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Sermon for January 19, 2020

Texts: Micah 6:1-8/1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Title: “When Obvious Isn’t Obvious”

Remember the last disagreement you had with someone over some issue the two of you could not resolve? Your take on the situation was so obvious that you couldn’t understand how anyone could argue the opposing view.

When I was younger and my dad was still living, the two of us regularly got caught in that thicket of conflicting opinions.  Man, he was stubborn.  I used to walk away from him shaking my head that he could be so wrong, and yet continue to argue his point.  Mind you, I did my best to set him straight but I never really succeeded.  If he were here today he would no doubt point out that I was no less stubborn than I accused him of being.

All in all, that proposition we assume to be obvious is not always regarded as such by someone else. The impeachment of our president is a case in point. On the one hand you have people who are dead set committed to the view that the president has violated his oath of office, while on the other hand you have those who are equally ardent in their view that that is not the case at all. The arguments good back and forth, the trenches have been dug, and neither of the opposing camps appears ready to yield their position. Each camp believes the obvious is staring his opponent square in the face.

There are reasons to explain why the obvious isn’t the obvious, aren’t there?  There are things out there you and I just don’t want to acknowledge, things we dismiss, or turn our backs on because they don’t conform to what we believe. Opinionated people, and we are all opinionated on some subject or other, have gates that remain closed to opposing opinion.

God’s prophets confronted opposing opinions by the score. After they became accustomed to their role through periods of trial and testing God’s prophets embraced their calling. They believed that God had set them apart for a special vocation, that they had a holy obligation to speak in God’s name. They were willing to suffer extraordinary hardship and denunciation for making that claim because they knew that in God’s good time God’s truth would prevail.

Those who opposed the prophets, however, had different ideas, and the reality they saw was just as obvious.  “Wait just a minute [they protested], the authority the prophets claim is a fraud. They speak only as their self-delusions dictate. We have no obligation to listen to them.”  You see the problem, don’t you? Neither side was prepared to listen to the other.

We give little credence to what others say or think when our minds are made up. In fact, the tenacity with which we hold on to our position typically increases when we feel threatened by the opposing point of view.

The prophet Micah was a posterchild for tenacity. His detractors were ready to take his life. Facing such prospects he might have yielded, but Micah wouldn’t back down.

Micah took his prophetic calling from God seriously enough to put himself in the crosshairs of his detractors. Though the verses we read this morning are perhaps the most well known verses in the entire book, the companion verses and chapters add important detail to the message Micah delivered.  His message can be summarized in a mere three words: woe, repentance, and judgment.

We shouldn’t be too quick to judge the people for ignoring him. They saw no reason to fear the devastation that Micah forecast. The skies were cloudless. Any storm the Lord might send would easily lose its force by the time it reached them, or, if worse came to worse, they could protect themselves if things got out of hand. It was obvious.

There stood Micah’s audience, the most recent Corps of Engineers’ certification clasped tightly in their fists. They felt safe and secure.  Micah, however, attacked the prevailing wisdom.  “You can forget about that certification, it won’t save you.” God fed him the lines we was to speak, “O my people, what have I done to you?  How have I wearied you?  Remember me?  I’m your God.”

The warning was easy to dismiss, for the Israelites were convinced that Micah was delusional. He was preaching nonsense. In matters of her relationships with the nations surrounding her she knew what was best. She had built alliances that would protect her from adversary’s threats.

The peoples’ arrogance stunned Micah. Did they think their status in the eyes of God was so privileged that obedience was no longer required? Did they think that merely professing their faith in God was sufficient to fulfill any obligation they owed God? Did they really think that prayers and sacrifices and other pious exertions were pleasing in God’s sight? Constantly reminding themselves that they were virtuous, the Israelites came to believe they were virtuous.

In our second lesson the Apostle Paul faced a situation quite unlike what Micah faced. The members of the Corinthian church did not attempt to substantiate their faith in false pieties and other claims to religious virtue. Instead, Paul faced an issue of a different sort.     The Corinthians were a community divided. It was obvious to the apostle that those divided allegiances were undermining what should have been their primary allegiance. Unfortunately, the Corinthians’ attachments to local favorites were not easily severed.  “Apollos is my guy.”  “No, Cephas is the man I respect.”  Others played the trump card, confidently asserting that they belonged to Christ.

The Apostle had his work cut out for him.  Why couldn’t people see what was so obvious to him?  The church, he insisted, only exists in and through Christ, its head. To claim a separate allegiance to the favorite pastor, he vigorously argued, made a mockery of the unity which was the chief mark of the church.

Paul, of course, fought an uphill battle in teaching that concept because no one in that Corinthian church was prepared to concede his or her position.  Allegiance was committed to the individual leader, and the individual principles the leader espoused, and this notion about the body of Christ that Paul was attempting to teach could not displace those allegiances.

Allegiances proliferate in the church today.  Now I’m not saying that there aren’t sound historical, biblical, and theological reasons to support our allegiance to the Presbyterian branch of Christ’s household, or someone else’s allegiance to the Methodist branch, the Lutheran branch, the Roman Catholic branch, or the growing non-denominational communities. But none of that is what Christ intended, not if allegiance to the branch displaces allegiance to the trunk from which the branch draws its nutrients.

One of the signs of grace we have seen repeatedly occur over the course of church history is the recovery of priority allegiance in the aftermath of national and international catastrophes. In the face of such events the church has been able to put aside grievances and unite around a common purpose, showing its best during times of trial and testing. The mission of the church at such times appears obvious, even to those whose allegiance had been focused on some particular priority commitment.

There are very good reasons, as Micah and Paul discovered, that the obvious isn’t obvious.  Micah saw the Israelites absorbed in strategies to placate God.    Fast forward to Paul and his battle against factionalism in the Corinthian church, the folks over there were content to do their own thing.  “Apollos is my guy.”  “Cephas is my guy.”

What God required seemed obvious to Micah and Paul.  Their allegiances to God were so profound that they could not understand how others could stray.  But stray they had.   The people had lost the message, placing their own agendas and preferences ahead of God’s.

Wise, sure they were wise.  In their self-conceit those Jews Micah addressed, and those Corinthians Paul addressed, thought they had the religion thing all figured out.  And, friends, that arrogance is still rampant in the church today. We have these extraordinary filters that filter out all that is uncomfortable and unpleasant, things we would rather not see about ourselves and the churches we support.  We are pros in that domain.  We come to church to be inspired, to be encouraged, to be blessed, and we feel cheated if the experience is a downer.  We want approval, not agitation, comfort, not confrontation. It’s just human nature.

The message the prophets carried, the message placed in the hands of the church to carry, is meant to agitate and confront as much as to bless and comfort.

It’s so obvious.  The God who loves and sustains us wishes to be loved in return.  Loved mind you, not on our terms, loved with the energies we can commit after we have taken care of our other priorities, but loved as a first priority.

“With what shall we come before the Lord?”  Micah looked out across the audience and he saw a multitude of banners proudly announcing, “I pray regularly.”  “I tithe.”  “I teach.”  “I preach.” “I serve on three committees.”  Micah looked out across the audience and he admired the gifts, talents, and commitment those people were willing to offer to the Lord.  He was moved. Then he turned his head and his eyes focused on rampant self-righteousness, cruelty, the arrogance of power, and the neglect of the weak.  And he could be heard to say, “What I require should be obvious to these.”

Obvious for God isn’t always obvious for us. If God’s agenda was obvious you and I would not need constant reminders about God’s priorities. As it is you and I live with an obstructed view of the world, a view obstructed by the narrow agendas that so often engage us.  However, if we continue to ask, “what does God require,” and earnestly live with the question and maintain a willingness to act when God calls, God will do amazing things.

You might want to consider this: two thousand years ago plus or minus a few years, God saw the state of the world, and in response he did the most amazing thing.  He took on flesh and became one of us, and as if that was not enough, he willing sacrificed his life for us.  Now that’s a pretty impressive commitment to make when humanity constantly spurned his attention, wasn’t it?

The obvious isn’t always obvious, but God has revealed that he will do anything and everything possible to demonstrate the obvious. And what is the obvious? Simply that God’s love for us, and his commitment to us, will never end. Thanks be to God.

Eternal God, you are the peace we crave and the hope that sustains us. You are the truth that undergirds our lives.  We have come here today to honor you, even as our spirits yearn for your comfort presence and consolation.

O Lord, you have taught us that your strength is perfected in our weakness, yet we fear our vulnerability. We bear our burdens alone and in silence, reluctant to confess that we need help. But, you, O God, have a better plan for us, a plan whose principal basis is trust. But how shall we trust you, we who so readily doubt your presence with us? O Lord, grant us the courage to confess our weakness, and the faith to place our lives and futures in your hands.

Heavenly Father, in every age your church has suffered divisions. In our parochialism we have failed to do what justice and righteousness demand.  Lord, help us to avoid the mistakes and misjudgments to which we are prone, that we might establish our identities around Christ’s unifying center.  May the decisions we make in your name reflect your holy will and fulfill your holy purposes.

O Savior, we thank you for the church and its ministry.  We thank you for the persons whose efforts and sacrifices have been so prominent in the witness of this ministry, and pray that all of who worship here may be sustained by your word.

O Spirit divine, we pray your blessing on those who suffer adversity and loss. Strengthen the faint hearted and weary. Abide with those who have succumbed to temptation and are being forced to suffer the consequences of their deeds. Be with the ill and convalescing, and sustain the caregivers on whom they depend.

Lord we pray that praise and thanksgiving may be the signature of this ministry and each of our lives. And may your Word be a continuing source of encouragement and strength particularly in those times when we find ourselves stressed and vulnerable.

O Lord, our Lord, these prayers but imperfectly represent the content of our hearts, or the vastness of our concerns, but we pray in confidence knowing that each prayer earnestly prayed in your name is a worthy offering to place at your feet.  With confidence and thanksgiving borne of the hope we have found in Jesus Christ, we unite our several voices into one unified voice praying the prayer Jesus himself taught us: