Turning Bad News to Good
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
April 18, 2021
Micah 6:6-16 NRSV
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? 7 Will 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?” 8 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?
9 The voice of the Lord cries to the city (it is sound wisdom to fear your name): Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
10 Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? 11 Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? 12 Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths. 13 Therefore I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins. 14 You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword. 15 You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine. 16 For you have kept the statutes of Omri and all the works of the house of Ahab, and you have followed their counsels. Therefore I will make you a desolation, and your inhabitants an object of hissing; so you shall bear the scorn of my people.
Talk about “buzzkill!” Alex I’ll take “Thing I Don’t Want to Hear” for $1000. Good news? Isn’t that what the Bible is supposed to be? This doesn’t sound like good news! But if we listened carefully, we could have heard why the prophet has to share this word from God, and we can hear how this bad news can be turned to good. The challenge is what Jesus laid out a few centuries later: “let the one with ears, hear!”
Let’s examine the “bad news” part first, because, although we understand it sounds like bad news, I would imagine most of us aren’t quite sure of some of the cultural references. The first part of the passage is talking about the way people are worshiping. Micah asks if God wants animal sacrifices, or even child sacrifice? These are, to a degree, rhetorical questions. But the reality is animal sacrifice was part of Israel’s normal worship. The question of child sacrifice is less clear. It wasn’t something the Jewish Scriptures ever approved of. But it isn’t clear that there weren’t just as many “off-shoot” forms of religion that claimed to be Jewish, but really weren’t living up to the Torah.
Just like today, there are many forms of church’s calling themselves Christian, claiming authenticity, yet when one asks, “would God really require or even allow that?” then our perspective on their authenticity might change. It seems that those who scream the loudest that they are the purest Christians are often the ones I would most describe as speaking and acting in ways that sound and look nothing like the Jesus I read about in the New Testament. But that’s just me!
The second part of the passage talks about what is happening outside the temple, beyond worship. In the streets of the city, in homes around the town, Micah describes a very familiar scene. He talks about “the treasures of wickedness,” and the practices of shopkeepers and money lenders who use “wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights.” I wince with his honest criticism when he says, “12 Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.” These are hard words to hear, but they are in our Scripture and we must weigh their truth and apply those truths if we see them to be so.
Micah says the outcome of this behavior is the people will “eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword. 15 You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.” The result echoes like a bell ringing slowly from a watchtower, declaring the end of that city. Micah says God declares to them that because of their behavior, “Therefore I will make you a desolation.” Wow!
But as bad as this sounds Micah does not speak of the disease of the city without giving the healing prescription. Micah shares the Good News to the people willing to do what God demands. And even that word is a strong word – “demands!” It may not be a commandment, but it certainly seems to sum up the commandments. “What does God require of you, O Mortal?” I believe any mortal that believes that there is a God wants to know what that is. I believe people honestly seek to know and do what God demands. The problem is there is just way too much misinterpretation, misuse, and downright dishonesty about what the Bible says.
Micah puts it plainly: God 8 “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?” These are the words that inspire me to do what I do as a pastor and as a Christian. I measure my life by this. Now I am not saying I do this perfectly. I know I do not, but it is what I use as a short summary to guide me in my life.
Some may say “well Jesus didn’t say that, so how can that apply?” Let me invite you to listen to Jesus speaking to the most religious people of all in Matthew 23:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.
This sounds to me like Jesus saying the same thing – “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to practice without neglecting the others. Some argue “we aren’t under law, we are under grace.” I’ll accept that if you aren’t using that as an excuse to live a life of injustice, merciless selfishness, and wanting grace without repentance. Just as an aside, elsewhere Jesus says he did not come to abolish the law but to complete it. But each of us has to decide.
I think for some people justice sounds so ominous and painful, so joyless. To me there is nothing further from the truth. The things we have accomplished with our justice ministry work are some of my greatest joys in ministry and in life. Through our justice ministry work we challenged hospitals to train their nurses in “Baby-Friendly” techniques because parts of Jacksonville had infant mortality rates as high as some third world countries. Because those hospitals are following that training precious human life is being nurtured and nourished when before they were dying from malnutrition. That brings me joy, knowing that we have made life-saving actions for others.
For years we fought to change the way Jacksonville arrested children for minor non-violent crimes. We weren’t asking for them to be let off without accountability. We were actually asking for better accountability. Instead of simply putting them in jail, giving them an arrest record which would limit their ability to get a good job, or go into the Armed Services, we pushed for them to go through a PRE-arrest program where they had to accept responsibility for their actions, apologize directly to the victim if there was one, repay if there was any expense or stealing. They would also get counseling to help them make better decisions, assistance in planning a better future, support in becoming a better person. That sounds like the work Jesus Christ would approve to me. And even more it has meant hundreds of youth are no longer being arrested and that is not only saving lives it is saving our community literally millions of dollars in tax costs.
Now it is time to push for this same PRE-arrest justice for adults. In 2019 over 32,000 adults were arrested; almost half of them were for things like driving with an expired license, or unpaid fine or fee. Why does that require arresting someone? These aren’t dangerous people – if they have some other outstanding warrant, that’s different. But what happens is someone can’t pay a fine or fee or renew their license because they don’t make enough money. Then they get arrested and they lose their job and the fines, fees, and oh, by the way, interest charges often mount up to more than $2,000. How are they going to pay that if they can’t drive or go to work? So what we have created is a system that creates “debtor prison.” It falls disproportionately on persons of color and of low-income status. One of our black pastors commented on his son who was arrested for an expired license plate. He lost work time and it cost him thousands of dollars. When he got back to work he overheard a coworker – a white woman – who was telling another coworker that she got stopped for an expired tag and the officer in her case told her to call someone to come get her. She didn’t get arrested. In the case of a black man the officer didn’t give that same option that a white woman got from another officer. Let’s create a justice system that is just. Let’s advocate for changes that honor God’s call to do justice.
And let’s be honest. We have a gun violence problem in Jacksonville. We lead the state in murders almost every year. We need to change what we are doing, because if we keep doing the same thing and expect different results we are either crazy or we aren’t serious about changing the community for the better. The city is using a program called “Gun Violence Intervention.” But the statistics show things aren’t getting better. We want the experts in the field to come in and assess how this program is being implemented and make recommendations to improve it. I cannot imagine why anyone would not want this. You may think this is a problem only in certain parts of the city, but that is neither justice nor mercy, nor I believe, walking humbly with God. My Christian faith teaches me that every person is my sister and brother. Those who look different from me are still my family. I have a responsibility to care about them and their welfare. I want the best for them and for you and for my family. I want a community where people are safe anywhere they go, everywhere they live. We can change the way Jacksonville is if we will simply do what God requires of us.
The possibility that we can bring these kinds of powerful, positive changes to our community bring me great hope, even joy. I believe that is the way we fulfill what God requires of us. Tomorrow night at 6:30 we will meet on Zoom to push for justice in Jacksonville for all people. I hear Micah’s voice echoing as I think about that opportunity. I don’t want to live in a city of desolation. I want to live in a City of God. I am tired of all the bad news. I want to bring good news to our city. I hope you will join me at this meeting because I believe this is the way we turn bad news to good news. And I believe that when we do that, we do what God requires of us. AMEN.