Sermon for October 6, 2019
An elderly woman was walking home after enjoying a dinner and a Bible study at her church. It was getting dark but she lived only a few blocks away. But lurking in the bushes nearby was a man intent on stealing her purse. He jumped out in front of her intending to frighten her. He then demanded her purse. But the woman was undaunted. She had just come from Bible study after all. She looked at the robber and said with determination: “Acts 2:38: Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.” The robber froze in his tracks. A police car happened by and the elderly woman flagged the officer down and told him what had happened. As the officer handcuffed the thief he said, “I’m curious, why did you give up, the lady was only quoting Scripture.” “Scripture????” said the surprised thief. “
What do you mean? She told me she had an axe and two—38s.” It looks like scripture is the answer to prevent crime and violence.
Today the reading from the Old Testament offered a complaint about violence and injustice. The complaint was directed to God and was not offered by a skeptic or an atheist. The speaker was the prophet Habakkuk and he put God on the hot seat. Habakkuk spoke clearly and courageously: “Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you do not listen! Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” The prophet was speaking with the urgency of someone yelling “FIRE”; action was needed immediately if not sooner. Habakkuk was no hermit. He was all too aware of what was going on among the people. He saw far too much destruction, trouble, and wrongdoing, and he was sick of it. He feared values and morality were breaking down. “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” Decency was replaced by delinquency. Justice was the bread and butter of the prophet’s calling. In the Bible justice is the focus of the community so people do not live in fear. The hungry are fed. The homeless are sheltered. The poor are not abandoned. But this was not happening, “The wicked surround the righteous therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”
Not part of today’s reading is the first part of the Lord’s answer to the demanding prophet. The Lord is all too aware of the problems in Judah, the portion of the Promised Land where Jerusalem is located. The problem is not only a breakdown of law and order; that could be understood as a symptom of an underlying condition. The condition is unrighteousness; all too many have forsaken God and God’s commandments. They have chosen to abandon a right relationship with God. The covenant has been broken. The Lord is considering sending judgment on Judah through the Babylonians, a nation with a powerful military. But God noticed a problem with the Babylonians: they, too, are violent since “their own might is their god!”
Habakkuk was not satisfied. You can almost imagine the prophet in prayer not with open hands but shaking his fists toward heaven. He said, “Why are you silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” There are times when we are like Habakkuk—the little-known prophet with an unusual name. Sometimes our prayers are complaints….we skip the praise and thanksgiving parts and give God quite an earful: “Lord, we are tired of the violence! Lord, there seems to be unseen powers of resistance that have taken over, people are ignoring the justice and fairness of your commandments; Lord could it be that many think money and might are their gods; Lord, why are you silent to our pleas.” Such complaint-prayers are not whining but the outpouring of hearts sickened by the pain and suffering in the world. We have powerful role models for such prayers. Abraham told God not to destroy the righteous with the wicked. Moses pleaded with God not to destroy Israel in one fell swoop after the sin of worshiping the golden calf. Moses acted like Israel’s defense and he was effective for God changed such plans for destruction. God indeed knows our hearts and truly invites honesty: faith is confident of the compassion of God, God who promises “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you.”
Habakkuk was going to take God up on that promise as we heard in the reading, “I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint.” Habakkuk complained but that was part of his faithfulness: he wore his heart on his sleeve and expected God to answer. God did answer the prophet: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time, it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” What follows in Habakkuk is a series of woes upon those who become arrogant because of their wealth, woe upon those who use wicked means to gain possessions, woe to those who resort to violence to gain land, and woe to those who worship all sorts of dead idols. The ways of wickedness and violence will not prevail but face the wrath and judgment of God. In an interesting twist of Habakkuk’s wondering why God kept silent in the midst of earthly injustice, Habakkuk now wrote, “But the Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him!”
Habakkuk wrote “The righteous live by their faith.” To be righteous, meaning a relationship with God, is to trust God in all things. According to the prophet the opposite of faith is arrogance. Arrogance is to live by gods of our own making, and sometimes these gods are ourselves. We must understand the importance of daily devotions. I know it is easy to skip scripture and prayers, but that is like going out to meet our days without protection and direction of God. For all the earth to keep silent before God reminds us that God is not on vacation or indisposed, but is ever present to be our health and salvation, our refuge and strength. The apostle Paul wrote that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. The second lesson said, “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Yes, we have been given a great treasure, not with a dollar sign, but the sign of the cross. Jesus died to cancel the record of sins, so we are to live in the freedom of his forgiveness. Jesus rose from the dead to bring life and immortality to light, the gospel of not only eternal life in the future, but life that begins now, a life of faith, hope, and love. As we hear the Scriptures, the mighty deeds of God, the mercy of Jesus who welcomes sinners and calls them to come to him, the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel, the good news, to rekindle our faith. Sometimes it seems like the “pilot light of faith has gone out, but the Holy Spirit uses the gospel to enlighten us so we can counter the injustice and pain of the world by being the light of Jesus’ love, even in humble ways for one another.
I came across a card on my desk which I bought but never sent. The card said, “Thanks, God, that even when things don’t go according to our plans, you are up to something good in our lives.” The accompanying Scripture for that card is from Romans, chapter 8, “Absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love.” I think that card sums up the message of Habakkuk, the righteous live by their faith. Not all things go according to our plans. But faith trusts God to work so faith is rekindled, recharged, and renewed with God’s plan, the plan made clear in Jesus, God’s unbeatable love for us. The Holy Spirit is like the route guidance system in my car. I can program in a destination, but if I somehow miss a turn, or road construction blocks a route, the route guidance continues to work, so I will be guided to the destination. In this world of temptations and discouragements, we can get lost, spiritually lose our bearings and head in the wrong direction. With so many troubles we may start to think God does not care about me or anything else. But the Holy Spirit, through hearing the good news of the gospel of Jesus, Jesus who said he came to seek and to save the lost, will restore us on the right direction following Jesus by faith. Faith reminds us that we are saved entirely by grace and nothing this world throws at us cancels Jesus’ gift of salvation and steadfast love.
I cannot end this sermon without returning to Habakkuk. It sounded like he was discouraged at one time because of the violence and idolatry bringing destruction to God’s beautiful creation. But God told him ‘live by your faith’ which is to trust the faithfulness of God. So Habakkuk closes with a beautiful call to faith and trust in God. The prophet must have been close to the earth and farming for he wrote, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation, God the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” The righteous live by their faith, for even though we get lost, we shall be found, even though we complain, we shall be comforted, even though we sin, we shall be healed, even though we die, yet shall we live because our lives are upon a firm foundation of grace that endures all the storms of life.