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Sunday, April 25, 2021

IF It Is a Boy, Kill Him!

 Exodus 1: 8- 2:10

Charles J. Tomlin, April 25th, 2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 3/20


Exodus 1:8–2:11 (NRSV): Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.     

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”


2 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”



Dear People of God, when Pharaoh told these midwives ‘to kill the boys’: it says that because ‘they feared God they did not do as the King of Egypt commanded’ (v.17) and ‘they let the boys live’.    

Certainly, this kind of defiance against authority goes against the normal way we think of we should respect authority, doesn’t it? 

In fact, psychiatry labels ODD, or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” as a type of human dysfunction.   In most levels of ‘polite society’ the preference has been compliance rather than defiance.   The defiant person has been considered the ‘problem’ person, or the ‘trouble-maker’, while the compliant and conforming person are considered well-adjusted and most preferred.   Then most defiant and deviant are to  be institutionalized, imprisoned or sent away to fend for themselves.



However, there are also exceptions too.   There are some people who don’t and won’t fit in, because they shouldn’t.  These defiant and deviant persons have had the courage to intentionally defy and disobey a way, rule, or a power that is unfair or unjust.  

In this opening in Exodus, two midwives, one named Shiphrah and the other, Puah, act in defiance of Pharaoh’s command.   Most interestingly, these women don’t do this because they are fearless, but because they ‘fear God’ more than they fear Pharaoh.   They have a certain ‘courage’ of their convictions about about God’s justice that they dare not give in the unjust order by a tyrant King.

As we consider how God requires us to do justice, the courage of these midwives points us to dare to defy human injustice too.   We see this same kind of daring deviance in the life of Jesus too,  when He began deliberately broke Sabbath law because it had become a way to overlook the needs of the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and the needy.   As the Christian movement took off in the book of Acts,  the first Christians intentionally continued to defy authority and preached Jesus explaining how they had to ‘obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).    Without a spirit of defiance for what was right and just, there would have been no Jesus, no Christianity, and if you know your American history, there would have been no America either.  They didn’t call it the ‘Revolution’ for nothing.  

Of course, the most challenging question is when or how should authority be resisted or opposed.   While Jesus and early Christianity were disobey for specific the purpose of being obedient to God,  the normal way of being Christian is to show respect for authorities and powers who represent God’s own rule and authority in the world..  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,”  Paul wrote to the Romans,  ‘for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.’  In addition to this, Paul adds even more seriously, “Whoever resists authority, resists what God has appointed”  and they will, he says, ‘incur judgment’ (Rom. 13: 1-2). 

This kind of ‘respect’ for authority sounds as if it’s the Bible’s last word on the subject, until you turn over to Revelation 13, where Christians are suffering under the authority of the Beast who would demand not only allegiance, but also their worship.  Fearing great religious persecution in Rome because the beast who ‘makes war on the saints’ John must recommend the exact opposite of Paul saying, ‘if you must be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you must be killed with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.  This calls for the endurance of the saints’ (Rev. 13:10), John says.   

What John means is not only defiance, but faith may also call for the ultimate sacrifice of certain death.  Certainly, the example we have in Jesus Christ is not that of an Lord who came into the world riding on a Magic Carpet, but a Lord who came into Jerusalem riding humbly on a donkey to willingly die on a cross.   Jesus died defying the way of injustice in Israel and his love still confronts the injustice of this world with the call for humble obedience to God’s righteousness that opposes the haughty, destructive and unjust ways of human power and sin.   And because the world is still very much unrighteous, unjust and sinful, even as mostly compliant Christians, are sometimes required to take a path of defiance toward injustice today too.

Did you see the movie with that exact title, “Defiance”?   The James Bond actor, Daniel Craig starred in an 2008 war film based on the book of the same title.  It told the story of Jewish opposition forces, led by two Polish Jewish brothers who, after their parents were killed, hid in the deep forests of Belarus and recruited other Jewish men to attack Nazi’s Einsatzgruppen sweeping across eastern Europe in WWII.   Up against impossible odds, they led attack after attack on the Nazi’s.  Even though the Soviets refused to help them, the survivors of these unorganized Jewish forces defied the evil powers, rescued others and created a hidden village of some 1,200 people who survived to the very end of the war.

           When injustice raises it’s ugly head in this world, it calls for intentional and  ‘oppositional’ defiance from God’s people, rather obedient compliance.   Just like this courageous defiance shown by Shiphrah and Puah are remembered in our Bible.  We are told their names because they did what was right and just, but  Pharaoh is never named and even to this day.  After 3,500 years scholars still argue over which Pharaoh this could have been.  All we know is that he was the Pharaoh who had the ‘wool pulled over his eyes’ by these righteous women, not once, but twice.  For when he realized his plan to ‘kill the males’ wasn’t working, he confronted these Midwives, who invented a new story to fool him once again.    





Of course, we’ve answered the question of ‘what’ these midwives did, but ‘why’ did they do it?    Why did these midwives defiantly display what Jews today still call ‘ometz lev’,  ‘civic courage’ which for them, could have meant death? 

            Our text sets the stage for their just defiance by telling us of all the unfair, unjust deeds that were taking place under this new Pharaoh, who ‘didn’t know Joseph’ (v.8).   According to the book of Genesis, the Hebrews came to Egypt due to a terrible drought in Israel.   They were able to seek refuge and became refugees in Egypt because Joseph, one of Israel’s most gifted sons, had incredibly rose up to become the secretary of Economics.   But now, Joseph is long gone, and this new Pharaoh, has no clue who Joseph was, and sees an economic and security advantage to making the Hebrews ‘second class citizens’ by making slaves out of them.  The Hebrew refugees had so greatly increased in number that this Pharaoh became intimidated by them, and chose to ‘oppress them with forced labor’ (1:11). 

           This isn’t an unfamiliar story in world history, or American history either.   Whether for ‘economic’ reasons,  and sometimes out of ‘fear’ too,  human beings have demonized, ‘oppressed’ and made slaves to be keep outsiders subservient.   We don’t like to face this kind dark side of the human story, but we need to remember, because this is the part of the saving story of the Bible and the story of Jesus Christ too.  The good news of the gospel comes straight out of this dark side of the human story to us, whether we are the perpetrators or the persecuted in the story.  

The identity of Jesus comes right out of this kind of God’s story. When Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll to announce his call to ministry to his own hometown, he read straight from a passage, identifying himself as the new Moses, the one ‘whom the Spirit’ has come upon ‘to bring good news to the oppressed’..., to ‘set at liberty the captives’, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor on those who suffer injustice, announcing God’s ‘vengance’ upon those who are on the wrong side of history (Isaiah 61:1ff).  

           We seem to forget, way too easily too, that the story of the Bible is not a story about heroes who were popular, famous, and much beloved, but the Bible is the story of God’s chosen people and prophets who were courageous enough to defy wayward earthly powers and often ended up in a life or death struggle sometimes surviving, sometimes thriving, but sometimes dead too, but were on the right side of history; which was on the side of God’s saving story.  

The midwives in Exodus were on the right side history.  So was Moses’ mother, who chose to have a child, even when many didn’t take the risk.  Pharaoh’s daughter was on the right side of history too, because she defied her father’s command and let the child live.  Miriam, Moses’ sister, was also on the Right side of God’s story, because she had the audacity to approach Pharaoh’s daughter to secretly ask that Moses’ own mother serve as a ‘wet nurse’ for the child. 

           Later, as the story of Moses continues in chapter 4, in the very unexpected and strange story about how Moses refused to have his own son circumcised and then God threatened to kill him, Moses’ wife Zipporah, took a knife and circumcise the child herself, courageously intervening and rescuing Moses,, this time from God’s own anger.   Over and over, in these early pages of the Bible, it’s the women who had the ‘courage to challenge authority and defy conventional expectations, answering the higher call of conscious so that God’s highest purposes are served.  

           We see more stories like this all through Israel’s story.   Rahab, the Arab ‘lady of the evening’ saved Israel’s spies and redeemed her own life too by defying her own military.  Ruth, went against modest expectations to claim for herself a kinsman redeemer.  Then, there’s also Esther, who even dared to defy a King to save her own people.  Then, of course, we also read about David’s and his men too, who respected, but went against King Saul’s wishes when he lost his ability to lead.   In the same way,  most all the Hebrew prophets defied and went against Kings and popular expectations to speak for God’s justice, rather than allow injustice to continue unabated throughout the land.  There was often a love-hate relationship in Israel’s history with annoying, but true and saving message of her justice-seeking prophets.

           The often uncomfortable relationship between Israel and her prophets reminds me of a Presbyterian minister who was pastor of a neighboring church when I served in Greensboro.  We got to know one another through community work.  One day we were talking in his study, and I remember him talking about how he was challenging his people to respond to social needs in the community.  I jokingly commented that I thought most of his people were wealthy republicans.  

He answered, ‘they are.  I’m probably the only Democrat in the entire church and when I thunder about their social responsibility to their community, they come out the door and thank me for preaching the true word of God’s justice and keeping them honest.’ 

When I heard that I responded, ‘Wow,  you actually have the liberty to preach the gospel truth and your congregation expects God’s truth to challenge and disturb them.  We used to be able to do that in Baptist churches too, but now it seems, you have to preach what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear.           



           What we most need to hear about this righteous of defiance, is that it isn’t a call for defiance for the sake of defiance, but this defiance is a call to justice that is being inspired for the sake of displaying God’s compassion and mercy.   Isn’t this exactly why the Midwives refused to allow the Hebrew ‘male children’ to be killed?  Isn’t it also why Pharaoh’s daughter defied her own father?  She heard the baby crying in the basket floating in the bulrushes and she ‘took pity on him’.  

           This is exactly what took place in back in 1982,  when a famous Israeli General’s son, Colonel Eli Geva, defied and announced to his superiors that he would not lead an attack on Beirut against the Palestinians.   He told them that every time he looked into his binoculars and prepared to attack, all he could see was children.  For his defiance Colonel Geva was dismissed and dishonorably discharged by Israel’s military.  His defiance became an intentional act of Civil Disobedience against a move that was unjust. 

Geva was following a path of non-violent resistance to power that in the modern world had been paved by the American Writer Henry David Thoreau,  who asserted that sometimes you have to choose to do what is ‘right’ over what is in the law, and when people rightly prepare for it, the best government can be no government, since no citizen should have to resign conscience to a legislator.’   While you can take Thoreau wrongly and live without regard for law and others, in reality Thoreau went into the woods to resist unjust human laws, appealing to the greatest law placed within the human spirit, the law of compassion and justice for all.  

           It was this higher law of compassion and justice for all that caused Mahatma Ghandi to peacefully defy British rule to free India, just as it was the higher law of compassion and justice that cause Nelson Mandela to resist the injustice of Apartheid in South Africa.   In my own lifetime too, and closer here at home, it was the higher law of compassion and justice that led Martin Luther King Jr. to defy and march against the injustice of segregation here in the deep south.   I recall visiting Washington DC., late in the summer of 1968 the very week Resurrection City of the Civil Rights Movement was being dismantled and asking my uncle pastor what all the fuss was about.  I didn’t get any kind of explanation or serious response.   

           Although Dr. King never got to visit that Resurrection city, he was on the right side of history because he stood up to defy the injustice of his world, sometimes even defying the wishes of his own fellow-ministers and pastors.   In a letter Dr. King wrote from a Birmingham Jail,  when black ministers and leaders asked him not to Birmingham, after he was arrested, he wrote from jail that there are two types of laws in the world, ‘just and unjust’.  Then he went on to explain his reasons for defying both Jim Crow and even their advice to stay away.  ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’    

As the Hungarian Jewish thinker has written, ‘true courage is to never let your actions be influenced by your fears’.  To that courageous spirit I would add what that writer learned later, we must also let our courage be guided by God’s love for all people.   Isn’t this compassionate sense of justice we see in those two Midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, that God still longs to see in all of us?  Amen.


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Shall Not the Judge of all the Earth Do Right?

Genesis 18: 16-33

Charles J. Tomlin, April 18th, 2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 2/20


16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.

 17 The LORD said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,

 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?1

 19 No, for I have chosenhim, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him."

 20 Then the LORD said, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!

 21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."

 22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.1

 23 Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?

 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?

 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"

 26 And the LORD said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake."

 27 Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.

 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there."

 29 Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it."

 30 Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there."

 31 He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it."

 32 Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."

 33 And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.  (Gen. 18:16-19:1 NRS)  


Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece about Joshua Harris, the former youth leader and Christian writer, who wrote the very popular book during the 1990’s entitled, “Why I Kissed Dating Goodbye”.    You may remember that Harris was the leader of the “True Love Waits Movement” which stressed purity in teenage premarital relationships.   

Unfortunately, the title of the article, mimicking his book title, was “Joshua Harris Kisses Christianity Goodbye”.   Due to several factors, especially the negative impact the rigid perspective had on many young girls and their marriages, has caused Harris to lose his faith in Jesus.   He explained, “The brand of Christianity that I practiced was so specific, and was so tied to thinking certain ways, certain practices...  “I’m having to figure out what does that mean”, since “my relationship to God was those things.”

The article concluded with a ray of hope.   As of August, 2019, in light of everything that had happened, Harris was still ‘questioning’ whether he can let go of ‘those things’ without letting go of God.   He said: “Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”  The writer of the article, a Christian herself, Jillian Kay Melchior, says that she’s ‘hopeful’ that Harris will work through his faith struggle and unanswered questions.  ‘Abandoning untrue beliefs is progress, and a faith that doesn’t allow the toughest inquiry isn’t worth believing.’    However, as of today, two years later, Joshua Harris is no longer a Christian.   The once mega-pastor has fully lost all faith in God and now runs a business of story writing for businesses.   

            This story of ‘questioning’ faith in God ended in a different place than this ancient story about Abraham’s own questions and protests to God.    It’s too bad that Joshua Harris made a demanded conclusions rather than allowing for questions.   As the late Baptist Pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick used to say, it’s  very important, especially when it comes to faith in God, to allow for doubts and then, to also be able to ‘doubt your doubts’.

            In the story we are considering today, Abraham has doubts and questions about what God is planning for Sodom and Gomorrah.    God has just informed Abraham how the ‘outcry’ (Gen. 18:20) concerning Sodom’s sin is very serious (CEB).  While we aren’t told exactly what this sin is, the sexual sin that takes places later has been dominate in the popular mind, but the prophets later that the greater issues was their ‘pride’ (Isa. 13:19) based on their prosperity.  This led to an attitude of ease that led a neglect to aid the poorand needy (Ez. 16:49).   

After hearing about God’s plan to bring annihilation upon the city, Abraham feels the need to protest, raising important questions concerning righteousness and justice.  But of course, this is God we are talking about.  Confronting God isn’t something Abraham takes lightly either.   During this entire dialogue, Abraham approaches God both reverently and respectfully, but no less deliberate.   The central question Abraham raises is one that still echoes through the ages.




Does your faith have the freedom to raise questions, even to question God?   What we must understand about the dialogue going on here is that everything took place within a relationship of trust.  God and Abraham are partners in their covenant with each other.   As the text unfolds God is concerned about not doing this deed behind Abraham’s back, saying:  “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do...?”  Also, Abraham is concerned about God reputation in making this decision: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous along with the wicked?”.  

In a trusting relationship there should be no limits on the questions that can be raised, as long as, those questions are raised with respect for those who are in the relationship.    And this relationship between Abraham is definitely, a long-term, trusting, and understanding relationship.  

Still, the core question that Abraham asks is quite remarkable.  “Will not the judge of the earth do what is right?”  In his relationship with God Abraham has been a person of utter obedience.  When God called, Abraham uprooted his family and followed God’s voice, not knowing where he was going.  When God established a covenant signified by Circumcision, Abraham obeyed without hesitation.   When God made the promise that he would have an heir, even in his old age, he didn’t doubt God and laugh, like his wife Sarah did.   And even when  God demanded from Abraham the unthinkable, to offer his only Son Issac as a ‘sacrifice’ to God,  Abraham was prepared to go through with it, until the angel stopped him.   There has been on Abraham’s part an unquestioned faith with no ‘objections’ to God’s will whatsoever, up until now.

At the heart of Abraham’s question is whether or not God, the judge of the whole earth will prove to be unjust by killing potentially innocent people, along with the guilty.   Abraham, as person whom God has chosen to ‘keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice’ (19), after hearing what God is planning,  ‘came near’ to raise an unavoidable question, because of the way God has called him to go and because he has an established ‘friendship’  and relationship with God.   In other words, Abraham is so close to God that he not only feels he can raise questions, but Abraham feels he must and that it is his obligation to do so.

Elie Wiesel, the Jewish philosopher and Rabbi, who was a Holocaust survivor, speaking out of his own experience of great suffering, once said that ‘to be Jew means to serve God by speaking up for people, even while we need God ourselves.”   It’s very much like that Martin Niemoeller quote, I often remind us of,  that Niemoeller learned the hard way as a German Pastor during rise of Nazism: 

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.

Then the came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There are many things we can learn from Abraham, and from the Jews, and from other Christians, like pastor Martin Niemoeller.   As Wiesel said, ‘Sometimes we need to interrogate God!,  as long as we do it with respect and sincerity of a just and righteous heart, like Abraham did.   

Just like Jews believe it is healthy to have a relationship with God where we can ‘ask questions’; even Christians should feel free to raise questions too.   Isn’t this what Jesus was doing, just before he went to the cross, praying in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me?”  (Mt. 26:39).  That’s was a very big question, which not only reveals Jesus’ own desire for life, but we also see Jesus desire for eternal life revealed being when out of great respect for God’s will, Jesus then returns to pray a second time, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Your will be done!” (Mt. 26:42). 




            Now, let’s think for a moment about ‘why’ Abraham is questioning God.   This is who God has chosen him to be.   Abraham is not simply questioning God on his own terms, but on God’s own terms because the image of God is still in him. Abraham is doing what Deuteronomy summarizes as the most essential agenda in life: ‘Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you (Deut. 16:20 NRS).

            The word ‘justice’ here, and also in our text is the Hebrew word, tsadakah, which not only means to do what is ‘right’ or ‘fair’, but it also carries the idea of doing what’s right for the sake of being compassionate.    Since God is full of compassion, Abraham isn’t afraid of asking questions.   His question is because of his relationship with God and not because he is questioning this relationship.  

            If you got to see the play Hamilton, there was intentional and dramatic contrast made between the cold, calculated, demanding presence of King George of England, and the cooperation and shared desire for freedom taking place in the colonies.   Now, I’m certainly not saying that the American Colonies where altogether perfect or without flaws, nor am I saying that everything in England was evil or cruel.   I’m sure there was a mixture of good and evil in both then as there is now.  But one thing you could clearly understand was that the American colonies believed it would be better to live in a land where questions could be raised, debated, and authority challenged, than to live in a land where it was only one unapproachable authority and royal power that was unquestioned and was practically unquestionable, except through war.     

            This is human need to question power and authority shouldn’t be overlooked in this great Old Testament story too.   The picture of God shared with us here is very different than how most Jews and Christians today understand God.  Abraham’s God is approachable, down to earth, relatable, and his ways could be questioned too, as Abraham does.  Of course, for us as Christians, we have Jesus who makes God relatable to us, and Abraham’s God of old, seems much more human like Jesus, than the lofty, deistic, and distant God that many imagine.

            Perhaps this is the most important thing we need to understand about Abraham’s own sense of justice that brings him to raise questions to God.   It is our questions, not our answers, than enable us to grow, develop, and strengthen our own sense of righteousness and justice.   Without the ability to ask questions, and the freedom to do so, we would never become the moral people God has called us to be.

            Years ago, Naomi Rosenblatt, was a Jewish psychologist, living in Washington D.C., who was also a very devout believer.   She often held a Bible Study and several very important Senators, and other politicians, both Jew and Christian, attended her weekly Bible Study.   She wrote a book from one of those studies on Genesis, and commenting on this story about Abraham, she tells about a mother and her young daughter who were driving through town and came upon a homeless man with this dog beside him.   The little girl blurted out,  “Mommy,  Will that doggie have not have any food tonight?”  Hearing her little girl being more concerned for the dog than the man, gave her pause.  “Did I not teach my little girl better than to feel more compassion for a dog than a homeless person?”  

            Of course, we know that is how children talk about things they can’t express or don’t want to think about, but the mother was thinking about something we all need to think about; how do we teach empathy for others?  It’s so easy to become completely self-centered and to get our feelings and emotions misplaced.   The way to help our children, and to help our world learn to reflect upon human need, is to allow for questions that we should be thinking and talking about.   Asking questions is so important throughout the biblical story.   God questioned Adam.  Prophets questioned Kings.  Jesus questioned the Sadducees and the Pharisees.   There’s no way to grow as a human being in understanding our greatest human need, without the ability and the freedom to ask questions.   This is one of the most important human traits of all; to ask questions and to allow ourselves to be questioned too.

            Abraham is questioning God because he ‘cares’ and has compassion on others, even sinners.   Abraham is doing exactly what God wanted him to do, when God ‘choose him to keep the way of righteousness and justice. “  By ‘sticking his neck out’ to express concern about the possibility of ‘innocent’ people being in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is doing exactly what Cain refused to be; ‘his brother’s keeper’.   

     Like the couple in Ohio last year, when the Pandemic hit and they were unable to have their large wedding reception.   They had already order the food, so instead of throwing it away, the bride and groom left their small family reception, and took the food to a women’s shelter downtown and shared it and served it to those in need.   





     This couple in Ohio ended up doing what Abraham was doing.  He was thinking about the other guy.  This could be reason this story even appears in our Bible.  Why else would a Book that promotes God, report a story about a human appearing to take God to task?   Abraham isn’t just learning how the ‘judge of the world’ does ‘right’ and is ‘just’, but Abraham is learning to be the very kind of person God has chosen and called him to be; a person of faith who keeps the way of righteousness and justice.  

      Is this any different than we, and all people of Abrahamic faith are called to be?  Aren’t we called to be people who keep the way of righteousness and justice?  Humans who obey God’s law and pursue justice must even be willing to question our own understanding of God, and to call into question any kind of authority or power that would intend to bring harm, hurt, or to neglect human need.  

     The true hope of human questioning, human protest, or any negotiation with authority or power, is to speak up for what we perceived to be right, and to pursue justice for everyone.  This is precisely what Abraham was doing when he raised his concern with God, asking God unashamedly his question made in behalf of justice and righteousness,  ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’  

     All through this text Abraham respectfully protests for righteousness at the same time he is negotiates for this entire wicked city to be spared, even if only a few righteous are found there.  Isn’t this the same way of justice and righteousness we are still called and chosen to keep, as God’s people today?   Even though there were no righteous left in Sodom and Gomorrah,  Abraham’s willingness and courage to come before God and to make his case for justice and to peacefully protest for and to respectfully promote righteousness, still serves as an example to us.   

            The kind of courage Abraham had is needed from us in the many difficult moral situations we face.   We may not like to think about it, but life doesn’t always have easy answers.  Abraham’s question about ‘sweeping away the righteous with the wicked’ is precisely what comes to mind  when you think about the decision during World War II to fire bomb Dresden, Germany.   The city had no military significance at all, but was only bombed out of retaliation and to weaken German morale, which it probably did, but at what great human cost.  25 to 35,000 civilians were killed, mostly women, children, and the elderly.  I’ve spoken to some of the survivors who were able to barely escape, and all they could talk about were the horrible sight of fire tornados and the smells of burning human flesh.   

The same kind of moral question can be applied to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.  Thousands of innocents were killed and at that time, Nagasaki held the highest concentration of Japanese Christians in all of Japan; the great hope of missionary outreach.  But it was all taken away in a flash of light and horrible destruction.   Was it worth it?  Of course, we weren’t there, and it’s not our duty to judge, but it is our duty to raise the question ourselves in the moral dilemma’s still face, as whether police tactics should be challenged to protect those who aren’t violent offenders, or whether capital punishment should be carried out when there is risk of executing the innocent.  It still takes the courage of Abraham to raise questions like this.     

Interestingly, however, this text isn’t only an example for us to stand up for justice, but this biblical story also proves just how God himself is just in all God does and desires for us.   This is why God allows Abraham to question him, even inviting him to do so by purposely informing him.   The true God has nothing to hide.  With God’s openness to questions,  God paves the way for all kinds of human power or authority to have to prove that they too are pursuing justice and righteousness for everyone.  If not, God’s righteous judgement will expose them for their own lack of compassion and their failure to do what is right.

What will you see and commit to do by taking seriously such a remarkable story as this?  We are hearing a lot more about justice, and social justice, these days, aren’t we?  Certainly the story for justice marches on and must continue to be written in an imperfect and incomplete world like ours.  As Congressman John Lewis used to report about himself, having been arrested over 40 times,, Sometimes you have to be prepared to get into ‘good trouble.’   Isn’t this what Abraham was prepared to do, as he challenged God’s justice and became who God chose him to be, a keeper of the ‘way of righteousness and justice’?    What about you?  Will you also be a keeper of the sense of rightness and fairness God has placed within you?  Amen.








Sunday, April 11, 2021

What Does The Lord Require

Preached by Charles J. Tomlin, April 11th, 2021,

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

New Series: Stories of Justice and Mercy 1/20

Micah 6: 1-8

"Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.

 2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

 3 "O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

 4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

 5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD."

 6 "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?

 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

 8 He has told you, O mortal, 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? (Mic. 6:1-8 NRS)


A classical music concert was once held in Philadelphia.   One of the pieces played by the orchestra featured a flute solo. This solo was to be played offstage so that it would sound as if coming from a great distance. The conductor had instructed the flutist to count the measures precisely in order to come in at the exact time.  With the flutist offstage, there could be no visual contact between the two of them.

On the night of the performance, when the time came for the flute solo, the flutist counted perfectly and came in precisely at the right time. The light, lilting notes floated out beautifully across the theater. Suddenly, however, there was a terrible shrieking noise and then the soloist went silent. The conductor was outraged. At the end of the piece he rushed off stage to find the flutist. The flutist was ready for him.

“Maestro,” he said, “Before you say anything let me tell you exactly what happened. You’re not going to believe it. As you are aware I came in precisely on time and everything was going beautifully. Then suddenly--this enormous stage hand ran up and grabbed away my flute. Then he pushed me back and snapped at me. “Shut up, you idiot!” he said, “Don’t you know there’s a concert going on out there?” (K. Duncan)

About a year and one month ago, life was going on as it should, and suddenly we we all interrupted and pushed back by the Corona Virus.  This once-in-a-lifetime interruption has made us all reflect about what really does matter, what are we supposed to be doing,  and what is expected of us in this very short, fragile, and precious time we call life?

I think this is one of the reasons the death of George Floyd ignited the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement last year.  People were under so much pressure that when something so outrageously unjust suddenly surfaced, feelings erupted.  Since no one was able to change the pandemic, people who felt a violation of life, love and justice, like the stagehand, felt the need to speak out against this trespass in the only way they thought they could.  

A year has come and gone, and now, we too need to start processing and thinking about what this might mean for us as Christians, and as churches too.  What are supposed to be doing now?   Now, I’m not referring to getting back to life as usual, but I’m asking us to think about what it might look like if we we didn’t let life go back to a normal.  What if we actually began to consider what God could be trying to teach us through all that has happened, so we could receive God’s hope and promise in the future.

I think that’s part of what the prophet Micah was looking for when he left his small town of Moresheth and went to Jerusalem to deliver the prophetic message we call the book of Micah.   His message took several angles, but there is no more memorable part than the words we have here, where, in an unforgettable heavenly courtroom scene, God the prosecutor reminds his people what they should already know:  He has told you, O mortal, 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?”  Micah hopes, through everything the people have gone through, that they can understand what matters most to God, and what should matter most to them.

Here, we need to understand first, that the heroes in the history of God’s people, weren’t  kings or generals, but visionaries and dreamers, whom the Bible calls prophets.  Those prophets were the seers and seekers of God’s justice and compassion.   They were very ordinary people but they often had extraordinary courage and insight.  They were unexpected heroes, but at the time, were unwanted speakers for God’s just cause.  They were always, without exception, advocating for the ‘least, the last, and the lost’ in the world (B. Schwartz).   As one great Jewish expert said about Israel’ prophets, ‘They were the kind of people you might  invite to your house for dinner, but you’d never invite them back’ (A. Herschel).   The prophet would not put you at ease about how things are or who you are.

All the prophets, in one form or other, speak about God’s requirement of working toward a more fair, just, and righteous world.   This was the agenda of every prophet.  Amos speaks of it.  Isaiah spoke of it.  The minor prophets spoke of it,, and so did the great prophet Jeremiah who continued the call for justice until it turned into God’s judgement falling upon God’s own people who were forced into exile for their failure to live according to God’s social and ethical demands.  As Jewish scholar Barry Schwartz acknowledges, God is the true hero of the biblical story, not the people, nor the prophets, but God who never stops pursuing the divine agenda of love and justice.

           Jesus, the greatest prophet of all, who is revealed to us as God in human flesh, was crucified because he told the truth to power, stood with compassion for sinners, advocated God’s love toward outcasts, and brought God’s ministering agenda to the least’ and sought after to include the lost in his redeeming and restoring love.  One of the final public words of Jesus was his lament of regret over Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets, because its leaders and the people refused to gather under the hope of God’s compassionate purpose (Matthew 23:37–39).  In the final, tragic line, Jesus spoke of what could have been, but wasn’t because the leaders were not ‘willing’ to do the bare minimum of what righteous required.  So, as a result the unthinkable happens because they would not come together under God’s ‘wings’. 

           In Micah, better than any other Jewish prophet, we see a time of great social unrest among the nation.  In fact, the only time Jesus alluded directly to Micah was when he spoke about such great social and religious disruption that a person’s enemies would be in their own home (Matt. 10:36, Cp. Micah 7:6).  Interestingly, the only way out of this social, religious and political confusion was invite God’s blessing by ‘welcoming’ the prophet (Mt. 10:40), which implied getting back to the basics of justice, kindness, and humble faith that could begin in as simple away as offering a cold cup of water to a ‘little’ vulnerable’, thirsty one in Jesus’ name ( Mt. 10:42) .   And this most basic way of being righteous, that is the way of doing justly, being kind or merciful, and having humble and servant-oriented faith, is exactly the way the prophets prescribed as the solution to spiritual and social darkness that filled the people and the land (Micah 7:8).

           In the next weeks, we are going to see how God’s most basic requirements of doing justly, loving kindly, and walking humbly was exemplified among God’s prophets and people in the Hebrew Bible, and was also on display through the greatest prophet, eJesus Christ.  All our Bible characters will put on display Micah’s prophetic words.  Let’s briefly review these words that guided them, and should still guide us, if we hope for recovering any social, ethical, or spiritual sanity.


DO JUSTICE.     My very first seminary class was a study of the book of Micah under the late Elmo Scoggins.  Interestingly, he was a Baptist professor married to a Jewish woman and when he taught this book, it was straight from the Hebrew.   Dr. Scoggins was one of the truly great Baptist Old Testament Scholars who came out of the Rutherford County hills of N.C.   He, never promoted himself, nor cared for self-recognition.  He didn’t even want a funeral or obituary written up after he died,, but he died as he lived, completing trusting in God’s promise.

The one thing I recall learning about Dr. Scoggins was how he had little patience for indifference.   “The prophets’ great contribution was the discovery of the evil of indifference (Herschel).’  Elmo Scoggins had little patience for any kind of indifference when it came to caring about people in need.  He often pressed and preached to people in power to actively care for the little guy.  Many times, I was told, like a prophet himself, Dr. Scoggins would hop on a plane and fly to Washington to confront some self-promoting political indifference that did not care about the ‘least of these’.  

Dr. Scoggins’ disregard for ‘nobility’ came directly from his understanding and appreciation of the prophets.   In 1933, seeing what was happening in Germany first hand, Old Testament scholar Abraham Herschel said: “People can be both “decent and sinister, pious and sinful at the same time.  In a free society,” he said, “ few are guilty; but all are responsible. No one is exempt from doing justice.  If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

My experience of visiting the Buchanwald concentration camp illustrated this for me.   We entered a room that seemed like a normal examination room in a doctor’s office.  This is how the Nazi’s brought prisoners into the room.  Then, they were led to stand up against a wall, as if they were to have their height measured.  Behind that wall someone stood with a gun and shot them in the head or back.  But what was most disturbing was how it was carried out.  One person brought them into the room.  Another carried out the examination.  One behind the wall pulled the trigger.  Someone else removed the body.  Then, finally, another cleaned up the room.   It was carried out this way so that no one felt responsible.  No one had to feel guilty.  No one had to bear the pain of doing this to another human being.

What does it mean to bear the kind of responsibility that we should bear to continue to live together in this world with dignity and hope?    The prophets expressed this with one word and one primary, most basic, responsible human act, justice.   The word in the original language is mishpat, which is not only a legal word, it’s a characteristic of God who treats everyone with dignity and fairness.  Doing justly, then is emulating God’s goodness by respecting and practicing what God would do, or as the popular Christian slogan says, WWJD, doing what Jesus would do. 


LOVE MERCY.     The best way to understand what it means to do justly is to see it through the next requirement, loving mercy.  Doing justice means having a merciful love toward others.   This is a very different justice agenda than many understand which looks more like vengeance.  Think about the phrase that ‘justice is blind’?   That is a lofty goal in one sense; so every one is treated fairly.  But justice that is blind can’t and doesn’t ‘see’ the real needs of real people and it can be end up being cold, cruel and overly calculating.  Justice that is divinely inspired isn’t blind, but it’s fair, equitable, and determined to do what is right, in a way that is fair and filled with dignity, respect, having a desire to show and display mercy.   True justice sees the individual plight and need of each human person.

           A great picture of God’s love for mercy is seen in the first Manor miracle in Jesus’ ministry, according to Mark’s gospel when Jesus healed the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof by his four friends.  Before Jesus made the lame man walk, he offered him forgiveness.  Jesus saw, not only the man’s physical needs, but he offered him the forgiveness he needed to release him from the negative stigma that often came with illness and disability.  As the old gospel song by Dottie Rambo says so movingly, ‘He looked beyond my fault and saw my need’.  Jesus’ form of justice isn’t blind, but it goes beyond, goes deeper and touches us where our need is most personal. 

In his own story of suffering and pain,  I once heard the late English professor at Duke University, Reynolds Price, tell of what happened to him when he was under going surgery and treatment for cancer located in his back.  It left him in a wheel chair for the rest of his life.  He said it was shortly after dawn on July 3, 1984, in the midst of treatment for his tumor, that he awoke in his bed and had a life-changing mystic experience and vision in which he came in contact with Jesus Christ at the Sea of Galilee. Price gave a full account of this occurrence in his book, A Whole New Life:

It was the big lake of Kinnereth, the Sea of Galilee, in the north of Israel ... the scene of Jesus' first teaching and healing. I'd paid the lake a second visit the previous October. ... Still sleeping around me on the misty ground were a number of men in the tunics and cloaks of first-century Palestine. I soon understood with no sense of surprise that the men were Jesus' twelve disciples and that he was nearby asleep among them. ... Then one of the sleeping men woke and stood. I saw it was Jesus, bound toward me. ... Again I felt no shock or fear. All this was normal human event; it was utterly clear to my normal eyes and was happening as surely as any event of my previous life. ... Jesus bent and silently beckoned me to follow. ... Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back til water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once—"Your sins are forgiven"—and turned to shore again, done with me. I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, It's not my sins I'm worried about. So to Jesus' receding back, I had the gall to say "Am I also cured?" He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words—"That too."

After that vision, Price wasn’t ‘cured’ in a physical sense, but he says that he became a more patient and prolific writer, taking better care of himself and becoming more watchful and alert to life, he said.  He grew in this way, even though, he bore "colossal, incessant pain," until the end of his life in 2011.

When God shows his mercy and love, it doesn’t remove the pain and hurt, but he does reach out to us through our own personal hurts and struggles.  He sees us, as we are, and he loves us, and is merciful to us, even in the darkest, most difficult days and nights in our lives.  What I observed first hand, most vividly in Reynolds Price is how patient he was with us in that room, in ways he would have never been before, especially around a group of pastors and preachers.  In the way God had shown mercy to him, he was now showing a love for mercy toward us, and toward others too.

The Hebrew word Micah uses for  mercy’, Hesed, is very complex with several meanings such as kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and lovingkindness, as well as, mercy.  This word, concludes David’s powerful pastoral image in the 23rd, Psalm, when David wrote that with the Lord as his Shepherd, surely goodness and Hesed will ‘follow him all the days of his life’ (Psalm, 23:6).    How can we image that kind of mercy in our lives and in world too, especially in a world where justice isn’t always conceived as merciful or forgiving?

Several years a popular pastors and writer, Rob Bell, imagine heaven as a place where love would eventually redeem everyone who has ever lived, so that God’s love has the final word, not sin, not evil, and not Satan and Hell.  All is finally swallowed up into God’s unconquerable compassion and mercy.  When Bell released his book, Love Wins, it was so controversial among evangelical Christians, that Bell had to resign his church as pastor, and was shunned by the evangelical community.   The whole episode reminds us just how difficult it can be to imagine God’s mercy over against other passages of the Bible which speak of God’s righteous judgement on sin and sinners.  We need only imagine a Hiltler, a Stalin, or some evil minded serial killer being shown mercy, kindness, or forgiveness, rather than being held accountable for their crimes.   How could that ever be a way of righteousness or justice? 

In his great memoir of faith and life, the powerful French lawyer and religious thinker, Jacques Elull, thought about this apparent contradiction several years before Rob Bell did, and following other great religious thinkers, he admits that’s God’s mercy is compassionate and all encompassing, but he stops short of putting ‘words in God’s mouth’, reminding us that although we can hope that God’s love is merciful, God always respect human free will, even the human choice to reject God’s love and mercy.     


Maybe the best way to understand how we can appreciate God’s requirement of doing justice, and loving mercy, and how to keep them in balance, is through the final requirement of ‘walking humbly’ and letting God be God, and never trying or assuming to be ‘God’ or having all the ‘answers’ ourselves.  

           This powerful imagery of ‘walking’ with God is one of the most ancient ways of imaging the reality of a genuine spiritual life; a life that draws upon resources for life and living beyond and outside ourselves.  The idea is that when you ‘go for a walk’, you are moving outside your own restricted community and are allowing God to take you into a new place of understanding or living.  This is the whole idea of walking humbly.  Its not you taking God for a walk with you, but it’s you inviting God to guide you and take you places in your heart that you may have never imagined or been before.

           This is exactly the place you need to go to open yourself up to what it might mean to do justice and love mercy and kindness in the world where we live today.   Such humility and openness isn’t easy, is it?  It’s more natural for us to want to take God with us where we want to go, rather than to have the kind of humility it takes to let God take our hand and lead us.   Isn’t this true of our own reaction to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.  Because our families aren’t black, or haven’t been slaves, or haven’t been recently oppressed, its harder for us to see what all the ‘fuss’ and protesting was about, unless we allow God to take us for a walk outside of our own surroundings and life experiences.  It’s so easy to make this whole cry for justice something that puts ‘them’ against us, rather than calls us to find the humility and compassion to see how we are all in this together.  And this works, both ways, doesn’t it?   You can’t achieve a way of justice and mercy for one person or people without seeing how we must all walk in justice, kindness, and in humility with God and before each other.

           Having humility that puts one true God above and beyond us all is where Micah’s vision finally finds both its justification and its fulfillment.  The only way a people or a world can walk together in toward justice and in kindness, is when our differing ways of understanding life and God come together in a common humility as we stand before the one true God.  We know that God’s oneness and truth has been revealed to us and is being experienced by us, because God’s greatness draws us toward the same justice and mercy for others, as we desire God to be fair and merciful with us.  

But walking in this kind of humility that means as much for others as it might mean for ourselves requires not just humility but it also requires faith and trust.   This is why when Jewish scholars and Rabbis today translate ‘walking humbly’ with God they interpret it as the greatest Bible requirement of all, faith.  You can’t do justice, love mercy and walk humbly without have utter trust and faith in God.

This was illustrated so well by the late pastor John Claypool who told of a missionary who went out years ago to teach in a school in China.   (Talk about humbly walking to a new place!).   She had begun the whole venture with a deep sense of God's calling. However, in the long voyage over the Pacific by boat, all kinds of fears began to crop up. Just like Peter, who had begun in confidence but then took his eyes off Christ and let the winds drive him to terror, she too was beset by anxieties: "How will I provide for myself? Will I be able to learn the language? What will be the response of the people?"

One night she went to sleep deeply troubled by all these uncertainties, and she had a vivid dream. It was as if she were standing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean all by herself with nothing but a two-by-four supporting her at the surface of the water. In that condition, a voice said to her, "Start walking to China." She answered back, "But I can't. I'm not able to walk on water. If I leave this secure standing place, I will surely drown." But the voice insisted, "I said walk. Start walking toward China."

With fear and trembling, but in obedience, she lifted her foot and put it forward, and just at the moment that it was touching the surface of the water, another two-by-four, like the one on which she had been standing, appeared out of the depth. Every step she took was met by support emerging from the deep. She woke with a new sense of confidence and trust in God.

When we dare to live by Gods requirements of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly,  we are purposely moving over deeper water too.  This will require greater faith and trust from us. 


At times in our lives all of us will be in deep water. At such times where will we put our trust? Will we put it in our keen intellect? Will we put it in our robust health? Will we put it in our stocks and bonds or the equity in our home? There may come a time when all of these will fail us. If we put our trust in ourselves ” our accomplishments, our possessions, our investments ” there will come a time, regardless of how much we have accumulated, when we will stare into the darkness and feel the waters of defeat and death rise around us. But if we put our faith in God, if we confess that our strength and our ability are inadequate but that God's strength and God's ability will never fail, then we will discover why the humble and the meek of this world are blessed.

But if we put our faith in God, if we confess that our strength and our ability are inadequate but that God's strength and God's ability will never fail, then we will discover why the humble and the meek of this world are blessed.



This is what continues to invite me to walk in humility,  both with God and with others, what about you?.  Amen.