The following below is a sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in September 2021*
Sermon Audio: The Word of the Lord (Micah 1:1)
The word of the LORD that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. – Micah 1:1
If you want to get better at something, with practice and time, you will get better. The swimmer, the parent, the gardener—with every stroke, every child, every flower, over time you find yourself slowly and steadily becoming better. When Woody Allen said that “80% of life is just showing up,” he was tapping into this idea. Whoever you are, if you just keep plodding along, you show up, you practice, you will get better at your job, your marriage, your craft.
Is that how Christianity works? Do Christians grow on this gradual but steady rise, from one degree of godliness to another?
John Newton, the 18th century pastor and abolitionist who wrote Amazing Grace, wrote a hymn about this called I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow. It’s first two verses are:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and ev’ry grace,
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer,
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
God had taught Newton to pray to Him to grow, but the way in which God answered Newton’s prayer “almost drove [him] to despair.” What could that mean?
As we burrow deeper and deeper into Christianity, as we grow more accustomed to the Lord’s teaching, to learning the paths of holiness, something strange and unexpected happens to us. You would think we would become better and better people—but sometimes it feels like we are actually becoming worse. What do I mean by that?
Picture yourself in a valley looking upward at cliffside at the base of a mountain. Let’s say that the valley represents your sin and the top of that mountain is godliness. You would think that path of the Christian life would be rather simple; a direct climb up while watching the sins we left behind us grow smaller and smaller in the distance. This is what Newton assumed in his next verse:
I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And, by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins and give me rest.
And that does happen, in a way. A Christian can no more continue to dwell in sin than you or I can permanently hold our breath under water. As we grow in our faith, we see sins diminish.
But something strange happens to us as we grow as a Christian. The higher we climb the mountain slopes of godliness, we realize that what we thought was a modest valley, is actually a deep, harrowing ravine, and the mountain peak that you thought was a day’s journey begins to look almost unattainable. When you first come to faith your understanding of sin and holiness are fuzzy, and as you mature those realities come into sharper focus. Newton expresses this in his next verse:
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
When I first became a Christian I assumed that sin was basically sex outside of marriage, profanity, and watching scary movies about people being possessed. Holiness, in turn, was not doing those things, plus reading my Bible and going to church. If I did those things and didn’t do those other things, I figured that I had Christianity more or less figured out. But as the years rolled by, my horizons broadened. As I climbed, new vistas of godliness opened up clearer understandings of just how deep, dark, and present my sin was. The pencils marks of sin turned into indelible ink which eventually turned into stone engravings. Before I knew it, sin was everywhere; it was not just in what I did, but in things I failed to do; it was in my heart, even lurking behind motives of good things in my life. I began to feel an intolerable despair; every time I tried to lop off one sin, it felt like seven other ones sprung up—what on earth do I do?
“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried;
“Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
Why does God do this? Why does God answer our prayers to grow in grace and faith by revealing ‘the hidden evils of our heart’? The answer, of course, is because the hidden evils are there, lying dormant in our heart. We have within us whole worlds of sin. And because God loves us, He wants us to see that the valley of sin is no place to set up camp. God made us and designed us to live in holiness. Sin is when we deviate from that design, and when we deviate from that design it brings about deadly consequences. So God reinvigorates the nerve endings of our soul so that we can sense the spiritual danger of sin. He does this gradually so that we are not utterly crushed right out of the gate with the weight of our sin.
But God also helps us grow by making us more aware of our sin because He wants us to realize that we are just as dependent upon God’s grace today as we were the first day of our Christian life. Christianity is, at its core, the message of the good news of what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf to pay for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. It is the response of our holy God in heaven, looking down upon us in our miserable state in the pit of sin, and being so motivated by His love that He descends down to where we are, and says: if you will ask, I will trust me, I will forgive you and adopt you. And we respond with a: Yes, please help me, and we fling ourselves onto Jesus and trust that what He has done is totally capable of forgiving us of our sins. That’s how our Christian life begins.
And because He loves us, that isn’t where it ends. He doesn’t want us to stay down there, He wants us to leave the miseries of sins behind us, so He summons us to climb, to grow, to leave sin behind. But Christians do not obey God the way a child stays upright on a bike after Dad gives them a push. We are not students trying to keep our GPA above a minimum standard in order to keep our scholarship. In other words, Christians don’t receive the forgiveness Jesus offers at the beginning of our Christian life, and then ascend the mountain of holiness leaving the grace of the gospel behind us. Jesus didn’t give us a nice push and now we ride the bike. As we climb, we realize day by day that this valley is much deeper than we thought. And we need fresh doses of grace, new mercies each morning to refresh our souls. This means that the drunk who was just converted while and is still somewhat inebriated and the oldest and godliest saint we know both alike are just as dependent on the grace of Jesus.
We are all beggars who have caught the benevolent eye of the King and have been invited to come live with him in His royal heavenly palace. Sin is ever-present, we will fight it till the day we die; but God’s grace is ever-increasing, and we will never exhaust it or outgrow it.
What Micah Offers
The book of Micah offers us this gift: No one is so righteous that they don’t need Jesus; no one is so lost that they cannot have Jesus.
Micah is an antidote to the ugliest kind of religiosity we are so familiar with today. What makes people cringe at religious people today? What makes people proverbially hold their noses when they walk into church? Either a smug sense of self-righteousness, or a complacent indifference towards evil and injustice. The worst kind of religion is the religion that inflates our ego and makes us emotionally brittle, relationally transactional, and inwardly condescending to what we disagree with while somehow also acting as a spiritual numbing agent that makes us indulgent and lazy to the sins we secretly love. This looks the ultra-religious person who always has something to complain about, always finds a way to blame others and never admits their own faults, even while hypocritically participating in and excusing sin. That’s a religion that not only people hate, but God hates too.
The book of Micah wants to keep us from that by revealing who God is, what our sin is, and the remedy offered to us in Jesus. It wants to remind us that no one is so righteous that they don’t need Jesus; no one is so lost that they cannot have Jesus.
So who is Micah?
Micah 1:1 opens with: “The word of the LORD that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.” Micah lives at the same time of Isaiah (8th century BC), and both are prophets so it is their job to speak “the word of the Lord” to God’s people. This particular word he has received is concerning “Samaria and Jerusalem.” In Israel’s history, after Solomon’s reign, the nation splits into two across a north-south border. The northern half (Israel) has its capital, Samaria, and the southern half (Judah) has its capital, Jerusalem. So Micah’s prophesy is directed towards the capitals of both halves of Israel.
If we look back on the lives of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah we will get a sense of was going on in Samaria and Jerusalem that Micah is responding to in his book. You can read about these three kings in 2 Kings 15-20. Jotham and Hezekiah were relatively righteous kings who sought to obey God and follow His law, while Ahaz was a wicked king who turned far from God and promoted all kinds of wickedness and injustice and idolatry, even going so far as to sacrifice his own children to a pagan deity. This wickedness spread to the whole nation. In 2 Kings 17:13-14 we see God’s plea with Israel and their response:
Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God.
When God wanted to warn His people He sent His Word, and tragically His Word was ignored, and Israel was conquered and taken captive by the global superpower of the day, Assyria. Friends, this invites us to consider how we respond to God’s Word. When we hear something from the Bible that confronts us, that challenges us, that lays a claim on us, how do we respond to it? Because we all bear God’s image, we all will intuitively find things in God’s Word that are attractive and bracing, that seem to confirm what we already sensed to be true. But also because we are all sinners there are things that we will run into in the Bible that will make us uncomfortable, that will push us.
One of the recurring themes in the book of Micah is the people’s failure to listen to God; in fact, they have such a hard time listening to God that eventually people start making up their own prophesies, telling people what they want to hear, promising them peace and prosperity…so long as they are given a generous donation (Micah 3:5;11). People would rather be financially taken advantage of to hear what they want to hear than to hear God’s Word. That is spiritual lunacy. God knows what is best for you and His Word is for your good, and if you will receive His Word, accept it, and obey it, you will find life.
If we click the zoom lens out one notch on the book of Micah this is made clearly by the two books that right around the book. The book of Micah is found at the center of the twelve minor prophets, which were all originally compiled onto one large scroll, so the order of the books were put together intentionally. The book preceding Micah is the book of Jonah and the book that follows is the book of Nahum. Jonah is about the salvation of the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh, and the book of Nahum is about the destruction of the Assyrian empire and its capital, Nineveh. And in-between is the book of Micah which tells of the nation of Israel abandoning God and His covenant, so God brings the nation of Assyria in to judge and exile Israel. So we have an interesting spectrum across these three books of how God deals with Assyria and Israel, salvation and judgment. And what we see as we look at these three books is that how one responds to God’s Word determines whether or not they will experience God’s blessing/salvation or God’s judgment.
For example, Jonah is told to go to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance. He disobeys and does not listen to God’s Word, and flees. So he experiences God’s judgment in the form of a storm. He eventually goes to Nineveh and preaches God’s message, and Nineveh receives it and the whole city repents, and so they are saved. The book ends with Jonah sulking and angry at God for being so forgiving—throughout the whole book the Assyrians are far more righteous than the one Israelite in the story. Why? Because they received God’s Word, while Jonah continually rejected it. In Micah, we see Jonah’s rejection continue as Israel hardens their heart against God’s Word and so incurs God’s judgment. But then in Nahum we see that Assyria likewise stopped listening to God’s Word and thus experience God’s judgment.
What does this tell us? It tells us that anyone who responds to God’s Word, whoever they are, can be saved—no one is too far from God. Assyria had traditionally been enemies of God’s people (which was why Jonah didn’t want to go there in the first place), but because they responded with genuine faith, they experienced God’s blessing. Friend, wherever you are, whatever you have done, you can respond in simple faith to God’s Word today, and you will experience God’s blessing. And this also tells that anyone who rejects and ignores God’s Word, however religious they may appear to be, will experience God’s judgment.
No one is so righteous that they don’t need Jesus; no one is so lost that they cannot have Jesus.
God’s Word to Us
So Micah speaks hard words to us to serve as a bucket of cold water to wake us up from our spiritual laziness, to expose our convenient sins that we have been quietly indulging. Micah describes his prophetic task clearly:
But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.
God’s people had become spiritually complacent, spiritually disinterested, before eventually becoming spiritually rebellious. Israel’s leaders had begun to abandon God’s clear teachings of the Law, abuse the poor, and exploit the oppressed, all while claiming they were on God’s team.
Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
its priests teach for a price;
its prophets practice divination for money;
yet they lean on the LORD and say,
“Is not the LORD in the midst of us?
No disaster shall come upon us.” – Micah 3:11
God’s people had forgotten what it meant to follow God, so Micah reminds them:
He has told you, O man, 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?
If Israel had lost sight of where exactly the mountain peaks of godliness were located, Micah 6:8 is a flashing, neon sign: this is what godliness looks like. It serves as a humbling gut-check to remind Israel that they are way down the mountain-side. In the Disney movie Frozen, the character Anna has to climb this cliffside. The camera then cuts to her heroically hoisting herself up the cliffside, struggling upwards before she shouts downwards, “Please tell me I’m almost at the top…the air seems pretty thin up here, I must be near the top,” but really, she is only a few feet off the ground. That’s what the religious leaders of Israel were like—they thought they had it, they thought they were near God, when in reality they were only a few feet off the ground, still down in the dark valley of their sin. And friends, that’s often what we are like too. The thundering prophesies of Micah wakes us up to our real spiritual state, showing us how far off we really are.
But (praise God!) this isn’t all Micah offers us. With judgment Micah also promises grace; Micah speaks of Jerusalem being remade into the New Jerusalem, Zion, the heavenly mountain where people from all nations will stream into, and all of creation will be remade and every stain of sin will scrubbed clean (Micah 4:1-5); Micah foretells of a coming Savior who will be born in Bethlehem who will personally shepherd His people and will Himself be their peace (Micah 5:1-5). Micah concludes his book with this wonderful promise:
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
The Gospel Word
In the gospel of John, Jesus is described as the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:14). The dilemma of Micah is the people’s rejection of the Word of the Lord, and that Word was a Word both of judgment and of salvation, the warning and the promise of forgiveness. Jesus shows us that Micah’s Word from the Lord was simply a shadow of the final and lasting Word, Jesus Himself.
Just like Micah, Jesus comes with hard things to say and wonderfully good things to say. Like, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” John 3:16. Life and death are held open before you, eternal joy or eternal perishing.
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
Jesus is inviting us all to turn away from “self and pride” to show us that our “schemes of earthly joy,” our attempts to turn away from His Word and do life on our own are killing us.
We grow as Christians to the degree that we respond to God’s Word.
God’s Word tells us hard things, tells us to give up sin, it humbles us by reminding us that we are not impressive.
God’s Word also tells us really, really good things. When we find our all in God, not in earthly joy, that’s where real joy, real life is found.