A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 12, 2010.
O God and Father of us all, make quiet our fretful minds today. Help us not to focus on the problems that beset us but help us only to consider your promises. Remind us completely that you are stronger than he who is in the world. Remind us that in our weakness your strength is made perfect. Help us to hold fast to the conviction that you indeed have the whole world in your hands—the wind, the rain, the baby, and everyone here. May we find comfort today remembering that every hair on our head is numbered, very need is known before we ask, and that each of us are loved as if you had no other children to love. Vanish our worries from the front of our minds and help us to see only you. Whisper to us words of peace and place upon our hearts your spirit of assurance. May we draw close to you know. May those of us who have felt distanced from you in the past week know that you are near. Remind us that if we seek we will indeed find you. Remind us that if we repent you will forgive. May we feel the joy of heaven in returning to you and, in that joy, may we give ourselves completely to you once again. We ask it all in Christ’s name. Amen.
To instruct the ignorant;
To counsel the doubtful;
To admonish sinners;
To bear wrongs patiently;
To forgive offences willingly;
To comfort the afflicted;
To pray for the living and the dead. —The Spiritual Works of Mercy
If you were being recruited for a new job or if you heard about a job that you thought was pretty interesting and you applied for it and you got an interview, early on in the conversation one of the things that we would surely want to know is: What’s expected? What are the requirements? What are the responsibilities? If I get this job, what is it that you will expect me to do?
It’s a new semester and you are waiting for the teacher or professor to come into the classroom for a new class. The instructor is a few minutes late. As you are waiting, the question that is on everyone’s mine is: What is going to be expected in this class? What is it that we are going to be required to do?
Imagine someone comes to you and wants to recruit you to serve as a volunteer officer in one of the organizations in the community. They want you to be president of the Rotary Club or Junior Service League or serve on the board of the Boys and Girls Club. As they are talking to you about it, you cannot wait to get to the question: What is it that I will have to do? If I take this role, what is it that you will expect of me? What are the requirements?
This is what Micah is answering for the children of Israel in the sixth chapter of the book named after him about what it means to be a child of God. What does it mean to have this close relationship with God?
We know that Micah was an approximate contemporary of Isaiah. He was poor, perhaps a peasant. One of the things that distressed him to no end was this sense of how the people of God had fallen away in their relationship. In the sixth chapter he is having a hypothetical conversation and is voicing the words of God and invites the people, “Plead your case. We will let the mountains, hills, and nature be the jury. They will listen in on what you have to say. What do you think it is that God requires to restore this relationship to where it ought to be? What are God’s expectations? Should I bring a calf and burn it as an offering? Should I bring 1,000 rams and 10,000 rivers of oil?”
He says, “No. He has told you what the requirements are to be a child of God, to be a faithful follower.”
The verse is familiar enough that if someone were to begin it for us, chances are we could finish it, although we might not be able to tell you where it is in the Bible.
“What does the Lord require? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Like many passages of scripture these are such nice words. They are pretty words. They are touching words. As is the case when words appear like this in scripture, they are usually much tougher to live out in practical daily usage than they are to quote.
Last night, I performed a wedding and one of the scriptures was 1 Corinthians 13. The words about love are always so inspiring. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love doesn’t vaunt itself up,” as the King James’ version says. They are beautiful words, but when we start thinking about what it means to live that out in practical daily terms, it is demanding.
The same thing is true here with these very lovely words that perhaps are somewhere in your home in needlepoint or on a refrigerator magnet. “What does the Lord require of you? To love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with our God?”
The mercy word is the one that is put up before us. In preparing for this week’s message, I was contemplating what it means to love mercy. In our faith tradition, we don’t always highlight some of the lists that are popular in other faith traditions, but we know there is a list of seven deadly sins. Chances are you have seen a movie that talks about seven deadly sins. Do you know that there are seven cardinal virtues? They are the opposite of the seven deadly sins. There are also seven acts of spiritual mercy that are listed in the meditation text.
These are very interesting. The first two seem pretty easy. To instruct the ignorant. We enjoy doing that. All you have to do is express a political view opposite of the company in which you are in and you will find out just how ignorant you are and just how quickly you can be instructed.
To counsel the doubtful. Just buck up. All you have to do is accept it. I was talking to someone on Saturday who was asking me about my sermon for Sunday. By the way, that is always a very dangerous question on Saturday. When I mentioned admonish sinners, the person observed, “They don’t even have to be there for you to do that.” Sometimes the best admonishment for sinners are those who are not present.
When we get to the fourth one, we start to see exactly what we are talking about. To bear wrongs patiently. This does not mean to bear the just consequences of our action, but to bear a wrong. To bear a lie that has been told about you, to bear a betrayal that has occurred to you. To bear something that is unjust and unfair. To bear it and to bear it patiently.
As a coin has heads and tails, it seems to me that to bear the wrong patiently and to forgive willingly are opposite sides of the same coin. To forgive means that something needs to be forgiven, that something was not right, and now here we are in the position of forgiving that.
To comfort the afflicted. It does not say to comfort your friends when they are afflicted, but to comfort the afflicted, wherever we encounter them, whether they seem worthy of our comfort or not, and whether we like the way they live or not.
While it seems odd for us, it is actually encouraged in scripture to pray for the living and the dead. It is easy to pray for the dead of our own family. Sometimes we find ourselves doing it almost unconsciously. Even though we still love them, we pray for them, to pray for all people in all circumstances everywhere.
When I go back to the beginning of the list and start working down, I realize it is not easy at all. It is not about being holier than thou or smarter than everyone else or being able to instruct people who, in some way, have it wrong, but it means to have a heart that is broken by seeing lives that are on such a dead-end course for having made bad decision after bad decision after bad decision, seemingly out of ignorance, not holier than thou but burdened by the consequences of people’s sin and the destructiveness that it brings into their lives and, in some way, wanting to do something about it to help that person.
When I read the passage of scripture, I am not invited simply to do these things. If this is what mercy looks like lived out every day, I am not invited simply to do these things but to love this way of life. “What does the Lord require but to love mercy.” Then I read this list and I realize that to love this way of life, bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving offences willingly, is going to require more than being a little nicer and saying, “I am a Christian.” It is going to require a total transformation of my life because I am part of the culture where we are told, “It is all about me. I deserve this.” We are so focused on ourselves and our pride that all we can think about is getting even instead of forgiving willingly, and thinking about what we deserve instead of taking the time to comfort those who are genuinely afflicted in life. Is it easy to love this way of life and to love participating in the spiritual works of mercy wherever we encounter that as an opportunity in our lives? Are these words pretty or are they some of the most severe demands and expectations that can be placed upon us?
As we point out each week, the journey is following Christ. Now that we believe, now that we, who are Christians, are following Jesus, what is expected? What is in the job description of being a follower of Jesus Christ other than to love mercy?
If you have another translation of the Bible, you might see the word mercy translated as kindness or a number of other ways. The word that is translated from the Hebrew in Micah is essentially trying to describe the love that makes relationships last. That would be too much of a mouthful and we would lose a lot in the translation if we tried to make it a phrase like that, but God asks us to care about, to seek out, the love that makes relationships last. When we look at these spiritual acts of mercy, we realize that if we are really going to live together as family, as church, as co-workers, as schoolmates, as a nation, as a world, then these are the kinds of things that have to take place if relationships are going to last. We have seen enough of it the other way. Instead of bearing wrongs patiently, we have seen enough of retaliation. We have seen enough of revenge. We have seen enough of pride and the way it divides people to recognize that the only way that love and relationships in this world are ever going to amount to anything is if the people of God live up to the expectation of God and love mercy. If we will instruct the ignorant, recognizing that all too often we are the ones needing instruction, if we will counsel the doubtful recognizing that there are moments when our deepest certainty is challenged, if we will admonish sinners in the way that we would wish to be admonished when that is our role, if we will bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences willingly, comfort all the afflicted, and pray for all the persons in need, then relationships have a chance of lasting. Not only is it a requirement of what it means to be a child of God but it is what it means to be an instrument of God’s peace in this world.
Micah is an Old Testament prophet. What is he describing if he is not describing a heart like Jesus Christ? What does God require, but to have a heart like Jesus.
Now that I believe, if I truly want to follow Jesus Christ, I have to love mercy. The only way I will ever do that is if I will allow the spirit of God to invade my life and give me a heart like Christ. Then it is not simply a matter of living up to the expectations but of being a part of the work of God in this world, and doesn’t the world need it?