Text: Micah 5:2-5a
When you’ve moved as many times as I have – eight times since I left college almost fifteen years ago – you have plenty of occasion to think about the stuff you keep in your house. And when you’ve been to school for as long as I have – long enough to rack up a bachelors and two masters – most of what you’re hauling around in books and notes you took in classes.
I have a chaotic, unorganized collection of notes: notes from my seminary classes, notes from my thesis, notes I took from presentations at retreat centers, board meetings, and conferences. I have notes in spiral notebooks, notes in 3-ring binders and notes piled up in stacks behind cupboard doors. I have notes on my laptop in a program called OneNote, that lured me into purchasing with the idea that all my notes would be accessible and searchable with a few keystrokes, though I have since discovered that I forget that I’ve taken notes on something and so I don’t even know to search for them – regardless of their format or location.
For these Wednesday evening vespers during the season of Advent which comes to a close tonight, we’ve been listening again to the voices of the Israelite prophets assigned to the lectionary for the four Sundays of Advent. I titled the series “Promissory Notes” because each of the four prophetic texts connected with the idea of promises in one way or another.
And each week there’s been some kind of pun or play on words. The first week we reimagined Jeremiah’s promise that “the days are surely coming…” as promissory notes in a financial sense – securities that could be redeemed by anyone holding them – and we considered what it might mean if we were to take the prophetic promises of God not as being directed solely toward the future, but as ideas that have matured and can be redeemed now, like a CD that’s come due.
The second week we listened to the prophet Malachi, whose promise that the coming of God would be like a purifying fire has been made unforgettable in our era by the music of Handel’s Messiah, a new take on the idea of promissory notes as music that makes the promises of God accessible and immediate to each new age.
Last week there was no need to look for clever connections between promises and notes, because the words of the prophet Zephaniah made the associations plain.
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies… He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” (Zeph 3:14-15a,17b-18a)
So now we come to end of the season of Advent, with one last prophet and one last set of notes. The prophet is Micah, and the notes are like those we take as we sit in the classroom week after week, knowing that the end of the semester is coming, and wondering if we have been paying attention to the right things. Has there been a theme running through these lectures, something that might show up on the final?
Micah, though a prophet, was clearly a good student as well. Writing three centuries after the death of King David, this prophet of the exile makes promises in God’s name to the tired, terrified, war-torn people of God that call to mind the boy David, the person he was before he was a king, the shepherd who took on the giant Goliath and won. He writes,
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days…And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…and they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” (Micah 5:2,4a,5a)
Reading over some of the notes on scripture I keep in my office, I found one by a former professor at my seminary, Neal Walls. He commented that given all the opportunities to call this one who is yet to come a king (the Hebrew word would have been melek), Micah chooses not to. All the defining characteristics of the one who is yet to come associate that person with King David, and yet the prophet does not call the coming one a king. Instead Micah focuses on the humble origins, the shepherd’s duties, and the age of peace to come.
That got me thinking back to my Old Testament classes, and the story of how Israel got its first king, recorded in the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel. Samuel, the last of Israel’s judges, is coming to the end of his life and the leaders of Israel come to him and ask him to name a king to govern them. All the surrounding tribes had kings, and kings appeared to have armies and power and control over their land and their people, and so Israel too wanted a king. Samuel carries their request to God in prayer, and God replies, “You shall warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall rule over them.” So Samuel does. He warns them about the folly of asking for a king, and says,
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you; he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots (in other words, your king will send your sons off to war); and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and equipment of his chariots (in other words, your king will live off the product of your labor). He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers (do you really need a translation for that?). He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Sam. 8:11-18)
But the people refuse to listen to the last judge, Samuel, so they get their king. First they get Saul, a tragic figure who degenerates quickly into an insecure and petty tyrant. Then they get David, who seems to be God’s last ditch effort to teach them about the corrupting influence of power. Though he was the youngest son in a line of boys, though he was nothing more than a shepherd, though he was nothing more than the “son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem” (1 Sam. 17:12) he is selected to be king over Israel. As king, David does indeed accomplish great things. He distinguishes himself quickly as a military leader, and is loved by the people. But the cracks start to appear quickly. He becomes greedy for things that he has no right to. He takes the wife of one of his men, and sends her husband off to die so that he
can take her as his wife. His family is torn apart by conflict that within a generation leads to a great division in the nation of Israel. So much for kings.
But we long for a king. We want a great power, a mighty ruler. We yearn for someone to step in and take control of our world, our lives, and relieve us of all responsibility for ourselves. We want a bully, but a righteous one, so – an older brother I guess. Someone who will scare all the other powers away from us, with force if necessary, so that we can be safe on our block.
But Micah does not promise that to the exiles of Israel. Micah reads over his notes and sees that our lust for power and its embodiment in kings or nations, popes or denominations, powers and principalities is the seed of our undoing. Instead Micah reminds us of those qualities David had before he was forced into the role of king – he lived close to the earth, he cared for animals and creation, he was the runt, the youngest child, he came from a nowhere town in a nowhere nation. If he hadn’t been made king, we would never have known him. It was in that condition, in the lowliness of his estate, that God looked upon David with favor.
It is a theme running through all our notes, all our scriptures, all our sacred stories and hagiographies. God picks what is weak to make the foolishness of the world’s lust for power apparent. And at Christmas God picks something even weaker than a shepherd boy in a backwater village. God picks a baby conceived out of wedlock to a young couple in that same nowhere village to reveal God’s justice and mercy to all God’s people, to the whole world.
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel… and he shall be the one of peace.”
Stir up your power, O God, and come.