Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Analysis by Steven E. Albertin
1Hear what the LORD says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the LORD has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3″O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.”
6″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?
7Will 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?”
8He 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?
Author’s Note: This is one of those examples of a Scriptural passage where there is no gospel. Instead, proclamation of the gospel will require that the good news will need to be “added” from other sources (cf. Philip Melanchthon, Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article 4 on Justification).
God’s love will not be thwarted even by his own righteous indignation. God unilaterally engineers a marvelous reversal of fortune.
DIAGNOSIS: Witness for the Prosecution
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem): The Charge
God is not pleased with his people. He established a covenant with them and made them his people. However, they have not lived as people of the covenant. Therefore, God is filing a lawsuit against them. The mountains, the hills and the foundations of the earth will hear God’s case against Israel (6:1-2).
They have not kept their side of the covenant. Repeatedly through their history God has kept the covenant and delivered and redeemed them from their enemies. Micah cites such examples as their deliverance from Egypt. God faithfully led them from Shittem to Gilgal in the conquest of the promise land. God sent them various people to deliver them, such as Moses and Miriam at the Exodus, Balaam’s blessing of Israel despite Balak’s demand that Balaam curse them. God has been faithful to the covenant. Israel has not (6:4-5).
Therefore, God is not going to let them off the hook. God is going to file a lawsuit with the hills, mountains and the foundation of the earth and will prosecute Israel for her faithlessness and disobedience. (6:2)
Much of our life is also fraught with accusation and criticism. Demands and obligations are everywhere. We fail to keep our promises. Much of life feels as if we are on trial and must prove our worth, value and innocence. It seems as if someone is bringing charges against us, demanding that we offer an explanation and justification for the mess we have made of our lives and this world. Could that “someone” be God? Micah insists that it is!
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem): A Futile Defense
Israel was always ready to defend and justify herself. She does not deny that she has a covenant with God. God has a right to bring charges and file a lawsuit. However, Israel defiantly insists that God has no case against her. In her defense she presents her evidence. Look at how she has worshipped and bowed down before God! She has made sacrifices and burnt offerings to her God, not withholding even the best as she offers young calves, thousands of rams, and rivers of oil. She was even willing to make the greatest sacrifice of all, her firstborn children … just like the Moabites! She believes that the evidence of her innocence is overwhelming (6:6-7).
Just imagine the foolish irony of such a belief! They thought that this comparison would be exonerating evidence in a court of law. But comparing themselves to the despised and idolatrous Moabites, who with religious zealotry offered their firstborn to their god, Molech (6:7b), betrayed the deception in their hearts. It only further exposed the hypocrisy of Israel’s religious piety and her distrust of God. Like their idolatrous neighbors, Israel’s burnt offerings and prayers were just another attempt to bribe God to do what they wanted him to do. All these works of religious piety were just a cover-up and a ruse. It disguised her own faithless fears and her shabby treatment of the people around them, especially the poor and outcast. She cannot feign innocence. Her self-defense is futile.
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem): The Damning Verdict
God does not want their offerings and sacrifices when they are only disguising their idolatrous hearts. God is not interested in their bribery. The more offerings and sacrifices they bring only further reveals their guilt and bad conscience. If they truly kept the covenant and trusted God, God would not need their bribery. They would not need to live this way hiding behind their false demonstrations of faith. If they trusted God, then they could focus on doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
But the verdict is in. They are guilty as charged. They have no place to hide and nowhere to go. A few verses later God doubles down on his damning verdict and promises “to smite them because of their sins” (6:13).
We too stand exposed and condemned. Unable to justify our lives, hiding behind our virtues and pieties, we are stuck with this death sentence. Just look around. No one gets out alive and no one escapes the cemetery.
PROGNOSIS: Witness for the Defense
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution): A Reversal of Fortune
But God will not abandon his people. Even if they have broken his covenant and ignited his anger, God cannot and will not give up on them. Somehow the script must be flipped. The verdict must be undone. Israel’s fortune must be reversed.
Many of the prophets promised that this would happen one day. Restitution would be made. It was. But surprisingly by the same one who successfully prosecuted his lawsuit. God settles his own lawsuit. His love will not be thwarted even by his own righteous indignation. God unilaterally engineers a marvelous reversal of fortune.
Therefore, “in the fullness of time” God sends his own Son Jesus to join his people in their damning predicament. Like them he is condemned and sentenced to die. God loves his people that much! Because of that love, on “the third day” God raises Jesus from the dead and vindicates his love for the very same people who betrayed him. The trial is over. The old verdict has been undone. The new verdict is in.
Such a reversal of fortune is good news for all who thought it was impossible to reverse the verdict and undo the death sentence. Those who were guilty as charged are now declared righteous and innocent.
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution): A Joyful Exoneration
Such a joyful exoneration cannot be anything but good news to those who had been successfully prosecuted and despaired that their fate was sealed. Hearts that previously were afraid to be exposed, that sought to hide behind their pieties and sacrifices at the expense of others, are unafraid and want to come clean. Trusting the goodwill of the one who reversed his own lawsuit against them, they confess their sin. They rejoice in their new identity. They believe that they are no longer convicts sentenced to die but saints free to live a new life.
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution): Walking Humbly with God
No longer afraid, no longer obsessed with proving their innocence through their offerings and sacrifices, they no longer seek to impress or manipulate their God. Relieved by his gracious intervention, they can “walk humbly with God” confidently trusting his mercy. Likewise, freed from their obsession with self, there is no need to cut corners, to ignore the poor and to indulge in violence and illegality. Instead. they/we are free to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”