Friday, December 4, 2009

Six of the Twelve - Micah and the high places.

A girl I knew in college asked me to proofread a paper she wrote for class. The narrative told of a formative childhood moment. At a local market, she stuffed one of her mittens with loose birdseed out of a barrel. She wanted to give her parakeet a gift. Mom and dad caught her and explained the word "stealing". They brought her back to the market so she could return the birdseed and confess her crime. She described the event as if this naive theft were the worst sin she committed as a child. Knowing her, it may have been. Me, I would have written about cigarettes, porn, or doing whip-its at Bible camp. She took three ounces of birdseed from a barrel.

We may as well admit that we place sin in categories from tolerable to most heinous. The majority of people reading this, I assume, haven't burned down day-care centers or assassinated world leaders. But I'll bet you speed once in a while.

Micah addresses this issue of subtle sin in the first chapter. The book opens as a word of the Lord concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. According to David Stern, the Samaritans were "a mixed ethnic group descended from Jews deported by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. and other peoples ruled by the Assyrians. (They) followed a religion combining pagan and Jewish elements." After Solomon's reign, his kingdom split in two, Judah in the south and the northern kingdom of Israel. From this moment in 1 Kings 12, we read about the leaders of each kingdom. Of all the rulers in Israel, the region that became Samaria, not one of the kings lived in a way pleasing to God. They set up alters in high places that served the God of Abraham in word, but also allowed elements of idol worship. When I visited the city of Dan in 2000, my guide told me of how the kings and priests eventually worshiped a golden calf.

Micah 1:7 says of Samaria, "All her carved images will be smashed to pieces, all she earned consumed by fire. and I will reduce her idols to rubble. She amassed them from a whore's wages, and as a whore's wages they will be spent again." The people of Judah probably applauded this word concerning their hostile, idol-worshiping kinsmen. But remember that the prophecy also concerns Jerusalem, in Judah. Micah gives them equally hash treatment in 1:8-16. I mean, just check out the heavy imagery of verses 8 and 9 as he turns the focus from Samaria to Jerusalem. "This is why I howl and wail, why I go barefoot and stripped, why I howl like the jackals and mourn like the ostriches. For her wound cannot be healed, and now it is coming to Judah as well; it reaches even to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem itself." In verse 13, Micah expressly traces the line of sin from Lakhish in Assyria to Samaria to Jerusalem.

I remember reading Kings in my early twenties and noticing their track record with God. Israel consistently angered God, never serving Him. One king at least had this said in his favor, "He wasn't as bad as the other kings of Israel". But of all the kings of Judah, nine alone served God. Of those nine, only two removed the high places and banned idol worship, Hezekiah and his great-grandson Josiah. Ahaz, one of the kings ruling during Micah's ministry and Hezekiah's father, was especially evil. Unlike his God-fearing father, Jotham, he sacrificed one of his sons to Molech and made sacrifices on the high places. Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, was especially wicked. He rebuilt all of the high places and everything his father had destroyed. He also sacrificed his son to Molech like Grandpa Ahaz and got involved in a cult worshiping "the army of heaven". 2 Kings 23 details all that Josiah destroyed in his pursuit of holiness. It's a lot. Some of it very weird stuff. But like the last two God-fearing kings, his sons totally blew it. They ruled until Babylon seized Jerusalem and put the people into exile.

The overwhelming majority of men who led God's people led them away from God. Seven of the "good" kings, while not engaging in evil practices themselves, still tolerated idolatry in their kingdom. The other two good kings may have worshiped God but failed to raise their sons in righteousness. They didn't get high at Bible camp but they let their kids steal birdseed. This realization broke my heart.

And so Micah denounced them as well. In 3:11-12, he tells them, just because you claim to serve God doesn't mean your sin will go unnoticed. "(Jerusalem's) leaders sell verdicts for bribes, her priests teach for a price, her prophets divine for money - yet they claim to rely upon the Lord! 'Isn't the Lord with us?' they say. 'No evil can come upon us.' Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed under like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house like a forested height."

And yet Micah also gives hope for redemption. In chapter 4, God promises to restore the temple of Jerusalem where the people would again worship Him, rescued after their exile to Babylon. Yes, there is a messianic prophecy in chapter 5, where Micah tells of the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. But as I read this book recently, I noticed another messianic prophecy. This one far more subtle. In 7:9, the prophet says, "I will endure the Lord's rage, because I sinned against Him; until He pleads my cause and judges in my favor. Then He will bring me out to the light, and I will see His justice." Here, I saw a thread of the Trinity. God the father as one who demands justice for sin, and God the son as the one who pleads our cause and redeems us from darkness. As Paul said in Romans 3, Jesus justified us to satisfy His own demand for justice.

The book closes in 7:18-20 with a breath-taking prayer of praise. "Who is a God like you, pardoning the sin and overlooking the crimes of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in grace. He will again have compassion on us, He will subdue our iniquities. You will throw all their sins into the depths of the sea. You will show truth to Jacob and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors since days of long ago."

We can easily beat ourselves up when we're convicted of sins both large and ignored. The truth is we all deserve to die for rebelling against God, the source of life. And yet He knew we couldn't be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Through Jesus, the one who throws our sin into the depths of the sea, we come to know that He alone makes us holy. In Him alone do we have hope for righteousness.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Five of the Twelve - Jonah and an unfair God.

David Bowie said it best in his role as Jareth the Goblin King in The Labyrinth. Jennifer Connelly complains, "It's not fair" when Jareth sets up obstacles for her to rescue her baby brother. Jareth replies to her protest, "You say that so often! I wonder what your basis for comparison is." When I first saw the movie, I cared more about seeing what muppet-like creatures would next appear. But when I actually heard Bowie's line for the first time, I realized how often I had said the words, "It's not fair" without having any context for fairness.

Connelly's character can annoy you with her complaining. As I read Jonah last week, I felt the same way with this runaway prophet. The opening verse sounds like any other interaction between God and His prophets. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai: 'Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and proclaim to it that their wickedness has come to my attention." Not too weird for God, right? How many other prophets were told to go and call cities out on their evil practices? Nearly all of them. But Jonah does something so strange we mainly hear his book in the form of a children's story. It's silly, cartoonish. Jonah tries to literally run away from God.

He buys his way onto a ship headed out to Tarshish, then considered the furthest point of the known world. A violent storm threatens to break the ship into pieces at sea and the sailors try everything to hold it together. Eventually, they think to themselves, somebody must have angered a god. The captain finds Jonah asleep in the bottom of the boat and wakes him. "What do you mean by sleeping?" he asks. "Get up! Call on your god! Maybe the god will remember us, and we won't die." When Jonah confesses his sin, he says to the sailors, "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made both the sea and the dry land." I wonder if, as he said it, Jonah realized there's no escaping a God who made everything. If you can run there, He created it.

Jonah tells the men to throw him into the sea so that God will spare their ship. They oblige. Then the best part of the Sunday School story happens. God sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole. The prophet remains alive in the belly of the fish for three days. While in there, amazingly, the prophet sings out a beautiful song of praise to God. He tells of God saving him from Hell and certain death and proclaims, "Salvation comes from the Lord!" Then God tells the fish, "Puke him up on that beach over there."

When we read how Jonah goes to Nineveh, we might assume that he has learned his lesson. The truth is he still doesn't want to prophesy and only does so begrudgingly. How can we know this? Because of what happens when the people of Nineveh actually repent of their sin to God. Pagan people who know nothing of the God of the Bible are moved to humble themselves from the commoner to the King. Instead of finding joy and praising God for this, Jonah gets pissed. In an angry prayer, we learn the true reason for his flight to Tarshish. Jonah knew of God's mercy. He didn't want God to spare the people of Nineveh. He wanted them punished for their sins. Jonah is so pissed off, in fact, he prays, "please, just take my life away from me; it's better for me to be dead than alive!" Let's pause for a moment and reflect on the prophet's tantrum.

God's response is so wonderfully patient. "Is it right for you to be so angry?"

It appears Jonah isn't listening. He goes outside of the city and builds a shelter so he can watch the city destroyed, should God change His mind. As he sits, God causes a castor-bean plant (whatever that is) to grow up around the shelter, giving Jonah shade and comfort despite his angry vigil. Then, the next morning, God sends a worm to eat away at the plant and it withers. Now the sun and wind scorch Jonah, and the prophet again cries out, "I would be better off dead than alive!" It's not fair! It's not fair!

God discusses the significance of the plant with Jonah in a patient and loving tone, unlike the authoritative way He put down Job's complaints. "God asked Jonah, 'Is it right for you to be so angry about the castor-bean plant?' He answered, 'Yes, it's right for me to be so angry that I could die!' The Lord said, 'You're concerned over the castor-bean plant, which cost you no effort; you didn't make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn't I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from their left - not to mention all the animals?'"

And that's how the book ends. With God's rhetorical question. It's pretty safe to say Jonah finally heard God and saw the sinfulness of his attitude. Some Bible teachers believe Jonah wrote this book as an act of repentance. Like Jonah, we praise God for showing us mercy in saving our lives from certain death but stomp around fuming when He doesn't punish the people who actually deserve it. The fact is we all deserve it. Jonah knew it on the ship. The people of Nineveh knew it when they heard Jonah's prophecy. None of us deserve God's grace. But God still gives it to whomever He chooses. It costs us no effort. How could we not rejoice in His mercy?

Jesus name-dropped Jonah once or twice, referring to "the sign of Jonah". The Pharisees believed they deserved God's favor because of their behavior and lineage. They asked Jesus for a sign to prove He was Messiah, as if all the work of Jesus's ministry wasn't proof enough. Jesus tells them, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign? No! None will be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea-monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the depths of the earth" (Matthew 12:39-40).

Salvation comes from the Lord. Only Him. Jesus fulfilled the sign of Jonah when He rose to life three days after His death. In His death and resurrection, Jesus offers salvation for us all, be we kings, commoners, sailors, or prophets. Because of this, it's silly for us to whine about God's fairness. Obviously, God isn't fair. He loves us in spite of our sin.