NextSunday Worship


February 2, 2020

“Predictions for February 2”

Dr. Lawrence Webb Micah 6:1:8 Year A - Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Many people approach today, February 2, with a superstitious outlook, anticipating certain things happening if certain other things happen. On Groundhog Day, tradition has it, if the namesake rodent comes out of his hole and sees his shadow, you can expect forty more days of wintery weather.

February 2 marks the approximate midpoint between the Winter Solstice in late December and Spring Equinox in late March. Across the centuries, pagan, Christian, and secular groups have given different meanings to the date.

For a thousand years or more before the time of Jesus, the Celts marked the beginning of Spring. They called the event Imbolc [pronounced Embolk], referring to the Spring Mother’s womb where seeds were planted.

The Roman Catholic Church adapted this festival, as they did other pagan celebrations in Europe, putting it on the Christian calendar to commemorate the presentation of Baby Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. With candles lit for the occasion, the church celebration became Candlemas, and they attached the meaning of forty more days of winter if Candlemas was sunny.

A German observance basically pre-dates today’s Groundhog Day. They added rodents to the church’s Candlemas. If the little hedgehogs saw their shadows, then winter would be prolonged. When they migrated to America in the seventeen and eighteen centuries, they brought this custom with them, making the Groundhog the critter of choice.

Many German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, and the modern observance began in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney on February 2, 1887. It was the brainchild of the local newspaper editor, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters on the idea.

Stemming from this emphasis, February Second is embodied or personified in a critter named Punxsutawney Phil. Along with other traditional weather predictions, people seem to rely on Phil and his relatives and friends in other species.

Every year, tens of thousands crowd into Punxsutawney, a town of some six thousand people. These visitors probably come in part because of the Bill Murray 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, which available through Netflix and other online sources.

Punxsutawney Phil’s cousin, Staten Island Chuck, is recognized by the mayor of New York City.  Meanwhile, some five hundred miles away and six months later, in Vermillion, Ohio, more than a hundred thousand people attend the Wooly bear Caterpillar Festival.

According to tradition, if the caterpillars have more orange than black coloring in autumn, the upcoming winter will be mild. as interesting facts about the custom “Groundhog Day History and Facts. (https://www.history.com/news/groundhog-day-history-and-facts)

Millions of people also turn for forecasts to yet another source almost a century older than Punxsutawney Phil: Old Farmer’s Almanac (premiered in 1792), mainly for predictions of the coming winter season

In light of the interest created through the mass media, we need to ask about the accuracy of predictions based on these various sources. Staten Island Chuck reportedly gets it right almost 70 percent of the time. On the other hand, poor Punxsutawney Phil hits it only about 40 percent.

Turns out, the little Woolly Bear offers no valid prophecy. The variation in the color of their bands reflects the past winter, rather than the upcoming season.

And what about the Almanac?  Contemporary meteorologists say it’s difficult enough to get their five-day forecasts right, much less call a whole year or even the coming winter. Dave Hennen, senior meteorologist and executive producer for CNN Weather, says it should be taken with a grain of salt — and not necessarily road salt.

On this Groundhog Day, let’s look at the shadows in our lives and the Lord’s call to us.  Contrary to hoping the Groundhog will not to see his shadow, God calls us into the sunshine of His love. In this Micah passage, God views our sin and shortcoming, our faulty efforts to get things right, reviews how God led us out of our past lives, and lays out how He expects us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.

Continuing the weather forecast analogy for a moment, in the eighth century before Jesus came, the people of Judah make inadequate use of instruments to find their way to the light.

Micah confronts them as sinners. He does not specify their sin here, but back in chapter 3, the prophet lambastes the “heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel”: They have food “but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”

“Should you not know justice, you who hate the good and love the evil?” With bloodthirsty rhetoric, he even accuses them of cannibalism: “who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron.”

Not unlike the Groundhog analogy, Micah predicts darkness and night against these who despise the poor: “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.”

Inhumane treatment of people who live on the ragged edge leads the prophet in our chapter 6 passage to call the earth itself to serve as jury against these who hold the upper hand.   “Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.  Hear, 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” (6:2-3).

Following a familiar theme in the Jewish Bible, Micah reminds his own generation of how God saved their ancestors time and again (6:4-5):

  • He delivered them from slavery in Egypt.
  • He gave Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. to lead them.
  • He blessed them through the foreign priest Balaam contrary to his own king’s wishes
  • And He brought them into the promised land.

These stories remind the people who this God is:  The God who shows compassion and mercy when the people fall, who is faithful no matter what. The creation itself witnesses to this God made known in these acts (Oden).

God provides this brief history “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord” (verse 5). Terence E. Fretheim elaborates on this: Such divine actions are “saving,” for God has brought life, health, and well-being to individuals and community. The people are to “remember” so that they might “know,” that is, come to a fuller realization of what God has done.

Emphasis on “what God has done” calls to mind how ministers — perhaps. without realizing it — tend to over use favorite expressions.  After morning worship one Sunday, a teenage daughter lamented to her father, “Daddy, I think I will just scream the next time Dr. Brown refers to ‘what God has done for us in Christ Jesus!’”

We may overwork that expression, but we can hardly have too many reminders of “what God has done” through Israel’s deliverance from slavery and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the prophet confronts the people with their lack of dedication, they begin asking what they need to do to show signs of repentance. Returning to our Groundhog analogy, the questions they raise are as far off-center as Punxsutawney Phil or the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

They start with traditional ritual sacrifice: a year-old calf entirely burned on the altar. If that is inadequate, can we up the ante and offer thousands of he-goats? Or what about rivers of oil for liquid offerings? All that is as far off as those weather prophecies.  Here’s our highest bid: What about human sacrifice? “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Perhaps Micah wonders about the sincerity of these questions.  Are they depending on external ritual as a substitute for inner repentance? When they’re told those routine offerings don’t automatically bring forgiveness, do they resort to exaggeration as they ask about thousands of goats and rivers of oil?

And do they seriously expect Micah as God’s representative to approve of child sacrifice? The prophet will have none of that! Perhaps he considers this the proverbial last straw. He lashes out: You know better than all this. You know these external practices don’t cut it with the Almighty! God has told you what is good.

Leviticus (18:21) condemned offering a son or daughter on the altar to Molech in fiery sacrifice. This condemnation was no mere abstraction. Second Kings records two kings, Ahaz (16:3) and Manasseh (21:3) who sacrificed their sons. The writer uses the euphemism, “He made his son pass through the fire.”

The Levitical Law required capital punishment for child sacrifice. The people were commanded to stone the offenders (Leviticus 20:2).

This final question reminds us again of the unreliable weather forecasting of Punxsutawney Phil or the Woolly Worm.

WHAT IS GOOD?

After disapproving every sacrifice the people ask about and after declaring they have already been told what is good, Micah answers the question of acceptability with a question of his own: “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

They could fulfill their usual ritualistic sacrificial obligations by making sacrifices annually or after acknowledging specific sins. But this Big Three could not — cannot — be fulfilled quite so simply. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly must become life patterns

Some read this final verse as a judgmental formula, as a legalistic way to placate God.  An online sermon portrayed God as offended by the sins of the people Micah is preaching to. Thus, justice, kindness, and humility become a new three-part formula for appeasing an angry God. This online preacher invoked Proverbs 20:2 — “The dread anger of a king is like the growling of a lion; anyone who provokes him to anger forfeits life itself.”

Then the preacher applied the lion metaphor to God, saying, in effect: If an earthly king will come at you like a roaring lion when you provoke him, then how much worse it will be if you anger the Great God who made the roaring lion?

On the other hand, James Howell says,

“But this isn’t a checklist:

Justice? Got it.

Kindness? Working on it.

Walk humbly? Maybe someday.”

Howell points to the interlocking nature of The Big Three:

Lines between the three are blurry. Justice requires humility, which induces kindness, which   looks a lot like humility, as does real justice. Justice is a different kind of justice because it is paired with walking humbly; and kindness has a different edge because it is situated between justice and walking humbly. . .  We need all three, which are really one, or we miss all three—and God (quoted by Manning).

In another place, Howell said we need to look carefully at the word “require” in the question, “What does God require of you…?” Howell says the English word doesn’t get to the core meaning of the Hebrew word “darash.” We tend to think of classroom rules: “The teacher requires you turn in a three-page paper by Friday.” Or certain ingredients are required in preparing prescription medicine. Instead, the word suggests dependency, seeking: lovers depend or require that reciprocal relationship. The shepherd needs his sheep, the child requires the parents’ love.

So when the Lord “requires” justice, kindness and mercy, it isn’t that the Lord           “insists on” or “demands” these things. God seeks them, yearns for them, and needs them from us as intimate partners in God’s adventure down here.  (Howell in United Methodist Reporter).

If we think of these “requirements” in the usual English meaning of the word, we position God in a harsh, legalistic, judgmental, demanding relationship with us.  When we seek these “requirements” in God’s spirit of love and forgiveness, we cannot seek to carry them out on such legalistic terms.

DO JUSTICE

Debbie Manning elaborates on God’s kind of justice: Micah is talking about a justice that is personal to God because it is from God. It is God’s justice. God’s justice reveals what is in the heart of God. The heart of God calls us to be a just society where everyone belongs, where the neediest are taken good care of, where no one goes hungry or is disenfranchised. Throughout Scripture we see that God is the defender of the poor and the oppressed. We see and know it, but what are we doing about it?”       (Manning).

In this election year, political parties will determine their choices for local, state, and national offices.  Our choices at all levels can and will determine the degree of justice that will be sought and wrought in the coming years. As we go to the polls for primaries, runoffs, and general elections, we need to hear Micah declare anew:  “He 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?”

The current religious makeup of the two houses of Congress includes 471 professing Christians and 34 Jews, a total of 505 members whose traditions teach the principles we hear from Micah. Another 10 are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Unitarian Universalists, all adhering to moral principles (Pew Research Center). https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/03/5-facts-about-the-religious-makeup-of-the-116th-congress/ And, despite his impeachment, the sitting president has the backing of many ministers.

These statistics indicate that, if a majority of these men and women understood their professed religious teachings and had the courage to support those teachings in their votes, we would see an incredibly wider application of justice. This would result in new life for the poor, the jobless, the homeless, the underpaid, for those currently without health care, for legal and illegal immigrants, for racial minorities, for those discriminated against because of their religion or their sexual orientation.

LOVE KINDNESS

To love kindness entails having a spirit within our hearts that reaches out to other people and shows kindness to them. The Hebrew word for kindness also can be translated as mercy. If we actively love mercy, we extend kindness to someone who does not deserve it.

Two 19th century literary authors wrote about kindness or mercy. Poet William Wordsworth loved nature and found inspiration for his writing from time to time as he sat outdoors.  On one occasion, he visited the Wye River Valley that serves as the border between England and Wales. In “Tintern Abbey,” he described what he called “that best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered, acts\Of kindness and of love.”

Those “little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love” that the poet calls “that best portion of a good man’s life” resemble what Micah calls loving kindness, free-flowing

acts that seem to “come naturally” from the heart and pass unremembered because they were not calculated or done to make a point or gain recognition.

Wordsworth’s poem contains no Christian or religious language, but Micah’s call seems to underlie their sentiment. On the other hand, novelist Victor Hugo wrote an episode in Les Miserable that openly and emphatically demonstrates Micah’s call for loving mercy. The scene known as “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” appears as a stand-alone in various anthologies.

Jean Valjean, freed from 19 years of hard lab our for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child, has drifted from place to place because he found no welcome as a criminal. After a time, in a small village, the local Bishop takes him in, feeds him, and provides a bed for the night.

In the night, while the rectory is still, Valjean takes the silver tableware and leaves. He does not go far before the gendarmes arrest him. Come daylight, they bring him to the Bishop, confident that he will take back the stolen valuables and insist on Valjean’s going to prison. To the amazement of the police and even greater surprise of Valjean, the Bishop says he had given the silverware to Valjean. Topping that surprise, the Bishop says this to Valjean: “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

The law officers watch as the Bishop takes the two candlesticks from the mantel. He extends them to Valjean, who takes them, with trembling and bewilderment. The Bishop offers this benediction: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

Through the rest of Hugo’s lengthy novel, we see Valjean as a changed man who exercises kindness and mercy to those about him. In the internationally successful musical version of the novel, Valjean looks back to the Bishop and sings, “My soul belongs to God, I know I made that bargain long ago.” He says God gave him hope and strength when hope was gone.

(SCHONBERG CLAUDE MICHEL) SCHONBERG CLAUDE MICHEL, “Who Am I” from Les Misérables. “Who Am I?” lyrics © Alain Boublil Music Ltd., Productions Bagad, ALAIN BOUBLIL MUSIC LTD, BOUBLIL ALAIN EDITIONS MUSICALES SAR

WALK HUMBLY

A standing joke among ministers tells of one of their fellows who wrote a book called, “Humility and How I Attained It,” complete with 24 humiliating poses of the author. On a more serious note, someone has said, “If you say ‘humility,’ you lose it.”

Tony Cartledge described problems regarding humble: When religious leaders of any persuasion think they have a handle on all truth, or when political leaders think their way is the only way, or when husbands and wives are unwilling to compromise, there will be strife. There will be hurt. There will be pain. . . .

We can’t know all the answers and walk humbly with God at the same time. . .

There is much God wants to teach us, but we cannot learn if we are not teachable, and we are not                             teachable if we do not have some humility about us  (Tony Campolo, Nurturing Faith).

As Kentucky pastor Jacky Newton thought about humility, he thought of an elderly man named Mo, who he said was “one of the greatest servants of the Lord I’ve ever met.”

Mo was humble and quiet.  He never did anything to bring attention to himself.

He voluntarily opened and closed the church and made certain all of us were able to worship comfortably.  He never missed a Sunday morning, Sunday night or Wednesday evening service.  He sat quietly and had no other leadership position in church.

When I approached him about being a deacon, he said to me, “Preacher, I’m unworthy.”  “Mo, of all the men in this church, I feel you are most worthy.”  He accepted and the church elected him to serve.  He became a great deacon because he had a “servant’s heart.”

Pastor Newton suggested Galatians 5:13 provides a model for humility:  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” (“Jacky’s Devotional”)

CONCLUSION

“The last verse of this passage — the one most familiar to us — turns the four questions asked in verses 6-7 away from their focus on the types of offerings and toward a focus on the type of person. God does not want a specific type of offering. God wants a specific type of person.

The passage culminates with an answer. It may not be the answer the people expect. In fact, it is not the answer they seek. They have focused on offerings — small and large. They have emphasized sacrificial worship to the exclusion of justice and kindness.

“The people have rightly considered the nature of their offerings.But God’s concern here is to point out that God requires more than sacrifice when entering God’s presence. God clarifies what is good. The answer is rather straightforward:

To do justice.

To love kindness.

To walk humbly with your God.

Now that the clarification has been given to us, the more difficult task is to live into these                               requirements as God’s people. Justice is perhaps not our default operating system. Humility    is not second nature” (Tyler Mayfield, Working Preacher, January 29, 2017).

Returning to the predictions where we began: Unlike those who watch the Groundhog, we can safely predict that as we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, we will see brighter days for those to whom we seek to minister.

 

About the writer:

Lawrence Webb is a native of Sweetwater, Texas. With degrees from Hardin-Simmons University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the University of South Carolina, he has served as pastor, writer-editor, and professor at Anderson University.

His books include The Art of Advent; Reflections for Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas; Christmas Memories from Seven to Seventy; Once for a Shining Hour; Revelation, a Book of Hope; Hardin-Simmons, Hail to Thee; Songs That Sing to Me; Life Lessons from Stories, Songs, Poems, and Plays.   He and his wife Pansy live in Anderson, South Carolina.

 

Scripture and Music:

Micah 6:1-8

Psalms 15

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

 

Hymns:

We Are Called to Be God s People

Ask Ye What Great Things I Know

Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise

Jesus Christ, the Crucified

Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Be Thou My Vision

 

Anthems:

Offertory (John Ness Beck)

The Beatitudes (Stanley Glarum)

Blest Are They (David Haas)

Ubi Caritas (Durufle)

 

Solos:

Offertory (John Ness Beck)

Be Thou My Vision

The Old Rugged Cross

He Was Despised (from Messiah)

 

SOURCES:

Tony Cartledge, “Lesson for January 29, 2017, Nurturing Faith online. https://baptiststoday.org/lesson-for-january-29-2017-2, December 12, 2016.

Terence E. Fretheim, Working Preacher, online, February 2, 2014.

“Groundhog Day, History and Facts,” Updated January 30, 2019; original February 2, 2012

“Groundhog Day” movie information came from https://www.shmoop.com/groundhog-day/summary.html.

Debbie Manning, Untitled sermon on Micah 6:8, Christ Presbyterian Church Edina, Minnesota

July 28 & 29, 2012.

Jacky Newton, “Jacky’s Devotional,” email, September 12, 2019.

Amy G. Oden, Working Preacher, January 30, 2011.

Aleksandra Sandstrom, “5 facts about the religious makeup of the 116th Congress,” Fact Tank,

Pew Research Center, January 3, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/03/5-facts-about-the-religious-makeup-of-the-116th-congress/

Unidentified UMR Writer, “Q&A: Unpacking the message of Micah 6:8,” Interview with James C. Howell, senior pastor, Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, N. C., June 13, 2012.

http://unitedmethodistreporter.com/2012/06/13/qa-unpacking-the-message-of-micah-68/