Monday, October 21, 2013

A World Purged of Violence [Micah 4.6-5.15] (16 December 2012)

When we had decided on the theme ‘Advent through the eyes of the prophets’, it was clear that we had to deal with some specific passages. And when we decided on the passages, there was one passage I was positively fearing. I did not want to preach on it. So I was quite thankful when Uncle Ricky agreed to preach today. However, my fears returned with newfound relevance when he told me midweek that he would be unable to make it. And then Suresh and Grace are not in town and neither is Uncle Ken. And so guess who suddenly found himself gifted with the pulpit for today!? 

You may wonder what gave rise to this fear. Well, let me just put it out there. Micah is one of the most notoriously difficult books in the Old Testament as far as interpretation is concerned. You all know that I like to pay very close attention to the contexts of scripture. That is an exercise I relish. 

But Micah makes that task unbelievably difficult. Did you not hear it when the scriptures were being read? There are seeming historical references as when Assyria is mentioned. 

But there are other places that are evidently talking about an ahistorical future, such as when the prophet declares that nations will transform their destructive implements into constructive implements – swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. 

Just yesterday we heard about the horrendous atrocity at Connecticut, in which children were slaughtered by a rampaging gunman. So much sorrow to all those parents and to countless others. 

As usual, I looked for what Christian leaders were saying. There were views all across the board. Unfortunately, there were those of the so-called religious right who insisted that this happened at a school because Christian prayer is not allowed in public schools anymore in the US. And my heart was wrenched. No Christian leader should ever be saying such things. Whatever your take on the issue, which of those 5 year olds was guilty? We cannot allow out view of God to make these innocents out to be collateral damage. 

And ironically, it was an atheistic Facebook page that insisted, “The problem was not the absence of God in the school. The problem was the presence of the gun.” That is what all Christian leaders should have been saying, that it is the culture of violence that is to blame. How can we who have this vision of non-violence in scripture not see it? 

Clearly such elements as universal disarmament is a future hope that we should work toward. But a future hope nonetheless. It is something we would love to see happen right? Which of us would not want to be able to walk without fear in this city or anywhere in the world and at any time? Yes, it is something we would love to see happen. But dare we expect it? 

Knowing the human capacity and propensity for evil and violence, we dare not expect that Micah’s vision will become a historical reality. 

But then what of all this talk of Assyria? Assyria was the major power, the super power, in Micah’s day. So the problem with Micah is that there are historical references mingled with what just cannot be historical. And then the problem is, “Who is to decide between the two?” 

But there is an even greater problem. What do we do about the presence of 5.8 in this context? Suddenly, the remnant, which in chapter 4 is said to consist of the lame, suddenly it is a ravaging lion! In 5.4, the deliverer is said to be a shepherd tending for his flock, but suddenly in v.8 the remnant is an out of control lion mauling sheep. 

Furthermore, Micah’s prophecies are remarkably difficult to pin point. Last week, I mentioned how Isaiah’s prophecy about Syria and Israel had actually come to pass. Most of the prophets have this, or at the very least they have some concrete reference to historical happenings. Not so with Micah. If Micah did not tell us he worked during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, we would have no internal evidence for that. Even the references to Assyria are quite vague and difficult to identify in terms of known history. 

In fact, if you read Micah through in one sitting you will find sudden shifts from talk of peace and salvation to talk of war and destruction, without any proper breaks or transitions. One simply blends into the other. And you might come away thinking that God somehow managed to get a hold of a person with some bipolar personality disorder to be his prophet. Prophetic schizophrenia maybe. 

But. There it is. But, if you allow the prophet to have a different strategy, one that includes irony, taunt and ridicule, something else emerges. 

At the beginning of chapter 5, Micah seems to support military action. But he is quoting the words of the contemporary military strategists. If you are under siege, you must brace yourself to withstand the assault. 

But Micah proclaims that it will not amount to anything for the king of Judah would be debased. In the Ancient Near East, you did not slap another person who had the same stature as you. That would bring shame to you, not to the person you slapped. But you were free to slap a slave. So when we read that the king of Israel would be slapped on the cheek, we are to understand that he would be made a servant to Assyria. 

Micah is saying, “Go ahead! Gather the troops. In fact, go all the way so that you become a city in which everyone is a soldier. You will be a city of troops. But it will not help. Assyria will come and thoroughly humiliate you and your king.” 

Micah toys with his audience over and over. Later in chapter 5 he describes how 7 or 8 Israelites would rule over Assyria and how they would deliver Israel from the Assyrians. This is stuff that the people longed to hear. He goes on to describe the ravaging remnant wreaking havoc on the Assyrians. And the people listening to him would have lapped it up. 

Earlier, in chapter 4, he had spoken about Israel breaking many nations. Through all this you can probably imagine the audience, with all their nationalistic fervour saying, “Preach it Micah! Tell it like it is.” 

And then Micah drops the prophetic bomb. As in chapter 4, again in chapter 5, he says, “‘In that day,’ declares the Lord,” And he gives the vision of God doing away with all the things he abhors – the instruments of violence, the trampling of the weak, the exclusion of refugees. 

You would have liked me to have gotten straight to 5.2. But Micah will not allow us. We need to understand what Micah is doing and how. 

His is a glorious vision, of a world purged of violence, of a world in which there is no enmity, of a world in which everyone worships the living God Yahweh, of a world in which there is no one who is marginalized, no one who is rejected, no one who is not whole. 

And in the midst of that marvellous vision he tells us about a ruler. We focus on the place of his birth, Bethlehem. But once again, the birthplace is simply a placeholder. It allowed people through the centuries to answer the question, “Where will the Messiah be born?” It allowed Matthew to quote it about Jesus. 

But Micah 5.2 is not about Bethlehem. Nor it is about the simple fact that there would one day be such a ruler. Rather, it is about the nature of this ruler, his character, his charter. 

This ruler has his origin from of old, says Micah. This is not saying that the ruler pre-existed everything. Why that would be relevant is quite difficult to understand. Pre-existence is no comfort. 

Rather, this is telling us that this ruler is not bound by the cycles of war and vengeance that characterize every other ruler. For, if this ruler has a charter of bringing about universal peace and wholeness, he should be beyond the sway of nationalistic fervour that dictates the actions of all other rulers. Do we not hear hints of Jesus’ words to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” in this? 

We believe this passage refers to Jesus. And rightly so. But only if our understanding of him is such that no one is excluded from the scope of his reign, no one pushed to the fringes of society, no one downtrodden, no one ignored, no one driven to take resort in violence. 

We rightly mourn the deaths of the children who were gunned down on Friday. But what of the millions of children who are starving each day because of unjust national and international policies we support through the paying of our taxes? What of the human rights abuses we support especially this time of year when we buy as gifts products made in sweat shops? What of the millions of people who are dispossessed of their home in order to supply our ever growing demand for more electrical power? 

We rightly mourn the deaths of the children who were gunned down on Friday. But what do we say about the man who wielded the gun? We call him a madman and say that he was a loner and that he was a recluse. What these words declare is that, in our eyes, he was an outsider, not one of us, a person who did not belong. 

In Jesus’ kingdom he would not have had any reason, any need, any compulsion to pick up a weapon. In light of Micah 4 and 5 we should wonder not about that man’s pathologies as about the pathologies we allow to continue in our societies. 

As we get ready to participate in Communion, let us remember that the bread and wine were provided precisely because the ruler from Bethlehem refused to pick a weapon. As we eat and drink let us think of this Advent as a time of renouncing violence in all its forms, for we dare not permit any violence, when it is precisely the renunciation of violence that is depicted here at this table in the bread and wine.