Micah 5:2-5a – He Will Be Our Peace

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Therefore, Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

 And he will be our peace. (New International Version)

An Awful Situation

In the prophet Micah’s day, there was no “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” After the reign of King Solomon, Israel was divided between north and south. Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jerusalem was the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. 

In the eighth-century B.C.E. the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. They deported many of the Israelites and re-populated the cities with their own people.  This is why the Jews in Christ’s day looked down on Samaritans. They pejoratively viewed them as “half-breeds,” a mix of Jewish and Assyrian descent.

The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles; it had a huge impact on the southern kingdom of Judah. Even though Judah had not been conquered, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians. 

The problem was exacerbated with the leadership of Judah seeking to maintain their power and lifestyle. They did not look to God for help and ignored the needs of the people. Judah’s leaders expected the poor common folk to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians. In addition, thousands of refugees from Israel were flooding into Judah and Jerusalem. They had lost their homes, their land, and had nothing but their lives. So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink.

Those in authority and power, the ones with resources to make a difference, didn’t. Instead, they took advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth because people were just trying to survive. In some cases, the leadership leveraged their power by simply pushing people off their own land and taking it over.

There Is Hope

Into this awful situation, Micah prophesied judgment to the leaders oppressing the people – and hope for the poor and the displaced. Micah said a new kind of leader will come – one with humble origins, like the common oppressed people of Judah. The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion. He will feed them and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures. This leader will serve the people.

Christians discern Micah’s prophecy as speaking of Jesus – which is why we look at Scriptures like this one during the season of Advent. Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of security, peace, and goodwill.

Christ’s leadership and power is different than earthly politicians and officials. Over the centuries, Israel and Judah were so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership, that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of anything different. So, Jesus said to them: 

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45, NIV)

A Shepherd Leader Is Coming  

The people of Micah’s day needed to see beyond their terrible circumstances and to realize hope – better days ahead with food, peace, and protection. We, too, feel the insecurity and the anxiety of living in today’s world. We want leaders to be wise and just toward the vulnerable, the poor, and the displaced. Yet, while we look to elections and politicians for hope, the prophet Micah is jumping up and down, pointing us to a different leader – a shepherd leader.

Micah says the shepherd leader will come from Bethlehem. When Micah gave his message, King David had been dead for nearly three-hundred years. The nation had strayed far from those days when David led the people with God’s covenant love and kindness. Yet, another shepherd leader is coming and will bring restoration, renewal, revival, and hope!

“Bethlehem” is two Hebrew words put together: beth is “house,” and, lechem is “bread.” Bethlehem means “house of bread.” God communicated to the people that the coming shepherd leader will provide food and care for them.

The Bread of Life

Jesus is the Bread of Life. He generously feeds us so that we will offer both physical and spiritual bread to others. Jesus satisfies all our hungers and cravings in this life. We may not wonder where our next meal is coming from, nor struggle with going to bed hungry. Yet, we hunger for security in our world, satisfaction in our daily activities, loved ones to know Jesus, and for peace. Our spiritual stomachs growl, hungering for spiritual food. Many are spiritually starving because they are searching for peace and goodwill in everyplace but Jesus.

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40, NIV)

Satisfaction, contentment, and peace have come from the most unlikely sources: Bethlehem and Nazareth. Can anything good come from villages in Judea that don’t even show up on most maps in the ancient world?  Peace, hope, and goodwill can and do come from the least expected places and people. 

Joni Eareckson Tada and Corrie Ten Boom are two women that changed their worlds, despite being ordinary people with weakness. The two of them once met many years ago. Joni remembers the encounter: 

“I relive each moment of my visit with Corrie after she was paralyzed by a stroke. Helpless, and for the most part dependent, I felt our mutual weakness. Yet I am certain neither of us had ever felt stronger. It makes me think of the Cross of Christ–a symbol of weakness and humiliation, yet at the same time, a symbol of victory and strength….  A wheelchair may confine a body that is wasting away. But no wheelchair can confine the soul that is inwardly renewed day by day. For paralyzed people can walk with the Lord. Speechless people can talk with the Almighty. Sightless people can see Jesus. Deaf people can hear the Word of God. And those like Corrie, their minds shadowy and obscure, can have the very mind of Christ.”

The Good Shepherd

Jesus Christ is our peace. He was not born in the halls of power, did not attend the best schools, or make lots of money. Nothing on his earthly resume was remarkable enough for anyone to seek him for any leadership position. And yet, Jesus stands and shepherds the flock in the strength of the Lord, providing everything we need. 

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.” (John 10:14-17, NIV)

Through Jesus there is peace – financial peace, emotional peace, relational peace, social peace, and spiritual peace. Jesus is the One who brings a full-orbed wholeness and wellness to our lives, no matter the situation. Jesus is the shepherd leader who brings peace amidst any and every situation this world throws at us.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:11, NIV)

The prophet Ezekiel prophesied in a similar situation as Micah:

For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered…. They will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:11-16, NIV)

Conclusion

There is something yet we must do. Jesus said:

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent…. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.  This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him…. The person who feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:29, 51-59, NIV)

We are to ingest Jesus. We must be filled with him. Jesus comes into the very depths of our lives to nourish us. Jesus is our food and drink, our peace, our shepherd, and our king. Believing in Jesus is not simply a matter of agreeing with him or being his fan. Faith in Christ means to give our lives to him. The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.

Blessed Lord Jesus, many have strayed far from your flock – taking matters into their own hands and doing things their own way. Many have let their love grow cold and have chosen to feed in pastures that will never satiate their hunger. May they believe that you died on the cross for all the messed up things done, and good things left undone without you.  You rose from death to give them life. Please forgive us all, change our lives, and show us how to know you. Amen.

Amos 9:8-15 – Grace Has the Last Word

The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the face of the earth
    —except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,
says the Lord.

For lo, I will command,
    and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
    but no pebble shall fall to the ground.
All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
    who say, “Evil shall not overtake or meet us.”

On that day I will raise up
    the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
    and raise up its ruins,
    and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
    and all the nations who are called by my name,
    says the Lord who does this.

The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
    when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
    and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
    and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
    and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
    and they shall never again be plucked up
    out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God. (New Revised Standard Version)

Doom and hope. Judgment and grace. Suffering and glory. These are the movements and rhythms of the Old Testament prophets. 

There was injustice aplenty in ancient Israel way back in the eighth-century B.C.E. Not only were the poor and needy in the land trampled upon, but the people in power saw nothing wrong with building their wealth and status by taking advantage of the less fortunate. 

Yet, God was not okay with this state of affairs. Thus, the time was imminent when God would deal with the situation by destroying an inequitable and exclusive way of life in which the privileged enjoyed a lifestyle on the backs of the unprivileged.

The Lord clearly communicated that the people will be sent away to a place with no chance to oppress others. Death would come to many. The oppressors shall die by the sword, even though, in their arrogant inebriation of power, they actually believed disaster wouldn’t ever happen to them.

However, it did. And history shows that the prophecy of Amos came to pass. The Assyrians, a powerful people who had their own egregious sins to deal with before the Almighty, were the instruments of divine judgment upon God’s people. Israel was conquered, the people deported, and the proud oppressors became the lowly oppressed.

Even in such a terrible time for Israel as that, judgment doesn’t have the last word – grace does. God would not completely destroy forever. Restoration, renewal, and fruitful times will come as a result of God’s mercy toward a wayward people. 

The Lord spoke a promise that it will not forever be this way. Rebuilding and restoration will eventually happen. God chooses to act with mercy and demonstrate grace because that is what God does. 

We may often get the wrongheaded notion in our creaturely pea-brained heads that God executes judgment to teach people a lesson or make a point, like some capricious schoolmaster who wraps kids on the knuckles with a ruler when they act up in class. But God acts out of holiness, justice, and grace. The Lord maintains righteous decrees while showing mercy to the undeserving.  

Israel deserved only judgment, not grace. God would have been completely justified to destroy rich and powerful oppressors and never restore or renew them. Yet, be that as it may, this is not how the Lord of the universe operates. God’s grace overwhelms human sin. Grace always has the last word.

Try and understand grace and you will be befuddled. Some things just defy comprehension. Sometimes it’s just best to observe and appreciate. Grace is wildly illogical, nonsensical, and unconditionally free. Grace shows radical acceptance where there ought to be only hell.  

God’s grace is downright scandalous. Whereas we might have a stick-it-to-the-man mentality, God is much bigger than petty petulant posturing. The Lord doesn’t sit in heaven and scheme clever ways to irritate sinners and put them in their place, like some belligerent divine bully.

Rather the Lord of all continually conspires within perfect Love how to guide folks mercifully and gently to Truth – utilizing incredibly diverse tools of divine kindness to woo people to the source of amazing grace.

The height of grace, the pinnacle of restoring the fortunes of Israel, came through a baby, by a humble birth in the small village of Bethlehem. 

Jesus came to save the people from their sins. God acted by entering humanity with free divine love so that there could be new life and fresh hope. Therefore, let grace wash you clean. Allow mercy to renew your life. Let worship of the newborn king shape your season and the New Year.

Gracious God, although you are careful to uphold your great holiness, your mercy extends from everlasting to everlasting. May the gospel of grace form all of my words and actions so that true righteousness reigns in my life through Jesus, your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

Amos 8:4-12 – A Spiritual Famine

Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak,
    you who treat poor people as less than nothing,
Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming
    so I can go out and live it up?
How long till the weekend
    when I can go out and have a good time?”
Who give little and take much,
    and never do an honest day’s work.
You exploit the poor, using them—
    and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.

God swears against the arrogance of Jacob:
    “I’m keeping track of their every last sin.”
God’s oath will shake earth’s foundations,
    dissolve the whole world into tears.
God’s oath will sweep in like a river that rises,
    flooding houses and lands,
And then recedes,
    leaving behind a sea of mud.

“On Judgment Day, watch out!”
    These are the words of God, my Master.
“I’ll turn off the sun at noon.
    In the middle of the day the earth will go black.
I’ll turn your parties into funerals
    and make every song you sing a dirge.
Everyone will walk around in rags,
    with sunken eyes and bald heads.
Think of the worst that could happen
    —your only son, say, murdered.
That’s a hint of Judgment Day
    —that and much more.

“Oh yes, Judgment Day is coming!”
    These are the words of my Master God.
“I’ll send a famine through the whole country.
    It won’t be food or water that’s lacking, but my Word.
People will drift from one end of the country to the other,
    roam to the north, wander to the east.
They’ll go anywhere, listen to anyone,
    hoping to hear God’s Word—but they won’t hear it. (The Message)

Four hundred years of silence….  That’s how long it was between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In that period, there was no word from God. No prophets sent by God. No divine message, at all, of either judgment or grace. There was complete silence from the Lord… until the fullness of time, when the incarnation of Jesus changed everything. Why so long to hear from God?

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to God’s people about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. Those in positions of authority and power in Israel merely looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. A famine was coming – neither about hungering for food in short supply, nor about thirsting for clean water. Instead, there will be a scarcity of hearing words from God. Folks can search far and wide just to get a wordy tidbit or even a crumb of a message from the Lord, but they won’t find it.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some. Justice is the responsibility of everyone, and not just a few.

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

Mother Teresa

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

We live in a day when the poor are often disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact.  In other words, very few people take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. After all, we are busy making money and checking our stocks, and…. 

Oh, my, perhaps we have the answer as to why there is such a lack of revival in the land. The Lord shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore God. No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening to them. For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

God identifies closely with the poor, distressed, and needy. The Lord listens to the lowly. So, we as God’s people, are to share this same concern.

God will rescue the needy person who cries for help
and the oppressed person who has no one’s help.
He will have pity on the poor and needy
and will save the lives of the needy. (Psalm 73:12-13, GW)

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished. (Proverbs 17:5, NLT)

Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the Lord, and the Lord will fully repay them. (Proverbs 19:17, CEB)

If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13, NRSV)

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who turn a blind eye will be greatly cursed. (Proverbs 28:27, CEB)

Give your food to the hungry
    and care for the homeless.
Then your light will shine
    in the dark;
your darkest hour will be
    like the noonday sun. (Isaiah 58:10, CEV)

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1, NIV)

 Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21, CEB)

 If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. (1 John 3:17-18, GNT)

We already have words from God. What will we do with them?…

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all in this season of anticipation.  Amen.

Amos 6:1-8 – Against Complacency

Woe to you who think you live on easy street in Zion,
    who think Mount Samaria is the good life.
You assume you’re at the top of the heap,
    voted the number-one best place to live.
Well, wake up and look around. Get off your pedestal.
    Take a look at Calneh.
Go and visit Great Hamath.
    Look in on Gath of the Philistines.
Doesn’t that take you off your high horse?
    Compared to them, you’re not much, are you?

Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster!
    Catastrophe is just around the corner!
Woe to those who live in luxury
    and expect everyone else to serve them!
Woe to those who live only for today,
    indifferent to the fate of others!
Woe to the playboys, the playgirls,
    who think life is a party held just for them!
Woe to those addicted to feeling good—life without pain!
    those obsessed with looking good—life without wrinkles!
They could not care less
    about their country going to ruin.

But here’s what’s really coming:
    a forced march into exile.
They’ll leave the country whining,
    a rag-tag bunch of good-for-nothings.

God, the Master, has sworn, and solemnly stands by his Word.
    The God-of-the-Angel-Armies speaks:

“I hate the arrogance of Jacob.
    I have nothing but contempt for his forts.
I’m about to hand over the city
    and everyone in it.” (The Message)

A fool is one who either cannot or will not see that their personal actions have communal ramifications. Arrogant people are shortsighted, and when there is no immediate consequence to their selfish actions, they quickly assume everything is okay.

Perhaps we are fools – not so much because of any heinous sins – but because of our great indifference toward the mass of humanity across the world, as well as the neighbor across the street.

If there is any foolishness with the Christian, I submit to you that it could likely be because we believers have abjectly avoided the Old Testament minor prophets as some anachronistic judgment of the past which has little to do with living in today’s New Testament grace.

It is high time that Christians, especially Western Christians, take the entirety of their Bibles seriously through a hard examination of the prophet Amos.

“Morally, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself; in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Those with power and privilege nearly always believe that what is good for themselves is good for everybody else. In their pride, they either cannot or will not look under the ghost of Christmas Present’s robe. The boy Ignorance, and the girl Want, are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, for the foolish person of indifference.

The issue is not one of actually possessing wealth and influence. After all, the Lord God is wealthy and influential beyond anything we can imagine. The real issue is how we have obtained such things and whether we seek to use them for the common good of all people, and not just for myself or people just like me.

It will not do to be a simpleton and toss out flippant phrases such as, “If they want money they can get a job,” “They’re just lazy and unmotivated,” “The government takes plenty from me for those people,” “They could be self-sufficient if they really wanted to,” “They should be happy that I give them a [minimum wage] job,” “The poor are uneducated…addicts…drug seekers…unreliable…” And on the blustering goes, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Those, and many more statements like them, are nothing more than mere projections of the privileged few upon the masses. Truth is that addiction, debt, ingratitude, and laziness are marks of the rich and powerful in the same way you can find them anywhere. What’s more, projecting and deflecting are endemic of the mind that either cannot or will not engage in critical thinking and avoid logical fallacies.

Such persons are unaware that their luxurious eating and drinking in the dining room of the Titanic will suddenly be their last meal. Their complacency is their ruin.

Many of us tend to see the sins of others rather than our own sins. So, reading Amos, we may reflexively think of “those people’s sins, back then,” or, the sins of “other people.” Yet, as Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount, when we interpret the law, we should first examine the logs in our own eyes, rather than starting with the slivers in our neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

The place to begin with giving Amos an honest hearing, is to look inwardly at our own shadow selves. The lack of self-awareness is the beginning of all callousness, complacency, and conceit.

“Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it.”

Carl Jung

There are two practices which can help illumine our inner person, thus opening the way to greater compassion for others:

  1. Listen to your self-talk. What’s going on in your mind? Is it a series of negative thoughts that make you feel like crud? Or do you also consider gratitude and positive thoughts? Take a couple of minutes each day to sit in silence and listen to the tone of your inner voice. It might even help to write down your thoughts so that you can get a better idea of what they are truly like. If we cannot listen to ourselves, we won’t be able to listen to the voice of others – which means we’ll never really understand other people.
  2. Pay attention to your feelings. Emotions are barometers of how we are truly doing, as well as flags which signal what we are supposed to be paying attention to.For example, a warm feeling in your face might mean you’re embarrassed; ‘butterflies’ in your stomach can mean you’re nervous; or clenching your teeth might mean you’re angry. Stuffing emotions or trying to avoid them will inevitably lead to hardness of heart.

I suggest focusing on these two practices while you are reading the prophet Amos. That’s because reading the prophets never leaves us the same. They evoke lots of self-talk and plenty of emotion. This is the path to better understanding the prophet’s message.

God of the prophets, and of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. Give us the grace and awareness to see the abundance of our world and to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are in need. We ask for your intervention on behalf of every person hungry for earthly food and hungry for the taste of the Spirit of God.

We give thanks that we can be part of your compassion for all people. This world is blessed with enough food for every person to eat and be satisfied. And we can all feed on the bread of Christ, as God makes a home in our hearts. We are in awe and wonder your great love for us, that we are invited and urged to participate with you in the care of our brothers and sisters. In the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.