Help Is on the Way -- A sermon for Advent 4
It’s been a little more than a week since news broke that more than two dozen children and adults were gunned down at a Connecticut school. Many of us stopped to pray and possibly weep at this shocking news. In the past week or so we’ve engaged in many serious conversations about why and how this happened. The conversations will continue, because the problem of violence in our society remains unresolved. Although this is supposed to be a season of great joy, sadness continues to hover over our nation. With Christmas just two days away, many wonder – where is God?
As we ask these questions, the prophet Micah declares that help is on the way. Rising from the little town of Bethlehem will be a ruler, whose “origin is from old, from ancient days.”
The words “help is on the way” can be comforting and empowering. In the old western movies I grew up on, it always seemed like the cavalry, often led by John Wayne, showed up just in time to save the day. There are all kinds of stories about heroes who arrive at just the right moment, often risking their own lives, to rescue people in danger. That’s why we are so grateful for the First Responders in our communities. We take comfort knowing that “help is on the way.” Indeed, these very words, spoken by teachers, gave comfort to children, as they hid from the gunman until the police arrived.
Micah speaks of one who will “stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.” His greatness will be known throughout the world, even as he brings peace to all. Micah ministered during the eighth century BC, back when Israel and Judah lived in the shadow of the Assyrian super-power. It was very tempting to give up hope and faith in YHWH. Maybe the gods of Assyria were stronger. Maybe they should take up with them and abandon YHWH. Micah responds, telling the people to stay strong in their faith, because help is on the way.
Although Christians down through ages have followed Matthew and read Jesus’s birth into the promise of Micah 5, we need to stop long enough to remember that Micah was speaking to his own time, when the people he ministered to lived in fear. Before we begin to read Micah’s words through the lens of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” perhaps we can let Micah’s words speak to our own time, even as they spoke to his.
There’s a spirit of fear that grips our land. Instead of uniting us, it divides us. People are afraid of violence and so they arm themselves, install cameras and increase the locks on their doors. Fearing economic collapse, people lash out at government, business, and the other – the immigrants and the strangers in our communities. We pull inward and become cynical.
That’s the way of Assyria, but not the way of God, the one who in the words of the Psalmist is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear . . . “ (Psalm 46:1-2a). The one who, according to Micah, is coming to our aid, will represent this God to us.
If we can let Micah’s words speak to his own time, so that they can speak to our time, then it is appropriate to follow Matthew and see the coming of Jesus into the world in the light of this passage. In Matthew’s Gospel, when the magi come to Herod seeking directions to the birthplace of the king whose birth is foretold in the stars, Herod’s religious advisors point to Micah’s promise. We’ll talk a bit more about this in a couple of weeks when we gather to celebrate Epiphany, but Matthew has given us permission to see Jesus as the one who will rule in Israel, who will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, and whose greatness will be known to the ends of the earth. Yes, this one about whom Luke says the angels sing, will be the one of peace.
As we ponder the words of Micah, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, what do we hear? What message calls out to us? Who is this one whose origin is from old?
The word that comes from Micah is a strong one. He tells the people that God isn’t happy with them. God’s not pleased with their worship or the way the treat one another. He pronounces words of doom and denounces the evil deeds of the people of Israel and Judah, and yet, Micah can also offer a word of hope to the people – if they’re willing to walk in the ways of God and not the ways of the Assyrians.
Mary captures quite well Micah’s message in her song of praise to God (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV).
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Mary is grateful to God for using one like her, a young woman who is by the world’s standards poor and powerless, and yet she becomes the instrument of God’s work of salvation.
Sometimes we think that you have to be big and powerful to make a difference – it doesn’t matter if you’re a church or a nation, the bigger the better. But, Micah knows better and so does Mary. And we know better as well.
Consider the work of the Metro Coalition of Congregations. This organization isn’t big or powerful, but neither is the typical congregation that participates in the MCC. Like us, most are small and some are even struggling to survive. There’s no reason why any person or group should pay attention to us, and yet we’ve accomplished some important things. We helped push MSHDA to find new and creative ways of making available millions of dollars to people facing foreclosure. We helped secure the passage of a bill to create a Regional Transit Authority in Southeast Michigan. And earlier this week the MCC joined other faith groups in Lansing, where we encouraged the governor to veto a bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons into places like churches and schools. Now the Governor may have vetoed that bill whether we were there or not, but those of us involved believe that the news we were coming to pray outside the Governor’s office helped convince him to issue the veto.
There is one coming who will reveal to us the mission and purpose of God, and the one born in the little town of Bethlehem echoes the message of Micah, that God is looking for people who will do what is good, and that is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 CEB).
It is our confession as Christians that the one who arises out of the little town of Bethlehem -- Christ the Lord – he is the embodiment of this promise. Yes, we look for help to where “once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.” He is the one who will be our help in times of trouble. In the spirit of that confession, let us walk humbly with our God, in love and in peace.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
4th Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012