Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon: Habakkuk 2: 1-20 Living by faith

It’s almost time for the action to begin at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, or, as you might know it better, Wimbledon. Come the 3rd July the Robinsons squash will be flowing, the strawberries and cream will be eaten, and the competitors will be grunting as they serve and return the tennis ball at speeds up to 148mph. I love to watch the crowd as they watch the tennis - you know the way they twist their heads, following the ball, back and forward from one player to the other and so on.

In some ways, the book of Habakkuk is a bit like a tennis match. Habakkuk serves a challenge, God replies. Habakkuk gets it back over the net, and all eyes are on God to see if he’ll respond again. That’s where we left the action last week, with Habakkuk’s waiting in verse 1: ‘I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.’

But if you were with us last week, you’ll know that this exchange, this back and forward is more important than a game of tennis, even a Wimbledon final. Habakkuk is trying to understand how God works in the world; trying to get his head around the way that God fulfils his purposes, because for Habakkuk, he just doesn’t get it.

His first complaint was that God didn’t seem to be doing anything about the wrongdoing in his nation. So then God replied and told him what he was going to do - the amazing, unthought of response to evil. God was going to bring the feared Babylonians to punish Israel. Habakkuk responded with his second complaint - that Babylon is even worse than Israel. How could God do such a thing?

I wonder if you’ve been pondering the same question this past week. Perhaps you’ve been thinking back over your life, struggling to work out what God was doing, and why he allowed some things to happen. Or maybe you’re in the thick of it right now. You feel as if the Babylonians have invaded, you’re suffering, trying to make sense of it all. So what is God’s answer? How does God respond?

That’s what we’ll see tonight. And the first part of the response is in verses 2-3. Habakkuk is told to write down the revelation. To make it plain on tablets (now that’s not like an iPad, or a pill, but stone tablets), so that a herald may run with it. This is a message to be kept, and spread. Why? ‘For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.’

There’s the promise that this revelation WILL happen. God has the day fixed in his diary; it’s marked on his calendar. Even if he doesn’t say when it will happen, God says that it will happen, and that should be enough. And even though there might be hard days, difficult days between now and then, days that make you doubt if things will change, days that make you doubt if it’s really true, the day will come.

What day is he talking about? What is the revelation promising? Well, before we get there, God points to someone called ‘he’. ‘See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright... indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples.’

Who is this ‘he’? It’s the Babylonian in view. Puffed up - proud; desires not upright; and so on. Even though Habakkuk doesn’t really want to look at him, God shows him the picture of the Babylonian. The terror that is coming. Is it this day that is fixed - the day when Babylon comes and conquers? Well, that day might be fixed, but it isn’t the one that God is telling Habakkuk about. But in order to grasp the importance of that day, Habakkuk first needs to see the ugliness of the unrighteous. And then he needs to see the contrast with the righteous.

Did you notice the wee bit I skipped over a moment ago? It’s hidden away in verse 4. ‘See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright - but the righteous will live by his faith...’ Slipped into the middle of the bit about the Babylonians is the contrast, the one who is righteous. And what makes them righteous, that is, right with God? Faith.

Believing in God, trusting him, even when things look really bad. Not working for our own goodness, but simply receiving the promised blessing of God. It was this verse, quoted in Romans 1 that led a guilt-ridden, frustrated and despairing monk to discover again the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which led to him beginning the Reformation 500 years ago - Martin Luther.

And it is the righteous who will live by faith when the disaster of the Babylonian invasion comes. This is what God tells Habakkuk; this is the revelation to be written down and treasured. As the song puts it, ‘Don’t stop believing.’ In the hard days, when God seems to be absent or impotent, keep on believing. It’s only as we live by faith that we can keep looking forward to the promised end, the day that God says is coming.

In that day, God says, the peoples will taunt Babylon. Look again at the end of verse 5: ‘he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying...’

The captured peoples will get their own back. The conqueror will be conquered. There will be scorn and ridicule in this series of 5 woes (now, that’s woe as in, a terrible thing has happened, rather than what you say to a horse to get it to stop - woah).

Woe 1: ‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion.’ (6) The Babylonians had become rich by stealing and extorting. But the burglars would be burgled. Verse 8: ‘Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you.’

Woe 2: ‘Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin!’ (9) In trying to protect himself by ruining others, he will actually ruin himself. Verse 10: ‘You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.’

Woe 3: ‘Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime!’ They’ve worked hard to build a city and establish a town, even if they’ve done it by bloodshed and crime, but it’s all ultimately for nothing. ‘Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire, that nations exhaust themselves for nothing?’

Like the original Babel, Babylon were trying to make a name for themselves, trying to establish their glory. but suddenly, into these woes, comes something different, a declaration of God’s glory. The nations are for nothing... ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.’

On that day, the glory of the LORD will be seen and known everywhere by everyone. This is the day we long for, and look forward to by faith - even when the glory of nations and people seem to overshadow God’s glory.

Back to the woes! Woe 4: ‘Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours...’ Babylon is pictured as one who makes his neighbours drunk in order to gaze on their naked bodies. But what goes around comes around. ‘Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed!’

And finally, woe 5. But this one is slightly different. Did you see that the other woes were in the first line of each, but here the woe comes halfway through. All the sins were bad; and the woes terrible, but it’s as if this one is the worst. And it addresses the theme of idolatry.

‘Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it? Or an image that teaches lies? For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak.’ Therefore, we have the woe: ‘Woe to him who says to wood, “come to life!” or to lifeless stone, “wake up!”

The man might trust in his idol; he might even have faith in it - but it’s not just having faith that saves. It is trusting in the right object of faith. It’s trusting in the truly trustworthy one. Idols made in our own image can’t save. That’s true whether it’s an idol made of wood, or a modern-day idol of home, or family, or work or whatever.

We’re called to live by faith - faith in the true God - and in the last verse we get a glimpse of this God: ‘But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.’

This is the God who speaks. The God who rules. The God who has set a day to deal with the wicked. The God who calls us to live by faith in him. And the God before whom we will be rendered speechless. Silent.

It’s good to ask questions, to try to understand what God is doing in the world. But there is a time to be silent. To stop asking, or interrogating God, and simply to be silent. To trust what he has said. And to get on with it.

To live by faith - that God knows what he is doing, and will complete all his purposes. Will we do that this week? Will we hold to his word, and worship him, and be silent before him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 25th June 2017.

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