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In The Meantime

Sermon - 11/11/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Habbakuk 2:1-4

You know, the Bible is such an amazing book.  You should read it sometime J.  It's really good.

It continues to astound me.  On the one hand, how something written thousands of years ago can still be relevant today.  And on the other hand, how routinely the wisdom and insights of scripture can be dismissed and ignored as irrelevant for today.

A case in point is our text this morning from Habbakuk.  Not exactly a household name, I realize.  Habbakuk -- sounds like something you might stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and shout!  To hear the echo or something.  If the name is unfamiliar, the story of Habbakuk is probably even less familiar.

Habbakuk is a minor prophet in the minor prophets.  So it's been a long time, I suspect, since many of us have paid attention to ol' Habby, as his friends affectionately called him J.

So I would like to introduce you to Habbakuk by first of all telling you everything that we know about him:  Habbakuk was a prophet in ancient Israel.

And now, moving on to my next topic J.  You see, that's really all that we do know.  The book that bears his name tells us absolutely nothing about the prophet, and that tells us a lot.  That the prophet, you see, as an individual, is not important.  What's important is the message he brings.  

Now we do have 1 piece of information from the text that provides a very important historical context for us.  Habbakuk refers to the Chaldeans, a name often used in scripture for the Babylonians.  That, with a few other clues, tells us the Habbakuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah.  Active at the end of the 7th century just prior to the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians at the beginning of the 6th century.  So somewhere around the year 605-610 BCE (before common era).

Now you know about as much as scholars know about Habbakuk.  

Let's look at the text -- pull out your Bibles, let's go look at this this morning.  Since we're not too familiar with where Habbakuk is, it's page 762 in your pew Bibles, there towards the end of the Hebrew scriptures.  When you find that, I want you to turn to the next page, and what do you notice?  It's short.  Yeah, you can read the entire thing in the spaces here in the sermon.  Just three short chapters.  Take note of the subtitles -- the heavy, black, bold print.  You see those?  Ignore them.  They're just plain wrong, or at the very least, misleading.  Subtitles are not part of scripture, they're efforts of modern editors to help us in reading a text and breaking it up with subjects, etc.  They don't always get it right.

To help us see what is happening in this particular text, what I want to invite you to do is to take out a pencil (I always write in my Bibles with pencil just in case I change my mind J) and I want you to put a "P" for prophet in the margin.  And put a "G" for God, in the margins.  But not yet!  Wait until I tell you where.

So we read the inscription at the beginning of chapter 1:

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

The Prophet’s Complaint

2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
   and you will not save?
3Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.

Is that the prophet or God speaking?  That's the prophet, right, you can put a little "P" there in the margin, in front of verse 2, that lets you know, OK, this section is the prophet speaking.

Skip down to verse 5:

Look at the nations, and see!
   Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
   that you would not believe if you were told.
6For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
   that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
   to seize dwellings not their own.

Prophet or God?  God, because prophets don't rouse the nations, you see, foreign nations in particular, that's the work of God.  So put a little "G" there for verse 5 and following.

Skipping down to verse 12:

Are you not from of old,
   O Lord my God, my Holy One?
 

Prophet or God?  Prophet, obviously, unless God is schizophrenic and talks to himself in the third person!  Alright, so there's "P" for prophet.

Chapter 2:

I will stand at my watch-post,
   and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
   and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Prophet or God?  Prophet!  You see, now that's where you're smarter that the editor, because that bold subtitle there says this is God's Answer.  No, God's answer doesn't start until verse 2 of chapter 2, when we are told:

2Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;

So put a "G" there, this is God speaking now.  You see what is happening here?  We have a dialogue between the prophet and God.  And we go back and forth between them.  Think of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya, you know, and that conversation.  Only we get to hear the voice of God, the back and forth.

More accurately, we would say that this is a report of a dialogue that came to Habbakuk in a vision that he received.  Now that you have that basic structure of what is happening in the text, let's look more deeply at the content.

Beginning of chapter 1, then, we see the complaint of the prophet.  Habbakuk looks around at his world, and all he sees is violence and destruction.  Worse yet, he looks at his own nation, that should be an example to the rest of the world -- the model for all other nations, and what does he see?  Verse 4:

So the law becomes slack
   and justice never prevails.

What's another word for 'law'?  Torah.  The Torah is the law -- the first 5 books of scripture.  That's how we know that he's talking about Israel here, the Torah.  It's become slack.  Justice never prevails.  The central affirmation of prophetic theology, from Moses to Malachi, is that God is a God of justice.  And therefore, God works to bring justice to earth -- 'Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven'.  The kingdom, the reign of God, is the fulfillment of divine justice.  And in the Hebrew tradition, that comes through the law -- the Torah. 

And so the prophet says, 'Look God, if you are a God of justice, how long will you continue to allow this injustice to go on?'  And then comes the answer of God, verse 6 and following -- see the Chaldeans coming?  This is the judgment of God.  And then verse 7, we hear the description of the Chaldeans.

By the way, did I say this already?  This is Babylonia, right?  The current country of Babylonia is?  Iraq.  And parts of Iran, not the same borders of today, but that area.  The description:

Dread and fearsome are they;
   their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8Their horses are swifter than leopards,
   more menacing than wolves at dusk;
   their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
   they fly like an eagle swift to devour.

(This is the original shock and awe)

They all come for violence,
   with faces pressing forward;
   they gather captives like sand.
10At kings they scoff,
   and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
   and heap up earth to take it.
11Then they sweep by like the wind;
   they transgress and become guilty;
   their own might is their god!

So powerful are they -- the are like God.

This is the traditional response of conventional theology, then and now.  God will use the actions of nations, often foreign nations like Babylonia, to punish the sinful.  'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, He has loosed the faithful lightning of his terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on'.

Of course you can sing "Glory Hallelujah" in the chorus only if you are on that side.  Which in this case is the side of the Chaldeans, the Babylonians.  And Habbakuk is not on their side.  When he looks at what the Babylonians were actually doing in the lands that they conquered, he complains even louder to God, and his complaint is in verse 12:

Are you not from of old,
   O Lord my God, my Holy One?
   You shall not die.

You know, we are the mortals here, our lives are the ones at risk.  Verse 13:

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
   and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
   and are silent when the wicked swallow
   those more righteous than they?
14You have made people like the fish of the sea,
   like crawling things that have no ruler.

15The enemy brings all of them up with a hook;
   he drags them out with his net

The image here is of a dragnet -- literally, a net that sweeps through the ocean and catches everything.  There's no separation of sheep from goats.  The bad, the good, and the ugly -- all swept up together.  And then the conclusion (verse 17):

Is he then to keep on emptying his net,
   and destroying nations without mercy?

This is your idea of justice, God?  That's a pretty daring question that the prophet asks of God.

By the way, this is the theology of Reverend Phelps.  Don't know if you recognize that name, its been in the news recently.  Members of his congregation in Kansas were successfully sued by a family who's son was killed in Iraq.  At the funeral, Phelps and members of his congregation demonstrated, with their signs to announce that the death of this soldier was because of the toleration of homosexuality in this country, and God was punishing us by killing our soldiers in Iraq.

Such theology is perverted, it's obscene, and sick.  And those are the nice things I can say about it.

You see, Habbakuk is challenging the very basis of such thinking.  His argument is basically this:  how can God use immoral violence to condemn immoral violence?  

Teachers know this.  When teachers want to get children to be quiet, what do you do?  Hand goes up, mouth goes shut, the teacher gets that.  Why?  Because teachers know that yelling at children to get them to be quiet doesn't work -- it's counter-productive.

And so the prophet dares to raise this question of God -- 'God, how can you use evil to judge and condemn evil'?  Or we might say:  how can you use terror to fight terror?  Or torture to stop torture?

Can such ever be the way of God?  Should it ever be the way of God's people?

And so then the prophet says, after posing this question of God, "I'll keep watch, I'll stay silent, and I'll wait to see what God will answer".  And then we have that answer in chapter 2, verse 2 and following:

2Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;  make it plain on tablets,
   so that a runner may read it.
3For 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.
4Look at the proud!
   Their spirit is not right in them,
   but the righteous live by their faith.

 

By the way, that is the quote that the Apostle Paul uses in the first chapter of Romans that I referred to last Sunday.  This is the heart of the prophet's vision.  The answer to the perplexing question of how God can be just and God's world can be so in-just.

There is, says the prophet, a vision -- God's vision for our world that will come on its own time, not on ours.  And we are the ones called to live by faith in the meantime, as we await the fulfillment of that vision.  To trust God and that vision of the world where justice and peace will reign.

Now, to trust God can mean two possible things.  It can either mean that everything will be OK, no matter what.  You know, it's all in God's hands, we don't have to worry.  Or, it can mean that if we trust the ways of God and follow them, then all will be OK.

You see the difference between the two?  They're pretty profound.

Harold Kushner, after his best-selling book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", a number of years ago, was in the Netherlands, speaking.  A question came up from the audience:  "What does your understanding of God suggest about the possibility of nuclear war?"

Rabbi Kushner had to stop and think for a moment. . . huh.  He said in a year of lecturing after his book was published, no one had ever asked him that question before, in the United States.  And so there he was in the Netherlands, and he stopped, and he said:  "Well, I suppose it means that if we are foolish enough to push the button, God's not going to stop if from happening.  It will make God exceedingly sad, but God will pick up from the pieces left over, and will continue to work with those pieces to try to bring something good out of it.  It wouldn't be better than what could have been before, but He will continue to work with that".

Whereupon his host, the Bishop of the Dutch church, stood up and said:  "With all due respect to my guest, I cannot believe that God would ever allow such to happen".

You see, I think Rabbi Kushner was right.  Trusting God does not mean that everything will be OK, no matter what.  Talk about global warming.

Instead, trusting God means that you can trust the way of God is the right one.  The way of God's justice and peace is the way to achieve that vision God has for our lives and for our world.  And that is what Habbakuk means when he says 'The righteous live by faith'.

And I cite as evidence for that understanding the series of woes that follow in our text in the second chapter, that demonstrate the opposite way of living in the meantime, as we await for the appointed time.  God says, through the prophet (verse 6):

‘Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!’
   How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge?
7Will not your own creditors suddenly rise,
   and those who make you tremble wake up?
   Then you will be booty for them.
8Because you have plundered many nations,
   all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you—
because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth,
   to cities and all who live in them.

And then there are a series of other woes in that same vein.  

George Adam Smith, a Biblical scholar from 110 years ago, said this about this very text:

"Tyranny is intolerable.  In the nature of things, it cannot endure, but works out its own penalties.  By oppressing so many nations, the tyrant is preparing the instruments of his own destruction.  As he treats them, so in time shall they treat him.  Tyranny is suicide".

Is this not what we see unfolding today in Pakistan, or placed like Myanmar, formerly known as Burma?

And even modern day Israel, the most democratic government in all of the Middle East, its oppressive rule of the West Bank and Gaza ultimately will be its own downfall if they don't change and figure out a way to live in peace with their neighbors.  And ironically, it is the Hebrew prophets themselves, like Habbakuk, who make that so abundantly clear.

What about us?  In this nation that prides itself in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, not only for our own citizens, but I think as President Bush so eloquently articulated in his second inaugural address, that is our mission.  To be a light to the world.  To bring that life, liberty, happiness, freedom, for all citizens.

Alasdair MacIntryre is a philosopher who teaches ethics at Notre Dame.  In 1981 he published a very influential book that has been republished twice, it just came out in its third edition this year -- "After Virtue, a Study in Moral Theory".  Not exactly a title that grabs you, but MacIntryre's central thesis is this:  that moral theory and practice (that is, how we determine right from wrong) is in grave disorder.  And he attributes this largely to the individualism of the enlightenment.  And he contends that we need to rediscover the notion of virtue, as taught by Aristotle.  

Sam Porter, a member at First Congregational Church, is the one that turned me on to this.  We're doing an event together next week with an author who has written a new book on public issues and the church.  And in that conclusion that Porter sent to me, two things I want to say about it that MacIntryre refers to in it:  the name 'Godot' comes from a play written by Samuel Becket, a fictional character -- Waiting for Godot.  Written shortly after World War II.  That's all you need to know, is the title.  And the second reference is to Benedict, which of course refers not to the Pope of the same name (the current Pope), but rather Saint Benedict, 5th-century founder of the monastic tradition which emphasizes spiritual disciplines.

So in this conclusion, MacIntryre compares our time to the fall of the Roman empire, and he says:

"It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn in our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages.  Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the imperium. 

What they set themselves to achieve instead - often not recognizing fully what they were doing - was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are 
already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to 
survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely 
without ground for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict."

That's a challenge.  That's a very hard challenge for us.

Living in the meantime, as we await the fulfillment of God's vision, means that we trust and have faith in the ways of God by living in such local communities, moral communities, in accordance with that vision of justice and peace and righteousness.  Not the government's vision, not the media's vision, not Hollywood's vision, not the vision of even our favorite presidential candidates, but God's.

And an obscure, little, almost forgotten prophet, struggling with how to make sense of a just God in an unjust world, may just help us see that vision and how to live by it.

May it be.

 


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