"The Church should be a serving Church just as Jesus came to serve "
Two different people, Micah and Paul, separated by over 700 years, and yet they have a lot in common. They also have a lot to say to us who live in totally different times and within a very different culture, because what they are talking about is the preaching of the Word of God and the integrity of those that do this
It's interesting to compare the two. They were neither of them what you might call professionals in the sense that we might recognise a Minister, itinerant preacher or Lay Worker. Paul, for all his importance as a teacher and preacher and leader in the early Church now earned his keep as a tentmaker, a skill he would have learned as a boy and it stood him in good stead as he traveled around. It meant that wherever he went he could truthfully say that he did not place any burden upon the people among whom he lived and moved.
Micah was probably a peasant farmer or small landowner and certainly not a professional prophet or man of influence to be addressing the country's leaders of state and faith - despite having a book named after him. He was just an ordinary man doing what he was sure God was telling him to do, and confident that God would give him the words and the courage to do what he had to do.
I want to look at these passages in tandem because it's almost as if Paul had Micah in mind when he was writing to the Thessalonians.
Micah's words are addressed to both the country's national leaders and the religious leaders. To the national leaders his message is a blunt one, and I'm sure there are many millions of people around the world who could empathise with Micah's accusation
"Listen to me, you rulers of Israel! You know right from wrong, but you prefer to do evil instead of what is right. You skin my people alive. You strip off their flesh, break their bones, cook it all in a pot, and gulp it down"
What a wonderful, if somewhat terrifying description of a government which says one thing to get elected and then once in power proceeds to exploit the people for its own ends.
That's not something that happens very often, is it?!
"You know the difference between right and wrong." he tells them. "But you deliberately choose to do what you know is morally wrong. No sooner are you in a position where you have the power to choose, than you exploit and bleed the country dry. Heed my words, though. One of these days you'll get your just rewards. There'll come a day when you will beg the Lord to help you, and you'll wonder why he doesn't answer."
There is a sense in which Micah's words could be applied to anyone in authority. I'm sure that most of us at some point, say, in our working life have come across someone whose personality has changed dramatically as soon as they got a sniff of power.
So much for the leaders. But it's the prophets, those so-called wise men of God to whom Micah really directs his bile.
Firstly, who were these "prophets"?
We obviously think of someone like Micah as a prophet, as we might also call Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the like. Well, it's all a bit vague when it comes to trying to work out who it was that Micah was getting so upset about. There were certainly plenty of 'prophets' about at this time, and presumably these were people who were convinced that God had empowered them to speak his word to the nation.
Presumably these prophets also knew the difference between right and wrong, and knew the job description to which they felt called. We probably have no role model that we might call a "prophet" in our own Church but we all may find ourselves elected prayerfully to important roles within the Church, and because of that we need to heed Micah's words.
'You lying prophets promise security for anyone who gives you food, but disaster for anyone who refuses to feed you... You priests and prophets teach and preach, but only for money"
He doesn't mince his words, does he?
Ordinary people go to these "prophets" and temple officials and ask for advice, ask for God's word for them in their situation. And what happens, says Micah, is that if you cross their palm with silver then you get a good word from the Lord - if not, then expect disaster. In fact, Micah goes one step further and calls these prophets "fortune tellers", a term which I am sure they would not be happy with but which seems quite apt considering the way they were acting.
It doesn't say much for the quality of the religious leaders, does it?
I want us to take a leap forward now, some 700 years or more to Thessalonica and see what Paul is saying to the people there.
"My dear friends, you surely haven't forgotten our hard work and hardships. You remember how night and day we struggled to make a living, so that we could tell you God's message without being a burden to anyone. Both you and God are witnesses that we were pure and honest and innocent in our dealings with you followers of the Lord. You also know we did everything for you that parents would do for their own children."
What a contrast to the prophets of Micah's day who were supposedly preaching God's word to the people. No struggling there to make a living. They were doing very nicely thank you, by exploiting the faith and superstition of their flock. And what a burden that placed on the ordinary people who looked to these prophets for advice.
Paul is at pains to point out that he and his companions were everything that those OT prophets were not - they were honest and totally transparent in all their dealings with the people. In fact he goes so far as to say that the relationship that he sought was one similar to that of a father to his children.
"We begged, encouraged, and urged each of you to live in a way that would honor God. He is the one who chose you to share in his own kingdom and glory."
Can you picture in your mind's eye these two contrasting situations. Put yourself in the place of the ordinary man or woman of Micah and Paul's day. How would you react to the situation you find yourself in?
Would you feel that by paying you would obviously get a quality word - or would you feel uncomfortable knowing that person going before you is obviously better off than you because they've come away with a big smile on their face?
I don't know if you have satellite or cable TV, but on the religious channels that come our way from the US you will occasionally get a preacher who quite unashamedly will tell those watching that if they send money to the program then God will indeed bless them and make them successful.
Is that any better than what the prophets of Micah's day were doing?
Or what would you feel if God's word came to you through Paul and his companions, living and working in the neighbourhood, rubbing shoulders, sharing their joys and sorrows with the extended family that is the community you live in. If it cost nothing more than a willingness to listen, to ask questions and learn from both the words and life of those men of God?
I think I know which would have the greater effect on me, and in the past it is contact with people such as Paul that have had a profound effect on my life. God's love, and God's mercy are freely given and that means that he does not impose burdens upon us, and certainly expects his prophets or preachers to do act in the same way.
The effects are plain to see as we look at the last few verses of both readings.
For the greedy prophets of Micah's time the message was very stark
"You priests and prophets teach and preach, but only for money. Then you say, 'The Lord is on our side. No harm will come to us.' And so, because of you, Jerusalem will be ploughed under and left in ruins. Thorns will cover the mountain where the temple now stands"
There had come a time when God's patience had run out, and it would seem to Micah that this was one reason why he had been raised up from no-where to issue this warning. In common with many of the great prophets of the Old Testament, there is a great humility lying behind the often harsh pronouncements that they made. Here he was, the little country boy announcing God's word to the leaders of the land and of the faith.
You bet! But this is what he says "But the Lord has filled me with power and his Spirit. I have been given the courage to speak about justice and to tell you people of Israel that you have sinned. So listen to my message, you rulers of Israel!"
"The Lord has filled me with power." These are words that have their echo throughout the Bible. God takes ordinary people and empowers them to do his work, to spread his Good News, to pronounce his judgement.
And in the last few verses of the passage from Thessalonians we find Paul saying something very similar
"We always thank God that you believed the message we preached. It came from him, and it isn't something made up by humans. You accepted it as God's message, and now he is working in you.'
The people of that Church accepted the message that came and the bearer of the message. They saw the way that Paul lived and worked among them and had this wonderful example to follow. And because they did, God empowered them, he was seen to be working in and through them.
What we have in these two readings are pictures of what the Church and indeed society itself should be and shouldn't be.
It shouldn't be about self, about the abusing of position and power to the furtherance of personal ambitions. It shouldn't be about putting unfair burdens upon the shoulders of others. It should not be deceitful or unfair in its dealings with the vulnerable members of society, or exploit the gullibility of others.
Instead, it should be open and honest, not seeking to burden but actively seeking to serve. It should live the message that it preaches both in words and actions. The Church should be a serving Church just as Jesus came to serve and not to be served, and just as Paul and his companions lived and worked within the community to which they ministered.
It should seek to empower and not burden down. And if it is, then just like the Church that Paul wrote to, God will be seen to be working within it.