Preaching Through Micah at Christmas

I preached through Micah last year. Using the lectio continua method, I organized a series of sermons that spanned the Sundays from Thanksgiving to New Year's and focused on the messianic hope of this ancient Hebrew prophet. A summary of that series appears on these pages.

I am not suggesting that my outline represents the only or the best way of dividing up Micah. How one preaches through this book depends on several factors, including time of year and congregational needs. If I were to preach on Micah to a different congregation during July and August, for example, I would alter the series significantly.

When I first studied the book of Micah, I decided on several passages that appeared central to the theme of the book, that had particular significance for my congregation, and that were appropriate to the Christmas season. I selected three passages that deal with messianic hope: Micah 4:1—2, which speaks of the exaltation of Jerusalem in the last days; Micah 4:3, which speaks of the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares; and Micah 5:2, which speaks of the messianic ruler who will come from Bethlehem. Given a different situation, I might have devoted more attention to the theme of judgment at the beginning and end of the book and preached only a single sermon on Micah's messianic hope.

Sermon 1

Old Testament Lesson:
Micah 1:2-9
New Testament Lesson:
John 1:14-18

The lesson from Micah begins with the description of a theophany. God makes his presence known in judgment. It cannot be otherwise, because the people to whom he came had sinned grievously.

In this opening passage Micah preaches primarily against idolatry, an evil that ministers today should address more regularly. Although this sin has taken different forms in the twentieth century, idolatry is as alive today as it was in Micah's day. That becomes especially obvious around Christmas, when our cultural idolatries have a way of appearing in their most banal forms.

The New Testament lesson speaks of a theophany too. Christmas is, after all, the celebration of God making his presence known in Jesus Christ. As John 3:19 makes clear, the coming of Christ is a judgment that light has come into the world. Because God is holy, his presence is bad news to the wicked and good news to the godly.

The juxtaposition of these two texts raises a question: How are we, who are at the same time somewhat godly and somewhat wicked {simul Justus et peccator), to know God's presence "full of grace and truth"?

Sermon 2

Old Testament Lesson:
Micah 2:1-3:4
New Testament Lesson:
Luke 2:1-5

In this very long Old Testament lesson I have combined several oracles together that I might have preached on separately. God's judgment against crooked politicians, high taxes, and government confiscation of private property can hardly be ignored in a series of sermons on Micah. But although these themes constantly recurred in the series, only in this sermon did they become the central concern.

Hiller's commentary on Micah makes it clear that preachers of a socialist inclination have no monopoly on understanding Micah. Our prophet was a conservative country boy. I found that my congregation of Midwestern agricultural college graduates could relate to Micah's social criticism.

I chose the New Testament lesson because it implies that the earthly family of Jesus had lost its patrimony in Bethlehem and had had to move to a city far from home. But the sermon never got to that point. By the time I got through decrying the disappearance of the family farm, the family home, and the family business and had suggested that the trailer park had become a symbol of our culture, my congregation was sure that Micah was their favorite prophet.

Sermon 3

Old Testament Lesson:
Micah 3:5-4:4
New Testament Lesson:
John 1:1-14

Here again, the way I divided up the text was an essential part of my interpretation. In the previous sermon I had dealt with Micah's criticism of centralized government. Starting with Micah 3:5, our prophet turns to God's judgment against the priests and prophets of the religious establishment. Instead of teaching the Word of God, the priests taught for hire, and the prophets divined for money.

The commentaries show that chapter 4 begins a new oracle with a completely different message. Micah 4:1^ is an oracle of hope. I purposely put the word of judgment and the word of hope side by side. Micah, country boy though he was, had a messianic hope that was quite cosmopolitan. In the last day all peoples would come up to Jerusalem to be taught the ways of God. Calvin's commentary on this passage underlines the truth that the ministry of the church should be a ministry of the Word. The church, Calvin tells us, should be a "sanctuary of sacred wisdom."

I used the New Testament lesson to establish that since Christ is the Word, then his ministers should be ministers of the Word. Together the Old and New Testament passages gave me an opportunity to speak to the essential ministry of the church.Micah's messianic hope is that in the last day the gospel will be preached with such purity and such grace that the peoples of all the earth will stream up to Jerusalem to hear it. The gospel of Christmas has a missionary thrust.

Sermon 4

Old Testament Lesson:
Micah 4:1-5
New Testament Lesson:
Luke 2:8-18

Micah 4:3-4 brings us the famous oracle on the peace that God will establish in the Last Day. Luke 2:14 describes the proclamation of peace to the shepherds on the hillside of Bethlehem. The Christmas gospel is a gospel of peace—both the peace that Christians find in Christ now and the messianic peace that we await.

When I preached this sermon, peace was an important issue for my congregation. A number of our members were active in various peace organizations, and the secular press was giving considerable attention to various disarmament programs. I discussed some of these programs in my sermon, being careful to distinguish between the secular vision of peace and "the peace which passes all understanding." I ended my sermon with the words of Jesus: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27).

Sermon 5

Old Testament Lesson:
Micah 4:8-5:4
New Testament Lesson:
Matthew 2:1-12

As Matthew understood it, Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. When looked at in the light of Micah's whole message, that prophecy takes on rich meaning. Throughout my series on Micah I had made the point that Micah was a farm boy who was critical of big-city ways and big-city religion. To a farm boy like Micah, the news that the Messiah would come from a small town was of special significance.

I found in Micah 4:8-5:4 a significant statement of the messianic hope of Israel that would be fulfilled in the birth of the child of Bethlehem. Reading the text from 4:8 to 5:4 was essential to my interpretation.

Sermon 6

Old Testament Lesson:
Micah 6:1-8
New Testament Lesson:
John 1:1-12

This passage from Micah 6 is one of those Old Testament texts on which one can preach with very little reference to the New Testament. Its straightforward meaning is as significant today as it was when Micah wrote it.

Micah's question, "With what shall I come before the Lord?" (Micah 6:6), gives the preacher an opportunity to speak on how we are to experience God's presence. James Luther Mays points out that Micah does not require three things of us: justice, mercy, and humility. "The specific requirement is to do justice, which is a way of loving mercy, which in turn is a manifestation of walking humbly with God" (James L. Mays, Micah: A Commentary. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1976, p. 148).

In my sermon I developed this passage with the help of Amos 4:4-5 and 5:21-24, in which Amos criticizes the worship of ancient Israel. God's presence among his people demands justice and righteousness.

My second lesson, John's Prologue, served to tie the series together in a general way. I briefly helped the congregation see Micah's words in the light of the well-known Christmas lesson. Both John 1:12 and Micah 6:8 speak of that essential attitude of trust that God awaits from his people. When Christ comes to his own, we must receive him by faith. The fruit of that faith will be justice.

A Varied Menu

Having a marvelous choir and superb organist allowed these feasts for the Lord's day to be served with generous courses of praise and thanksgiving. Our organist was interested in Johann Pachelbel at the time, so we heard a series of his choral preludes on nativity hymns during the Christmas season. The choir presented a number of Heinrich Schutz's classical psalm arrangements.

The traditional Christmas music we sang and listened to each week complemented the general purpose of the series. I made a point of singing the psalms that Christians have always associated with Christmas—Psalms 2,18, 72,96—98, and 110. Psalm paraphrases such as Isaac Watts' setting of Psalm 98, "Joy to the World," and James Montgomery's version of Psalm 72, "Hail to the Lord's Anointed," are particularly appropriate in a Reformed church at Christmas.

Christian praise has its own place in worship. We should choose hymns, psalms, and anthems because of their own merit, not because of some prearranged theme for the service. I like to look at the service of worship as a meal of several courses. A full service of worship must have a course of praise, a course of the Word, a course of prayer, and a course of thanksgiving. Praise and prayers, after all, are not like the garnishes put on the single-plate lunch of some fast-food place.

In every service worshipers should hear and join in an echo of the ancient praise of Zion and an intimation of the canticles of the heavenly Jerusalem yet to come. If our chief end is indeed to glorify God, then the praise of God is a worthy end in itself and is not dependent on whether it

Hughes Oliphant Old is theological in residence at Princeton Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.


Reformed Worship 9 © September 1988, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.