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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Habakkuk and Psalm 40

The preaching schedule had been set for weeks but the timing of preaching on Habakkuk as part of our minor prophets series was divinely appointed.  With the passing of Doug's sister on Friday coupled with the tragic events that unfolded in Norway, a word of hope and promise was necessary.  But perhaps permission to cry out in anguish was necessary as well.  I was privileged to bring this message to our church community this morning.  There were tears on my part...how could there not have been?  And yet, there was grace, incredible grace as well.  I stand firm in my resolve to love and trust God.  Habakkuk and the Psalmist help me to do so.  What follows is the text of my sermon.  Should you be inclined to listen to the podcast, here is the link.  The front end of the message is cut off.  http://inter.immanuel.se/media/sermon-podcast
Thanks for your interest and for your prayers during the past week especially.  If you are hurting, may you find solace and comfort in the arms of our loving God, who promises to pull us up from the muck and mire and put our feet on solid ground once again.

     The news was not good this week.  Susana’s father has cancer.  David’s father has passed.  A small child struggles with pain and the prognosis remains uncertain.  A 4 year old is diagnosed with kidney cancer, has surgery, begins chemotherapy and radiation.  A beloved 56 year old sister died of cancer after a valiant struggle, a peaceful European Nordic capital was bombed and kids at a camp were open fired upon.  The global economic situation is very precarious right now.  People are lonely, in need of work, searching for a place to call home.  How Long O Lord is an easy cry today. 
     On January 30, 1972, British troops opened fire on unarmed and peaceful civilians in Derry, Ireland during a civil rights march.  This is what the band had to U2 had to say about those events in their song Sunday Bloody Sunday. 
I can't believe the news today,
Oh, I can't close my eyes And make it go away,
How long...How long must we sing this song
How long, how long...'cause tonight...we can be as one, Tonight...
     Longing, regret, sadness, frustration, anger, weariness…you hear it in these words and you hear it from the prophet Habakkuk as well.  Back in 1980 I attended a global mission conference where I encountered the book of Habakkuk in the most amazingly creative and beautiful way imaginable.  Now it is 31 years later and the impressions from the film Koyaanisqatsi have left a lasting impression on me.  Koyaanisqatsi is a word that comes from the Native American tribe called Hopi and means crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.  This sums up perfectly what the prophet Habukkuk is perceiving his world to be and what our world today is as well.  Koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance.  Our resonance with Habakkuk is quite easy.  Habakkuk is wrestling with how to make sense of the senselessness that surrounds him and wonders aloud where in the world God’s presence is in the midst of the anguish.  Perhaps you hear echoes of your own voice within these cries.
     In many ways, Habakkuk is a welcome companion for us.  Habakkuk differs from the other prophets in that his prophecy is uniquely a conversation with God rather than an indictment against the people.  Habakkuk was utterly disturbed that God could see the injustice going on among his people and not act.  And so he enters into a dialogue with God and naturally, begins with a complaint!  Are we not more prone to enter into a dialogue with God when we’ve got something to take up with him than when we are just looking for a simple chat?  And so it is with Habakkuk.  His complaint begins with the age old question of why.  Why would God not act?  Surely you’ve wondered that yourself.
     Anyone who experiences terrible difficulties in life will benefit from studying this book.  Habakkuk offers us an opportunity to be honest with God while at the same time encouraging us to stand firm.  Through his extended dialogue with God, we hear Habakkuk’s vibrant faith and deep humanity, learning and growing in relation to God.  He asks healthy questions and is persistent in his questioning.  He doesn’t end his story with deeper understanding but comes to a place of trusting resignation.  The word YET figures broadly in our journey today.  Life is hard, and violence abounds, and injustice surrounds us and many do not have food, YET I will rejoice in the Lord.  Even devastated by the grief of exile, starvation and slavery, Habakkuk believes that he will continue to believe.  And that’s where we are going to try to land ourselves today.  We are not going to get an answer to our why cries.  We will not leave today knowing How Long…but we can be encouraged and uplifted by the reality that God is God and therefore reasons do abound for why we should continue to trust him. 
     I’ll the first to admit that sustaining faith is a hard thing sometimes.  Someone asked me earlier this summer what I would say to someone who claims that having faith reveals a weakness in one’s character.  I paused and thought about it for a minute and then realized that in my mind, having faith actually requires more courage and more resolve than not believing anything.  It’s hard to trust God when things are out of control.  It is perhaps easier to simply say that there is no powerful hope on the horizon, this world is what this world is and we must simply find a way to live in it.  But how hopeless and empty is that?  Having faith is not a weak way of doing life.  It requires trusting in a loving God when so many things around us are not loving at all. 
     So while we may not fully understanding and while we are required to trust in things that are unseen and unknown, what Habakkuk’s message invites us to is a honest, open dialogue with the creator of the universe.  One form of communication that we are invited to in scripture is the cry of lament.  A lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Habakkuk affirms that questions and laments are part of a believer’s burden, and honest dialogue with God is a necessary form of relationship with him.  The second verse of the prophecy is a lament: How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Lament and questioning are God’s gift to the believer.  They provide a pathway of honest faith and faithful conversation with him in horrible times.  One-third of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament and an entire book of the Old Testament is devoted to Lament…Lamentations.  We are invited to ask the questions, but we must also accept that we may not get answers…can we maintain our relationship with God under those arrangements? 
     And that’s really what lies at the center of Habukkuk’s lament.  He doesn’t like how God works in the world, he doesn’t understand it.  He thinks that God gives the wicked and the violent too much freedom, allows them to thrive in a way that is contrary to his sovereignty as a loving God.  And God doesn’t answer the questions Habakkuk poses but instead acknowledges that pain and evil and suffering and pain will be present on this earth.  He promised to enter into it, even taking on the form of humanity in the life of Jesus Christ, and because of his great love for our broken world, allow that beloved son to be killed in order to redeem all of the heartache this world sees.  So perhaps God does not give us a satisfactory answer about why evil prospers and the wicked seemingly flourish, but he demonstrates his great love for us for providing hope that lies beyond the broken places of our world.  The key question for us is this: Can we hold fast to a faith that will often leave painful questions lingering in the air?  Habakkuk reveals to us a faith that is steadfast and sure even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty.  Habakkuk shows us a faith that honors God in all things.  Habakkuk’s faith inspires us to hold fast to our faith, worshipping the true God and honoring him through both good and bad experiences.  After all, what good would it do me to walk away from a loving and compassionate God in the face of disaster and pain?  Does that not leave me with even more questions and no hope beyond the circumstances that plague me?
     As you read through Habakkuk’s prophecy in its entirety, which I do encourage you to do, you can’t help but notice that Habakkuk did not receive all of the answers he was searching for.  But throughout the process of his questions, he did come to a new conclusion that empowered him to move on in spite of not having answers.  In 3:19 he writes, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength!  He makes my feet like the feet of the deer, he enable me to go on to the heights.”  Something changed in Habakkuk’s perspective and allowed him to return to a voice of confidence in God in the midst of his questions…not because he received answers.  Why is that?
     In chapter 2 we see that Habakkuk realizes that the righteous will live by faith, faith that God is truly in control and knows more than we do.  Now, there’s an two-fold challenge that is not so easy for most of us: Let go of control and admit that we don’t everything!  And God affirms this in the second chapter.  He tells Habakkuk that there is so much more going on in this world than he can see or comprehend and that the only way people of faith can survive in this world is to live by faith and not by sight.  And this is where accepting who we are in light of who God is can help us cultivate a deeper trust when our foundations are shaken.  We are finite beings…limited knowledge, limited vision.  God is an infinite, unlimited knowledge, unlimited vision…can we trust that what he sees and we don’t will ultimately be of benefit to those who trust him?  In my mind, this is the only way to make sense of the senselessness that surrounds us in this world.  But we don’t have to do this like lemmings, mindlessly accepting without ever thoughtfully wrestling.  Habakkuk calls us to trust, but he also calls us to question and wait and listen to hear something God might want to say to us.  Embedded within that invitation however is also a request that we bring a fresh listening ear and not only listen for what we want to hear.  In verse 18 of Chapter 3 Habakkuk says, “Yet I will rejoice.”  Although he does not like what he has heard (his heart pounds, his lips quiver, his legs tremble), he comes to accept and trust not in his own preferences, but in the word of the One he has heard and believed.       
     There is no way that I can make sense of today’s world.  Why would someone bomb Oslo and shoot down a group of innocent teenagers at a summer camp?  Why do some people get better yet others die untimely and horrible deaths?  Why do evil people prosper and good people suffer?  If my faith in God depended upon solid answers to those questions, I can honestly say that my faith in God would not be too strong.  But my faith in God does not depend on answering those questions.  My faith in God depends on me trusting that in the midst of the all of the pain and evil and sorrow that our world faces, God loves me, God loves you and he is at work seeking to bring the whole of creation back into a right relationship with him.  He will never cease to open pathways for us to know his compassion, be touched by grace, to revel in his goodness.  I will not walk away from the loving presence of my God in heaven simply because I do no understand how he works in this world.  No, I will trust God even when I feel he does not care, understanding that he is a loving and compassionate God.  I will trust in God even when I feel he is not at work in my life or the lives of those around me because he works in ways that unseen and unknown to me.  I will trust in God even when I feel he is inconsistent because he consistently reveals himself to me in surprising and delightful ways.  I will trust in God even when injustice and a lack of fairness surround me because I know that our God is a just God, readying this world to realign with his plans and purposes.  No, I will not walk away from the loving presence of my God in heaven simply because I do not understand how he works in this world.  What earthly good could that possibly do?
     Eugene Peterson comments that Habakkuk is an important book for us because Habakkuk speaks our word to God.  He gives voice to our bewilderment, articulates our puzzled attempts to make sense of things, faces God with our disappointment with God.  Habakkuk insists that God pay attention to us.  But Habakkuk does so much more than just shout at God.  He waits.  He listens.  And while waiting and listening he turns to prayer and came afresh into the presence of God and returned to a place where he could see that God is trustworthy in spite of his questions.
     How long must we sing this song?  I have no idea.  We can join with U2 in their lament from Sunday Bloody Sunday but also turn our hearts toward Psalm 40 as they did in another song that speaks of how we will sing a new song.  Psalm 40 is the perfect companion to Habakkuk because it reinforces the pattern that Habakkuk sets forth.  Here is Psalm 40 according to Jodi: I waited, sometimes patiently, O lord, and, admittedly, after quite some time, I realized that you do hear my cries.  You picked me up out of the muck and mire that I was stuck in, you stabilized my footing and allowed me to move forward with new words coming out of my mouth…songs of joy instead of rants of complaints.  I give you thanks and praise Oh God for your steadfast love and unending mercy.  Maybe you need to write your own version of Psalm 40 today.  I encourage you to do so, after you’ve had a long chat with God, pouring out your anguished heart, singing the song of sorrow, to turn again towards him and offer your song of praise, even in the midst of your questions.
Habakkuk cries out: How Long O Lord?  The Psalmist declares, you have put a new song in my mouth, how long shall we sing that song?  Lament and the praise will perhaps always walk side by side in this life.  But speaking of walking…I love that both Habakkuk and the psalmist speak of God putting our lives back on sure footing.  Even after Habakkuk has expressed the deepest disequilibrium with life, he declares that the Lord has given him the sure-footedness of a mountain deer.  And as the praise utters from the Psalmist’s lips, he rejoices that he has been pulled from the miry clay where one sinks and struggle and now has his feet planted firmly on the ground once again thanks to the Lord answering his cry. 
     Yes, it is undeniable that when we look around our world, it is easy to only see Koyaanisqatsi: life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.  And YET, in the midst of all that is wrong in our world, God is indeed at work, pulling us back into balance with him, busily writing the words to a new song, the song of joy that will certainly be ours to sing one day.  So shout with honesty your cries of lament and sing with joy your shouts of praise.  God is there to receive both, to make you path steady, to ensure that you will stand on solid ground again one day.  How long?  Only God knows.  But God does know.  Amen.