“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the prophet Micah. Dear friends in Christ, even if you have never personally dealt with the legal system of the United States, you probably know how a courtroom operates. Television, movies, and books have all made sure of that. First, even before the court can begin its work, there is the summons. “Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel.” All of the parties have been summoned: God Himself is the judge, and all creation is summoned to witness God’s lawsuit. His people are on trial. This means first of all His people Israel, but if you and I think that we can escape this trial, we are gravely mistaken. When everyone is assembled in the great courtroom of God, the judge shows up, and He is not a happy camper.
“O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” Without introduction or preamble, God the judge launches into us. Notice that God doesn’t directly accuse us of anything- yet. Instead He asks two biting questions: “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?” He is demanding that we make some defense, that we give Him a reason for our sin. God wants us to tell Him what He has done to us to make us rebel against Him. Our heavenly Father wants to know how He has wearied and bored us so that we either go through the motions as His followers, or even avoid worshipping Him. He demands a reply- “Answer me!”- but none is forthcoming. As we stand in stunned silence, God goes on to tell us exactly what He has done to us.
“I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” God asked us “What have I done to you?” and now He gives the answer. He has delivered us, He has provided salvation. Through Moses He brought the people out of bondage in Egypt. When Balak king of Moab wanted to curse Israel, Balaam could only speak blessings. At Shittim the covenant was broken; in His grace God restored His people at Gilgal. How do His people respond to His gracious acts? God has released from slavery; His people respond with rebellion. He longs to bless His people; they thank Him by going through the motions in their lives and at worship. He restores them again and again; His people respond by avoiding where He brings His grace.
The judge has finally completed His thunderous opening statement. The focus now turns to His people, to you and me. What reply will we make? The first response is that of desperation. How can we possibly satisfy the wrath of this righteous and holy judge? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” That is the question that confronts people of every age. What can I bring before the Lord to placate Him, to get Him off my back, to make Him forget about my sin? “Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” Surely, God, if I come to church a little more often, you can look the other way when I sin during the week, right? “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” Ok, God, what if I ratchet it up a bit? What if I not only go to church every week, but I put some money in the offering plate? And not just a couple bucks, but the full ten percent. Maybe some spare change in Pastor’s new ‘alms for charity’ jar, too. What about that, God, will that make you back off? “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” All right, God, what’s it going to take? I’m trying my best, I really am, but I have this sneaking suspicion that your wrath is still there. You told Israel not to sacrifice her children like the nations around her, but here she is driven to such desperation that she is willing to kill her sons and daughters. Your people are grasping for your grace, trying to find something that will end your hot wrath. What do you want from me? What can I do to satisfy you? “With what shall I come before the Lord?”
It is at this point that Micah steps in. This country prophet and preacher has the answer to our vitally important question. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” God is fed up with our attempts to placate His wrath, He is tired of our sacrifices. He declared through the mouth of another prophet, Amos: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.” God has wearied of people going through the motions, of trying get rid of their sin through their own deeds. Our attempts to earn His favor through what we do are offensive to Him. He doesn’t seek outward acts, but instead a changed heart.
Jesus spoke about that in our Gospel lesson. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” As Micah said, God simply asks for humility, for justice, for kindness shown to Him and to our neighbors. This has to do with a changed attitude, not with sacrifices or deeds. This is what we also read in the Introit this morning: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” Ok, now we know what God requires, but this puts us in even more desperate straits. At least when we were offering our deeds to God, it was something we could do; we could see us earning our way back into favor with Him. But now we’re in trouble. God demands a changed life, but I can’t do it. I could pray and worship more, I could put more in the plate, I could do this and that, but a changed life is deep down within me, and when I look there, all I see is sin.
It makes perfect sense that we would need to earn our way back into God’s favor; it’s reasonable, it’s logical. But the only solution to our sin is not logical, it is not reasonable in the eyes of human wisdom, but instead it is foolishness. St. Paul declares, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” We couldn’t earn God’s favor; Israel’s extreme attempts to please Him proved that. They cried out in desperation: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Their firstborn couldn’t satisfy God’s wrath, but His firstborn could. Jesus Christ, the firstborn Son of the Father, came to do what we could not. He allowed Himself to be given up into death for our sin. Jesus was the firstborn given for our transgressions; He, the fruit of Mary’s womb, was given for the sin of our soul. Christ was crucified for you and me; He made the sacrifice that satisfied God’s wrath, His perfect life in the place of our sinful lives. This makes no sense to the world, but God choose what appears as foolishness as the very means for our salvation.
Because of Christ’s death for our sake, because He has delivered us from the crushing burden of our sin, the situation in God’s courtroom is completely reversed. God is now our advocate; He argues on behalf of His people, not against them. On the Last Day, God will point to you and declare you righteous for the sake of Jesus Christ. The people of God declared their hope in this great reversal in Micah chapter seven: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against Him, until He pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon His vindication.” This vindication came at the cross, where Jesus died in your place, where He did all that you could not, where He faced God’s wrath for you. God in His great love refused to leave you in your sin, but instead He acted once again in salvation to deliver you from that sin. He answers His own accusation! Not by ignoring our sin, not by giving us a ‘to do’ list to take care of it ourselves, but by giving up His own Son into death in our place, His firstborn for our transgressions, for the sin of our souls. His judgment is no longer against us but for us; you are judged as righteous because Jesus is righteous, and He has claimed you as His own. You are His because Jesus suffered and died for you!
As we gather here this morning, the question still confronts us: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” The answer is simple: we come before the Lord with nothing but our sin. We come as beggars, empty handed, because we have nothing to give, not our good works, not our sparkling life, only our sin. And Jesus takes that sin upon Himself and does away with it, giving us in its place forgiveness, life, and salvation. We are beggars who have come empty-handed, only to be given the treasures of heaven itself. We therefore come before God bearing not our own merits, but instead the righteousness of Christ, which He has given to us. Then we seek to serve God and neighbor, not to gain His favor, but because He has shown us favor. We come to this place week after week to receive, to drink deeply from the wells of salvation, until that day when the Lord declares to us: “Come into the kingdom given to you by the death and resurrection of my firstborn.” In the name of God’s firstborn Son, who through the foolishness of the cross brought us salvation, Amen.