Preaching Micah 5:2-5a
The Micah 5 text is like an ancient relic or artifact. It has served more than one age and borne more than a single significance. The interpreter would do well to linger over it long enough to savor the long journey which it represents before hastening to the Christmas poetry of the Gospels about Bethlehem and the birth of the babe.
First, the situation the prophecy originally addressed was one of a specific historical calamity in the body politic. The hope expressed was for a redemptive reversal of a most mundane and this-worldly sort, but one which would, nevertheless, be the handiwork of the Almighty. The situation would be faced repeatedly throughout Israel's history--in fact, up to the present day. The deliverance envisioned--a worthy leader who in true greatness serves the people rather than himself, brings peace, secures the realm, restores refugees to their homeland--is by no means peculiar to Israel alone, but has universal currency.
The Hebrew and Jewish regimes which followed over the course of time never more than partially realized the hope which is in our text only briefly and incompletely expressed. As each succeeding crisis in the life of Israel tempted the people to despair, the hope was reaffirmed, and the text received fresh readings. In the prophetic tradition as a whole, the ideal, the expectation, was polished, embellished and carried forward. From such a crucible, the hope that emerged became an exalted and ideal one. At the same time, the hope remained this-worldly as well, with history as the significant arena of divine redemptive action.
A good preparation for Advent in general and this text in particular would be the reading of Niebuhr's Where a Christ Is Not Expected, and Where a Christ Is Expected.1
For those of us inclined to make the presence and work of God remote, esoteric, and confined to "sacred" events and history, the expectation of a political and social expression of the divine presence is a necessary corrective. When the Supreme Court decision on school segregation was announced in a black church, one woman was heard to exclaim, "The Lord God Almighty has spoken from Washington, D.C.!"
On the other hand, the transcendent character of the hope evokes the Protestant principle which is that only heaven is heaven, and only the kingdom of God is the kingdom of God. One remembers Dickens' character who always knew exactly what the will of God was. Curiously enough, the will of God was always identical with hers. The kingdom of God in its transcendence is a judgment upon all human systems however noble.
As to the practical value of the ideal, Lewis Mumford is quoted as saying that a map of the world which did not include Utopia was not worth a glance. Why would anyone want Utopia on a map? Utopia is the impossible dream! Maybe that's the whole reason it should be on the map. God help us if we no longer reach for what's beyond our grasp, if we trim down our ideals to include only the possible.
Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of Christian ethics as an "impossible possibility." To love your enemies, forgive those who have offended you, die to the self-centered self, and live a blameless life is, of course, as impossible as a society of perfect justice and peace. The temptation, consequently, is to adjust our moral targets to suit our aim and range. But to do that is to start down a road that leads to someplace you don't want to go.
The kingdom of God, faintly envisioned in Micah's description, further articulated in the one who comes by way of the manger, is an invisible but actual realm and reality. It is the rule and reign of God and also the heavenly vision of the way things will be when all things and the souls of the faithful become what God intends. It is the Utopia which we pray every Sunday morning will come "on earth as it is in heaven."
It would be a shame to give up on the kingdom of God, a shame if it were no longer on our maps, because it isn't somewhere just east of New York City on the interstate and, therefore, reachable by way of a short or long trip on the freeway. We may not reach as high as we aim, but we aren't likely to reach higher than we aim.
In the context of the entire book of Micah, the prophet expected God to put an end to the existing regime of his day and to make a fresh start. Here is the new wine, old wineskin theme. Here is also the issue of confusing the end of the old order as we know it with the end of hope. Hubert Humphrey once said, "Some people . . . are always looking for the benediction rather than the invocation." Micah says the present calamity is not the benediction, just the invocation.
The peace theme of the text could provide the theme of the sermon as well. The thawing of the cold war caught everyone with their expectations down. The sheer immensity of world famine and disaster makes the hope of feeding the hungry seem an idle dream, and editorialists and pundits comment on a sympathy fatigue in a time of overwhelming human need. The great hopes (see above) are the ones we tend to discount. I heard the bells on Christmas day, but I said to myself, "there is no peace on earth, for hate is strong and mocks the song." The trouble is, if we don't expect the big hopes like peace, we don't work for them.
James H. Slatton
1. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II (New York: Chas. Scribners, 1964), pp. 6-34.