Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Faith in God's Promises: Waiting and Watching

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen?
        I cry out to you, “Violence!”
            but you don’t deliver us.
Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish
        so that devastation and violence are before me?
There is strife, and conflict abounds.
        The Instruction is ineffective.
            Justice does not endure
            because the wicked surround the righteous.
        Justice becomes warped.

The Lord responds:
Look among the nations and watch!
        Be astonished and stare
            because something is happening in your days
                that you wouldn’t believe even if told.
I am about to rouse the Chaldeans,
        that bitter and impetuous nation,
            which travels throughout the earth to possess dwelling places it does not own.
The Chaldean is dreadful and fearful.
        He makes his own justice and dignity.

I will take my post;
        I will position myself on the fortress.
        I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me
        and how he will respond to my complaint.

Then the Lord answered me and said,
Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet
    so that a runner can read it.
        There is still a vision for the appointed time;
            it testifies to the end;
                it does not deceive.
    If it delays, wait for it;
        for it is surely coming; it will not be late.
Some people’s desires are truly audacious;
            they don’t do the right thing.
        But the righteous person will live honestly.

God comes from Teman
        and the holy one from the mountain of Paran.
His majesty covers the heavens
        and his praise fills the earth.
His radiance is like the sunlight,
        with rays flashing from his hand.
        That is the hiding place of his power.
Pestilence walks in front of him.
        Plague marches at his feet.
He stops and measures the earth.
        He looks and sets out against the nations.
The everlasting mountains collapse;
        the eternal hills bow down;
        the eternal paths belong to him.
Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
            and there’s no produce on the vine;
        though the olive crop withers,
            and the fields don’t provide food;
        though the sheep are cut off from the pen,
            and there are no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
        I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.
The Lord God is my strength.
        He will set my feet like the deer.
        He will let me walk upon the heights.  Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:3b-6, 17-19 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

As we began worship today, I mentioned that one focus today was the issue of injustice. We will get to that topic in a moment. There is a second focus in our text this morning from the prophet Habakkuk. (How often have we read from this prophet?) That second focus is the topic of waiting.

Waiting. Who here likes to wait? Anyone? What are some of the things that we wait for? 

Sometimes it can seem to take forever for something to happen, especially if we’re hoping for something good. Time can seem to slow to a standstill. At the time that Habakkuk was written, God’s people had been waiting a long time for a savior. For a Messiah. They’d been waiting for centuries. They envisioned a powerful leader. A king who would defeat their enemies. And restore their people and the kingdom. 

They trusted God. But, just like us, it was hard to have patience. It was hard to keep the faith. As they witnessed more and more injustice in their world, it was hard to believe that this promised Messiah would come. It was hard to wait. 

It is here where Habakkuk opens. With a lament. “How long, O Lord? How long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us.”

We know very little about this prophet. We believe that Habakkuk lived in southern Judah just before Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Babylonians. Like the other prophets we’ve heard from, he was no stranger to the unfaithfulness of God’s people to the covenant. But, unlike the other prophets, this wasn’t his primary focus. Rather than speaking out against Judah, Habakkuk questions God. And God’s methods and timing. “Lord, how long? There is strife and conflict abounds. The Instruction. Or the Torah. Or your Word! Is ineffective. There is no justice because the wicked surround those who are righteous. So, justice has become warped. How long, God, will you allow this to be?”

Have you ever lamented like this to God? Have you ever cried out, “How long, O Lord?” We look out at a world where it seems evil has the upper hand. Where those who are wicked seem to be winning in this world. Where those who are good are the losers. Where the faithful suffer. Where bad things happen to good people. And so, we cry out to God, “How long?”

God responds. But not in the way that Habakkuk wants. “Behold,” God responds. “I am sending the Chaldeans (or the Babylonians). That fierce and impetuous people who march through the earth. Who seize dwelling places that are not theirs. They are dreaded and feared. They create their own justice and authority.”

“What?!?” Habakkuk cries. He believed that God was going to end injustice, not raise up another people who build their entire empire on injustice. He could accept God judging the guilty, but the Babylonians are even worse than the Assyrians. Or Judah. 

So, then, Habakkuk makes his primary complaint against God. In verse 13 of chapter 1. “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil. You cannot look on wickedness with favor,” he says to God. “Why are you silent when the wicked swallow up the ones who are more righteous than they are?” Habakkuk demands an answer from God. He describes himself as a vigilant guard at his post on the watchtower. Waiting for God’s response. 

Then, in this continuing back and forth between Habakkuk and God, God responds a second time. “There is still a vision for the appointed time,” God says. “It testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late.” 

God tells Habakkuk to write down this vision. To write it onto tablets so that everyone can read it. A vision about an appointed time when God will bring judgment against Babylon. But, not just Babylon. Like the other prophets before him, Habakkuk uses cosmic language. Language that goes beyond only Babylon, or any single nation, but language that confronts the horrific and unjust practices that are shared among all evil nations. “Doom to those who plunder, who obtain gain through evil means. To those who build towns by bloodshed. To those who humiliate others. To those who trust in idols. Doom to them!” 

God stands above and against all this evil. Habakkuk’s God. Our God. Whose majesty covers the heavens. Whose praise fills the earth. Whose radiance is like the sunlight with rays flashing from his hand - the hiding place of his power. Who destroys pestilence and plague. Who looks and sets out against evil nations. For whom the mountains collapse. The hills bow down. The paths belong.

“So, be faithful,” God tells Habakkuk. “Because, I will hold them to account. In the meantime, be faithful. Because, even though others do evil, the righteous will live by faith.”

The righteous will live by faith. Sometimes, it’s easier said than done, isn’t it? This faith thing. When we look at our world and it seems as though everything is evil. Or it seems that God’s Word no longer is effective. Or the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Or even when we look at our own lives, and it feels as though everything is falling apart.  Sometimes this living by faith is just hard. What are we to believe? How does this vision help us when we are struggling with injustice, whether it is injustice in our broader world or what just feels unfair in our own lives?

To answer this, I will need 3-4 volunteers. Come together in a circle. It is here, in the center, where God is. Now stay exactly where you are, but turn around, facing out. When I tell you to take one step, everyone should take one small step out. 

Injustice has a tendency to separate us from God and from others around us. When we see poverty and try to protect what is ours. (Take one step.) When we pretend we don’t see a bully or an abuser. (Take one step.) When we mistrust someone based simply on their appearance. (Take one step.) When we see suffering or lack of hope in another and do nothing. (Take one step.)

Do you see how injustice separates us from each other? How it isolates us from others so we see only ourselves and no one else. And, especially, do you see how it separates us from God?

What happens when we turn back to God? When the central focus in our life is God?  (Everyone turn around.) When we share the blessings God has given us with others. (Take one step in.) When we stand up to those who are being harmed by others. (Take one step in.) When we see others who are hurting, others who are created by God, and seek to comfort them. (Take one step in.) This is what happens when our focus is back on God. (Volunteers may be seated.)

In this time between. Between the breaking into the world of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ. Emmanuel. God with us. Between Christ’s first coming to deliver and redeem us and the time when Christ will come again and God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness. In this time between, as we wait for the day of distress to come against the people or those things that attack us, we are called to be faithful. To put our focus on God, our gracious God. To worship God fully, with our whole hearts. And to work for justice. Because when we do this, we are doing God’s will. We are becoming more fully who we are meant to be as God’s people. We see those who are suffering and we reach out to them. And we are all brought together. With God in our midst.

“I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance.” Habakkuk proclaims. “The Lord God is my strength. God will set my feet like the deer. God will let me walk upon the heights.” Amen.

Preached December 2, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 1
Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:3b-6, 17-19; Matthew 26:36-38.

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