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Act Justly

For the next three Sundays our sermons will come from one verse. One verse in a little book in the Old Testament that I’ll bet most of us have barely opened, if at all. The verse is Micah 6:8.

Micah was a prophet. Prophets were people specially anointed with the Spirit of God to speak for the Lord to people. Micah was a minor prophet. He was a minor prophet not because he was less important. In the Old Testament major prophets are prophets whose writings we have the most of: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. All those smaller books that come after are minor prophets because we just have less of their words.

Many people associate prophecy with prediction, but that is not always the case, especially in the Old Testament. Old Testament prophets didn’t just predict things about the future. Perhaps more than anything they spoke to the times.

The Lord especially used his prophets when his people – who he loved and was jealous for – were forgetting about him and forgetting about the unique and precious relationship they had with the Lord. Prophets often preached to kings and those in power warning them about doing what was wrong in the sight of the Lord.

And there is one verse in the book of Micah that really packs a punch. We are going to dig in to this one verse.

Are you like me and sometimes you just need this whole God-thing “idiot-proofed”? You need all the complexities stripped down and just need a simple word about how to live for God? Something basic, simple and plain. Micah 6:8 does that.

It is one of those basic verses that gets right to the heart of what God wants from you and me. It’s one of those verses you underline in your Bible, even commit to memory and come back to, again and again.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

We are going to unpack this over the next three Sundays. Three Sundays? Yes, there is plenty and more right here.

Micah asks the question with what and how should he come before the Lord? In other words, what does God want? What makes God happy? What stokes God’s fire?

In the Old Testament times, before Jesus became our perfect and once and for all sacrifice, the people of God made periodic sacrifices for forgiveness, to express thanksgiving, and to remain in relationship with the Lord.

There were all kinds of offerings a person could bring to the priest that the priest would then offer to God as a sacrifice on behalf of that person: Sin offerings. Guilt offerings. Peace offerings. Thank offerings.

And so Micah asks, should I bring a whole bunch of offerings? Maybe even a calf only one-year old. A one-year old calf was considered a prime sacrifice to bring to God.

Then Micah ups the ante a little. Maybe I should bring thousands of rams to the Lord. Wow. How impressive that would be. Neighbors would see the smoke for miles away. That would probably make God really happy.

Then Micah goes even a little further wondering if he should offer ten thousand rivers of oil. He is getting a little silly here, since to do such a thing would be impossible. But Micah is going somewhere with this.

He goes from silly to absurd when he asks if offering his first-born child for his sin would make God happy. To offer the very fruit of his life would surely demonstrate his loyalty, commitment, and devotion to God.

This was not a suggestion that child-sacrifice was acceptable to God. The Bible is firmly against it. There were cultures that practiced such evil and the Lord always condemned it. Micah is purposely being outlandish and ridiculous to make the point.

After going through all of these things he says that the Lord has shown what is good and what the Lord requires.

God has spoken. We aren’t in the dark about what God wants of us. There is no ignorance. There is no guesswork. God has shown what he wants. And there are three basic things that God is looking for in men and women:

Act justly.

Love mercy (or kindness).

Walk humbly with your God.

We are going take each one of those three things over these next three Sundays so that we can understand how to do what God requires of us. We begin this morning with acting justly.

Act justly. Or do justice.

Justice is something that is done. Justice is not just something you think about or hope for. We do it. It shows in real life actions.

To be just is to be fair. In the Bible justice is taking care of the orphan and the widow, to share our food with the hungry, to provide shelter for the wanderer, to clothe the naked, to not show favoritism, or take bribes or cheat.

Justice is not an obscure concept in God’s mind. Acting justly is something God wants passionately.

To ancient Israel the Lord said, “Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.”[1]

In Psalm 37 David says, “the Lord loves justice…”[2]

One of the names for God in the Bible is the Just One.[3]

God is all about fairness.

The Lord would often say through the prophets that there is no reason to worship him if our lifestyle isn’t going to reflect what the Lord wants. He was wearied and burdened by his people’s sacrifices. He didn’t want to listen to their prayers. He didn’t want to hear their songs. “What, Lord, you don’t want us to sing How Great Thou Art?” And the Lord responded, “not if your lifestyle is wrong.” “Not if you aren’t acting justly.”

In Isaiah the Lord says, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”[4]

Through Amos, another minor prophet like Micah, the Lord said:

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!”[5]

You see, people were going to the temple and worship services, but justice and righteousness were not finding a way into their daily life and relationships. So God could not stand their worship.

Jesus in a scathing sermon against the religious leaders of his day calls them hypocrites. He calls them hypocrites because they make sure they tithe and keep up religious appearances, but they neglect, what he calls, the more important matters of the law. And Jesus names those weightier things of the law; he says they are justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

And then he says that the Pharisees are blind guides. Blind guides lead people in the wrong direction, obviously, because they can’t see. Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. Jesus is making an obvious overstatement to illustrate a point: the religious leaders had become lost in the minute details of little significance while neglecting the big and important things in what God wants.

God wants more than just empty rituals on Sundays. He wants more than our voices. He wants more than a well-developed prayer life. He wants more than what we put in the offering plate. He wants more than reading our Bibles. He wants more than an hour a week.

The Lord wants us to act justly. He wants people to be treated fairly. He wants hungry people fed, the vulnerable taken care of, those who are hurting given compassionate care, wrongs to be made right.

If you have never read the prophets, I highly encourage you to do so. There are about 20 passages like this.

What does the Lord want? He doesn’t want any thing. He wants us. You. Me. He wants our lives to be offered and used for him.

God save us from thinking sitting in a church for about one hour on Sunday morning is what God wants, and that we can be so proud of our commitment to him when we do that.

If what we do on Sundays doesn’t awake us from our complacency, if it doesn’t get me out of myself and into God and others, if doesn’t point me to a world that suffers with need, then maybe God would say to us,

Get your prayers away from me. Get your songs away from me. Keep your offering.

I want justice. I want you to have a heart for the hurting world.

If justice and righteousness can’t find its way into your daily life and your relationships then I don’t need this.

True worship isn’t a program that entertains us, but something that makes us more in touch with the heart of God.

The word “justice” has the sense of “straightness” to it. In construction, to justify something is to make sure it is straight. To be just is to be straight, to be fair, not crooked.

When John the Baptist came preparing the way for Jesus he took the words of the prophet Isaiah and said that he was coming to make the crooked paths straight.[6] When the people asked John how that worked and what the Lord required of them he said if you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one. If you have food and you see someone who doesn’t, share it. He said don’t steal, don’t accuse people falsely, and be content.

That’s pretty simple. Nothing complicated there. Sometimes acting justly is taking from our abundance and sharing it with others.

One of Jesus’ most convicting and compelling teachings was about when the Son of Man, the King, comes back with all his angels and every person stands before him. And the King will welcome some to enter into his kingdom.

Because I was hungry and you fed me,

thirsty and you gave me drink,

homeless and you gave me a room,

shivering and you gave me clothes,

sick and you stopped to visit,

in prison and you came to me.

They will ask, “when did we ever see you in any of these ways and do this for you?” The King will say, “Whenever you did this to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.” “You acted justly.”

Then we will turn to others and cast them away from his presence to the fires of hell. Why? Jesus will say,

Because I was hungry and you gave me no meal,

thirsty and you gave me no drink,

homeless and you gave me no bed,

shivering and you gave me no clothes,

sick and in prison, and you never visited.

They will say, “What are you talking about? We never saw you and didn’t help.”

And he will answer them, “Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me you failed to do it to.”[7]

Acting justly honors the King, who is Jesus Christ. Acting justly is what he wants us to do.

I heard of a church that some years ago did what the Lord required of them. They acted justly. And it was a Presbyterian Church! It was a suburban church in Wichita, Kansas that planned an ambitious church building program that would cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Man, it was going to be something. Plans were drawn up. A campaign launched. All systems were go.

Then a devastating earthquake hit Guatemala destroying thousands of homes and buildings. Several churches lost their buildings. A lot of these communities in that country didn’t have a lot to begin with.

At the next meeting of the Session one of the elders asked, “How can we buy a Cadillac church when our brothers and sisters in Guatemala have just lost their little Volkswagen?”

The elders on that session responding with faith and justice, cut their building-program by nearly two-thirds. Then they sent the pastor and two elders to Guatemala to see how they could help.

When the team returned and reported about the great need, the church took out a loan from the bank and rebuilt twenty-six Guatemalan churches and twenty-eight pastors’ houses.

The church had the courage to ask if it was right to spend millions on church construction when so many had so little. I’m glad the church looks good. An attractive church building is good. But I would just as soon let the paint peel on the walls, the carpet wear, and the weeds go if it means feeding a village that is on the verge of starvation.

In Micah the Lord has told us what is good and what the Lord requires. We aren’t in the dark. There is no guessing.

First on God’s list is acting justly.

Next Sunday: Loving mercy.

Prayer: God, give us the faith to act justly. Make us aware of others. Help us to see what is crooked that needs to be made straight.


[1] Deuteronomy 16:20 [2] 37:28 [3] Is. 26:7 [4] Isaiah 1:17 [5] Amos 5:24 [6] Matthew 3:3, Isaiah 40:3 [7] Matthew 25:31-46

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