Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Society Without God That Is A Tale Of Woes: Reflections on Habakkuk 2:6-20 (from A series of messages called 'Habakkuk: Wrestling with God')

When I was about twenty I used to go out to Piha on the west coast of Auckland with my friends during the summer. We’d go out most nights, we’d come home from work and jump in a car and barrel out to the beach. We’d surf or swim and we also developed a great pass time called rock riding. Round the south of the beach is a place called the gap; where the waves crash through a gap between camel rock and the mainland. We’d climb out through the gap round to where it was just us and the open sea and hold on the rocks on the outside and when there was a big swell running these huge waves would come and crash over us. Boom, we’d hold on as the water tried to drag us off our rock. In the lulls we’d laugh and scream and yahoo. It was a real adrenaline buzz. Occasional the wave would be so big that it would drag you down the rocks a bit, the first night we did it a friend of mine disappeared when a big wave hit and we thought O no he’s gone for good. When the next wave crashed over us we saw that he was back again, a bit frightened but none the worse for wear.

I couldn’t help but think that Habakkuk was doing some rock riding as well. He found himself being buffeted and bashed not by the waves of the ocean but by the ebb and flow of history. In the midst of that he wrestles with God.

The book of Habakkuk so far its been as if we have been looking over his shoulder as he’s written his personal private journal, or we’ve been like a pesky little brother sneaking in to his big sisters room to read her diary.

In his private pray life Habakkuk has been wrestling with God. He has seen the wicked prosper in Jerusalem and his complaint to God has been hey God what are you doing about this, why do you seem so silent, why don’t you answer my prayers? Where are you in the face of all this injustice?”.

The next entry is the answer that Habakkuk received from God. God had heard his prayer and was not inactive, how could God let injustice flourish rather he as going to raise up a violent people in the east who would be his instrument of judgement for Judah. The Babylonians would come and take the people of Jerusalem and Judah into captivity.

AS you can imagine this was not the answer that Habakkuk wanted, it raised more questions for him to wrestle with than it answered. ‘Hey God how can you let these wicked people conquer your people, how can you let them laud it over us LORD? It seems so out of character!” Habakkuk wasn’t questioning God’s judgement but he didn’t think God was using the right instrument.

Again the next entry in this journal is a reply from God. When you read the book it has the feel of using instant messenger or an email rather than a journal, Habakkuk writes a complaint and God flicks back an answer. The answer that God gives is that Babylon will prosper for a while but there will be a time, a god appointed time when Babylon will fall and in the midst of this ebb and flow of history the righteous will live by faith. They will live putting their trust in God.

Maybe for you this conjures up the picture like that of the rock riding I told you about the righteous holding on doggedly to their rock of ages as the waves crashed over them. Maybe we duck for cover and wait till there is a lull and we can make our escape. But is that what the righteous will live by faith actually means. Hunker down and hold on and hope that God will see us through. I don’t believe that it does. It’s not how Habakkuk lives.

Up until now it’s been like we’ve been reading Habakkuk’s private correspondence, but in the passage we had read out to us today God asks Habakkuk to live by faith and go public. All we know about Habakkuk from scripture is that he is a prophet, we don’t know anything about his family of his whakapapa or his hear colour all we know is that he is a prophet so God asks him to live by faith a prophecy. He has wrestled with God over the situation he sees in the world and know God tells him to speak God’s word into the situation.

To live by faith does not mean to hunker down till it blows over but to stand in the face of the storms that come our way and to speak God’s truth. In Habakkuk’s case to stand meant to do a stand up comedy routine, you see the passage we had read out to us today is a series of taunts at the Babylonians. You can imagine the Babylonian army beginning to darken the eastern horizon and here is Habakkuk standing on the wall being a watchman and as the arm come towards the city he throws taunts at them, biting political satire.

You see God asks Habakkuk to sing a funeral dirge for the Babylonian empire. That’s what the passage we had read out to us today is. It’s a song that would have been read out at a funeral.  If you could imagine getting the paper tomorrow and on the cover was an obituary for a prominent politician who is still very much alive. I don’t know if any satirist would have the gumption to do that but Habakkuk puts his faith into action and does it. Not only is it an obituary a funeral dirge, but it does not follow the conventions of such a literary form and talk up the achievements and highlights of the politicians carrier rather it points out the personality faults and wrong behaviour that will lead to their fall and death. Habakkuk says to Babylon that a society with out God is a series of woes, Alas, alas, alas, alas and alas the seeds of their destruction are already present in the foundations they try and built their society on.

Habakkuk says (v.7-8) woe to a society that is built on profit before people, the plunderer will become the plunder

(v9-11) woe to a society built of security not justice where the rich guard their wealth through security fences and oppression, your fences will become like a prison, your guards like warders you’ll never feel safe.

v12-14) woe to a society that build for it’s own glory not God’s. that builds fantastic houses and wonderful glittering monuments to themselves unless behind the facade the society is based on a moral foundation, well its just a pile of fire wood waiting for the burn. You see it’s not about humans trying to show how great they are rather the glory of the Lord will fill the earth like the water covers the sea.

(v.15-17) Woe to a society that is based on satisfying its own appetites, exploiting others for your amusement and pleasure. Hedonism is no basis for a society you’ll end up falling in a drunken stupor. What is going to happen is that you’ll just use up all your natural resources and reap an ecological disaster. 

(v18-20) woe to a society that worships the things they’ve made rather than the creator. Let’s face it a statue made of wood or a silent stone or the flashest car or the latest consumer items and gadgets just are not going to give the spiritual sustenance and wisdom that a society needs to survive.

A society without God is a tale of woes. While Habakkuk’s tale of woes are specific to the Babylonian empire because it is God’s word you can glimpse it’s relevant for all ages for all human societies. A society without God and his righteousness at its heart is open to judgement.

I couldn’t help but think of our own times, America, trying to build its security by beefing up its borders and declaring war on all its enemies rather than dealing with the underlying issues, declaring war on poverty. AS the original Christian rocker Larry Norman sings in his song 'The great American Novel' "the only way to bring about the peace is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies". I couldn’t help but think of the poorest nations in our world struggling under debt and interest owed to the richest. Our lifestyles being built on the back of unfair trade tariffs and products being kept affordable through slave like wages in third world sweatshops. The way we are consuming resources to keep our western standard of living, maybe we like the Babylonians are beginning to reap the consequences as well.

The question then is how do we live by faith in our own time and place. How do we live by faith when we are wrestling with the injustices we experience in our lives and society? Well Habakkuk gives us the lead in this.

Firstly he wrestles with God in private.  He seeks God for answers. The first way to live by faith is to draw near to God wrestle with him and his word till like Habakkuk we get some answers. As one preacher has said to live with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I love Jim wallis' book "faithworks" and his steps for getting involved in what God is doing in the world. He starts by saying 'trust your questions'

But like Habakkuk living by faith is not just about hunkering down and drawing near to God. Habakkuk was called to speak God’s word to the situation he was in and so are we. While political satire may not be our thing when you look at Habakkuk’s oracle you’ll note that at its heart it is a prophecy that calls the Babylonians to acknowledge God in there ways, that is the only hope they have. Habakkuk finishes his dirge by telling the Babylonians that the LORD is in his temple, a real God not an idol of wood or stone and that the nations should be silent before him. In Hebrew poetry the important message is often put right in the middle and the message at the centre of this oracle is that the whole earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea, it’s pointing people to the kingdom of God, and his righteousness as Jesus will say later it is when we put this first that we find the right way to live. Yes Habakkuk challenges the basis of Babylonians society but as an act of grace he offers them a more solid foundation. That is what we have to offer as well.  The righteous will live by faith.

Thirdly in the midst of a society without God we are called to be the salt and the light, agents of God’s grace. AS you read through the Old Testament you can see that God sent his people to call the Babylonians back to God. In the book of Daniel you see that Daniel was there to point Nebuchadnezzar back to God. God was always trying to invite the king to repent and acknowledge God, he speaks to him in dreams which Daniel interprets. You and I are the salt and light that God has for this generation and this place.

Historians attribute one man with saving England from a vicious and bloody revolution similar to the French revolution in the eighteenth century. That one man was John Wesley. Through Wesley preaching many thousands came to faith In Jesus Christ. Their evangelical faiths lead many to work in their society for reform. William Wilberforce and his evangelical friends in parliament, mockingly called the saints, fought for the abolition of slavery, they ended the salve trade, they reformed prison conditions and child labour laws, they achieved free access to education for all people, they wanted people to read the bible for themselves but first people needed to know how to read, They reformed child labour laws. They reformed housing conditions and battled the worst excesses of the industrial revolution. In foreign policy they encouraged the empire to act fairly and justly with indigenous people. The treaty of Waitangi was an example of this and as such it is a real challenge for Christians in New Zealand today to wrestle with how we are to deal with treaty issues justly. To live by faith calls us to do the same

Let me finish with a quote from Charles Finny whose revival preaching had the same effects in America as Wesley’s did in England.

“ The great business of the church is to reform the world… the church of Christ was originally organised as a body of reformers. The very profession of Christianity implies the profession and virtually the oath to do all that can be done for the universal reformation of the world”.

To be used by God to see it comes about ‘that the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 

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