November 3, 2002
Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Joshua 3:7-17
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
or
Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

[Underlined text will take you to another sermon]


"Those Who Lead God's People"
Micah 3:5-12

The prophet Micah has some amazing news for us.  It is a message about every single one of us. Here is the message.

"This is what God has to say about those who lead my people..."

Actually, the words are, "Thus says the Lord concerning the people who lead my people astray..." Then he goes on to spell out ways that God's people are devastated when their leaders are more interested in themselves than they are in God.

Micah's words sound very much like some of the denunciation we've heard pronounced upon corporate executives who have enriched themselves while the people who worked for them have their life savings erased by greed.

Listen to the consequences that await the false prophets who are "in it for the money," and deserting their responsibility for leading God's people.

  • "...the day shall be black over them..."
  • "...{they} shall be disgraced... and put to shame..."
  • "{their dwelling place} shall become a heap of ruins..."

Micah was unrelenting in his "truth telling" as he declared the judgment of God on Israel's corrupt leaders.

***

Perhaps you are thinking that you are glad you are not a leader of God's people. Indeed the book of James has this warning for teachers of the faith, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." [James 3:1]

Yet, in the Church, the Body of Christ, none of us is off the hook in terms of being leaders. If we have children, we have primary responsibility for teaching them the faith. If we even attend a church where children and young people are present, we are responsible for the example we provide of what it means to be a mature Christian. In fact -- when the risen Jesus spoke to the gathered disciples before his ascension -- he said, "...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." [Acts 1:8] The words are directed at a few followers almost two thousand years ago, but they are also directed at all of us who consider ourselves to be followers of Christ today.

Some are called to ministries of teaching in the life of the church, and some are called to ministries of administration, support and encouragement. None of us, however, are exempt from the ministry of somehow, some way, in some form, giving leadership to God's people. Paul puts it this way, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." [1 Cor. 12:7]

***

The primary issue in Micah's message is the critical ministry of telling the truth -- that is, God's honest truth -- so that the people of God are not devastated. The leaders of Israel in Micah's time absolutely, totally failed on two counts. They failed to put God ahead of themselves and they failed to put their responsibility for the welfare of God's people ahead of their own greed.

Here's how it breaks down:

[1] To put God first means that they would speak on God's behalf to the people of God - even if the people don't want to hear the truth. They didn't want to tell the truth if it offended the people - especially the nation's leaders and officials - because these were the folks who controlled the purse strings. (No one is going to pay a nice fee to a messenger who brings bad news.)

[2] Bearing the responsibility for teaching God's people is critical to the spiritual maturity and welfare of  the people. In terms of the New Testament and the Church, a disciple is literally a "learner" and there can be no authentic learning if there is not authentic teaching. To twist, change, or otherwise corrupt the message God wants delivered, is to do serious damage to the people of God.

***

Let's stop for a moment here lest we too quickly presume that we are squarely in Micah's corner as courageous truth tellers. Most of us know that telling the truth is not always so easy as it sounds.

Let's say your boss asks what you think of his new idea for the company. He's worked on this idea for weeks, considers it a stroke of genius and can't wait to hear the accolades. Meanwhile, you think the idea is the silliest thing you've ever heard. Do you say, "Well, that's just about the dumbest thing I've ever heard!"

Or maybe your supervisor asks you to give an honest opinion about the quality of work her new assistant is doing. The work is crucial for customer satisfaction and you are convinced this assistant is harming the company with a bad attitude. What do you tell your supervisor? And by the way... the assistant is the supervisor's younger sister who was in desperate need of a job. Do you say, "Her work is terrible and I think she's doing real damage to the company!"  Or maybe you tone it down a bit. "Well...  she could do better."

Sometimes telling the truth can be tough when it comes to people you are close to. Parents who don't tell their children the truth about behavior and respect and getting along with others are in danger of raising self-centered people who care nothing for others.

I must confess that it can be hard for a pastor to tell the truth. There will be times when all of us who are in ministry come across a "Micah-like" situation.  "Be careful not to offend Mrs. Jones.  She gives 10% of our annual budget you know."

The temptation to bend the truth - even ever so slightly - is powerful. It can be subtle or it can be blatant, but whenever we are tempted to "hold back a bit" -- or put something differently to soothe someone's feelings -- we will experience that tension between faithfulness to the God's truth and our desire to keep the God's people happy.

It may have been just a tiny shading of the truth in the beginning for the prophets of Israel, but when it comes to spiritual truth, being off base by a fraction of a degree in the present can result in a 180 degree turn in eternity.

***

Sometimes the best way to learn what to do is to observe what not to do. Let's take a closer look at God's complaint against the prophets delivered by Micah. Then we can observe how Micah was empowered to reverse the damage in a very difficult context.

What not to do...  The prophets in Micah's time aimed their message at the ruling classes to ingratiate themselves with the nation's leadership. The result - intended or not - was to pervert justice. "You abhor justice and pervert all equity," Micah cries out. They had made that 180 turn to turn the righteousness of God inside out. In the eyes of God, every human being stands equal. True justice means that position, privilege, or power could not sway a righteous judge in any case which came before the court. Whether to the nation's sovereign or a servant, the message of God was supposed to be the same.

Having turned away from God and to their own interests, the prophets finally arrived at a point where their corruption was complete and their greed transparent. They had become more than corrupters of God's truth, they had switched sides and become enemies of God. They accepted bribes to adjudicate cases, took money to teach what the leaders wanted to hear and worst of all presumed upon the grace of God by saying, "Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us."

They had sold their souls and abandoned the God they claimed would protect them.

What to do...  Micah has a single line that holds the secret of faithful ministry - then and now!

"...as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin."

Courage to tell the truth comes from the Spirit of God. Yes - it can be difficult to tell the truth and hold to the values of God's justice and equity - we could never accomplish this ministry in this world without the help of God. Micah had no illusions. He wasn't going to straighten Israel out in his own strength or with the brilliance of his own preaching. The strength to bring healing to Israel through telling the truth would come from God.

And notice. The money and influence of the kings, judges, and priests would no longer buy them anything. Micah was not going to say, Everything is okay," when everything was not okay. He would not tell them that God was going to bless them when judgment was coming.

The most difficult line in this passage is the last verse. It should send a chill down the spine of all of us.

"Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height."

What a devastating thing for leaders of God's people to hear, "Because of you, God's people will be destroyed!"

How important it is for all of us to lockstep and commit ourselves to the message God has given to us to strengthen the church and reach the world. In a time when justice and equity are on the gallows once again, it is imperative that all of us who claim Christ as Lord to affirm loud and clear, "A mighty fortress is our God... a bulwark never failing..."

 


Connections in the Texts

The texts from Matthew and Micah point to the amazing fact that those who are supposed to lead God's people have gotten themselves totally separated from God.  They use religion, abuse the people and turn the whole spiritual enterprise into a self-serving charade.

No darkness is greater than the darkness one experiences after having looked into the light.  The state of the religious leadership of Israel is worse than any pagan condition.  Micah 3:6 is a gem. "Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you without revelation."  Matthew and Micah point to a condition that has come upon those who are charged with caring for the truth and people of God -- a state we could call a genuine dark night of the soul.

When you read the prophet and the gospel, there is a sense of impending judgment.  Knowing ahead of time where Matthew is going, we know that just ahead lies the crucifixion which is at once the joy and the judgment of God.  Joy to those who earnestly seek for and desire truth of God and judgment to those who seek for and desire their own gain at the expense of others.

Some things never change.    We live in an incredibly different world than did Micah and Jesus.    Nevertheless -- how amazing the consistency in behavior of those who abuse their spiritual roles.  On a more personal level, we might challenge our own folk in terms of what they see as the heart of their spirituality -- their relationship with God.    The NRSV translation of the Micah text makes clear the point that God cares for the poor and things are not okay when some of God's people are hungry while others are well fed.  Our spirituality -- religion -- is challenged by our relationship with those who are in need.

Paul shows a refreshing difference.  A leader who care for the people more than he cares about power -- more about their spirit than about his situation.  His joy is not about himself, but rather about the success the word of God has in the lives of those who receive it.     Matthew and Micah talk about how not to do it while 1 Thessalonians talks about how to do it.

Matthew

There is an important, if subtle, point in Jesus' comment about the Pharisees.  They "sit on Moses seat" and we should therefore not dismiss what they teach nor what they say is important to practice.  The words are right, but the behavior does not match the teaching.  They do not practice what they preach.

There is a veneration here for "Moses seat".  The teaching of Moses, the Torah is the word of God.    The word is true even when the people are not.  We are to value the word even when the behavior of those who bring the word does not match the word.  There is a warning here that goes to the old saying about,  "... throwing the baby out with the bath water."  I can recall very clearly the adamant statement of the woman who said to me, "I can not accept Christ after everything Christians did during the Crusades."   I guess this is why I never tire of using this line in the pulpit, "The reputation of Jesus Christ is on the line in the way we live our lives."

If I were to pursue this theme in a message, I would bring in Paul's joy over the fact that the people he ministered to received his word / message as "God's word".  It is this word which is "at work" in the believers.

Which leave's a wonderful question.  "What is it that is 'at work' in our midst?"

The remainder of the passage is the essence of our full text sermon.

The final verse in the gospel could also yield a homily on the theme of exaltation and humiliation.    The key is in the relationship between God and self.  Exalting self is to violate the very first commandment.  To "humble" self is to recognize that there is One who is above and before us.

Micah

There is a consistency in Micah with our observations about the Matthew text.  While the Pharisees and scribes are filled with "self", Micah is filled with the spirit of the Lord.  It is what is in us that determines what comes out of us.

The essential sin of the leadership of Israel was that fact that "the right" was for sale.  One could bribe the judge for a positive personal outcome.  The preacher (prophet) would mold the message around economic benefit.  If you want good news, you can have it for a price. The sin of corruption is compounded all the more because the false prophet claims the backing of the Lord.  "Surely the Lord is with us!"

Micah on the other hand, comes with the power of the Lord for "truth telling."  The true servant of the Lord is able to resist the whims and desires of the people for words of peace and light when there is no peace and light.  It is important to keep in mind that these are the children of God.  Children need to be led.  They need direction and guidance even when they don't want it.  The man or woman of God can see past the surface of "feel good" words and direct God's truth where it will about maturity and spiritual health. The truth will make God's children healthy, but it will can also make then angry.

 

1 Thessalonians

Paul represents the other side of the coin here.  He has the heart of a pastor for these people and they on the other hand are the joy of a pastor's heart.  Namely...  they are open to and gladly receiving of the message Paul brings. They gladly receive the truth which brings them to maturity.

Paul's ministry in Thessalonica is a great model.  He is faithful in proclamation, authentic in encouragement and consistent in thankful prayer.  The result is that the truth of God is active and productive in the lives of God's people.


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Adapted from Psalm 43

Leader:   We gather today, our God, to seek your guidance.
People:  Send out your truth and light that we might be led.
Leader:   May we discover the pure joy of knowing you.
People:  And the happiness of those who sing your praises.
Leader:   We place our hope and trust in the Lord at all times.
People:  With confidence that we shall rejoice forever!

A Prayer of Confession

O great God of grace and mercy, we come before you today with a full awareness that we are too soon removed from our faith foundations and too easily led away from our commitment to you.  We confess that we are often short on faith and long on self reliance.  We get lost in a stormy world and loose sight of the harbor of safety which is your will and your word.  Forgive us and renew our spirits to follow our Savior more nearly.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends in Christ, hear the words of the Psalmist, * "O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come. When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions."   Rejoice in the good news that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
[Ps. 65]

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

O Lord of grace and mercy, we rejoice today in your forgiving, redeeming, renewing love.  We can do nothing alone, but in the strength of your love and by the power of your Holy Spirit within us, all the impossible barriers of our living seem to diminish.

Like a child sitting on the shoulders of a strong parent, we can see more clearly the road that you have prepared for us.  We are lifted up from the trials and tensions of our living and given a peace that can not be measured in human terms.

We rejoice, Lord of our lives, that you are present with us in every moment of every day - though we are so often unaware.  How glorious it is that you are never unaware of us.  It is sometimes so hard for us to change old patterns and damaging habits, but by your strength we are able to choose the good - to choose life. We thank you today for the peace that comes from you and the security that fills our souls when we are centered in you.

We thank you today, our Lord, for all our brothers and sisters around the world who worship you, serve you and seek your peace for our world.  Though we are of many tongues and tribes and are called by many names, we give thanks for our unity in Christ and pray that we might become true witnesses of your good news.

In the name of Jesus Christ we make our prayers.

Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

O Lord Jesus Christ, Master of our souls, receive our gifts today as the token of our commitment to you.  Bless and sanctify these gifts and these hearts for the work of your kingdom.  Amen.