It is a lot like being neglected by one’s lover, and wondering why. The lover has grown cold, standoffish, spurning one’s affections and advances. And it seems as though there is no reason at all for this cold, and unresponsive behavior. And then, the discovery, the awful discovery, that the lover has found someone else. And now there needs to be a reckoning of the truth that will result in either a reconciliation, or something less than that.
This is exactly the situation when we come to our passage this morning. God’s people have grown cold. They’ve lost their affection for God, and they’re spurning God’s advances. And the awful truth is that God’s people have found someone else that tickles their fancies, and they’d really rather that God would just go back into heaven and leave them alone, so that they can continue on, unmolested in their unfaithful ways.
But God is not so easily sent packing. God is, of course, no stranger to rejection and unfaithfulness, nor is he ever surprised by it. It is not unusual for God’s love and affection to be spurned at any time, and in any place, by anyone who claims to be a child of God. The hymn writer got it right: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” And yet, no matter how much we may wish it, God is not contented to play the role of the distant, but wacky uncle whom we visit once in a while just to keep the lines of communication open. It might even be that we’re only visiting that wacky old codger because we suspect that when all is said and done, that he might have something for us, and we don’t want to get so distant that we lose out on that. And so we’ve figured out how to humor wacky old uncle God, and actually, we’ve got the old codger thinking that we really care.
But, because God is God, God will not settle for being wacky old uncle God. God will only settle for a relationship that is primary, mutual, and characterized by complete faithfulness and love. God does not want to be our uncle, God only wants to be our lover. And if we choose something less than that, God may very well take us to task for that.
In our passage this morning, God is doing just that. There’s a trial going on. God is solidly against his erring and unfaithful people. And because this is poetry, the first witnesses called to the stand are the mountains. Mountains are tall and majestic, solid and sturdy, strong and established, and always and ever completely faithful to God. But mostly mountains are called to testify on God’s behalf because they’ve been around a long time. They were here before we humans arrived, and they’ve been watching and listening. They’ve pretty much seen and heard everything that goes on in the human realm, for good, or for evil. And so mountains are excellent witnesses.
But the primary witness is God himself. God steps into the scene as the rejected and spurned lover. “O my people, what have I done to you?” How have I harmed you; what awful thing did I do that caused you to spurn my affections and advances? “In what way have I wearied you?” Why have you become so cold, so unresponsive? Are you bored with me?
All these good things I have done for you, and yet you respond with apathy and neglect! I rescued you! You were living in the dark prison of slavery in Egypt; I heard your cry of despair and of grief and loss, and I came to you. And I gave you prophets to lead and instruct you, and to teach you my ways. Those prophets were Moses and Aaron and Miriam. And I delivered you out of Balak’s hand. Have you forgotten what happened from Shittim to Gilgal?
Now I want to talk about Shittim and Gilgal this morning, it is, after all, the title of the sermon. But before I do, I want to commend to you the story of Balaam and Balak. This is a story that has tremendous significance for all of God’s people. It was a disaster that was narrowly averted, and it is absolutely hilarious. It involves a talking donkey who speaks with far more wisdom than does his stupid master. The great lesson from that story is that sometimes it takes a donkey, real or otherwise, to show us the truth and to break through the veneer of our own cherished and supposed wisdom. And in the beauty of poetry, the donkey, speaking on behalf of God, asks the same question that God asks in this passage. “What have I done to you?” In fact, reading these two passages side by side will amaze you. That’s the beauty of the Scriptures. Anyway, you can find the story of Balaam and Balak in Numbers, chapters 22 through 24.
So, here we go from Shittim to Gilgal. Shittim was the very last place that the Israelities camped in the wilderness. And Gilgal was the very first place that they camped after crossing into the Promised Land. Between Shittim and Gilgal is that vast gulf that we call the River Jordan. In terms of geography, Shittim and Gilgal are about as unremarkable as two places can get. And that vast gulf that we call the River Jordan? Not a gully-washer at all: Just a slightly grown-up trickle of water.
But for the prophet, who is speaking the poetry of God, Shittim and Gilgal have tremendous significance, that goes far beyond their rather unremarkable reality. And to be truthful, some pretty important stuff did happen there, especially in Shittim. But on a scale of one to ten, with Passover and the Exodus from Egypt being a strong ten, what happened in Shittim and Gilgal would barely register a one.
So what’s the deal? Two pretty unremarkable places in everyday, ordinary life, but hugely significant to the prophet who speaks the poetry of God. And that grown-up trickle of a river? Also hugely significant. So here they are, two towns, one on one side of a river and one on the other side of the river. So what’s the big deal? And the answer is this: Without the loving and caring and compassionate direction of God, the people of God would never have made it from Shittim to Gilgal. In real life, and in terms of geography, the passage from Shittim to Gilgal is an easy one. If we were there today, we could spend an afternoon traipsing back and forth from one place to the other.
But the prophet sees much more to it than that. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they were free. Free, totally free, with the emphasis on free. The yoke of bondage had been lifted from them in a most wonderful way. Now, of course, after a few weeks in the desert, some of those folks began to argue otherwise, mostly because what’s behind us almost always seems to be better than what lies ahead of us. But for now, let us say that they were free. Really free. And that was certainly God’s perspective, even if they didn’t see it. Maybe they needed a donkey to make it plain to them.
But because they didn’t see it, God required of them 40 years of higher education. And so, as free as birds, they wandered aimlessly in the desert, not yet appreciating their freedom, and actively pining for the good old days of slavery and oppression. But hidden within and all around their grumbling and wandering was a promise. Perhaps that promise was hardly appreciated and barely understood by those who wandered in the wilderness, but it was a promise nevertheless. It was a promise of a new land, a new way of life, and most importantly the promise of a new relationship with God.
And now they’re camping in Shittim, and across the river is Gilgal. At Shittim, the people of God were, compared to the forty years in the wilderness, only moments away from Gilgal. It was comparatively within spitting distance. But for God’s people, it still seemed miles and miles and years and years ahead of them. And that’s because the promise wasn’t yet real to them. They’d heard it, but they didn’t yet believe it.
But oh, when they crossed into Gilgal! That’s when the promise became real. That’s when their lives were transformed. They were finally in the Promised Land.
The Scriptures teach us that when God delivers a promise, that that promise is as good as its fulfillment. God’s promises don’t change. They always carry within them the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. God’s people received the promise of a new land and a new relationship with God the moment that they left Egypt. The Exodus from Egypt is the salvation event of the Old Testament. Salvation was leaving Egypt. But for God’s people it didn’t all come together for them until they crossed over from Shittim into Gilgal, 40 years later.
We too, have been saved. We have responded to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we have received eternal life. Within us is the evidence of that promise fulfilled within us. But maybe, in the midst of our own wanderings through this world, that promise hasn’t yet come together for us. And so maybe we need our own spiritual Shittim to Gilgal experience. Maybe we need that moment of epiphany where we cross over our own River Jordan from Shittim into Gilgal. Maybe we need that moment when it all comes together for us, and we can with full heart and with full joy say to ourselves and to our God, “I believe, I get it, I understand it, I am the promise of eternal life. I have a new relationship with God!”
I believe, as the prophet Micah was writing to God’s people grown cold, that he was encouraging them to have another Shittim to Gilgal experience, another crossing over into the Promised Land. And that’s why he suddenly included verses six through eight in his prophecy. These verses, familiar to all of us, are the evidence of a new relationship with God. They are the hallmarks of someone who has crossed from Shittim into Gilgal. Please mediate on them as I read them once more.
With what shall I come before
And bow myself before God
Shall I come before him with
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with
thousands of rams,
With ten thousands of rivers
Shall I give my firstborn for my
The fruit of my body for the sin
of my soul?
He has told you, O mortal, what
And what does the Lord require
But to do justice, and to love
And to walk humbly with