Sermon: When Life Goes Pear-Shaped (Habakkuk): The Lord’s Reply
Do you consider the recent snow a blessing? It was for me last weekend. At 8 o’clock last Sunday morning, one of my church stewards at Addlestone phoned to say they didn’t think most people would get to worship in the conditions, and I agreed they could cancel their service.
That’s why you saw me slipping into a pew near the back last week, and that’s why I felt blessed, to listen to Reza Naraghi preach his sermon that began this short series on Habakkuk. I chose Habakkuk, because he helps us struggle with where God is when bad things happen, and Reza spoke so movingly to us of what that meant for him when his younger brother was killed in an aerial crash of a passenger aircraft with a fighter jet.
Had you had to put up with my sermon, you would not have heard anything quite so personal, but what both Reza’s sermon and mine would have done would have been to bring you to this next point, where the Lord is about to speak a second time to the prophet. Habakkuk has outlined one complaint, namely that God is not doing anything about all that is wrong in the world, and the Lord has replied to say that he is doing something, but it is shocking to the prophet’s ears: he is bringing the Babylonian army as his instrument of judgment.
That provokes a second question from the prophet – not so much, Lord you aren’t doing anything, as Lord what you are doing is terrible! And the section ends with Habakkuk waiting attentively for a second reply, waiting like a soldier on sentry duty who expects instruction from the commanding officer.
And that’s where we are as we come to this week’s passage. Now, after that waiting period, the Lord speaks a second time to him. And he speaks with instruction. Essentially, there are three verbs of instruction for Habakkuk: ‘write’, ‘wait’ and ‘see’. They had particular application to the prophet, but they can also be significant for us as we too wrestle with the prevalence of injustice. So let’s listen in on God’s words to Habakkuk, and hear him also speaking to us.
Firstly, then, when God breaks the silence of waiting, he says, write:
Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. (Verse 2)
What I’m going to say, Habakkuk, I want you to record it. This needs writing down, because it needs sharing – ‘so that a herald may run with it.’ The thing is, Habakkuk, this message is not just designed to change your outlook on life, it can change others. So it needs recording.
Now you might say, that’s all very well for Habakkuk, this prophecy was going to be recorded not only for his day but for future generations as a part of Holy Scripture. But Habakkuk didn’t know that at the time, and in any case there is an argument for recording all our lesser encounters with God. They may not constitute a word from God to all people for all time, but they are still worth noting. It’s valuable to do this, both for our personal benefit and for the encouragement of others.
So – I wonder how many of you have come across the spiritual exercise called ‘journalling’? It’s a little bit like keeping a spiritual diary, although you may not write an entry every day. It’s like writing down your relationship with God. You detail how you think things are going in your faith. You address God in writing. It becomes a record of your life of faith, with its ups and downs, and it is valuable not simply at the time for helping you to express your innermost thoughts and feelings, but at later dates when you look back on things and wonder.
For a period of time I kept a journal when I was wondering what God was calling me to, and it became useful to refer back to those notes when I had doubts about the direction in which I was going. Years later, when I was struggling in the ministry, Debbie was able to say to me, what about all those examples you had of how God had spoken to you about this? Not only did that inspire me to keep going, it also meant I had something by which I could encourage others to persevere in faith.
If you are wrestling with God about something, keep a written record of it. If you believe God is speaking to you about something, write it out or type it up. Keep it somewhere safe. If you don’t keep some kind of record, the day will dawn when you seriously doubt something that God had truly spoken to you about several years before.
What does it do for Habakkuk? He is living in that awful situation where life as it is surely cannot be as God intended, and that is the basis of his complaints to God. But the Lord gives him a word that contrasts life as it is now with life as God will make it to be. In a time of struggle and uncertainty, that’s worth recording – for his own benefit, and the edification of others.
Yet that tension between life now and life as it is meant to be leads to God’s second instruction to Habakkuk: wait:
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. (Verse 3)
You’re going to have to wait, Habakkuk, for the time when God changes the injustice of now into the justice of the future. You can be sure God will do it, but in the meantime you have to wait (and hence why you should write down the revelation).
Wait. It’s not a word we want to hear when things are not as they should be. Yet this is God’s word to Habakkuk, and it’s often his word to us. Wait.
God’s gift of human freedom often means we have to wait. God allows individuals, groups and nations to exercise their free will, but then he acts. Look at the empires and kingdoms that have risen and fallen throughout history.
Waiting is also something God himself practised in Jesus Christ. There was the waiting for the Messiah. Paul says in Galatians that when the time was fully come, God sent his Son. But until that point, there was waiting. Long waiting, but worth it.
In his life, Jesus embodied waiting. He waited until he was about thirty before embarking on his public ministry. When Lazarus was dying, he waited, and didn’t even visit until after Lazarus had been placed in his tomb. What kind of pastoral visitor was Jesus? But he waited, and that waiting led to greater glory.
Psychologists tell us that what they call ‘deferred gratification’ is a sign of maturity. The adult who can wait for pleasure rather than the one who has to indulge it immediately is the mature one. God matures us as he calls us to wait for his work in our lives and the wider life of this world.
So we build disciplines of waiting into the Christian Year, twice a year. We call them Advent and Lent. The latter starts on Wednesday week. This could be a good time to remember the importance of waiting, as God shapes us in the ugliness and discomfort of the present into fit vessels for his great future, the new creation of his kingdom.
Which raises the third of God’s instructions to Habakkuk. Because it’s all very well writing something down, and it’s all very well waiting for that great something, but what is it? For that knowledge, the Lord calls the prophet to see:
See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous will live by his faith (verse 4).
And in the rest of the chapter, God contrasts the situation now with what he will bring about – so much so that in verse 6 we hear the word ‘woe’ addressed to Babylon. Anyone else in those days would like at the power and wealth of Babylon and use a word like ‘blessed’, but God says, ‘woe’.
Now, there is a nation drunk on greed and invasion, making riches by theft and extortion. But God says, the debtors of Babylon will arise and call in the debt (verses 4-8).
Now, the peoples see a nation that has protected its interests by using unjust gain and has ruined others. But God says, you are foolish if you think you have silenced your enemies, because even the stones will cry out and you will lose your life, O Babylon (verses 9-11).
Now, we witness a superpower that conquers by bloodshed and crime, but that is not how it will always be, says the Lord. The labour of Babylon will come to nothing, and instead of Babylon’s glory filling the earth, the Lord’s glory will (verses 12-14).
Now, a nation holds power that demeans its neighbours through encouraging drunkenness and shame. But God says, that will change. In God’s future, Babylon will be shamed and exposed. The violence you dished out will be returned in the same measure to you (verses 15-17).
Now, Babylon thinks it can create its own gods, but a culture foolish enough to bow down before lifeless objects will discover that the Lord is on the throne of the universe, and they must acknowledge the one true God (verses 18-20).
Can you see where this leads for us? Now on our TV screens we see an oppressive régime in Syria crushing the opposition. But in God’s future, we see President Assad brought down and a reign of peace and justice.
Now, we see a western world torn apart by debt caused by greed – not only the greed of some bankers, but the greed of consumers who were happy to take advantage. We see innocent victims thrown out of work as the economic price, while CEOs still contemplate large bonuses. But it will not always be like that. In God’s great future, there will not be a needy person, and greed will dissolve.
Now, we see families torn apart by a lack of faithfulness that exhibits itself in many different ways. Children cry as they have to choose between parents. But in God’s economy there is reconciliation and forgiveness. It will not always be this way.
Now, we suffer chronic illnesses and loved ones are taken from us early. Medicine brings us many wonders, but still has its limits. But we look forward to the Day of the Lord when there will be no more mourning or crying or pain.
Of course, though, that is then and this is now. And while in the interim we may work for the kingdom of God, we shall still have a long time to wait for all the wrongs to be righted and the woes to be trumped by blessings. What do we do in the meantime, apart from living as faithfully as we know how to the teachings of Christ?
We go back to that word ‘wait’. As Habakkuk waited for the Lord’s second reply, and as he then was told that the revelation he was to write down awaited its fulfilment, so now he is in that very time of waiting.
How is he to wait? How are we to wait? What attitudes and actions would be appropriate to the season of waiting for God to act?
For the answer to that, we’ll have to wait. Until next week’s final instalment.