If you had been around London in 1871, the news event that everyone was talking about was the court case of Tichborne v Lushington. The background to the case is complex, but it boiled down to one thing: was the claimant really Roger Tichborne, the heir to a wealthy Hampshire family? Roger had gone traveling to South America in 1853, but went missing the following year after the shop he was in was wrecked. His mother, years later, heard a rumour that he had made his way to Australia, and placed newspaper adverts to track him down. A man claiming to be Roger was found, and made his way back to England.
Although the mother quickly recognised the man as her son, none of the other family members did. His knowledge of Roger Tichborne’s childhood was patchy, and he spoke English with an East London accent, whereas Roger’s first language was French. As you’ve probably already guessed, the court case was not a success. The man was bankrupted, and later found guilty of perjury.
Our passage this morning opens with another court case. This one is also about recognition of a person. In this case, though, it is not the person’s identity which is under dispute, but their character. God is laying a charge against his people for failing to recognise his true character.
Before we get to that, though, we need a bit of background. The book of Micah is not an easy one to read. I don’t mean that it is particularly hard to understand; in fact the general message is pretty clear. Rather, it is that the prophet’s message is not a pleasant one to listen to. The first three chapters describe how God’s people have disobeyed him by living unjust lives and by mistreating one another. As a result, they face God’s judgement, a judgement which will be terrible to behold.
Chapters 4 and 5 provides a glimmer of hope, as Micah foretells a leader, a messiah, who will restore God’s people. But even that restoration will be incredibly painful.
And now, in chapter 6, God wants to correct the wrong thinking which led to the wrong behaviour. The Bible is clear that what we think about God really matters, because it determines how we behave towards God. We need to get it right, otherwise we will mistreat God. And so God wants us to see that he is not a tyrant, that he cannot be bought, and that he deserves our whole lives.
1. God is not a tyrant
Our passage opens at verse 1 in the courtroom. God is the prosecutor, and he is bringing a charge against his people. They are called to appear before a jury of the mountains themselves, as impartial witnesses to everything that God has been doing since the creation of the world.
The charge being brought is one of slander. The people have made God out to be a tyrant. And so God wants them to look at the evidence of how he has treated them, to see that that opinion is not justified.
God says to them, “Remember your history!”. “Remember that your forefathers were subject to a tyrannical leader, as slaves in Egypt!” “Remember that I,” says God, “brought an end to that slavery and set you free. I led you out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses and Aaron to the land I gave you.” “Remember,” says God, “how Balak king of Moab wanted to curse you, and how Balaam the prophet answered him, that he could not curse the people that God has blessed.”. The history shows that God has not oppressed his people. God is not a tyrant.
We have that same evidence available for us. In fact, as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans, we can tell that God is not a tyrant, simply by looking at creation: “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
On top of that, we are able to read the same history that Micah refers to, in our Bibles. We can see for ourselves how God treated his people.
As Christians, though, we have even stronger evidence that God is not a tyrant. A tyrant oppresses people for his or her own benefit. But God sent his own Son to be oppressed, and to die for our sins, for our benefit. He is our generous and loving Father. As Paul writes later in the letter to the Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
I once worked for a guy who liked to micromanage me. He would go over all my work with a red pen, changing every word so that it was in his words, not mine. He also liked to drop unreasonable demands on his staff at the last minute. I’m not sure that I would call him a tyrant, exactly, but he wasn’t much fun to work for. And so it was always a relief when this boss went away on business trips, and I could just get on with my work without interference. Maybe you’ve experienced the same or worse, at work or with a partner at home?
We need to be careful that we don’t start to think of God like that. You see, if we think of God as a tyrant, then we won’t worship him. We might obey him, because we’re scared of him, or even because we know that he is right, but we’ll always be looking for a chance to get away, to escape for a little while. When obedience becomes difficult, when he asks us to do something we don’t like, then we won’t believe that he has our best interests at heart.
God is not a tyrant. He has shown that throughout history. And so we can trust him for the future.
2. God cannot be bought
The second way that the Israelites in Micah’s day have got their worship wrong, is in thinking that God can be bought. Micah takes up the argument himself in verses 6 and 7.
It seems that the people were treating sacrifices made to God in the Temple as a kind of “get out of jail free card”. As long as they made a sacrifice, they were untouchable, and could do whatever they liked. They were acting like the crime lord in a gangster movie. You know what I mean? - they’ve paid off the police force and judge, and now they swagger around town breaking any law they want, knowing that no-one can call them to account.
And then Micah comes along like the crime-busting FBI agent, to point out that, however much they have sacrificed, it wouldn’t be enough to provide that sort of immunity from God. God is not susceptible to bribery. God cannot be bought.
We see this in the exaggerated language that Micah uses. He’s saying, “What do you think God’s price would be? One sheep? One hundred? A thousand? A river of oil? Ten thousand rivers? Your firstborn son?” Of course not. It’s ridiculous to think that the Lord of creation could be bought off by giving back to him the things that he has given us.
Now, Micah is not saying that there is anything wrong with offering these sacrifices. The temple sacrifices were not a human invention; they were God’s idea. Back in Exodus 29, shortly after giving Moses the 10 Commandments, God told him how a sacrifice was to be offered each day to make atonement for the sins of the people. Throughout the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on the instructions that God has given, for sacrifices to be given in different situations, so that people’s relationships with the living God could be restored. The problem, in Micah’s day, was that people had the wrong attitude to their sacrifices. They were acting as though their sacrifices put them in a position of authority over God.
In the same way, Micah is not saying that we shouldn’t come to church. There are plenty of other places in the Bible that tell Christians that we should meet together to worship God and to encourage each other. But Micah’s words remind us that we haven’t done God a favour by coming to church, as if he was now in our debt. Regardless of whether you’ve been coming here your whole life, or this is your first visit, thank you for coming, and you are very welcome here. But please don’t think that your being here gives you any special privileges with God.
This is something that the apostle Paul came to understand for himself. Before he met with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road, he had ticked all the right boxes. Surely God would be impressed with him!? But he writes in his letter to the Philippians: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
God cannot be bought, the price is too high. Nothing we could do could ever be enough to put the Lord of heaven in our debt.
But the good news is that we have no need to buy God’s favour. If we are Christians, Jesus has already bought it for us. He paid for it with his own blood. And so, as Romans chapter 8 says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”
God cannot be bought. We cannot do it, and we have no need to do it. Jesus has already done everything for us.
If we are to worship God, we need to remember that he is not a tyrant, but a generous creator. We need to remember that we cannot buy God’s favour with the things that we do. And thirdly, and finally, we need to remember that God deserves our whole lives.
3. God deserves our whole lives
If God was a tyrant, then we be looking for ways to get out from under his control. We might obey outwardly, but in our hearts we would resent him.
If God could be bought, then we would stop serving him once we had paid the price. We might make an effort on a Sunday, but then forget about him the rest of the week.
But how do we worship our God who is loving and generous, who gave his own Son so that we could know him? Micah says that we need to serve him with every area of our lives.
We must act justly. Because God is just and fair, and because we serve him with our whole lives, we should make sure to treat others fairly. That might mean not cheating our employer or our customers, by rounding up expense claims or our timesheet, even if everyone else is doing it. It might mean letting the supermarket cashier know when they accidentally give us too much change. It might mean giving a work colleague the benefit of the doubt, when they suggest a course of action that we don’t agree with. It might mean changing the subject when a friend starts to gossip about a neighbour.
We must love mercy. We should be slow to accuse others of wrongdoing, and quick to accept an apology. We should be looking out for the rights and wellbeing of others, and slow to insist on our own rights or comfort. Although we are to act justly ourselves, we should not always be looking to get justice at the expense of mercy. Our God has been merciful to us, sparing us the punishment that we deserve, by giving that punishment to his son instead. And so we should be ready to forgive others.
And we must walk humbly with the Lord, ready to let him guide our thoughts and actions. We must read the Bible, to understand God’s character and how his people should act. We should pray regularly for help in living lives which honour God. We should humbly listen and be ready to change our ways when God’s word corrects us. And we should be slow to overturn centuries of Christan teaching simply to fit in with our culture.
Because God cannot be bought with our actions on a Sunday, that means that no area of our lives is off-limits to God. We are to honour God by what we do in our private lives or what we think to ourselves, just as we are when we are singing hymns in church, our talking together over tea and coffee after the service. If you’re a Christian, can I encourage you to examine your life, and make sure that you are bringing every part under God’s rule?
Because God is not a tyrant, we must accept that he knows what is best for us when he tells us that sex should be reserved for a marriage between one man and one woman. Because God is not a tyrant, we must not act as if we deserve more than he has given us, or as if our own comfort were more important than pleasing God. Can I encourage you to examine your attitude to God, and to make sure that you are willing to trust what he is saying to you, and to obey?
Because our whole lives matter to God, we must honour him with our finances just as much as we should with our beliefs. Throughout history, God’s people have been called to use their money and possessions to contribute to God’s work in the world.
It’s one of the most common topics in the New Testament. I think we can take from that fact, both that it’s important, and that we’re not very good at it. It’s certainly something that we could be better at, at St. Michael’s. It costs an average of about £20 per adult, per week, to run our church. (I stress that that is an average - some will be able to give much more than that, others much less.) If you’re a member of our church family, can I encourage you to look at your finances, and see whether the way you spend your money is honouring God?
If we are to worship God, we need to get his identity right. We need to remember that he is not a tyrant, but our loving Father who knows what is best for us. We need to understand that he cannot be bought, but that he has already given his Son to purchase our redemption. And we need to submit every part of our lives to him, to live for his glory.