The Short List
The Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
You might remember the old story about a man who was informed by his doctor that he had rabies. The doctor also had to inform the man that he had waited so long to go the doctor that nothing could be done about his condition. The man looked devastated but before the doctor could console him, she was called out of the room for an emergency.
As soon as she could return, she did. As she opened the door, the doctor saw the noticed the patient was writing something on a piece of paper. Hesitantly the doctor asked, “Is that your will, you’re writing?” “No,”the man said, “I’m making a list of all the people I’m going to bite!”
Have you ever noticed how much we’re into lists? Back in the late 70’s one of the most popular books around was “The Book of Lists.” And there have been thousands of books published like it since. I did a search on Amazon.com and came up with 229,000 matches of books with the word list in their title.
These books contain such fascinating lists as:
• 17 Questions You’ll be Asked When Applying to Become an FBI Agent,
• 9 Visitors Who Died at Disneyland,
• 16 Movies Banned in the US,
• 11 men who have cried in public,
• 7 famous people expelled from school,
• 11 prominent people who died while exercising,
• 6 ways cats talk with their tails,
• 19 innocent Americans who were almost executed,
• 9 people misquoted by Ronald Reagan,
• 12 museums of limited appeal. (1)
We have a fascination with lists. And we all have ongoing To Do Lists, don’t we, whether we write them on scraps of paper, in a daytimer or keep track of them on our Personal Digital Assistant.
Even God has lists, The 7 days of Creation, the 10 Commandments, the 12 Apostles; you get the idea. Today we’re going to look at God’s short list for a faithful life. And it all begins with God calling the people of Israel to task in almost a courtroom setting. Let’s turn to Micah 6:1-8:
1 Listen now to what Yahweh says:
“Arise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear what you have to say.
2 Hear, you mountains, Yahweh’s controversy,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for Yahweh has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you?
4 For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you out of the house of bondage.
I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
5 My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of Yahweh.”
6 How shall I come before Yahweh,
and bow myself before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams?
With tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience?
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O man, what is good.
What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly,
to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
ACT, LOVE, WALK. That’s God’s short list. Noticed, they’re all action words. They’re all verbs and imperative verbs at that. They’re verbs that inevitably ask the questions What, How and Who. What are you DOING? How and who are you LOVING? And How and with Whom are you WALKING?
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A. DO JUSTICE. What is justice? And how do you do justice? Joseph Fletcher said, “Justice is nothing other than love working out its problems.” (2)
Benjamin Disraeli said, “Justice is truth in action.” (3)
I think justice is doing what is right simply because it’s even if it’s uncomfortable or not popular.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. I was in an office supply place sometime back and a young girl waited on me. It was obvious that it was only her first or second day on the job. I paid cash for my items with a $10 bill. As the girl was counting out the change, she was giving me change back from $20. I checked my wallet to make sure I wasn’t mistaken and had given her a $20 instead of the $10. I hadn’t so I handed her back the extra $10 and told her she’d given me too much change back. She looked shocked and grateful all at the same time. She thanked me and said it would have come out of her salary. And she asked me, “Why did you do that? I mean, you didn’t have to. You could have kept the money and no one would have known? Why?”
I told her, “Because I’m in the honesty business.” She looked confused so I said, “I’m a preacher. The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not steal.'” And then she smiled and said, “Oh, I get it.”
Now I’m not trying to hold myself up as a bastion of morality. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve slipped up, I’ve been like Frank Sinatra and done it my way instead of the right way, just like you. But in that particular incident, I think I got it right. And that’s what God wants, for us to get it, to get it right and to do what’s right.
B. One of the mistakes we make is in thinking that life has to be fair. Justice is not about being fair. Johnny Carson once said: “If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.” (4) Justice isn’t about being fair. Justice is about DOING what is right in God’s eyes.
A story is told about a well know crime figure who was on trial for first-degree murder. His lawyer was hired and paid to win this case or at least have the charges reduced.
Everybody knew he’d done it. It was pretty clear that he was guilty, but the lawyer was willing to do whatever it took to reduce the charges. The lawyer approached one of the jurors and was able to bribe him to hold out for the verdict of manslaughter. He impressed upon the juror that no other verdict would do or he wouldn’t get paid.
At the end of the trial, the jury deliberated for over a week. They finally returned a verdict of manslaughter. When the lawyer met with the juror to pay the bribe, he asked, “How did you convince the other jurors to reduce the charge to manslaughter?”
The juror answered, “Well, that’s not exactly what happened. You told me to get them to return a verdict of manslaughter, or I wouldn’t get paid. It took me the whole week to convince them to vote with me on that verdict. They all wanted to acquit him.” (5)
Sometimes God takes care of the justice. But you and I are called to DO justice.
We’re also called to LOVE KINDNESS, or LOVE MERCY as some translations have it. You can’t have justice without mercy and you can’t have mercy without justice.
George McDonald wrote in Discovering the Character of God, “I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and without mercy to the full there can be no justice.” (6)
The story has been told about a man who was caught and taken to court because he had stolen a loaf of bread. When the judge investigated, he found out that the man had no job, and his family was hungry. He had tried unsuccessfully to get work and finally, to feed his family, he had stolen a loaf of bread. Although recognizing the extenuating circumstances, the judge said, “I’m sorry, but the law can make no exceptions. You stole the bread, and therefore I have to punish you. I order you to pay a fine of ten dollars.”
And then the judge continued, “But I want to pay your fine myself.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a ten-dollar bill, and handed it to the man.
As soon as the man took the money, the judge said, “Now I also want to cancel the fine and remit the sentence to time served.” That is, the man could keep the money and go free. “Furthermore, I am going to instruct the bailiff to pass around a hat to everyone in this courtroom, and I am fining everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a man has to steal in order to have bread to eat.”
The money was collected and given to the defendant. I love that story, because it’s a perfect example of justice being meted out in full and paid in full, while at the very same time, mercy and grace were also enacted in full. (7)
You and I are called to act in the same manner as that Judge. We’re called to not just DO MERCY and KINDNESS but to LOVE KINDNESS, and to LOVE MERCY because we have experienced both through the outstretched hands of Jesus on the Cross.
A. And finally we’re called to WALK HUMBLY WITH OUR GOD. Actor Tom Selleck says, “Whenever I get full of myself, I remember the nice, elderly couple who approached me with a camera on a street in Honolulu one day. When I struck a pose for them, the man said, ‘No, no, we want you to take a picture of US.'” (8)
To walk humbly with God is living in fellowship with God in modesty and without arrogance. This is at the very heart of everything in God’s purpose for us, that we live in close relationship with God. To walk humbly with God means we must understand that God is in control. It means we have to understand that we’re all sinful human beings who’ve made wrong choices but have been forgiven. We deserved justice but through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we’ve received mercy. How we live is in response to our experience of God’s Mercy.
Remember the old bracelets people used to wear? Some of you may still have one? WWJD. “What Would Jesus Do?”
The passage today tells us it’s not enough to KNOW what Jesus would do. A better bracelet to wear would be one with the letters WWJHMD on it. “What Would Jesus Have ME Do?” That’s more in keeping with this imperative to WALK humbly with our God.
B. Comedian Bob Hope was accepting a plaque at an honorary dinner. He listened as his many contributions to humanity were lauded. When it was his turn to speak, he said that he had stopped letting such honors go to his head. “I just got a call from a fellow who said I’d been named Man of the Year by their organization because I was America’s outstanding citizen, greatest humanitarian, and so forth. It was going to be the biggest dinner, biggest civil reception ever. I told him I was sorry, but I was going to be tied up that night. There was a long pause. And then the caller said, ‘By any chance would you have Red Skelton’s phone number?'” (9)
It’s an honor to serve God. It’s an honor to be called forgiven and child of God. But we can’t let it go to our heads. We have to seek God’s will and WALK HUMBLY WITH GOD.
Years ago, there was a wise and just ruler who established a series of laws for his people to follow. They were good laws, though sometimes difficult to follow. One day his own mother broke one of the laws and was brought to the ruler after being caught. The penalty for breaking this particular law was twenty lashes.
It put him into a quandary. How could the ruler remain just and be the ruler of the Kingdom and still fulfill the demands of his love for his mother?
He thought and he prayed about it and then on the day of his mother’s punishment, this ruler took the lashes on his own back. And in so doing, justice was satisfied and his deep love for his mother was both honored and revealed in full measure. (10)
That’s what God di for us through Jesus. God doesn’t want to contend with us as He does with Israel in this passage. He want’s us to remember how much God loves us.
Remember Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. Justice is getting what we do deserve. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.
ACT, LOVE, WALK. Live God’s Short List.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. Amazon.com descriptions of content of books
2. Bible Illustrator for Windows
3. Bible Illustrator for Windows
4. The Autoillustrator, P.O. Box 336517, Greeley, CO 80633 1-877-970-AUTO (2886)
5. Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), May 2001
6. George MacDonald in Discovering the Character of God. Christianity Today, Vol. 35, no. 2.
7. Bible Illustrator for Windows
8. Homiletics, (Communications Resources, Inc., Canton, OH) Jan 30a, 2005
9. The Autoillustrator, P.O. Box 336517, Greeley, CO 80633 1-877-970-AUTO (2886)
10. The Autoillustrator, P.O. Box 336517, Greeley, CO 80633 1-877-970-AUTO (2886)
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2000, Billy Strayhorn. Used by permission.