God’s matchless mercy (July 26, 2015)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Micah 7:14-20 

It is easy to fall into despair when the world seems to be falling apart as it literally did in Nepal after a powerful earthquake recently caused the deaths of more than 7,000 people. When hundreds of civilians — many of them women and children — die amid a barrage of bombs and rockets in Gaza and Israel, hopelessness and anguish are widespread. And when impoverished people in some American inner cities respond to the deaths of unarmed young men at the hands of police officers by rioting and looting, it is painfully obvious that anger, fear and distrust are rampant.

The prophet Micah speaks for himself and for all those who despair about the evil and corruption they see in the world when he says, “Woe is me! … The faithful have disappeared from the land and there is no one left who is upright ….” (Micah 7:1ff). Even friends and family fail to provide any reliable help. In such a desperate situation there is only one place to turn. “I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Micah 7:7).

Micah 7:14-17 — Only God can help
Micah turns to God with a fervent prayer: “Shepherd your people with your staff,” he prays. Drawing on the image of God as a shepherd, an image that goes back to the era of the patriarchs (Genesis 48:15; 49:24) and recurs frequently in the prophetic tradition (Micah 2:12; Jeremiah 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34:11-12), Micah describes Israel as “the flock that belongs to [Yahweh].”

As God’s covenant people, Micah’s audience is reminded of their miraculous deliverance from Egypt. Micah cries out to the God who redeemed Israel from slavery to restore them to the fertile fields of Bashan and Gilead east of the Jordan River “as in days of old.” According to the exodus tradition, the awesome might of Israel’s God aroused fear and dread in the powerful nations that controlled the territory Israel was about to occupy. In Micah’s time, Israel and Judah were again caught up in the political and military power of their enemies. Micah is confident that God will wield the same power that once brought the covenant people into the Promised Land.

Micah 7:18-20 — God’s forgiving, covenant love
Micah’s rhetorical question asks, “Who is a God like you?” The obvious answer is that there is no other god like Yahweh. The God who in-spired Micah’s prophecy pardons iniquity, passes over transgressions of the people and does not retain anger forever. Why? Because God “delights in showing clemency,” Micah emphasizes. Despite the people’s horrible record of persistent disobedience and sin, God “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Micah’s message is that God’s faithfulness and God’s love will again be shown to the heirs of Jacob and to the children of Abraham. This is what God promised to do when the covenant was first established with Abraham (Genesis 15 and 17). Micah’s words echo what God said to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”

This promise of God’s tender, covenant love may come as a surprise to those who tend to think of the God of the Old Testament as a demanding judge and stern lawgiver. While that part of God’s identity is indeed present in the Old Testament, the prophets consistently put greater stress on God’s mercy and compassion, as Micah does in this passage.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Micah 7:18-20 is traditionally read in many Jewish congregations around Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashana, when observant Jews celebrate the prophetic assurance that God has “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” The same words are very appropriate in Presbyterian worship on Sunday mornings when those who confess their sins are assured of God’s forgiving love.

For discussion
Many Christians who experience severe personal problems or who live in communities where poverty and violence are daily challenges turn to the biblical story of Israel’s liberating exodus from slavery for encouragement. How has your faith in God’s liberating covenant love enabled you to face life’s challenges? An emerging theme of the prophetic tradition is that God will forgive the sin of the covenant people and “cast all of our sins into the depth of the sea.” Can you recall and describe a time when you experienced God’s forgiveness of your sins?