Tuesday, November 29, 2016

New Sight, Fresh Vision

New Sight, Fresh Vision
Habakkuk 2:1-4[1]
There are times in life when it seems like “God is in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.” In everything that really matters things just seem to line up. It all works smoothly and life makes sense. But there are other times when it can seem like everything has come unraveled. You find out you’ve been “downsized” at work. Or the diagnosis is a frightening one. Or no matter what you try, it seems like nothing goes right at home. In those difficult times of our lives, one of the challenges we may face is that our problems persist for so long that we begin to believe it will always be this way. We lose sight of hope, and just put one foot in front of the other to keep moving. Or we may be tempted to just shut down altogether.
Unfortunately, we are living in a time when church life can seem that way. Estimates on the number of churches that close each year range from five to ten thousand. The numbers of pastors who drop out of ministry aren’t much better. It’s no secret that it’s a difficult time to be the church, especially a neighborhood church with a particular identity like “Presbyterian.” When you look around and see dwindling congregations and younger families seemingly going elsewhere (or not at all), it can be pretty discouraging. It’s easy to lose sight of hope and wonder what future this or any other church has.
In our lesson from Habakkuk for today, he was dealing with a crisis of faith and hope as well.[2] It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems clear that Habakkuk carried out his prophetic ministry during the time when Israel and Judah were being effectively dismantled by powerful empires like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. By comparison, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were tiny and had little hope of fending off these ruthless invaders. We know from other sources that they tried to make an alliance with Egypt, the only other major world power of the day. But that didn’t protect them from being conquered and sent into exile.
One of Habakkuk’s problems was that he found it hard to reconcile the fact that this was a judgment from God. The reason this was a problem was that God was using the Babylonians, a people who were far more violent and unjust, to carry out this judgment. That didn’t make any sense to Habakkuk. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but it seems as if Habakkuk is disappointed with God because right and wrong appeared to have been turned upside down. From his perspective, what was happening meant that “judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4). Later in the same chapter, Habakkuk asks God rather pointedly, “why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab. 1:13). We might debate with him as to whether Judah was truly “more righteous,” but that’s the way he saw it, and because of that he had a serious problem with God.
So Habakkuk poses his question to God and then basically decides to watch and wait to see how God would answer his complaint. I find it interesting that Habakkuk doesn’t mince words here: he’s complaining about God’s justice and fairness and he knows it. That’s something we might think ought not be done, but Habakkuk was not the only prophet to complain to God. While we might be tempted to think of “complaining” to God as an act of unbelief, that’s not necessarily the case. If you think about it, it may take more faith in God to voice a serious complaint than to keep silent.
The interesting thing about Habakkuk is that God does indeed answer. Although there are other times and places in the Bible when God gently (or not so gently) chides the complainer, there’s nothing like that here. God simply gives Habakkuk an answer: “there is still a vision for the appointed time; …. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). God’s answer to Habakkuk is that even though it seemed as if the events around him invalidated his faith in God as well as his hope for any future for his people, God did indeed have a future in store for them.[3] It might not look like what Habakkuk expected, but that didn’t mean there was nothing left to hope for.
In fact, although it’s not obvious on the surface of things, it would seem that part of God’s answer is that the proud and arrogant people who had conquered them would not last. In our lesson this comes as a hint: “their spirit is not right in them” (Hab. 2:4). In the next verse, it’s more straightforward: “the arrogant do not endure” (Hab. 2:5). Although the proud and arrogant seemed to have all the power at the time, God assures Habakkuk that their power would come to an end. And his people would indeed have a future.
At times when you look at our world it’s easy to become discouraged. It can seem like all the wrong people have all the power in our world, and they use it to their own advantage. With that in mind, many may say that the church has become irrelevant in our culture. But just as it was in that day, so now God still has a future for his people.[4] And the path to that future is found in our lesson as well: “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4). Perhaps a better way to put it is that God’s people endure through their faithfulness to him and to the gospel of new life through Jesus Christ. That is the vision that has inspired generations of servants of God—right here in this church as well as elsewhere. And it’s that vision that continues to point us toward the future. As we gain new sight of this future, it can renew in us a fresh vision for our lives in the present.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/30/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Ralph L. Smith, Micah–Malachi, 107: “Habakkuk, like all of us, was living ‘between the times,’ between the promise and the fulfillment. Habakkuk was to wait in faith for God to act.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.2:913: “How much need faith has of hope may be seen from the innumerable temptations which assail and shake those who would cling to the Word of God, from the delay of God in the fulfilment of His promises (cf. Hab. 2:3), from the hiding of His face, from the aperta indignatio [revealed indignation] with which He can sometimes startle even His own people, from the scoffers who ask where is His coming, who argue that all things remain as they were, and who can so easily insinuate their doubts into ourselves and the world around (2 Pet. 3:4)!”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, where he reminds us that our hope is based on a promise, one which contains a fundamentally different view of reality, and in fact not only “announces the coming of a not yet existing reality” but also to some extent “goes beyond what is possible and impossible in the realistic sense” by anticipating the fulfillment of the promise already in the present. Cf. also similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 295.

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