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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 12/23/2018

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent Christmas Eve is just a day away and the lessons today do bring us closer to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The gospel reading is the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, so the births of John the Baptist and of Jesus are on the horizon. Along with that, in place of the psalm we get the beautiful words of Mary’s Magnificat, another reminder of the one to be born.

However, there is still one more Advent prophet to consider. We’ve heard from Jeremiah, we’ve heard from Malachi and Zephaniah. Today we get Micah with words about one from Bethlehem who is to rule in Israel, one who will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord. Those too are words that can be understood as bringing us closer to Christmas. The imagery Micah uses certainly sounds like a foretelling of the coming of Jesus with the mention of Bethlehem and one in labor giving birth.

It does get interpreted that way and it is a legitimate interpretation, one that does fit quite nicely as we anticipate Christmas. It’s a good interpretation, from a Christian perspective you could say it’s the best interpretation; but there are also good reasons for not jumping to that interpretation right away and instead to take some time to consider the when and why of Micah’s prophecy and what else it might say.

What we believe about the prophets is that they proclaimed the word of the Lord in response to what was going on in their world. What we believe about the word of the Lord though, is that it is not limited to one particular time and place but that it transcends time and can have meaning in many times and places. That’s why it is perfectly legitimate to interpret a text like today’s “Christologically” as we say, that is to let it tell us something about Jesus, but we should also be open to other possible interpretations.

While Micah’s words can be understood as Holy Spirit inspired words announcing the coming of Jesus, he wouldn’t have known that. It’s not like he or any of the prophets were looking into a crystal ball with the goal of predicting things that would happen hundreds of years later. They spoke out of and into a particular historical situation. What would have been on Micah’s mind was what was going on in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah some 800 years before Christ. They were under threat from Assyria, the superpower of the region at that time.

From Micah’s perspective, they were under threat because of straying from the ways of the Lord. In particular Micah railed against moral and social abuse along with the worship of false gods. Looking at the whole book of Micah you get more detail on what was going on: those with power were taking land and inheritance from the poor, evicting widows from their homes, fixing scales and weights to cheat customers, taking bribes and officially endorsing the worship of Baal rather than the Lord. Besides the rich and powerful, Micah also took aim at other prophets and religious leaders whose primary goal was to serve themselves, regardless of the needs of others, ignoring the truth of what was going on.

As is the case with other prophetic books, Micah goes back and forth between threats of punishment and promises of salvation. From his perspective the Assyrian threat was a consequence of straying from the ways of the Lord, thus the need for punishment. But again, as is typical in the prophets, the threat of punishment was not the last or only word; the prospect of hope is also there. For Micah, the promises of hope and salvation include verses like today’s with the promise of a savior who will bring peace. He also gives us the familiar image of swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. One can’t help but immediately think of Jesus on hearing these verses and from the beginning that is how the Christian tradition has interpreted them.

The gospels represent one of the first layers of interpretation regarding Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and they do make direct use of this imagery from Micah. In Matthew’s birth narrative the Wise Men went to Jerusalem and asked King Herod where they could find the child who had been born who was the King of the Jews. Herod, not liking the idea of someone other than him being king, called in his advisors to find out where such an idea would have come from and where such a king might be born. The advisors then reminded Herod of this text from Micah that mentions Bethlehem as the place from which a ruler who is to shepherd the people of Israel is to come. The text from Micah is also recalled in John where it says, “Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem?”

Clearly there are Messianic, Jesus connections to be made here and two days before Christmas we could certainly leave it at that. But there’s another verse from Micah that is worth mentioning as we think about today’s verses and how they might be interpreted in Micah’s time, in New Testament times and in our time. The verse is fairly well known, I think, and is something of a summary of all Micah has to say. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”

It’s one of my favorite Bible verses and it too can be seen to have a Jesus connection as it’s also a pretty good summary of his teaching and it connects with Mary’s words from the Magnificat, words that obviously have a Jesus connection being about justice, mercy and care for the least of these.

It’s a verse that can be understood as providing more evidence for a Christological interpretation of today’s verses. But we also remember that the word of the Lord transcends time thus opening Micah’s verses to other times and situations with the reminder that our God is a God of justice, kindness and humility who is present and active not just in the past, but today. We’re also reminded that we are called to grow in likeness to this God through our own acts of justice, kindness and humility.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we’re in the final hours of our Christmas preparation. In the Lutheran Church we don’t observe Advent so much as Winter Lent anymore, but the theme of repentance as part of our preparation is still there. Today’s readings do bring us closer to Christmas joy, but thinking about the prophecy of Micah in its fullness, while being reminded of the gift of a Savior, we’re also given one last Advent reminder of the life to which that Savior calls us.

It’s that reminder that represents the timelessness of Micah’s prophecy. The truth of what he says is as much about the life we are called to as it is about foretelling the birth of Jesus. The life we are called to though, is made possible by the birth, by God becoming human and restoring our broken relationship, making possible the restoration of the divine image in which we were created.

Throughout the entire Bible, the story told is about restored relationships and new possibilities, possibilities made possible by God’s love and faithfulness. We’re close now to the celebration of one of the defining stories of God’s love and faithfulness. With today’s lessons, we’re not just closer to the celebration, we’re also closer to what it means.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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