The Third Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| June 28, 2020| Micah 7:18-20
Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Abraham, which You have sworn to our fathers from days of old. Micah 7:18-20
In Thee alone, O Christ, my Lord,
My hope on earth remaineth;
I know thou wilt thine aid afford,
Naught else my soul sustaineth.
No strength of man, no earthly stay,
Can help me in the evil day;
Thou, only Thou, canst aid supply,
To Thee I cry:
On Thee I bid my heart rely.
My sins, O Lord, against me rise,
I mourn them with contrition;
Grant, through Thy death and sacrifice,
To me a full remission.
Lord, show before the Father’s throne
That thou didst for my sins atone;
So shall I from my load be freed.
Thy Word I plead;
Keep me, O Lord, each hour of need. (TLH 319 1-2)
Who is a God like you? Micah, the prophet, asks this question. It is a rhetorical question. The answer is no one. The name, Micah, means: “Who is like the Lord?” The answer: No one is.
Every once in a while I meet someone who tries to convince me that all religions are basically the same. They are all equally true and equally false. Of course, that’s not true. Those who think that they are also think that the essence of religion is morality. When it comes to morality, there are common features between competing religions. Hindus and Muslims fight and kill each other over their religious differences. So do Muslims and Jews. When it comes to matters of right and wrong, these religions are in basic agreement. Mahatma Gandhi was raised Hindu and studied in England. He was the famous Indian nationalist who led resistance to British rule over India one hundred years ago and after being assassinated became a secular saint, much admired in the West. He said: “The Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christians and the Ishwar of Hindus.” How many people who think they are Christians believe this is so?
The problem with Christians today is that they are better acquainted with the teachings of Gandhi than they are with the preaching of Micah. The prophet makes crystal clear that our God is God and the gods of other religions are but idols. Compare the teachings of Micah the true prophet of God and Gandhi the secular saint of this world you will see what separates the one true religion revealed by God from the many false religions devised by men. Micah spoke God’s word of judgment and punishment against those who practice fraud and deception to oppress the poor. On this, today’s popular saints will agree. But Micah railed most fiercely against idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of false gods. It is the root sin of all sins. Violence, unchastity, lying, cheating, stealing, oppressing the poor – all these sins that bring down God’s anger and punishment – are simply expressions of idolatry. Our God is not like the false gods invented by men. Not all gods are the same. Our God is the only God who forgives. He is the only God who can deliver sinners from their sins.
God takes no pleasure in punishing people for their sins. Jesus makes this clear in our Gospel Lesson for today. It illustrates God’s grace for sinners with two stories: one about a lost sheep and the other about a lost coin. The shepherd who has one hundred sheep leaves the ninety nine to find the one sheep that was lost. The woman with ten coins searches and searches until she finds the one coin that was lost. God seeks out the lost, finds them, and rejoices. Everyone who serves and worships our God rejoices when a lost sinner is found. God finds us when we are lost and he brings us home. He does so purely by his grace. The sheep and the coin do not find their way back to where they belong. They don’t find themselves. They are found. That’s what Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel Lesson.
How does God find the lost? He finds the lost by proclaiming the gospel. He finds sinners trapped in their own sin by giving them the forgiveness of sins. It is this forgiveness that sets sinners free. Micah writes:
Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?
The remnant of his heritage is the church. God gives to the church the forgiveness of sins. The church is where sin-sick sinners can go to find the God who delights in mercy. Some folks think that if we preach God’s anger against sinners we will drive sinners away from the church. But what does Micah say? He says:
He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities.
You cannot know the God who pardons your sins, shows you mercy, and casts your sins into the depth of the sea unless you know the God who punishes idolatry and the fruit of idolatry. Forgiveness means nothing to those who don’t acknowledge their sins to God. If there is no sin to forgive, there is no forgiveness. Sin is not sin if there are no consequences for it. Sin calls for punishment. We know this. This is why we try to cover our sins up, to deny we did them, or to project our sins onto others who did far worse than we did. But this is no way to come to God! This is to run away from God! God finds sinners with his gospel of forgiveness. This gospel comes to those whose hearts are broken on account of their sins. The gospel works faith in the heart that acknowledges its sin to God. We know God in his compassion. We know who God is as he forgives us. We know God, love him, and trust in him as he casts our sins into the depths of the sea.
Only our God can forgive sins. Who is like God? No one is. This is how we can know we know the true God. It is by receiving from him the forgiveness of our sins. If we do not receive from God the forgiveness of our sins we neither know him, nor do we love him. We certainly don’t trust in him. Unless and until God forgives you your sins you are spiritually estranged from him. You are quite literally godless: without God.
“Who is a God like You?” No one! Only the true God, only the God who has revealed himself in the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ, only the God who chose to be made sin for us on the cross where he bore the sin and shame of all humanity, can pardon iniquity, pass over transgression, and cast all our sins in the depths of the sea. The point of contact between God and us is where God forgives us. Then we can look God in the eye and not blink. Then we can face God and not turn away in shame. Then we can be confident in God’s presence. God knows everything bad I’ve ever thought, said, or done, and he sees none of it, remembers none of it, but rather buries all of it miles and miles under the waters of the ocean, never to be felt or seen again.
Who is like our God? No one! Still, we doubt. We look at the gospel as a tentative word, with the always modifying condition: if. If you do, feel, say, think, whatever it is that one must do, feel, say, or think in order to receive forgiveness. Grace runs counter to our expectations. How can God freely forgive me when I don’t deserve it? How can God bury all my sins in the ocean when I’ve committed the same sin so many times?
The prophet Micah speaks to our doubts. He asks the question, “Who is a God like you?” All natural religions will construct a God who makes a deal with you. If you do something for him, he will reciprocate. Religion is a deal between God and you. You do your part and he does his part. But of course you never know if you’ve done your part. You think you have, but you cannot know you have because of your own weaknesses and bad motives. All natural religions leave you in the lurch.
Our God doesn’t reveal himself as the one and only true God in nature. He reveals himself in Christ. This is why our faith must be focused on Christ, and not only on Christ, but on Christ has he takes our place to obey and suffer. He assumes the burden of our sins and makes that burden his own. Then when he says to us that he has cast all our sins into the depths of the sea we know it is true. He’s not pretending. He’s not speaking soothing words while retaining judgment against us. For our God is not like that. Our God is known in his mercy.
We live at a time when sin has been defined away. The gospel of self-esteem – a diabolical lie if there ever was one – has produced the poisoned fruit of generations of hard-hearted sinners who don’t know what sin is and don’t know how their own interior wickedness is their most besetting problem. They don’t think they need a Savior. They rather need someone to fix the system to make it fair or to give them the break they never got. When we see ourselves, not through the eyes of self-love, but in light of God’s law, we see our lack of love, our guilt, our selfishness, and our failure to care for our neighbor as we care for ourselves. We confront the bitter reality of our sin. We recognize the self-love that a corrupt culture has preached as gospel is rather idolatry. We face this, mourn this, confess this, and our God – who is like no other! – pardons all our guilt, sets his anger aside, drowns our sins in the depths of the sea, and assures us that he holds nothing against us. His mercy is not imaginary. It’s real. The truth he revealed from Abraham to the present is the gospel truth. We rest in the forgiveness of sins. We know who God really is.