There is a text that ricochets through my mind and soul when I think about our faith family. The words bouncing off of every emotion and thought in my heart and brain. Igniting excitement, desperation, hope, yearning, confidence, and repentance. Wrenching my gut and freeing my imagination. The passage begins,
With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with offerings, with calves a year old?
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?
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
- Micah 6:6-8
It is this last verse which most of us know, or at least sounds familiar as we listen. Micah 6:8 is actually etched in the Library of Congress above the figure of religion. It may be the most condensed expression of practical theology authored in the Old Testament. You’ll notice this verse written on the walls of our home, and you’ll hear it said—almost—every morning as I leave for the day, translated for Cohen and Lily as, ‘Do what mommy says today, be kind to one another today, and remember that God is in charge of everything today.’
And yet, it is the verses 6-7 that bring both the weight and the freedom of verse 8. Exposed by suffering, left in the elements as the pitiless storm, feeling the gravity of sin; the people turn to what they think God wants of them, what they conceive of God desiring for their lives.
What does God want? Obedience to the rules of course. They offer the best of sacrifices—the choicest calves at the choicest of times (Lev. 9:3)—adherence to routine religion. Is not this what God wants of you and I? To keep the rules, to go to church, to read our bibles, to pray, to repent when we sin, and be generally a good person? Is that not we offer God as a good life?
No? God doesn’t want my routine religion. He wants something else. Perhaps it is not the quality of the sacrifice but the quantity.
Okay, well then, what about a thousand rams and ten thousand rivers of oil? Are those not the right peace offerings (Lev. 5:15, 2:1, 4, 15)? Surely, if we just do more of what we know, then God will be pleased. If I tithe always and even beyond 10%, if I read my bible and pray every day, if I go to multiple bible studies, listen to the best podcast sermons and primarily surround myself with people who love God. Surely that is what God wants for me. Right?
No? God doesn’t just want me to be more religious. He wants something else. Perhaps it is not the quality or the quantity but extremity of the sacrifice that matters.
Okay then, well what if I sacrifice everything for God. My firstborn. The very thing I desire the most, the thing in which my future rests. Surely then, God will be pleased. That is what life is about. Giving up my desires and my dreams for God. Giving God everything. Doing, going, releasing everything—surely that is what is good, that is what life is all about.
No? God does not want my routine religion, or more religion, or even extreme sacrifices—especially one’s that we make up on our own. Then what does God want? What does God want of me? What does he want me to do?
You see why this text pings every emotion and challenges every thought concerning life with God don’t you?! Only the last offering is out of bounds. A silly extreme never requested which is actually a detestable sin. The other offerings are simply how most would describe a faithful or good life.
Like the people of Israel, and like you, I want to live a life of faithfulness. A good life in relation to God, others and the world. Yet, this text concisely exposes the truth that often enough what I think is a good and faithful life with God is indeed not so. For, like you, I am prone to focus more on the quality, quantity, and extremity of my religious behaviors than on the opportunities for faithful living directly in front of me.
Jesus responds to the quantity, quality and extremity offerings of the religious in his time circa Micah 6:8,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former
- Matthew 23:23
Only when the people are stripped of what they think God requires of them—the religion they have known and the religion that they have made up on their own—are they able to hear what it actually is that the LORD requires of them, what God says is the good life for them to lead in this very moment in history.
To do justice—not merely acknowledge what is right and wrong, but to act accordingly. To treat people with fairness and to do the right thing, even when it is easier not to.
To love kindness, to act mercifully towards all, and especially for those in need. To have a disposition of compassion; and a loyalty, commitment, and devotion in your love—towards God and others.
To walk humbly with God. One commentator gets closer to the Hebrew, quoting Micah as saying, ‘walk carefully with your God’. Paying attention to how you walk in the ways of God. In other words, as on translator notes, ‘And don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.’
To take God seriously and thus live justly and kindly today. That is what I long for you, for myself, my family and our faith family. To let what you think God wants of you, what you think you can give to God be stripped away so that you might live freely and courageously ‘for such a time as this’. To be who God has made you to be, in the place he has set you to live, among the people God has grafted you into.
Everything we do and do not do as a faith family is steered by this desire. For you to be a person, amongst a people, who takes God seriously and lives accordingly in your home, your neighborhood, and your workplace. A person who does not abandon religious behaviors but whose life bears the fruit of pure religion.
And that is what the stories of the men and women in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel show us. Have you noticed that over the last couple of weeks of reading? These men and women resolved to take God seriously and acted justly and kindly in response to who they were; in the moments which they lived. Some with plans, many simply making decisions as life came at them. Some with projects, most without a long term vision, only sure hope that God had a future for them.
What has stood out about the lives of these men and women?
A few were prophets and priests, but most were not. Yet all made the choice to take God seriously and in so doing, did what was right, loved kindness and were careful to follow the way of God amidst a culture that did not believe like them or share their values.
We see this in the bold (both in the initiation of the work and the continuing in the face of opposition) and generous (5:1-19) leadership of Nehemiah. When he heard of the struggles in Jerusalem, he acted with loyal compassion, to do what was right. Humbly recognizing his sin, the sin of his people, and the heart and sovereignty of God (1:1-11). Using his influence not to overturn the culture he served, but to freely and courageously do what was just and kind for the sake of his people and his God.
We see this courage and freedom as a response to taking God seriously in the exchange between Mordecai and his adopted cousin Esther in 4:13-17.
We see this courage and freedom in response to taking God seriously in the governmental work of Daniel. Seeing his just and kind exhortation of the king Nebuchadnezzar in 4:24-27.
Each of these characters responded to the time and place which they recognized God had determined them to exist by doing what was just with a loyal devotion to kindness right then and there.
One of the striking difference between the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and others, and the stories of the exile generation is that they are not as well rounded as the early stories. Meaning, they don’t let us in on the character struggles of the forefathers of the faith. These stories are trying to get us to focus on something different. They want us to see something different about these people; mainly what they did and did not do when they took God seriously.
We’ll look specifically at what they did not do and why, next week. But for today, let’s ask the question of ourselves in light of their stories; what needs to be stripped away from us in order that we might actually live courageous and free in Jesus today?
What religious routine are you holding onto to offer to God as your faithfulness? What religious exaggeration are you endeavoring to give God as evidence of your good life? What sacrificial extreme are you self-dedicating to God as holy in desperation or out of arrogance?
One author, commenting on Micha 6:8, says,
…this saying is not an invitation, in lieu of the gospel, to save oneself by kindly acts of equity and fairness. Nor is it an attack on the forms of sacrifices and [religious] acts mentioned in the tabernacle and temple instructions. It was instead a call for the natural consequence of truly forgiven men and women to demonstrate the reality of their faith by living it out in the marketplace. Such living would be accompanied with acts and deeds of mercy, justice and giving of oneself for the orphan, the widow and the poor.
What James calls pure and undefiled religion (1:22-27). A way of following Jesus that does not offer religious acts as sacrifice or proof of a good life, but whose religious acts compel a life a good life of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
As forgiven men and women, who have been shown what is right in the life of Jesus, who have been shown tremendous kindness in the death of Jesus, and who have been made children of God through his resurrection:
What justice are we failing to do? What kindness are we failing to show? Are we taking ourselves too seriously and God not seriously enough?
 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Hard Sayings of the Bible, 228.