Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 1:1 - 2:1 Heaven's Complaints Department

We’re getting into the time of year when you might be planning your holiday. Well, beware - these are all genuine complaints received from tourists by a holiday company:

‘The street signs weren’t in English. I don’t understand how anyone can get around.’

‘There was no sign telling you that you shouldn’t get on the hot air balloon ride if you’re afraid of heights.’

‘The beach was too sandy.’

‘I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.’

‘We could not enjoy the tour as our guide was too ugly. You can’t be expected to admire a beautiful view when you’re staring at a face like his.’

Well, I hope you’re not put off by my ugly mug this evening! Sometimes, complaints can be a bit silly - like the ones we’ve heard from holidaymakers. But sometimes complaints are genuine. There is a problem that needs to be listened and sorted out.

As the book of the prophet Habakkuk begins, we find him, in heaven’s Complaints Department. He’s not happy about something, and so he cries out to God. He calls out to God, and lodges his complaint. We find it on page 940, in verses 2-4.

‘How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “violence!” but you do not save?’

His complaint is first of all about how long he’s not getting an answer. I wonder if you’ve ever phoned up BT or an insurance company, and you hear the recorded message ‘your call is important to us, please hold the line...’ and then listen to Greensleeves for the hundredth time! And you think - how long until I get through to an advisor?!

Well, Habakkuk hadn’t been listening to Greensleeves. He hadn’t heard, well, anything. He’s calling out to God, and God hasn’t bothered answering. God hasn’t done anything about his concerns, his cries for help.

Have you ever been in the same boat? Something’s going on in your life, you need God to come through, to do something, to help, and... nothing. Silence. Perhaps that’s you at this precise moment. Maybe you’ve got an appointment or a diagnosis. Family difficulties. Money worries. Maybe you’re worried about the way society seems to be going - the news filled with violence, injustice, conflict.

Those were the things Habakkuk was concerned about. As he looks at his nation, God’s covenant people, he sees things going terribly wrong. Verse 3 - destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. The law is paralysed, justice never prevails. Justice is perverted. It’s frustrating. It’s a big problem. And it’s bad enough that Habakkuk is having to live in such a place, but even worse that God isn’t doing anything about all this wrongdoing.

Start of verse 3: ‘Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?’ Habakkuk is saying, God, what’s going on? Why aren’t you doing something? Why aren’t you answering me?

And then, amazingly, God answers him. God reveals to the prophet Habakkuk what’s going on in the world, and what God is going to do. And initially, it sounds very promising. It sounds very exciting. Who wouldn’t want to hear this?

‘Look at the nations and watch - and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.’ (5)

Brilliant! God is answering Habakkuk’s complaint! He’s going to do something amazing. Something you wouldn’t have imagined. The complaints department will be able to tick this complaint off the list. Resolved. So what is this amazingly wonderful thing that God is going to do?

‘I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling-places not their own.’ (6)

Erm, that doesn’t sound just as great a solution. Especially when God goes on to describe them in more detail. When I was growing up, we played top trumps. You had lots of different sets - football players, cars, planes and so on. They were given a rating for lots of different things, and you had to pick one to try to beat your opponent’s rating. So, if you had a Robin Reliant, top speed of 55 mph, it wouldn’t beat a Ferrari, top speed 250mph. The Babylonians, they were top trumps champions at warfare.

Feared and dreaded? Tick. Promoting their own honour? Tick. Swift horses, fiercer than wolves? Tick. Tick. Tick. These are the real deal. Attacking, conquering, they have no equal. Fortified cities make them laugh - they’ll just pile up earth, come over the top, capture the city and move on.

The Babylonians were the top trumps champions at warfare. Another thing they were top trumps at was, verse 11, wickedness. Guilt. Idolatry. ‘Then they sweep past like the wind and go on - guilty men, whose own strength is their god.’ They only worship themselves. They boast in their strength.

And this is God’s great plan? This is the amazing, unheard of answer to Habakkuk’s complaint? It’s no wonder that Habakkuk is back on the phone again. It’s hardly surprising that Habakkuk comes back with a second complaint. God, you’re doing what? Why are you allowing this to happen? Why are you actively making things worse, rather than better? God, what are you playing at?

Habakkuk starts his complaint with a reminder of who God is. Verse 12: ‘O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die. O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgement; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.’

Lord, you’re pure, you’re holy, and yet you’re doing this. ‘Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous then themselves?’

Do you see Habakkuk’s problem? He’s saying, ok, we’re bad, but they’re worse than we are! Why will you let them get away with it while they triumph over us? Why are you going to put us through all this suffering?

He then pictures people like the fish in the sea. It’s as if the Babylonians have gone fishing. Using hooks (13), then a net, then a drag-net. Now I’m not a fisherman - I think I’d go fishing and only catch a cold - but do you see the increasing catch? A hook only gets one fish at a time; then a net on the end of a pole would get a few more at a time; but a drag-net, pulled along behind a boat catches everything. Babylon are conquering everywhere, sacrificing to their net (their own power), living in luxury as they conquer other nations. As verse 17 asks - is there no stopping him? ‘Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy?’

So what do you do when you find yourself trying to get through to heaven’s complaints department? What do you do when you can’t understand God’s purposes, and things seem to be getting worse, rather than better?

The first thing to notice from tonight is that Habakkuk continued to cry out to God. When trouble came, he didn’t turn away, he turned to God. He kept ringing the complaints line, as he cried out in prayer. And while it might seem obvious to say it, sometimes it’s not so obvious when we’re in the midst of a difficult situation. If prayer seems more like a last resort, then cry out to God. As the hymn says - what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

The second thing to notice is something that Habakkuk just couldn’t understand, the thing that drives the second complaint. ‘Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?’ Can you think of somewhere else in the Bible where we find the same thing happening? The place where the more righteous one cried out to God, asking why he had abandoned him? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In a shadow, we see the outline of the cross. The wicked swallowed up the more righteous one, THE righteous one. You might remember the film ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ a dramatic portrayal of the crucifixion. It was directed by Mel Gibson, and he appears in one scene. As Jesus is nailed to the cross, it is Mel Gibson’s hand which drives in the nails. He’s recognising that he crucified Jesus. The wicked swallowing up the more righteous - and yet this is God’s way of salvation, forgiveness; his ultimate purpose in the world. As we take bread and wine tonight, we remember his death for us. We celebrate that God did punish sin in Christ Jesus, and we can go free.

And yet, sometimes, even knowing that ultimate answer, and being sustained by the bread and wine, we still struggle with the circumstances of our lives. So, in a sense, we watch and wait with Habakkuk, listening out for God’s answer for the everyday struggles. Watching, waiting, for God to speak. We’ll hear more next week...

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 18th June 2017, in the 'How long, O Lord' sermon series in the book of the prophet Habakkuk.

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