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Sermon: When Life Goes Pear-Shaped (Habakkuk): The Lord’s Reply

Habakkuk 2:2-20
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.

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Sermon: The Church Of The Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

You may know that my ‘claim to fame’ is that I studied Theology under George Carey, and that he was one of my referees when I candidated for the Methodist ministry. When George left the world of theological colleges to become Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was soon asked to be present at the reopening of a post office in Wells. The reopening was scheduled for Ascension Day. George discovered that the organisers wanted to mark the reopening happening on Ascension Day by him going up in a hot air balloon while people sang the hymn, ‘Nearer my God to thee’!

The story of Jesus’ ascension is a problem for us. Developing knowledge of astronomy over the centuries has meant that it is difficult to believe that geographically heaven is ‘up there’ and hell is ‘down below’. Despite the fact that Christians have long since abandoned such over-literal interpretations, you may recall how in the 1960s the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said that [Yuri] “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”.

So we might think that the doctrine of the Ascension is worth rejecting. But in response to that we might say, how else do we know that Jesus Christ is reigning in the universe? If he didn’t return to his Father’s side, what did happen to him? If he returned to heaven in a different way without dying, how did he do so? Might we have in the story of Jesus’ Ascension what is sometimes called a ‘miracle of accommodation’? In other words, Jesus accommodates himself to the limited understanding of his followers by the miracle of rising into the clouds as the only way they would have understood that he was returning to his Father’s presence. In that sense, it’s similar to the creation stories – we’re not meant to take them literally, but they are written in the language of the creation stories of their day.

So if at the Ascension Jesus shows the disciples in their limited understanding that he is reigning at the Father’s right hand, what might he teach them – and us, too, with our limited understanding – through this event? I believe he has something to tell us about the church. I want to share ‘Three ‘W’s’ about the church that we see in the light of Jesus’ Ascension.

The first is that he calls his disciples to be a waiting church. Luke reports,

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. (Verse 4a)

He goes on to show that that ‘promise of the Father’ is the gift of the Holy Spirit. At first, you might think this is not relevant to us, because since Pentecost Christians don’t have to wait for the Holy Spirit. When we turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit.

And the thought of not having to wait fits with our culture. Do you remember the advert for the old Access credit card, which said it ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’? A society built on credit (or should we say debt?) does not want to wait for anything or anyone. As the rock band Queen sang, ‘I want it all and I want it now.’

It’s something that society does to religious faith and practice, too. Our great annual season of waiting, Advent, is crushed by the unwillingness to wait for Christmas. We are infected by the disease of impatience. We expect instant solutions to deep problems. One application of something that ‘works’ elsewhere and we think the tribulations of the church will be solved.

But God calls us to be a waiting church. The best things take time. They take God’s time, and come in God’s timing. We know it is unwise to give children everything they want, and especially at the moment they request it. So it is between God and us, too. He has wise reasons as a loving parent for making us wait, even for good things.

In particular, I suggest that one reason he keeps us waiting is that he wants to develop character in us. If we received all we asked for instantly, we would love God for the gifts rather than loving him for who he is. Sadly, too many of us in churches are infatuated with the blessings rather than the One who blesses. We want what we can get out of God, rather than to follow him and love him in Jesus Christ.

So God makes us wait. Holy waiting purifies our motives and focuses our hearts. We grow in grace and become more tuned into the purposes of God, rather than the lusts of our hearts. Our willingness to wait is a mark of true discipleship. And that is what the church is meant to be: a group of disciples, those who are learning the ways of Christ. Waiting puts us in a position where we learn Christ. Is that what we want? If it is, let us accept the grace of waiting.

The second characteristic of the church at the Ascension is that she is a witnessing church. What happens after we’ve waited and the Holy Spirit has come? Jesus is quite clear:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Verse 8 )

Make no mistake, the Ascension leads to Pentecost. In fact, Easter leads to Pentecost. With Pentecost comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the gift of the Spirit comes the promise that we shall be witnesses.

In particular, the witness that happens starts from where we are and moves outwards. Just as the disciples were in Jerusalem when they received the Holy Spirit, so their witness began there but it didn’t end there. It went to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Their witness may have begun with the people with whom they were most familiar, but gradually the Spirit drove them further from their comfort zones to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit does the same today. We make a grave mistake when we think witness is about us staying where we are and waiting for people to be attracted to us. That’s actually a cop-out from being witnesses to Christ, and thus cannot be a work of the Holy Spirit.

No. Instead of the idea that we attract people to us while we sit comfortably (or uncomfortably) in our pews, the Holy Spirit sends us out from the place that suits us to the world as the witnesses of Jesus. The word is not ‘come’ but ‘go’. A witnessing church asks, how are we going into the community and beyond, carrying the love of God in Christ?

Similarly, a witnessing church does not say, how can we attract enough people into this congregation so that it survives for another generation? It won’t say that, because that is a selfish question, more concerned with personal preservation than the Gospel. Jesus said that those who wanted to save their lives would lose it. Those who lose their lives for his sake and the Gospel’s will save their lives.

So a witnessing church, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, the love of God in Christ is such a beautiful gift. Where are the people who need that love? And in the waiting time of Ascension, a true church is consumed with that vision of witness that its members plan how to move out from the church base, spreading God’s redeeming love in Christ to people in spiritual need, material need and social and emotional need.

If this happens, then the church will meet as much as she needs for worship, fellowship and discipleship – but no more. It will not simply become the centre of our social lives, but the refuelling station as we venture into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our social lives will more likely  be fulfilled in the world as we network with friends who do not yet know how much Jesus Christ loves them.

At Ascension-tide, then, the church anticipates this mission. We allow this mission to be the organising principle of church life. And we long for the equipping power of the Holy Spirit in order to put it into practice.

The third and final characteristic of the church at Ascension (at least in this sermon) is that she is a watching church.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Verses 10-11)

This last week I went to the races. Sandown Park, to be precise. I go once a year. Before you think I have a gambling problem, let me explain that it was to attend the annual Christian Resources Exhibition. I was helping to staff the Essex Christian Healing Trust stall, but also found an hour or two spare to look around for myself, buy presents for the family and new clerical shirts for myself. When I was trying to hunt down a gift for Debbie, I was accosted by one stallholder who wanted me to know that his organisation had collected together all the scriptures about the Second Coming and it was their sole aim of their charity to make known what they saw as the truth on this subject. I took their leaflet and hurried on.

Similarly, it was only the other day that one churchgoer told me how a relative lectured him for twenty minutes about the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming.

Hence many of us become nervous of the fervent, if not extreme Christians who go overboard on this theme. We tend to think they’ve consumed too much fruitcake. And that’s before we get to the sects and the cults with their bizarre readings of Holy Writ.

Nevertheless, we are to watch for the coming of Christ. Not in a standing-around-waiting posture, for which the men in white robes seem to censure the disciples here. Just doing that achieves nothing. The doctrine of Christ’s return was never meant to reduce us to inactivity and inertia. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we look for the coming of Christ, we are anticipating the fullness of God’s kingdom, the new creation in which God will bring into being the new heavens and the new earth.

What does that mean? If we are filled with hope because Christ is returning, then while that may give us inner peace, it also gives us holy restlessness. We want to see the kingdom of God, so we get on with building for it. We call people to follow Jesus. We bring relief to the poor, and seek to change all that puts them in poverty. We bring God’s healing to the sick. We look after the creation that God is going to renew.

Such a church is vibrant internally and externally. Internally, it is a forgiving, loving and safe place to be, where the only fear is awe at the presence of God’s holiness, not a worry that people have to tread on eggshells in the presence of bullies. Externally, it is known as a people who would be missed by the community if they folded, who champion the poor, and who have a winsome but challenging word for the world.

Let me ask, then, whether we are a church of the Ascension. Are we willing to wait, so that God may form us more in the image of Christ? Are we witnesses, replacing the idolatry of church as social club with church as fuelling station for sorties of love into the world? And are we watching for Christ’s return, aligning our life and witness by the shape of his coming kingdom?

Too often in the Methodist tradition we ignore the Ascension. O that we embraced it and let it shape us.

Links

Here are some more places I stopped on my electronic travels this week. Several of these links come from Leadership Journal, because I’ve been catching up on a few weeks’ worth of the Leadership Weekly email they send out over the last couple of days.

Science 
Some pictures from the Hubble telescope. Get beyond the first few and you’ll see some amazing ones. I’ve just made the image of the Sombrero Galaxy my desktop background. 

Spirituality 
Take seven minutes and forty seconds of your time to listen to Archbishop John Sentamu speak on the Advent theme of waiting.

A moving description of happiness from Ben Witherington III.

In Bedside Manner, Matt Lumpkin offers advice on caring for the sick and for yourself during pastoral visiting in hospital.

Mission 
David Keen looks at Back To Church Sunday and considers what proportion of the population is open to evangelism of a ‘come to us’ approach, compared with the need for a ‘missional’ strategy. (Via blogs4god.)

Coming and going is an interview that contrasts the attractional and missional approaches to evangelism and church. In the attractional corner, Ed Young, ‘the dude with the food’, ‘the worship event is the port of entry to the church’, ‘I believe God gives one person the vision – the pastor.’ In the missional corner, Neil Cole, ‘Using traditional [church] planting methods, it would cost $80 billion to reach Atlanta’, ‘Three things deter spontaneous multiplication: buildings, budgets, and big shots’, ‘We have to think in terms of mobilizing the kingdom to go where people are. Too many Christians are passive and unengaged.’

Walt Kallestad gave up on attractional with the big show and transitioned to a discipleship model.

On the other hand, Dan Kimball (of all people) has expressed missional misgivings and particularly urged missional churches not to criticise attractional congregations.

Credit Crunch 
According to Christian Aid, ethical giving hasn’t been hit by the credit crunch.

Also on the credit crunch, Gordon Macdonald says this is no time to cower for the Christian church. His fifth and sixth ideas sound very close to what many ‘missional’ Christians have been advocating.

Christmas 
Think tank Theos has published research showing that one in three Britons believes in the virgin birth. Of course, just believing a doctrine isn’t enough … 

Communion wine from Bethlehem is being stopped at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers who deem it – wait for it – a security risk.

Philip Yancey on observing a mellow, domesticated Christmas.

Waiting

It was the eminent American theologian Tom Petty who once sang that ‘The waiting is the hardest part.’ We, like millions of other families, are currently waiting. We are waiting for next week, when Mum enters the Brompton Hospital for her investigations. Admission is Monday, procedure is Tuesday, we are told the results Wednesday, and if surgery is feasible, that happens Friday.

Meanwhile, even a short wait from Monday last week when the consultant broke the potential news, feels like it is dragging. If it feels like that to me, I don’t know what it is like for Mum or Dad.

And there are others who wait much longer. In Scipture, waiting is often for years, decades, even centuries – for the hope of the Messiah to ease the pain of God’s people (and even then he wasn’t in the form they expected).

Yet one thing I must recognise is that God uses waiting positively. ‘Waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are interchangeable English translations of Hebrew, if I recall correctly. (Compare different English versions of Isaiah 40:31). I believe God can use the waiting period to shape us. George Carey once said to me at Trinity College, Bristol that theological training wasn’t simply about information, it was about formation. And isn’t that true of the whole Christian life? God is forming us. One means he uses is waiting. As we pray, struggle, wrestle and argue, God forms us more into the image of Christ.

I pray that God is doing that for us as a family right now. If you are waiting, is he doing it for you?

When the singer Sam Phillips was operating on the Contemporary Christian Music scene under the name Leslie Phillips, she wrote a song that I imagine her paymasters didn’t like. It was called ‘Answers Don’t Come Easy’, and it returns to me at times like this. She sang:

I can wait
It’s enough to know you can hear me now
I can wait
It’s enough to feel you near me now
And when answers don’t come easy
I can wait

I think she was wise.