If you wanted to put something in the least accessible place on earth, you couldn’t find a better spot than Challenger Deep. Challenger Deep is the deepest place on our planet. It is located in the Pacific Ocean, at the lowest point in Mariana Trench, southwest of the island of Guam. Challenger Deep is almost 36,000 feet below sea level. For the sake of comparison, consider the fact that the top of Mt. Everest, the highest place on earth, is only 29,000 feet above sea level.
Challenger Deep is inaccessible, not just because you have to travel so far underwater to get there. It is inaccessible because at that depth underwater, there is a thousand times the normal atmospheric pressure. It takes a specially designed submersible to get there and it has only been reached four times – twice by manned craft and twice by unmanned ones. Getting to Challenger Deep is a major undertaking, not unlike going to the moon. In fact, more people have landed on the moon than have reached Challenger Deep. Twelve men have landed on the moon, but only four have been to this spot at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
In our Old Testament lesson for today we hear the end of the book of Micah. As Micah concludes his prophecy he speaks about God’s loving and forgiving character. He says, “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Micah describes sins as being removed from God’s people and cast in a place where they can never trouble us again – in a place like Challenger Deep. He speaks words of comfort that assure us of God’s continuing love.
You probably haven’t heard all that much about Micah – and that’s really quite unfair. Micah is rather like any great basketball player who played in the 1990’s. No matter how good they were, they probably didn’t get all of the attention they could have because they happened to play at the same time that the greatest basketball player in history was playing - Michael Jordan. Micah lived and wrote in the eighth century B.C. This means that he is from the same time period as the greatest writing prophet in the Old Testament, Isaiah. Isaiah is such a giant in his writing, that Micah has been completely overshadowed. And that is unfortunate because in his brief seven chapters Micah has some truly amazing stuff.
Micah lived after the nation of Israel had divided into two nations – the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern one of Israel. He is unique in that he speaks to both nations and not just one. Micah lived at the end of a time when the surrounding Near eastern powers in Egypt and Mesopotamia had been divided, weakened and distracted. The power vacuum had allowed the northern and southern kingdoms to flourish – at least economically.
But while everything seemed to be going well – all was not well. God had rescued Israel in the exodus and entered into a covenant with them. He had taken them to be his people – his own treasured possession. He had given them the promised land and had blessed them. And yet, the nation had been unfaithful to God. In spite of God’s warnings, they had become involved with worshipping the false gods of the surrounding peoples.
Everything about life in the covenant with Yahweh began with fearing, loving and trusting in him above all things. When Israel turned toward false gods, everything else about life in the covenant was corrupted. The rich took advantage of the poor and stole from them. People cheated in business transactions. Justice was perverted as leaders took bribes.
Now perhaps that sounds like something far removed from your own personal life. Sure, you hear and read about things like this in the news, but it is not something that you personally encounter. Yet listen to what Micah says about those engaged in this kind of behavior: “Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the LORD and say, ‘Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.”’”
Those in Judah were doing things that broke the covenant. Yet they weren’t really concerned because Yahweh’s temple was there in Jerusalem. They said, “Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.” The temple of God had become like a magic charm that they believed was a guarantee of safety – a guarantee that no longer involved truth faith.
How often does that describe us as we think about salvation? Do you think, “Jesus died for my sins. I’m saved” – and then go out and harm your neighbor’s reputation by passing on information that puts them in the worst possible light? Do you think, “Jesus died for my sins. I’m saved” – and then go online and look at that pornography? Do you think, “Jesus died for my sins. I’m saved” – and then think nothing of skipping the Divine Service because you have something else you want to do on Sunday morning?
Micah’s prophecy leaves no doubt about the connection between the faith we profess and the life we live. Where that life has involved sin, God’s word calls us to confess. It tells us to admit our wrongdoing before God. It tells us to repent with a contrite heart – one that confesses the sin and looks to God for forgiveness.
And when we do this, at the end of his prophecy Micah tells us exactly what we find. Micah writes in our text, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.”
Micah returns us to the character of God that he has revealed about himself. God had declared to Moses, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
God wants us to know that this is what he is like. He wants to be gracious and merciful. He wants to pardon iniquity and pass over sin. He wants to deal with us according to his steadfast love. And this is exactly how he deals with all who confess sin before him. This is how he deals with all who return to him, recognizing their need to fear, love and trust in God above all things.
God has not only told us about this in words. He has revealed it in actions. At the end of our text Micah writes, “You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” God had sworn by himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that in their offspring all nations would be blessed. He had promised King David that he would establish his throne forever.
Through Micah in a previous chapter God said, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
God promised a descendant of David who would be born in Bethlehem. Micah said of him, “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”
Some seven hundred years later God kept this promise as Jesus the Christ was born in Bethlehem. He, the incarnate Son of God and the descendant of Abraham and David, came to the world to reveal God’s steadfast love and his desire to forgive. He did this by fulfilling God the Father’s will as he died on the cross for the sins of all humanity – for your sins. And then on the third day God raised him up as he began the resurrection of the Last Day.
Because of the sacrificial death of Christ, God forgives sin. He gives forgiveness and he has done this for you personally in a way that leaves no doubt. He has done it in a way that assures repentant sinners, that yes, in Christ they are forgiven.
In our text Micah writes, “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” God has removed you sins and cast them into a place even more remote than the waters of Challenger Deep. In the waters of your baptism he cast your sins into the depths of Jesus’ death on the cross. There in the judgment of God against sin in his own Son your sin has been removed. And because you have been baptized – because you are baptized – it is still removed. When you repent and turn to our gracious and loving God he greets you with the good news that your sins have been cast into the depths of Jesus’ saving death on the cross. They are gone forever through the waters of your baptism.
Yet more happened in your baptism the mere removal of sin. Through baptism you shared in Jesus death. And through baptism Jesus’ resurrection life has begun to be at work in you. This has happened through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the One raised Christ from the dead. The same Spirit has given you rebirth. The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is at work in you – leading you to live more and more in the ways of our Lord.
Yes, God has saved you from sin. But this doesn’t mean that he has freed you to serve yourself and do as you please. This is not what it means to be born again of water and the Spirit.
In the previous chapter, Micah asked: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Micah said that God didn’t need any of these things. After all, he is the one who pardons iniquity and passes over transgression. He is the one who has cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. Instead, God wanted his people to walk in faith as his people. Micah went on to say: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
God wanted his people to live in the covenant. He wanted them to live in the ways that the Torah described. The same thing is true for you, people who have been made part of the new covenant. And in fact, at its heart, this life of faith is one and the same. When asked about the greatest commandment in the Torah, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In the vocations of our life we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to treat our husband or wife, son or daughter, father or mother, employer or employee with love, patience, kindness and faithfulness. We are called to place their needs ahead of our own, because that is what Jesus Christ has done for us. We are called to forgive them because that is what God has done for us in Christ. He has cast all our sins into the depths of the water of our baptism. He has cast them into the death of Jesus Christ for us.