Text: Micah 7:18-20
In the book of Exodus, shortly after the Golden Calf, Moses was immensely distressed by the Lord’s decision to no longer lead Israel Himself but with an angel, instead. This was to be received by the people as discipline for their idolatry. Although they would suffer in this way, the Lord would, of course, remain with them and bring them to the Promised Land – just as He said He would. Moses asked for a sign of God’s continued presence. The Lord placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and passed in front of him saying, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7 English Standard Version) Moses was strengthened by this and led the people of God for 40 years until his own entrance into the Promised Land of heaven.
The Lord, merciful and gracious, abounding in love and forgiveness is who St. Micah places before us today. As a prophet Micah was active during a peak of Israel’s earthly greatness. The greatness of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah during his time was second only to Solomon’s, who reigned three centuries before. Yet, at the peak of their greatness, one kingdom was brought to destruction and the other very nearly so, for they had forgotten their first love – the Lord. Though Micah lived and prophesied during a time of discipline from the Lord, he waited in patience and hope. He knew that the Lord does not retain His anger forever, but will again have compassion on His people. From Micah we learn that the Lord will, indeed, have compassion on His people on the Final Day, even as He pardons and forgives us now in Christ.
“Who is a God like you,” Micah sang, “pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love.” (Micah 7:18) With these words Micah encouraged the faithful children of God – the remnant – to await His coming mercy with patience. Micah, along with Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah, prophesied during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. It was also a wealthy and prosperous time. In Scripture, these often go together: material prosperity and turmoil. This is because in times of worldly greatness, when riches and land excel – God’s people often turn away. They become secure and no longer have any need for God. Such were the people during Micah’s ministry.
When he says that the Lord pardons inquity and passes over transgression, Micah uses two different words. In English, these words seem the same, but here Micah precisely describes what is going on in his time. The first word he uses describes sins against the Second Table of the Commandments – sins committed against other people. In Micah’s time, it was common for everyone – from king to peasant – to cheat, lie, or otherwise take advantage of others in any way possible. The second word Micah uses implies ungodliness – hatred toward God, a detest of His Word, idol worship, and various forms of perversion. Because of these things, the Lord allowed the Northern Kingdom to fall to Assyria in 722 B.C. The Kingdom of Judah very nearly fell itself, if not for the prayer of faithful king Hezekiah and the comforting witness of Isaiah.
Micah recognized his time as one of discipline from the Lord. He knew that, as a father disciplines his son for his good, the Lord disciplines His children. Micah took comfort, however, in the fact that Lord will not always discipline, because His delight is in showing love. “He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot,” Micah said. “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (v. 19) We mostly know Micah for His promise that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, but here as well Micah saw in the Spirit the Day of the Lord, the Final Day. Micah offered this comforting promise, that, although the Lord’s people experience His discipline, soon will come a day when all sins are put away, all darkness is turned to light, and Satan is fully tread underfoot.
We, also, live in a time of turbulence, a fact we’re more aware of as of late. We live in the wealthiest and most materially prosperous nation the world has ever seen. We ourselves, in one way or another, have access to resources that would have been unimaginable a few generations ago. And yet, everything seems to be falling apart. Although it is common and very easy to push the blame upward – as our father Adam did in the Garden – and blame those in authority, we might as well point finger at ourselves. After all, it is true that leaders themselves are images of the people they represent. Micah used two words for sin. One implies sin against neighbor and the other disrespectful behavior toward God. Both are present in our lives.
We all have an overactive concern for our own well-being. Our concern in most things is for ourselves first, and only after for others. At times during this pandemic, we have worried primarily about our own earthly lives and not for the safety of others. Last week St. John encouraged us to be willing to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians in need, but we are reluctant when called upon. There are other sins that you and I have committed against others that are known only to our hearts. Above that, we have behaved impiously toward God. We have doubted His provision for us, we have been negligent in our devotion, and we have not truly valued the pure Word and Sacrament as our highest good and treasure. If Luther were here now, he would say – as he did of his time – that the way of the world is the Lord disciplining us and teaching us to repent.
Let us, then, receive it as such – and be patient – because we know what awaits. Micah said, “You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as You have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” (v. 20) Micah praises God because, as bad as the world may be, evil will meet its end. Sin will be done away with, and the devil will eat the dust at our Lord’s return. The Lord will not be angry forever, but will return and have compassion. He will raise our bodies. Those who in this life despised the Lord will be forever put away, but we will live in joy and peace with our Lord and those who have gone before us. What a wonderful sight it will be to behold.
Here is where we get to the now-but-not-yet part. Here, again, the Holy Spirit makes a wonderful choice of words. In verse 19, you can see that the verbs are in the future tense. But in verse 18, the Spirit uses present tense verbs. God’s delight is in showing steadfast love. He now is pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression. With the other prophets, Micah saw ahead to the ministry of Christ. He saw that Jesus would take our sins into Himself. Micah saw what Jesus has done for us. He has fully obeyed the Law of God for us and with His sacrificial death, made payment for our sins against both God and neighbor. He has removed God’s wrath from us by bearing it Himself.
By His obedience of the Law and His death for us, Jesus won for us the forgiveness of our sins. This forgiveness is not something that He’s saving until later – to give to us only on the Last Day. No, this forgiveness He gives to you now. Here in the Absolution, in the Sacrament of the Altar, by our Baptism, and by faith in His Word, Jesus applies to you the forgiveness which He won for you. In these things, He covers your iniquity and passes over your transgressions. He does this so that, on that Final Day, you and I might stand before Him free from blame – not having righteousness of our own, but wearing His white robes. Though we suffer in this life, and are perhaps now undergoing discipline from the Lord, let us be encouraged by St. Micah. There is no God like our God, who freely loves and forgives. Let us wait for Him in patience, knowing that He will show us faithfulness and love just as He promised and as we now receive in Christ.