord. Now, this will look different for all of us, which is why I like the quote from the beginning. Each of us has been made by our creator with gifts and graces to help bring ourselves, our neighbors, and our world back to God. Each of us has a different gift to bring to bear on a deep hunger of this world. Some will fight for the poor and downcast. Others will seek justice for the oppressed. Others still will seek to cure illness, end hunger, and restore what has been broken. In each, we see people conforming themselves to God, seeking to conform their world to God through a relationship with the divine. They do this through what they can do, to the people they can, in the ways they can, in the places and times they find themselves for as long as they live. We cannot wait idly by hoping that opportunities will fall in our laps. If good can only be known by our actions, let us go out into this world in all the ways we can ready to seek God’s good for all the people of this world until all of us are restored into a good and loving relationship with our Lord and with each other. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman