Sermon for October 6, 2013

Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 6, 2013

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text:  Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Sermon Theme:  “Trust God’s Promises Even in the Worst of Times”

(Sources:  Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 23, Part 4, Series C; Emphasis Online Sermon Illustrations; Brokhof, Series C, Preaching Workbook; Believer’s Commentary; original ideas; Online Quotation page)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

 In some ways, this sermon text from Habakkuk reminds me of a tempera and oil painting by John Biggers, painted in 1966, — that’s two years after the American Civil Rights Act was passed and public schools were integrated all over America. 

Biggers grew up in the Third Ward of Houston, Texas, a black community, and his painting is entitled “Shotgun, Third Ward # 1.”  In his painting, the community’s church is burning down.  Onlookers are captured, looking at the blazing church, with their backs to the viewer, — the pastor of the church, the spiritual leader of the community.  He alone has turned away from the burning chaos toward the future.

We see him holding a lighted lantern, with his back to the burning church.  He imagines a future in faith.  His flickering flame of hope will lead his community into their future.  That future will be the clinging to the sure and certain promises of God, along with the risk and courage it takes to move through such crisis in the hope God offers.  In our sermon text, Habakkuk was that prophet of hope for Judah, holding the lantern when things got worse before they got better.

In the text, Habakkuk complains to the Lord about the terrible violence, iniquity, robbery, strife, and injustice in Judah.  He asks the Lord how long it would be allowed to go unpunished.  Our CPH insert omits some of the dialogue between Habakkuk and God, in which he pounds God with the heavy questions that are on his heart.

In the part included on our insert, Habakkuk asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?  Or cry to you ‘Violence,’ and you will not save?  Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.”

Habakkuk retires to his watchtower to see how the Lord would answer him.  Standing in the watchtower is a metaphor for finding a place for reflection and listening, — just like Jesus before His crucifixion went into the Garden of Gethsemane to reflect and pray, and other times He retreated into some remote area.  Habakkuk needed to be alone to gain God’s perspective, just as you and I need our watchtower.

Our CPH insert also omits some of God’s answers to the great prophet.  God says He will raise up the Babylonian army to punish Judah. And this enemy would be hasty, bitter, avaricious, violent, dreadful, and proud.  It didn’t seem to make sense to Habakkuk, — how could God punish Judah by a nation that was far worse than Judah.  Some Bible scholars call Habakkuk the “doubting Thomas” of the Old Testament.

God makes it clear that the full answer to Habakkuk’s questions and prayer, and the complete fulfillment of God’s prophecy will not come anytime soon.  God says to the prophet, “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie.  If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”

You know, in our day of instantaneous gratification, the call to wait for anything goes down hard for us.  A doctor recently told this about one of his patients:  A young woman asked him in all seriousness, ‘Doctor, I really don’t have nine months to wait for this baby to come.  Is there any way to fit a pregnancy into six months?’  Uh, no.  Some things take time.  Hope always involves waiting.   It’s in the waiting that we learn dependence, we grow, and we’re shaped by God.

What sets Habakkuk apart from the other prophets is that while they speak to us on behalf of God, Habakkuk poses hard questions to God on our behalf.  He mirrors our own doubts and anguish engendered within us by the scenes of inhumanity and violence in the world around us.  “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you ‘Violence,’ and you will not save?”  Our own personal distress, as well as national distress, in a violence-prone world causes us to identify with the people in Habakkuk time.

Even though Habakkuk was writing some 600 years before the birth of Christ, we can identify with his message, and find the hope of the Gospel in his words.  When we Christians cry for help in distress, we, too, are impatient that God doesn’t give us an immediate answer.  Yet we too have hope and faith that if we wait for the Lord He will bring it to pass.  We too have hope and faith that when God is silent to our pleas, He can be trusted to deliver us from the world’s worst!  His ultimate promise to us was fulfilled when His only Son came to be crucified for our sins and arose in victory for our salvation.

I think there are many times in our lives that you and I raise the question expressed by Erma Bombeck, “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?”  When we are crying out like James Taylor, “Lord, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen lonely days when I could not find a friend,” we yearn for a prophet like Habakkuk who tells our woes to God straight out. 

And when God tells us to wait, and Habakkuk tells us why we wait for God, — because God promised He would come, because God is faithful to His people, and because we trust in God, — we are comforted, we are assured!  The final words of God in our text are:  “But the righteous shall live by his faith.”

Habakkuk is not the most preached about prophet in the Bible, so if this is your first time to encounter his words, mark this wonderful Old Testament book of the Bible as a “must read.”  In Old Testament times, names held special significance, and the name “Habakkuk” means “a heartener,” or one who takes another into his heart , or “to embrace,” or “one who embraces.”  I like what Martin Luther says about the prophet:

“Habakkuk signifies an embracer, or one who embraces another, takes him into his arms.  He embraces his people, and takes them to his arms, that is, he comforts them and holds them up, as one embraces a weeping child, to quiet it with the assurance that, if God wills, it shall soon be better.” 

We need a prophet who is an embracer, don’t we?  A prophet who understands our humanness, our vulnerability, our weaknesses, but also our anguish and fears.  We need a prophet who goes boldly to God and tells Him that the people are asking, “O Lord, how long shall we cry for help, and you will not listen?”  God answers by providing us with His word.  We read it, we listen to it, we sing it; and it strengthens our faith and keeps our hope alive.  That is why we are faithful in coming to worship.  The thought is expressed so well in the beautiful hymn by William Cowper, “Sometimes a Light Surprises,” which goes like this:

“Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;

It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:

When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again

A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.”

To be sure, a Christian has at least one absolute.  A Christian believes that God can be trusted.  It is doubtful if any other person can be trusted.  A true Christian learns that God is trustworthy from his own life’s experiences.  We live in a world where we no longer trust governmental leaders (the recent shutting down of our Federal Government a case in point), the advertisements of well known companies (they fail to tell us that their product has chemicals that can cause cancer), and even the loyalty of some of our friends (when we are flush with money and success, they are right there with us, but when we get knocked down, they are no where to be found).  In all of that, we need to be assured that God can be trusted.

This is the lesson Habakkuk teaches us.  His promises never fail.  He can be trusted.  Amen.

 The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.