Sermon: "Habakkuk"

Third in the "Major Issues in Minor Prophets" series.
Delivered June 26, 2005 by Rev. John Schmidt.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

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Sermon Text: Habakkuk 3:11-19

Well we are continuing our series in the Minor Prophets and there are some major issues that are dealt with in these books. And I just want to give you a sense that in this series, what we are doing is we are trying to look at the books and pick out the major theme in the book. When we do Bible study, one of the things we ought to do in our own study, is to try to look at whole book and get a sense of what the whole book is saying before we get too deep in to what each verse is saying. Now obviously, when I am preaching on an entire book like this, I can't get in to the depth of some of the passages like the one that Alice read where it talks about the silence of all of the idols. Here are all these idols and people are talking in front of the idols saying, "okay idol: speak, show us the way" and all that, and then it flips it over and says, "But the Lord is in his temple. There is no idol there. And let all the people be silent because I have something to say." We can't look in to all those details, but we are going to look at some of the bigger picture and the Book of Habakkuk is one that I just want to encourage you to look at on your own because it is so easy to kind of see the flow of the book, because it is structured around a conversation and I am going to talk more about that conversation in a few moments. But you will see that there is a very clear structure, and in the NIV the headings give you a sense of the structure of the book is all about. So if you can define in a sentence or so what each of those sections are saying, then you will have a handle on the Book of Habakkuk.

Let's pray. Lord, we thank you for this opportunity to get in to your Word for a while and so we invite you to speak to us. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

You might want to open your Bibles to the Book of Habakkuk as we talk this morning. Now do you ever get tired of being in a world as messed up as it is? Does it ever bother you that the world looks like what we see outside, what we read about in the newspapers? What's your hot button issue? You know, we all have different hot button issues, things that really get us angry. I look around at your faces and I know some conversations that I have had with you. I have a sense of what some of your hot button issues are and you are probably getting a sense of what mine are. Is it something to do with natural disasters, the lives that were lost in the tsunami? Famine? Hurricanes? Is it human violence? Is it injustice and greed? Murder in the streets? The issue of abortion? Wars, all over the world? Rich people being able to buy better justice than poor people in California? Child labor making our athletic shoes? Sexual abuse? Oppression of women in Islamic countries? Millions of acres of rain forest being destroyed?

There are problems in the church as well. Maybe these are our hot buttons. On the one side there are Christians who seem to cave in and say that whatever our culture is saying is really okay and so right now for example any expression of sexuality is okay as long as its in consenting faithful relationships. On the one side we have Christians like that. On the other side we have Christians who buy in to all the materialism of our culture and so even though they proclaim a gospel that focuses in on Jesus Christ you find them selling prayers for prosperity to needy confused people. Maybe that bothers you. Or maybe it's all the people in the middle who aren't really saying anything at all and they are not living that faithfully to God either. There are so many things about the world that just isn't right. No matter how you measure it the world is full of problems and you know it's not a fine tuning sort of problem. There are some major adjustments that you need make. So it's not like going in for a tune-up. They have to drop the engine and do a major overhaul. This is particularly a problem for Jews and Christians in the world, because we believe that God is all-powerful and we also believe that God is good. So if God is powerful and good, how did we end up with a world that looks like it is? We ask that question. Any thoughtful Christian will ask that question.

And so, the prophet Habakkuk had this question in his mind as well. It was about 600 years before Christ and Habakkuk looked around at the society around him and saw a nation that was supposed to be a religious nation dedicated to God and he saw all kinds of injustice in it. He saw a good king get killed by the Egyptians. And then, a series of bad kings followed that just led Israel farther and farther in to a deep spiritual mire. Unlike the United States, church and state were the same and so when Habakkuk looked at his people he looked at the nation, but he also looked at it as the church, as the people that were supposed to reflect what God was all about, and what he saw was a corrupt people, and he saw that they were dishonoring God at every turn. Injustice in this society, violence and idolatry. It made him angry. So the Book of Habakkuk is a record of this conversation now that he has with God about this issue.

I would like to point out up here that there is a structure in the book where Habakkuk begins with a complaint, then the Lord answers that, then Habakkuk has a second complaint, the Lord answers that and then Habakkuk prays. So if you look in to your Bibles you will see that this is the basic structure that we find in the Book of Habakkuk. Chapter 1, verse 2 and 4, his first complaint. Verses 5-11, God's answer. His second complaint: the 12th verse through Chapter 2, verse 1. The Lord's answer: Chapter 2, verses 2 to 20, and then Habakkuk's prayer, which is the 3rd chapter.

So let's begin with that first section, Habakkuk's complaint. When you read those verses there and see what Habakkuk has been dealing with, it can be distilled in my mind, this is the one sentence that I give. You can write your own sentence if you study the book. Why is this wickedness around me going unpunished? That's his basic problem. He looks at Israel and he says this is bad enough that God ought to do something about it. Why isn't God doing something about it? God, you are good. You gave all kinds of good laws. You send prophets to call people back to God, but we are getting worse and worse, why don't you do something?

So the Lord answers that complaint. So beginning in Verse 5 God says, "I am going to do something. I am going to send the Babylonians to attack Israel as judgment." That's what the answer says. Now remember what I said about Nineveh last week, those of you who were here last week, Nineveh was a bad place, a violent place. Babylon is just as bad; an incredibly violent people, an idolatrous country, they had no respect for human life at all and so God says that I am going to use the Babylonians to judge you Israel. God has noticed the evil in Israel and the violence and he's going to send a people even more evil and more violent to punish them. That's what that answer says. Now if you are not uncomfortable with that, think about it again. "God do something." "I am. I am going to send somebody worse than you to judge you."

Come back to Habakkuk. This what I love about the Bible, because Habakkuk doesn't just accept this. This is a real conversation and it is what you and I would probably do if we were in this situation. He complains again. So first he is complaining that this is a bad situation. Then God gives him an answer and says I am going to deal with it and so he comes back and says, "I don't like what you have just said. Isn't the medicine worse than the disease? How can sending the Babylonians, this violent people, how can this be a step in the right direction? You can't tolerate the evil in our society and I agree with you that you should be punishing evil, but how can you use people even worse than us to punish us?"

Now this isn't just Habakkuk's problem, this is a problem today. Anytime after 9/11 this has to be an issue that we have thought about in our own culture. Now I am not a prophet and I can't point to what God does specifically to shake us up, to reorient us, to punish us and all that, I can't exactly point issue by issue about that. But we have Habakkuk's problem as we look at this. If God was at work at all in 9/11, how can God use terrorists, people who are willing to murder innocent civilians. How can he use people like that to correct us? As bad as we are, we are probably better than that. It's the same sort of tension.

The Lord gives him an answer. He doesn't just say, "Habakkuk shut up. I am God and you are not." He actually explains what's going to happen and the substance of the answer that you find in Verses 2 to 20 in Chapter 2 is that rest assured the day is coming that Babylon is going to have to answer for their crimes as well. And he goes in to great detail about the kind of human evil that's going on in Babylon, that's going to be judged, and it's a kind of human evil that God will always judge.

So there is something timeless about what's going to happen in this section of Chapter 2 and there are five woes that come up there; woes meaning, "Hey folks how miserable you will be." There are five woes.

The first one; woe against robbery. The picture that comes up in the verses here is not just armed robbery and pillaging, but it's extortion, all the economic and legal ways powerful people can wring money from those weaker than they. God is against all the ways, even the legal ways, people steal from other people. This angers God. And any society that reflects that is a society that will ultimately have to face God's aggression.

The second one; woe against injustice. God is against plotting and bribing and working the system to get what you want no matter who it hurts. Last night I watched a movie, "The Count of Monte Cristo" on a DVD and part of that whole story is where a certain man, Edmond Dantes, unaware gets involved in a conspiracy, and so the person who is the magistrate judging this is about to let him go realizing that he is carrying a letter, he can't even read, so he's not responsible, but when this magistrate hears who his contact was going to be, who he was supposed to hand the letter to, all of a sudden the magistrate puts him in to prison for the rest of his life and the reason the magistrate does that is because he's related to the conspirator and wants to protect himself. And so here is an injustice that hits a man's entire life, undoes his whole life, just because someone is trying to protect themselves, not because of any injustice. This happens. This happens a lot. And it happened in the kind of society that the Babylonians had, the kind of society that Israel had. It happens sometimes in societies today and God is against this.

The next woe was against violence. God is against murder, gang violence, terrorism, abortion, wars for economic gain; any of the ways we try to solve our problems, by doing violence to other people, God is against it.

Woe against inhumanity. God hates all the things we do to exploit the people around us. Slavery. Do you know there are more slaves in the world now than at any other time before in human history? There are more slaves today. And some of those slaves are documented to be in the United States. There is an estimated 50,000 complaints in the United States right now that are related to forcible, unwilling, incarceration of people by individuals to make them work for no reason. It happens right now. God is against that. God is against sexual exploitation. God is against children working 12-hour shifts in factories and mines. Every time we do something for our gain that doesn't take in the value of the other person, as someone created in the image of God, every time we do something that violates that, God is against it.

The final woe is against idolatry. It's against all the religious figures and statues, carved from stone and wood, that stand between people in knowing the real God, but its also about all those times that we look in any direction besides God in order to get what only God can give us. God is against that. And certainly every society in the world is guilty of that.

And so he ends up by saying there is a day that all of these things will be accounted for and that's what happens in God's answer to Habakkuk. Now when I began this series I pointed out the fact that we have to believe that the world is under God's eye, that we have to believe that our actions, that morality matters in this world. We have to believe that the world works this way or the Minor Prophets are not going to make any sense to us. This is one of those times. God tells Habakkuk this, I am going to summarize without going in to all the woes, I will summarize what I believe that God's answer says. Right now before your eyes, I will judge the evil of your country, my people. And eventually I will judge the people who attack them. All who do evil, even those in foreign nations will have to give account to me, but you might not live to see it. And this for now is my only answer. That's what God in essence tells Habakkuk.

What do we do with an answer like that? God says, "I am good. I stand against evil and injustice, despite the sufferings and inequities and questions now, there will be a day of account, a day when goodness and justice will fully and finally prevail, a day when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the water covers the sea, that this day is coming, but until then trust me and wait faithfully." That's the answer that God gives. That's the answer that Habakkuk got. That's what Jesus taught about the world. That's what the Book of Revelation reveals, is that this is the kind of world that we live in and this is ultimately the answer the church holds on to until Jesus comes again. Is it a good enough answer for you? That's what we have to struggle with. Is it a good enough answer for me?

In Chapter 3 we read Habakkuk's response to God and it's a prayer. And I would like now to read to you some sections from Chapter 3. First it begins in Chapter 3 by saying

"Lord I have heard of your fame. I stand in awe of your deeds. Renew them in our day; in our time make them known, in wrath remember mercy."

So this response that Habakkuk makes to this good news, or bad news, or just news from God, whatever kind of label he emotionally wants to put on it, the first response is, he says, "I have heard that this is what you are like. In the Old Testament, in the scriptures, in the history of Israel, I see that this is what you have been like, so now renew them in our day." So he's inviting God: "Okay, this is what you promised you will do, do it. But in your wrath remember mercy." So the first thing he does is he submits to this picture of what God is going to do. Let's go on. Verses 3 and forward up to Verse 15 is a long poetic description of all the Old Testament teaching about God's acts of judgment. There is a picture of rays of power flashing, the earth shaking, mountains collapsing, nations in terror. It's a picture of such anger and power coming upon the world that Habakkuk's heart pounds and his knees give out and that is in Verse 16. So there is this long poetic section describing God's work in the world and now I want to read to you the rest of the Book of Habakkuk, as Habakkuk considers this incredible picture of God judging the world, this is his response. I am going to begin at Verse 16.

"I heard and my heart pounded.
My lips quivered at the sound.
Decay crept in to my bones and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food
though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls
yet I will rejoice in the Lord.
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The sovereign Lord is my strength.
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer.
He enables me to go on the heights."

If everything is stripped away, all the things we take for granted in life and think we deserve, if all of those things are taken away and even if I am reduced to hunger and poverty because of God's judgment on the world, even if I suffer with my people for an evil I haven't shared in, because remember Habakkuk is somewhat standing outside of this at the beginning of the story saying "This is evil, God why don't you do something?" At the end of the book he is inside of that judgment, the judgment that hits Israel will hit Habakkuk. And so what he is saying there: even if I suffer with my people for something that he might have not exactly shared in. Even so, I will wait patiently for God's promised answer. For what I experience now is not the final word on this world. A day will come, a just day, a day filled with mercy. What he says back to God is "God what you have promised you will not fail to do. And so, I will wait patiently" and then he says, "I can even rejoice". Verse 18. "I can even rejoice because I believe that God is my Savior. I believe that he is the one that makes sense of life and I believe that his plans will not fail. What he has promised will happen." He closes out this prayer by saying, "I believe what God has said and so this is what makes me free. The sovereign Lord is my strength. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer. He enables me to go on the heights." As he contemplates the terror that may face him, he still says that because I believe what God has said, because I trust in God in the midst of all of this I can be free. No matter what happens, because of faith Habakkuk is free. And I think what that challenges all of us with is: Are we free? Where is our faith?

Let's pray. Lord God, none of can claim to have the kind of faith that Habakkuk has. And so as we struggle with all of questions that we carry in to life, questions that have to do with big issues in the world, questions that have to do with our own personal sufferings. Lord we want to know how our faith and our trust in you is part of that answer. And so God we believe that you have this world under control. We believe that a day will come when all injustice will be dealt with and in that day of judgment there will also be great mercy because you are a loving and merciful God. Until then Lord we have to deal with all the mess of living here, so grant us now such a focus on you, on your lordship, on your goodness, such a focus on you and our relationship with you, that even in the midst of these trials, we can truly be free. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

© 2005, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145