Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

January 29, 2023. 

Texts: Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12. 

Text for the Day: For since, in the wisdom of God…

There isn’t one lesson in scripture today that entirely passes the test of rationality. All of them represent in some fashion, absurdity. To put it another way, if you’ve ever read the book Alice in Wonderland, or had it read to you in your childhood, you have some sense of how something ordinary can be completely turned upside down and inside out.

Micah was a minor prophet. He came from nothing, unlike most other prophets. Perhaps it was timing, or a divine sense of humor that placed Micah in a position to be heard. Perhaps it was because Micah came from the sticks and dared to say that things weren’t going so well for Israel.

Micah was right in saying this although the pretentious capital Jerusalem and its prestigious citizens were not inclined to pay much attention. At least not then. Besides, Micah employed a kind of mockery in his prophecy, giving his tone an extra edge that was bound to offend some folks.

Micah brought God’s message to Israel in the form of a court scene. God was both the complainant and the prosecutor which may not be proper litigation but then if anyone can do an end run around propriety it’s God, of course. The charge was plainly breach of contract, since a covenant is a contract, and that’s what God had made with Israel back in the day, and renewed on several occasions.

God argued eloquently, asking Israel to stand up and respond to God’s complaint. Look what God had done: set Israel free from captivity in Egypt, provided responsible and competent men and women to lead them, kept Israel from being cursed by the king of Moab, and rescued them on multiple occasions from hostile neighboring nations. But Israel had not kept its side of the contract.

All this was presented quite straightforwardly. Micah spoke right out about the ugly direction things were going with Israel, and on God’s behalf didn’t hold back. Israel was vulnerable before enemies both internal and external because the people no longer remembered that God called them to be God’s children and to live in right relationship. Which made them weak.

The prophet gives Israel’s defense, properly asking how to make amends. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? But continuing on, the prophet makes a mockery of something mighty sacred, which was the sacrificial system of the temple. “Shall I come with burnt offerings…year old calves…thousands of rams…ten thousands of rivers of oil…my firstborn child…?

Sacrifice in and of itself was not a negative thing. The quantities and values Micah referenced are obviously outrageous. And certainly God has no need for any of these things since, indeed, they are all properly God’s own possession to begin with. Who was the prophet targeting?

Micah points specifically to the sacrificial system of the Temple in Jerusalem. Its sickness is revealed in how the purpose of sacrifice had reversed. No longer was it about honoring God. It had become all about bringing honor to the person who can sacrifice the biggest, the best, and the most spectacularly. And this, said Micah, was bringing the nation down.

Then the prophet proposed something so completely absurd as to have Alice in Wonderland proportions. It’s that God doesn’t want our goods. God desires our good. “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?

Yes, this is the divine contract with God. It’s nothing that can be bought, sold, traded, or offset. What God requires of us is entirely accessible to anyone. What’s good doesn’t take money, status, privilege, or any advantage we can imagine. And this, in the estimation of most of humankind is just crazy talk.

Without going into detail, Paul is making the same essential point about God to the believers in Corinth. Different time, different place, different culture. But the same challenge. Exchanging the things customarily designated as valuable, for things that will make you look like a fool.

The currency of the Greek world was wisdom and knowledge. If you could possess these things you could attain fame and fortune. You could even claim the spiritual superiority of being on the inside track with God.

Paul, who had embraced just exactly this view of himself and his world, was God’s most unlikely candidate to take a different position. With a reversal reminiscent of Alice’s unexpected transformations of size in Wonderland, Paul announced that God isn’t found through the conventions of wisdom or knowledge. Not at all.

God is approached through not-knowing, through radical reduction in ego, and by way of unconventional faith in a man crucified and raised. It’s nothing less than foolishness, said Paul. And it will change your world for the better if you can go there with God.

So this doesn’t leave much time to talk about the gospel right? But that’s okay. It’s not a new or different story. It’s about how we get our values reversed and God responds to set us straight again.

Jesus had just begun to teach publicly and crowds were already following him. But Jesus climbed high on a hill and sat down in a place with his dearest ones. He wanted to tell them the thing they most needed to know if they were to be his followers.

Jesus said, God’s reign is surprising. Things are turned upside down and inside out in God’s presence. At great cost God reverses values we have been taught and embraced as true and right.

Jesus said, beyond pushback and persecution is something glorious. Heaven is the place where shame is turned to honor and the impossible becomes possible through love that has no end. And that love is here now. For you. Come follow me said Jesus, and you will know God’s reign.