Sermon January 29 2023 --  Of Time and Purpose                        Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever wondered... why a groundhog? 

Why, if we had to choose an animal on whose stumbling-out-of-hibernation to pin our dearest hopes for an early springtime, why we chose a groundhog??

Well, the answer is, we didn't. We didn't choose a groundhog.

In fact, what our British and northern European forebears on this land actually wanted, having immigrated bearing with them this folk tradition of medium-sized furry mammals poking their noses out of holes at midwinter, seeing their shadows -- or not --  and thus establishing how much longer winter would last --

What they actually wanted, these immigrants to this land, for this midwinter festivity, was the far more impressive badger. 

Because that was the tradition, in the UK and in Europe. Waking up the sleeping badger to see if he'd see his shadow, and there'd be six more weeks of winter.

They were perhaps quite sad, these immigrants, when they arrived on the eastern seaboard of North America and discovered -- no badgers. There are no badgers in this desolate land -- no badgers to poke their noses out of holes at the appointed hour. 

And I have no idea if they made any attempts with, I don't know, foxes or rabbits or bears... But what they wound up settling for... was groundhogs. 

Medium-sized furry mammals, they hibernate in holes, and probably most importantly? They're everywhere.

Not possessed of the inherent gravitas of badgers, of course, but adaptation is the key to survival, even for folk traditions. So groundhogs it was, and still is to this day.

We may wish that there were a more impressive weather-predictive medium-sized furry mammal option than essentially a very fat cousin of the rat... but sometimes the only option we've got is what's there. 

Which brings us to the prophet Micah. A prophet to God's people in Judah, the southern half of Israel during the time when Israel was divided, in the 8th century before Jesus.

And God's people in Judah NEED a prophet. The Assyrians have overrun their land and smashed everything in sight, and they've been left crushed. Occupied and devastated -- this is the first time since they arrived in the Promised Land that they've experienced true defeat and destruction.

And to be honest, it's been a shock. I mean, sure, there's been the odd difficulty now and then along the way, but this is the first time they've really been smashed to pieces. Overrun and destroyed. And they really hadn't thought it could ever happen. 

Because "You will be my people and I will be your God", God had told them. And "this is the land I have given to you". It was meant to be -- they'd THOUGHT it was -- a promise FOREVER. That could never be broken, that would never end.

So how could this have happened, that they'd be utterly overrun by the Assyrians and taken over? They must have somehow lost their connection to God. That must be what's happened -- they can't understand it otherwise. 

They must have somehow lost their way, forgotten their part of the covenant -- to be God's people. It's the only explanation they can fathom -- and so they obviously need a prophet to proclaim AGAIN for them God's word and God's promise. To reconnect them to God's way. And to God.

And up pops Micah! He's ready to go, he's inspired by God, he has a message to proclaim to God's people -- all they have to do is listen to him.

Except, here's the thing.

Micah? He's kind of -- well -- he's not really that impressive. He's kind of backwoods, country bumpkin, rough around the edges, not too well-spoken.... For the fancy-pants city folks of Jerusalem and the area around it that make up most of the kingdom of Judah, in fact, Micah's really kind of a hayseed. A bit of a hick.

He just doesn't have the gravitas, the polish, the impressiveness, that the well-educated and cultured folks of Judah would be inclined to take seriously.

Because a prophet who's articulate, commanding in presence, awe-inspiring and eloquent and imposing -- that's what they'd really respond to, that's what they're looking for in the midst of this chaos of the Assyrian occupation.

And what's Micah? Pretty much the opposite. Micah is not who they want.

But what else is Micah? Micah's who they have. He's the only available option.

He's the prophet who gets listened to... because he's there. He's the groundhog of prophets, Micah is. When there ARE no impressive badgers, filled with inherent gravitas, so it's 'go with the groundhog', or pack it in entirely.

So ultimately? The people of Judah DO listen to Micah. Ultimately they do recognize that even if he's a "hick" and a "hayseed", the prophetic version of a groundhog when they might have wished for a badger, he's who God is speaking through to them, in this situation. He's who they have. And sometimes the only option we've got is what's there.

The irony, of course, is that in the end it's actually Micah, more so than any of the other prophets, who actually manages to crystallize perfectly for God's people in just a few short phrases the fullness of God's word to them.

The fullness of how God wants them to live and who God wants them to be, as God's people.

And he does it just as straightforwardly and clearly as we might expect, from someone not trained up in the flourishes and niceties of rhetoric and preaching -- 

Because "What does God require of you", Micah says to the people of Israel? "Seriously," he says. "A -- it's simple, and B -- God's told you. Like a thousand times. It's just this. To seek justice, to love kindness, and to travel humbly with God. That's it."

"And this is not rocket science," he might have added, had there been such a thing at the time. It’s just essentially, "If you see wrong, make it right. Be kind to one another. And ultimately, trust in God, because a) you're not God but also b) you don't have to be."

That's Micah's perfect crystallization of the totality of God's word to Israel, to us. Is it nuanced and layered in meaning, does it address the complexity of how we actually manage these things in the real world, is it anything other than breathtakingly naive? 

It's not. But sometimes, that's okay. Sometimes, like the people of Judah in that moment of crisis, what we actually need to be reminded of IS just that heart of the matter. IS just that breathtakingly naive crystallization of our deepest belief or conviction.

To draw us back, when we're struggling with the complexities of how best to address homelessness, or what to do about Ukraine, or how to deal with that issue in our family, or what the right choices are as far as resources and development and the economy -- to draw us back, however briefly, to our starting-place. To our most basic conviction about what's good and what's right and what we want to be about.

The well-being of ALL God’s people, and especially the most vulnerable – with kindness because they matter and with humility because none of us is God.

So it may well be that the people of Judah didn't initially think Micah was worth listening to because he was just a hick and a hayseed -- and in fact, his message to them in this passage was probably approximately as simplistic and naive as they'd expected it to be, in all their self-satisfied superiority.

But the irony, and the point, is that it wasn't just what they got. It was also what they needed. Because in that time of crisis, what they most needed was really just to be reminded of the heart of the matter. Here's what it means to be God's people: seek justice, love kindness, live humbly. And I know you know that, Micah says to them. I just want you to stay with it for a little while. Remind yourselves of it. Reconnect to it. I think it'd be good.

And you know what? He was right. And how do we know he was right? Because Micah the prophet -- the hick and the hayseed, the groundhog prophet when everybody was wishing for a badger -- Micah's words got remembered. Micah's words were passed on from generation to generation and eventually written down. And here they are -- we still have them, nearly three thousand years later. 

Because they mattered. They helped and they made a difference to the first people who heard them -- who in a time of crisis learned how powerful it can be to simply remember the heart of what they want to be about.

Breathtakingly naive though it may be, in relation to the complexity of the world.

It's powerful for us just simply to remind ourselves, sometimes with breathtaking naiveté, to remind ourselves of the heart of what we want to be about -- who we are, what we believe, how we want to share this earth with each other.

The well-being of ALL God’s people, and especially the most vulnerable – with kindness because they matter and with humility because none of us is God.

It's just the simple and straightforward articulation of our conviction and our hope -- that this is a complex world but we value and choose and work for justice and peace and well-being for all, and we do so with kindness and with humility alongside God. Because these are also what God is about.

That's the heart of our faith. As breathtakingly naive as Micah's distillation of the whole of the older testament into Seek Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly -- and just as powerful and just as important to return to, and return to, and return to, when the complexity of the world threatens to overwhelm us.

Because these words matter. They're our foundation. As unsophisticated as the lowly groundhog, it's true -- and just as simple and accessible --

But if sometimes our only option is what's there, it's also true that sometimes what's there is exactly what we need. Thanks be to God. Amen.