God's BIG Picture

Inspired by Micah 1:3-5, 5:2-5a, 6:6-8

As I mentioned last week, at this point of the story of God’s people, as we journey through the great stories of the Hebrew scriptures this Fall, the once unified kingdom of Israel has split in two, each with its own king. And they have gone through many kings now, as this story is about a hundred years after last week’s story of the healing of Naaman. This week’s story comes from the southern kingdom of Judah, but it’s really not much of a story, as it is a sampling of the prophet Micah’s reaction to what the kingdom was going through.

These are uneasy days for the southern kingdom. There is a tension in the air that can be felt by all. There are news reports of some very troubling things happening all around them, as well as within their borders. Troubling times indeed. First off, they heard that the northern kingdom had fallen and their capital city Samaria was under siege. They are also hearing reports that the Assyrian empire was growing like wildfire, able to consume the mightiest of nations, and they were at their doorstep.

And there was the little kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as her capital, in the midst of all this chaos, with kingdoms literally crumbling all around them. So many questions were probably swirling around their heads. What can we do? Should we fight? Will God come to our rescue even though God didn’t rescue the northern kingdom? Should we just give up and count our losses? Not to mention questions like, why is this happening to us? Why are there so many threats all around us?

What did we do wrong? And that’s where the prophet Micah steps in. Because according to Micah, they knew darn well what they did wrong. But part of a prophet’s job is being a truth teller, and so that’s what he does. Way back when the kingdoms were still united as one, under King Solomon’s reign, they were warned not to worship other God’s. Stick with me, was God’s plea. I’ll remain faithful to you, God said.

But what do they do? Worshiped other gods. I mean, when your own king is doing it, why not? If the top dog can get away with it, why can’t we? And so they did, for hundreds of years. And now the prophet Micah steps in to remind them, that this was never the way it was supposed to be. So, this book starts out full of judgment on them. The whole book, by the way, is very short, you could read the whole thing easily in one sitting. But Micah is full of surprises. Which makes sense because Micah’s God is full of surprises.

Micah does not remain in judgment over them. Would he be justified if he had? Absolutely! They broke the first commandment! Have no other gods! They broke that over and over again! Forget the other nine, they couldn’t even get past number one! Now God, through Micah, could have easily said, I’m done with ya’ll. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me…for hundreds of years, well, shame on me! I’m out! And what could be their defense? There was none. But like we all know, God is full of surprises.

Micah pairs his judgment with hope. Which probably sounded crazy! Here they are, in the midst of chaos, kingdoms crumbling around them, an enemy empire breathing down their neck ready to consume them, and Micah has a word of hope? Huh? But, let’s keep moving through our reading. From where are they supposed to look for hope? From where is it supposed to come from? Bethlehem, Micah says. Bethlehem? Even Micah has to add that this is the least significant place in the kingdom! Talk about surprises! I mean, this would be like if California was in the midst of a statewide crisis and the governor asks me—because, you know, prophet, pastor, we’re all the same—asks me, where will relief come from Pastor Ron, and I say, Penryn. Even the governor might say, Penryn? Where’s that?

That’s how ridiculous this idea of hope from Bethlehem was! It’s only claim to fame was that it was where King David was born. That’s it! Other than that it was barely a speck on a map. And you know, when the chips are down, when you’re in a tight spot, when the enemies are circling round you, and you ask for help, you’re expecting a better answer than Bethlehem or Penryn! Right? By the way, my apologies to the great people of Penryn…all 831 of them. I feel bad for making them the butt of a joke. It had to be somebody though!

Anyway, there was very little hope that could be gleaned from this news. But Micah continues, a ruler is gonna come from Bethlehem, whose origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Ok, at this point I’m wondering what Micah is smoking. But he continues, things are going to get worse before they get better, and by better he means a baby of peace. A baby? We don’t need no baby Micah! And we surely don’t need peace right now! We need a warrior Micah. Someone to put the Assyrians back in their place, once and for all! But Micah doesn’t budge. And how can he? His message of hope is from God!

And so there they are, on the edge of despair, with this cryptic message of hope, wondering what to do. You don’t have to read too many headlines these days before despair begins to flirt with you. Just the other day there was a tragedy that hit too close to home for many of us. As I’m sure most of you have heard, late Wednesday night a lone gunman opened fire in a Thousand Oaks bar and grill that was hosting a college night event. Many students from California Lutheran University were in attendance.

Twelve were killed, including an officer, before the gunman took his own life. CalLu is where we took a van load of our youth to attend the Western States Youth Gathering two summers ago, becoming a place very special to us all. Tragedies like these, the political climate of our nation, global warming, nations at war, terrorism, our mental health crisis, there is a lot going on in our world that could easily lead us to despair. What are we to do? How can we make things better? If we’ve done something wrong, how can we make it right?

That’s the question that the people of Judah ask Micah at the end of our reading. With what should we come to God with, they ask. With our generous offerings? Do we have to offer our children? In other words, you name it Micah and we’ll do it! Micah looks them dead in the eye, probably shaking his head, and says, you already know what to do—and you’ve known for a long time now—but sure, I can remind you again, “do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” So what if the world looks like it’s about to crumble around you! You still got work to do! So go do it! And let me worry about the rest, says the Lord!

Because of course I still need you to work for justice because you live in an unjust world, says the Lord! Of course I still need you to embrace faithful love because you live in a world filled with so much hate, says the Lord! Of course I still need you to walk humbly with me because you live in a world that values pride and egomaniacs, says the Lord! I need you, says the Lord, to deliver hope to a hopeless world, even when, especially when, you have none for yourselves, because maybe, just maybe, in delivering hope, when you are hopeless, you will find some for yourselves in the process!

You see, we can’t see the big picture. God can, but we can’t. In this message of hope from Micah, God is saying, let me take care of the big picture. I got you. I got you. You just take care of the small stuff, says the Lord. God isn’t asking us to solve the world’s problems. But we can help out right here, can’t we? Do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. Leave the big picture to God. Because back in Micah’s day, the center of God’s big picture was the little town of Bethlehem. The Penryn of the southern kingdom.

And yet, God had big plans for that little town, right? As we sing this next hymn, try your hardest to not think of Christmas, I know, that’s going to be hard. But what I want to do, is think of God’s big picture, the big picture that we cannot see. And think of that big picture as your source of hope when you can’t find it anywhere else. And know, that nothing will stop God’s big picture—nothing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

An Unlikely Healing

Inspired by 1 Kings 3:4-28

Since last week’s story of King Solomon and the two women, to today’s story of the healing of Naaman, God’s people have had some tumultuous times. To be fair, there were some high points too. Solomon builds the first temple for the worship of God in Jerusalem. It was a marvel of riches and architecture. He had an interesting encounter with the Queen of Sheba in his pursuit of international relations, but that’s about where the highlights of his reign end. He had many wives and many concubines. However, his greatest of sins was that he eventually turned away from God and began worshipping other Gods.

By the time of his death, the kingdom just couldn’t stay together and it split in two, a Northern and a Southern kingdom, Israel and Judah, each with their own king. They go through many kings, and along the way God sends them prophets, to help guide them and/or correct their misbehavior. Although, as one of my seminary professors put it, once a prophet was called onto the scene, it was usually already too late. These prophet’s stories and messages will be the focal point of our readings from now through Advent, before we finally get to our Gospel readings.

Today’s story from the book of 2 Kings comes from this time of God’s people where they find themselves in the midst of these many kings, one after another. This particular story comes from the Northern kingdom of Israel. It’s an interesting little tale, the significance of might be easy to overlook. So, the prophet Elisha, not to be confused with his predecessor Elijah, hears about a neighboring king’s army general, Naaman, who is in need of healing.

But how that finally gets to Elisha is quite interesting. Now keep in mind, all these nations are in constant friction, wars and battles and raiding parties are constantly breaking out. And so, a young Jewish girl finds herself captured in one of these skirmishes, and is sold as a slave into the house of this powerful army general, Naaman. She hears of her master’s ailment, and what does she do, she immediately thinks of a prophet in her homeland that can heal her.

She does not think, “Oh good, maybe this will kill him and I can get free!” She does not think, “I’m just going to keep my mouth shut because drawing any attention to myself might cause me harm.” She does not think, “It’s not my place as a slave to think I know better than my captors.” To be fair, she may have had all those thoughts but did she act on them? No. She goes out on a limb, at personal risk to herself, and speaks up, for the benefit of her slave master.

Now, we could assume she did this hoping to get a reward, but those thoughts come from our privilege of having never spent a night in captivity, let alone slavery. So why did she do this? The simple answer is that she was practicing the tenets of her faith—lessons like the golden rule; like caring for the less fortunate, like loving your enemies. She did not see her captor, her slave master, no, she saw a person in need, and she knew how to help, and so she did.

The next stop for that message was Naaman’s wife, because the slave girl couldn’t go directly to Naaman of course. And again, I wonder what the possible implications might have been for his wife to bring this idea to him. Though she had more freedom, as she was not a slave, she was a woman, and in that day and age that meant that she didn’t have much of a voice, not to mention she was thought of as the property of her husband. But like the young slave girl who worked in her home, that did not stop her from taking the risk, from taking a leap of faith, and speaking up for the benefit of her husband. And maybe her faith ancestors taught her that too, though of a different religion. And so she shares this message with her husband.

The next stop for this message of healing is to the king himself. And if you think there was no risk to Naaman here, think again. He has to go to his king and ask him if he can go to another king, an opposing king, for help. Think about what’s being said between the lines here: You O king are not powerful enough to help me. Our gods are not faithful enough. Our religious leaders are not capable enough. So, can I go and ask your rival on the other side of the border for help? His king could have easily drawn his sword and killed him for treason were he stood and no one would have batted an eye. But instead, the king simply says, Sure, I’ll even write a letter for you. And so this message of healing moves on to the next person. The king of Israel.

Only this time, the message comes into the hands of an unwilling recipient. The king of Israel is not too happy to get this message. He immediately assumes that this is some kind of game that his rival is playing, that this is some kind of trick, or just trying to get a reaction out of him! Why, well, because this king had trouble thinking of others needs before his own. It was all about him. Isn’t it odd that most of the people from another religion in this story were the ones acting more merciful than this king?

Now, the message could have died right then and there with Israel’s king, ending in war between these two nations. But somehow, it does not. The prophet Elisha hears about it, and sets the king straight. He sees this as not only a teachable moment but as an evangelistic moment as well. How else are people going to know about our merciful God if we don’t show mercy? And so, after Elisha calms the king down, they invite Naaman to Elisha’s house.

Now this could be a trap but Naaman is probably desperate at this point, so he goes to Elisha’s house, in search of healing. And then he gets another surprise! Elisha doesn’t even come out and greet him when he gets there! No hello, no howdoyado; Elisha sends his messenger to give him instructions. And the instructions are simple, go wash in the Jordan River seven times. That’s it! Naaman takes issue with this. Not just because he feels like he’s being snubbed by this supposedly all-powerful healer, but because if washing in a river is all he had to do then why couldn’t he have done that at home!

And here’s another detail, the Jordan River, as one scholar put it, is more of a glorified creek!—as you can see here. So, not only do these instructions seem ridiculous, but they’re also a bit insulting. However, the slaves that Naaman had brought with him, calm him down, and in their own divine wisdom, convince him to follow the instructions given to him. And so he does, and finally he is healed. That message of healing that started all the way back with that young Jewish slave girl, finally did its work.

So, from all of that, this is what really stood out to me. That message of healing, had to pass through many hands. It had many opportunities to fail along the way. But it did not. It succeeded, thanks to many unlikely hands, from some very surprising places: the young Jewish slave girl, the wife of Naaman, Naaman himself, two rival kings, and Naaman’s slaves.

All of these people had to carry that message of healing in some form, whether they knew it or not, in order for Naaman to be healed, sometimes at great risk, none of whom are likely candidates to help out in a healing, and yet they did. All Saints Sunday is an opportunity for us to not only remember loved ones who have died, but also an opportunity to acknowledge those in our lives who have carried the message of God’s healing love for us, the many hands that the message was carried by, especially those hands that no one would have suspected.

Maybe they’re a relative that wasn’t necessarily a big churchgoer, and yet, God still chose them to communicate God’s healing love through. Maybe they’re a childhood neighbor who everyone else thought was kinda cranky but you knew better, which allowed God to communicate God’s healing love to you. Maybe they’re a child, maybe your own child, someone the world would say that you as an adult should be teaching, and yet, they have been chosen to communicate God’s healing love to you.

Maybe a stranger, maybe a pet, maybe a song, maybe a cool Autumn breeze at sunset. God’s healing love can come from anyone and anywhere—all we have to do is be open to it, especially when it comes from the most unlikely of places. During this next hymn, please come to any of the tables and light a candle in remembrance of our loved ones who have died before us, and also in acknowledgment of God’s healing love from the most unlikely of places sometimes. Thanks be to God. Amen.