Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Great Debate

Micah 6.1-8
1 Corinthians 1.18-31
Matthew 5.1-12

I saw a programme on TV the other week about how graduates from Oxford, in particular, are currently dominating Parliament. They make up the majority of leaders in both the coalition government and the Labour Party, so there’s no getting away from them.

The programme included a scene filmed at the famous Oxford Union, the university debating society. It was a strange mixture of people in dinner jackets and posh frocks making speeches to an audience sitting listening in tee-shirts and jeans. This morning's passage from the prophecy of Micah conjures up the image of a similar kind of debate - not held in the hallowed halls of some ancient university, but in the open air, in somewhere like the Lake District where the debaters can stand on a hillside, overlooking a vast audience assembled in the valley below, and shout their message so loudly that it echoes round the hills.

Of course, it’s not only students who can speak in the Oxford Union debates. The Union is so influential that it can invite important opinion formers from all across the country to contribute to its proceedings. However, no one could compare to one of the principle speakers in Micah’s debate. For it is God himself who is going to propose the motion and the nation of Israel which is going to have to reply.

God’s case is that he has been awfully kind and generous to Israel but his kindness and generosity have not been very well received. He brought the people of Israel safely out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land, where the legendary King Balak saw how numerous they were and asked the prophet Balaam to curse them, but God forbade him to do so. And then God brought the people across the River Jordan, from Shittim on one side to Gilgal on the other, and from thence to Jericho where the walls came tumbling down. Yet the people were no sooner settled in their new home than they grew weary of the high ethical standards which God had set for them and forgot what he required.

How are the people of Israel going to answer this charge? Micah speculates that they might be tempted to offer thousands of sacrifices to make up for all their shortcomings. But relationships don’t work like that. We can’t buy love or say sorry by opening our cheque book. And anyway, just like well-off people today, who sometimes have so much money that they don’t know what to do with it, what is God going to do with the smoke and incense rising from so many offerings?

‘And does a spiritual being need offerings anyway?’ Micah asks. Is that the best way for people to prove their loyalty to God? And would a loving creator, who sustains all living things, be happy at the sacrifice of so many animals to no good purpose?

If a farmer has one hundred sheep or goats, and he offers ten of them to God, will that really make a difference to the way he’s going to behave in the future? A burnt offering involves total commitment on the part of the animal, but not on the part of the worshipper.

It seems likely, - because the practice is also mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament - that some of Micah’s contemporaries had already recognised the inadequacy of sacrificing animals or pouring out libations of oil to God and had turned, at least occasionally, to human sacrifice instead in order to prove their devotion. Unlike the Aztecs in Mexico, who seem to have sacrificed hapless prisoners or slaves, they also realised that - if these human sacrifices were to be worth any more than animal scarifices - they would also have to be truly costly to themselves. Like the Incas in Peru, they would have to offer up their own sons and daughters. The reasoning was that only the sacrifice of their own flesh and blood was ever going to be costly enough to make God appreciate the true depth of their commitment.

In the case of the people of Israel, however, Micah observes that there is something particularly perverse about this practice. The sacrifice of human beings in Mexico and Peru, and in ancient Britain for that matter, was something to which people resorted out of ignorance of God’s true nature. But the people of Israel should have understood that they did not need to sacrifice their first-born sons. God had already shown them his generosity and kindness by allowing them to offer the passover lamb, instead of their own children, when he set them free from Egypt. Then one single lamb had been sufficient to protect them from the angel of death, so clearly the sacrifice of their own children was no more necessary now than the sacrifice of all those thousands of rams and calves which they were driving to the altars and shrines.

What then is the true answer to God’s complaint? Not more sacrifices and offerings, because - however committed and sincere the worshipper might be - they are not at all what God requires. All he asks is that his people act justly, love kindness, (not ‘loyalty’ as the Revised English Bible translates this verse), and walk humbly with him. In other words, he asks that they try to mirror in their own lives his loving kindness towards them.

It would be possible to take this passage to mean that going to church and offering prayers and supplications to God is - at best - far less important than spending our time doing good in the world. It’s one of the justifications which countless people have given for turning their backs on organised religion. I am a Christian, the refrain goes, but I don’t need to go to church to prove that. However, Micah does not say that we needn’t go to church. He only says that religion, by itself, is not enough and that making an extravagant and unnecessary show of our devotion is an obscene misunderstanding of what God expects from us.

The main purpose of going to church is not to make up for our perceived shortcomings, although of course we will want to repent and be sorry where we have fallen short. No, the main purpose is to find the strength and inspiration that we shall need if we are to go out and live a thousand acts of loving kindness in the world.

Micah’s insight that God’s love and generosity were exemplified by his acceptance of the Passover Lamb as a substitute for costly sacrifices, is - of course - sharpened if we link it to the story of Jesus’ death. Like any other sacrifice, the offering of the Passover Lamb was still not a costly sacrifice. In fact, that’s really Micah’s point. God doesn’t require costly sacrifices - he’s happy to accept one lamb so long as, in response to his loving kindness, we seek to make our own lives into a living sacrifice of justice, kindness and humility. But for Christians the one full and sufficient sacrifice that God requires is not just any lamb, but his own self in human form. And, by dying for us himself upon the cross, he not only demonstrates the true extent, the height, and breadth and depth, of his love and generosity, but also gives us the inspiration and the power that we shall need to imitate him.

For Paul this message - that God himself died for us upon the cross in Jesus - offers the liberating power to be changed into kind and loving people, God’s children by adoption. But he recognises that the chattering classes will dismiss this idea as nonsense and that people of other faiths will need to be convinced by a lot more than rhetoric that Jesus is God, and that he died for our sakes.

However, says Paul, there’s nothing we can do to persuade people. Believing in Jesus is a question of faith. People have to trust him for themselves if they’re going to discover that our message is true.

The only way we can help them is by allowing God to set us free in Jesus, and make us holy and righteous so that we can demonstrate in our own lives the power of the Gospel story. And that brings us back to Micah. For what does it mean to be made holy and righteous? It means becoming more like Jesus - acting justly, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.

The point about the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is that it isn’t a list of virtues that we have to live up to, nor a new set of commandments that we have to obey: ‘You must be poor in spirit, you must be sorrowful,’ and so on. The way Matthew puts it across, it’s a reminder of God’s loving kindness. God loves a lot of people.

According to Matthew he doesn’t turn his back on those who struggle to be spiritual, nor abandon those who can’t be happy because they feel sorrowful and abandoned. And, of course, he identifies with and blesses those who - as Micah said we must - try to live out his justice and kindness in their own lives: the gentle, those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of right.

Matthew’s message is that God cares for us and that, if we do try to live as Micah tells us he requires, then we shall have a rich reward. He will take us to himself and we shall never be separated from him.

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