“What have I done to make you not listen to me any more? What have I done to you to be treated with contempt? You and I have known each other a long time. We’ve been through a lot together, so answer me this … What have I done to earn your scorn, to be so easily discounted and ignored by you?” With these words of God the trial begins. (3) “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! With these words the case is brought forward.
And God had every right to bring His case against the people of Israel. He had every right to make public the controversy He had with them. The mountains and the hills would be witness to all that is about to be said, for they have, from the beginning, been witness to all that God has done for His ungrateful people. Time and time again God has been patient, merciful and kind beyond all reason, and yet they treat Him with contempt and scorn. God’s demand to be answered cannot be fulfilled for the people are guilty as charged.
“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” God says. While the people are guilty God is not. Have they forgotten the bondage they were once in, or the mighty acts of power that saved them? Have they forgotten the death of the first-born and the Lord’s Passing Over of those sprinkled by the blood? Have they so easily dismissed the mighty leaders He sent before them to bring them safely home? The Faithful Priests to bring their sacrifices and prayers before the throne of God? The Prophets and Prophetesses who proclaimed God’s unchanging Word to every Generation?
O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.” God says. Do they choose not to remember that when Earthly rulers and false prophets tried to turn them back all their evil schemes were turned to good. The might of armies could not stop God’s people. Curses became blessings in the mouths of the enemy. Why even when Israel had brought disgrace upon herself by doing the very things her enemies couldn’t do to her – prostituting herself to false gods and marrying into the very peoples that sought to destroy her – God still would not abandon her. He brought them through cleansing to renewal and the restating of the ancient covenants anew. He gave them what they didn’t deserve, the Promised Land, and more importantly, His forgiveness and mercy.
There’s no denying what God has done, so how do the people respond? “Fine! You’re right He’s a nice guy. Can’t argue one bit. What does God want from us?” “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” If He wants me to do church I’ll do church! I’ll do it as often as I have to. “Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” If He wants the best my money can buy I’ll buy it! You name it, I’ll pay for it … it’s the least I can do! Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” You name it God! Whatever it’ll take I’ll be happy to do. Name your price.
By their very answers to the charges brought before them you can plainly see just how wrong their ideas are! They are all self-serving and self-aggrandizing. They’re all a matter of man’s works! These people are literally trying to bribe God with the hollow and meaningless observance of religious rituals. Buy Him off with money and good intentions. They would even seek to pay for His favour with an abominable sacrifice demanded by the very pagan gods that He detests. They just don’t get it do they!?!
But then again, sometimes neither do we! What does God want from us? (8) He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? “Oh, sure,” comes our answer. “Is that all? I did that just the other day!” Right? Well, OK, I’ll get to it as soon as I can.
Has not God shown us the same glorious saving works as He did the people of old? Did He not free us from the very bonds of sin, death, and hell when He brought us safely through the waters of Holy Baptism? Does He not provide for us a valiant and untiring leader in Jesus to see us safely through the hardships and trials of this world to our Heavenly Promised Land? Does He not continuously provide His people with faithful pastors and church workers to bring your prayers and needs before the Lord, to administer His precious gifts of the Word and Sacraments? And has He not provided each and every one of you with His same unchanging Words of Love and Grace and Promise in the Holy Scriptures?
Has He not kept you from so much harm and terror that could have befallen you? Personal guardian angels in constant watch over us, shielding and defending us from the assaults of the evil one. Turning those things that should lead to our detriment, into un-looked-for blessings? Has He not provided each and every one of us with more material blessings than we could ever possibly use in our lifetime? And are they not renewed every single day? Has He not time and time again cleansed us of our sins and renewed His promises to us even though we don’t deserve them? Has He not forgiven us freely in the Lord’s Supper, that He might guarantee this new covenant in His Son’s Body and Blood?
There’s no denying what God has done, so how do we often respond? “Fine! You’re right He’s a nice guy. Can’t argue one bit. What does God want from me? I go to church when I can. I’d be there more often if I could. I try to give when I’m able. I just don’t always have any left over at the end of the month. I pray and read my Bible when time permits. I give to special projects when they come up. I even mean to get to Bible Study one of these years. “What more does God want?”
If you search deep down in your heart, you will find that what we can so easily see and judge in the Israelites of old, is not so very far from any of us today. We too struggle with wrong ideas about what God wants. Sometimes from the depths of our sinful hearts will creep in this idea that God can be bought. Paid Off. Bribed by our good works and our even better intentions. If only we support Him like we do the United Way, or World Vision, then He will be satisfied. Go to church to prove our sincerity. Put a little something in the plate to prove our good will. If we put in some time, or effort, or financial support then it must be worth something to God. The sinful heart just doesn’t get it!
Perhaps that is why there is such great irony in these words of God’s sinful and fallen people. (7) Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Because we just don’t get it – because we often think that God can be treated like we treat one another, God the Father did indeed have to give up His one and only Son. Not for His sins – God is innocent in all of this – but for our transgression, for the sin of our souls!
He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? These words are not simply what God wants from us, they are what God Himself has done for us! Jesus came to fulfill all heavenly justice when He lived out his earthly life by the standard of God’s Holy Word. Absolute perfection as required by God’s Law. And then in Justice was the price of human failure paid. The debt of sin is death itself, and that is what is paid by Jesus. And all of this He did, not because He owed it – He is innocent in all of this – but out of His unfailing love and loyalty and commitment to us. This kindness is at the very heart of all God’s actions toward mankind. An incomprehensible compassion and mercy for those who are helpless. This also explains why the Son of God would stoop so low as to place himself in our stead, under the law, upon the cross that belonged to us. Of all people Jesus truly walked humbly with God, even as He walked side by side with us.
He is the leader that brings us safely to the promised land. He is our high priest before the throne of the Father. He alone pleads on our behalf and brings our prayers before the one who will answer. He is the very Word made flesh, God’s ultimate truth for us sinful men. He has defeated sin death and the devil. He is the one who changes even the curses of this fallen world into eternal blessings for those who turn to Him. He has done what God wants. He has saved us.
Dear friends, by our own works, on our own merits we cannot stand before the LORD, and bow ourselves before God on high. Not all the best offerings our money can buy, not the very best intentions of our hearts and wills can ever be good enough. God will never be pleased with us if we think we can earn his favour or kindness. He is not the kind of God who could ever be bought-off by kindness or good deeds. Only the perfect sacrifice of His one and only Son could satisfy the demands of Holy justice. Only the boundless mercy, love, and kindness of our Saviour could ever bridge that gap of sin. Only the perfect obedience of Son of God walking with us under the Law could give us the opportunity to walk with God in Heaven. On our own we could never hope to do it. In Christ it is already done!
So what then is left? It is just as we sang in stanza four of our hymn: “Hope of the world, who by the cross didst save us from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt: we render back the love thy mercy gave us; take thou our lives and use them as thou wilt.” Or as we read in the beautiful words of the prophet Micah: (8) He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? What does God want? First and foremost, He wants a life of repentance. A life that looks not to what we deserve but to the great mercies He has bestowed in Christ Jesus. Rejoice in His gifts freely given, give thanks by using them, and sharing them every day. This is what God wants.