I probably should have titled this sermon, “Nothing for the mouth, nothing from the mouth.” But earlier in the week, when I first began working with this passage, I was so terrified by the words that I was reading, that I titled it “Scary Words to the Preacher.” Just the same though, the words in this passage are absolutely terrifying to anyone who would dare to step into this sacred pulpit. Preaching is scary enough as it is. These words make the practice of sculpting a sermon even more terrifying. And, after working with this passage all week, my terror has not abated.
The truth is, that whenever a passage begins with the words, “Thus says the Lord,” there is terror involved. When God speaks, we had better listen. We ignore God’s words at our own peril.
The prophet Micah is writing at a time when the religious culture that he lived in had become horribly corrupt. And so to address this degraded and sinful situation, Micah takes aim at his fellow prophets, which is both a very brave thing to do, and, I might add, also a very foolish thing to do. One usually gains very little by criticizing one’s colleagues. Micah is coming up against a closely knit and very carefully organized cadre of prophets who have abandoned the word of God and who have been profiting from their propheteering. Prophecy had become big business in Micah’s day, and there was good money to be made in the practice of prophecy. The trouble was that in the profiteering business of prophecy, God didn’t hardly enter into it. Prophecy had nothing to do with the speaking of God’s word.
And so Micah begins his rant against his fellow prophets by saying, “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.” Hebrew poetry is often both beautiful and stunning, and verse 5 is a perfect example of that. The task of the faithful prophet is to bring the word of God to the people of God. And the faithful prophet does that by receiving the word of God from the mouth of God, and then speaking that same word through his or her own mouth. But the prophets of Micah’s day were saying to the people, “Nothing for the mouth, nothing from the mouth.” In other words, if you don’t feed me, you won’t get a prophecy. Nothing will come out of my mouth, if you don’t put something into it first. Now of course, since this is poetry, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll need a really good meal before I’ll say anything to you; what it really means is that you had better pay up first, or my mouth stays closed.
But it was worse than that, much worse than that. The prophets were saying, if you pay me well, I’ll speak peace to you. I’ll give you a pleasant prophecy, I’ll give you a “feel good” sermon, I’ll have nice things to say for you and about you. But, if you can’t cough up a decent offering, oh dear, things will go really bad for you, I won’t have anything good to say at all.
Micah is saying that the prophets of his day are really holding the people of God hostage. If they’re rich enough to pay well, they get good news. If they’re so poor that they can’t offer much, the message is only doom and gloom. But what’s missing from all of this is anything that comes from the mouth of God. The prophets have abandoned God’s word completely. They are not speaking on God’s behalf, instead they’re making stuff up to please their listeners, especially the ones who are rich enough to pay for pleasing messages. When the message is custom tailored to fit the audience, God is necessarily eliminated from the equation. When the speaking is only being done by the false prophets, God is unheard; God is silent. This terrifies me.
But, Micah says, this foolishness is going to end. The light is going to go out over the pulpit. All will be darkness. The false prophets will be silenced. And this seems eerily strange and quite ironic to me. It seems to me that the false prophets hadn’t needed any light from God at all. They were too busy making stuff up on their own. They weren’t worried about what God had to say at all. They weren’t working with God, they weren’t listening to God and they weren’t speaking on behalf of God. They were creating their own light. But now, apparently, they aren’t even going to be able to fake it anymore. They are going to be powerless even to make stuff up. Everything will go black. There will be no vision, only blindness. When Micah says that the sun will go down on the false prophets, he is declaring that their day is done. Their time of rule and reign over the people is over. The consulting of seers and diviners was strictly prohibited by God, but, nevertheless, they were very popular in Micah’s day. These guys will be disgraced and put to shame. They’ll end up clapping their hands over their mouths, like we all do when we say something foolish or stupid. A new era, Micah says, of the true proclamation of God’s genuine word is coming.
And lo, and behold, Micah believes that that new era is beginning with him. Verse 8 is no boast of superiority. It is no claim to prophetic process. Rather, it is a frightening realization that he has heard from God in the midst of a people and an environment that it is so spiritually corrupt that it has no interest in hearing from God. Micah knows that his message will be reviled and rejected by his audience. The people to whom he will prophesy will have no interest at all in what he has to say. And yet he must speak, because he has no control over what he must say. The false prophets have plenty of control over what they say because they are the manufacturers of their own messages. Micah has no control because the Spirit of the Lord has invaded his soul, and he can speak nothing but the word of God. And this terrifies him because he knows that he can’t be bought, that no price can be attached to his messages. Most frightening of all, perhaps, to him is that he knows that he will be preaching into an environment that is used to paying for its messages, so that it can hear what it wants to hear. And his message will be about justice and equity, which is almost never a welcome message in any environment.
And yet because the Spirit of God is driving him to do this, he will preach. And no one is exempt: not leaders, not judges, not priests, and certainly not prophets. Micah’s message will be blasted into all sectors of his spiritually corrupt society. The mandates of justice and equity, so lacking in his world, will be preached, even if his listeners reject them completely. He knows that his listeners are so used to getting what they pay for, that he is likely to be nothing more than a voice crying out in the wilderness, unheard and unheeded.
There was in Micah’s world, and there is in our world, an attitude of spiritual presumption. That attitude of presumption played itself out in these words: “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Hey, we’re just fine, we’ve got God on our side. Micah’s message is pretty much, no we don’t have God on our side. Not anymore, and we won’t again until we respond to God’s clarion call to promote justice and equity. Our world is just as spiritually corrupt as was Micah’s. Have I got the holy boldness to proclaim that? Or would I rather, like the false prophets, be both popular and prosperous? That question terrifies me. Just as it terrified Micah.