In The Meantime - Week One - "The Burden"

This week I am beginning a new sermon series on the Old Testament book of Habakkuk
I have wanted to do a sermon series on Habakkuk since I was a seminary student and I saw this statue on the right when I was on a trip to Italy:

This statue was created by Donatello in the 15th Century, and is affectionately known as Lo Zuccone, "The Bald One." When I saw this statue, I was able to walk up to it and stare the prophet in the face.  Donatello's vision of Habakkuk is not rooted in any sort of Biblical evidence, but there's just something about it that struck my imagination.  The prophet looks as though he has seen something, and whatever he has seen has changed him.  His mouth is open, his eyes are wild and he is ready to speak.  To deliver the burden that he has been given to bear. 

"The Burden" is the title of my first sermon from the book of Habakkuk.  The "burden" in question is the prophecy that the prophet received, but I'll get to that in a bit.

You might be wondering why we should care about the ramblings of an ancient, minor prophet from the Old Testament.  This minor prophet is so minor, in fact, that the Revised Common Lectionary (a three year reading and preaching Scriptural guide, which is used by pastors, priests and lay people around the world) only includes two short passages from Habakkuk. 

Furthermore, hardly anyone can spell Habakkuk correctly.  I misspelled it like twenty times when I was doing research for this series. 

So why Habakkuk?

Well, for starters it's relevant.  It's a book that speaks into uncertain times.  We live in uncertain times, and so this book is a book that speaks into our lives.  The uncertainty that we feel is a product of the culture within which we now live---a culture that some have described as a "Culture of Fear."

I read a news article recently about a young girl who had a severe neurological disorder that affected her in such a way that she could not experience any kind of shock.  To do so, would send her into cardiac arrest.  She couldn't even read Harry Potter books for fear that they would upset her.  Forget roller coasters, action movies, sports... 

Sometimes I feel like our society lives on the edge of collective cardiac arrest---worrying that the next bit of bad news will send us over the edge.  We have lived for so long with a kind of low grade societal anxiety that we've begun to see the effects of it in all aspects of society. 

Prolonged fear has the same sort of effects on a society that it does in individuals. Physicians and Psychologists agree on the long term effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in combat veterans, victims of violent crime, or traumatic events.  Many individuals who suffer from PTS engage in substance abuse, are affected by memory loss, have an inability to function, suffer occupational instability (holding a job), have marital problems and often display family discord. 

When you apply the same sort of effects on a wider group of people---say Americans, for example---you can begin to see why our culture seems to be in such a mess.  The Economy is tanking, Greed is rampant, people are divided over politics, morality, religion, you name it.  We've become addicted to materialism and consumption.  Marriages and families are falling apart... Are you with me?

Hermann Goering, Reichsmarschall for the Nazi Third Reich once said, "The people don't want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  This is easy.  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked." 

When you hold this up in light of the very serious questions that we all seem to have about existence and history, you can see why we need to hear a word of hope right about now.  Each of us has personal questions that we need answered.  "Why am I here?  Who am I?  What is the meaning?  What is my purpose?"  We also have historical questions that we tend to ask when things seem to be falling apart around us: "What is the meaning of history?  Why is there evil?  Why doesn't God do something about it?" 

And those of us who call ourselves Christians have questions of our own...

"Why do good people suffer and the evil prosper?  Why aren't my prayers getting answered?  When I am doing my best for the Lord, why do I experience the worst from others?  How can I believe in a good God when bad things happen to me?" 

These are the same kinds of questions that Habakkuk posed in his prophecy to the people of God. 

Habakkuk prophesied in the early 600's to late 500's B.C.  He was a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the same sort of problems and issues that Jeremiah railed against in his prophecies.  Habakkuk was a little different, though.  Most prophets in ancient Israel sort of dealt with the people for God.  Habakkuk tends to deal with God for the people. 

Habakkuk lived during the reign of the young king Josiah.  When Josiah was refurbishing the Temple after it had fallen into disrepair, the workers discovered the Torah tucked away in a dusty corner.  Imagine.  The Torah, the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible had been largely lost to the people of Israel.  No one was really living the law any longer.  The covenant with God had been long forgotten.  Josiah brought reforms as a result of his find.  He returned Israel to it's covenant with God and the Torah back into the life of the people.  Then he was killed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco in a fierce battle, and his son Jehoiakim was placed on the throne. 

Jehoiakim rescinded all of the reforms that his father instituted, returning Israel to paganism once again.    Jeremiah actually delivered this prophecy about Jehoiakim after he was executed:
13 “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
   his upper rooms by injustice,
making his own people work for nothing,
   not paying them for their labor.
14 He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace
   with spacious upper rooms.’
So he makes large windows in it,
   panels it with cedar
   and decorates it in red.
 15 “Does it make you a king
   to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
   He did what was right and just,
   so all went well with him.
16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
   and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
   declares the LORD.
17 “But your eyes and your heart
   are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
   and on oppression and extortion.”
 18 Therefore this is what the LORD says about Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah:
   “They will not mourn for him:
   ‘Alas, my brother! Alas, my sister!’
They will not mourn for him:
   ‘Alas, my master! Alas, his splendor!’
19 He will have the burial of a donkey—
   dragged away and thrown
   outside the gates of Jerusalem.”

In 605 B.C. the Babylonians showed up and defeated the two previous world superpowers, Egypt and Assyria about 400 miles north of Israel.  Israel was in chaos, and justice was thrown out the window in the midst of the anxiety that everyone must have been feeling.  Habakkuk saw the writing on the wall, and tried desperately to speak out against the path God's people seemed to be taking, even as he wonders why God would allow injustice to exist, and evil  to triumph. 

Habakkuk's name means "to wrestle" or "to embrace."  I think that Habakkuk actually does both things in the midst of his struggle with God and his prophetic burden. 

Believe it or not, Habakkuk actually has some legendary status from the Apocryphal book Bel & The Dragon---a Biblical book from the Old Testament that is not part of the Protestant canon.  There is a scene from this ancient story where the Hebrew prophet Daniel kills a huge snake that the Babylonians worshiped after a bet with the king.  He is thrown into a lion's den as a result.  God speaks to Habakkuk all the way in Israel and tells him that he is to take the lunch he has just prepared and take it to Daniel.  He is then miraculously snatched by God by the top of his head and hair away to Babylon and the lion's den where he feeds Daniel and then is snatched back.

Weird.  There's a reason why it got left out of the Protestant version of the Bible, I guess. 

Here's what's important, though.  The book of Habakkuk is about some very important things that can help those of us who call ourselves Christians begin to live in hope during a time of uncertainty.  Habakkuk is also believed to be one of the Old Testament prophets who foresaw the coming of Christ.  Habakkuk reveals that shallow optimism is not even close to the shalom or peace of God.  He addresses how living a good life does not always mean that you are "blessed"--at least in the way Christian culture defines "blessed" nowadays.  Habakkuk also helps us to answer a very serious question: "How do we reconcile our belief in a good God with the tragic realities of life?" 

The main text of Habakkuk is 2:4 - "The just shall live by faith."  This was a favorite of both St. Paul and Martin Luther (the first one, not MLK).  This one verse seems to thread its way throughout Habakkuk's conversations with God, and his prophecy to the people.  It is the crux of his burden, and the message that he wants to convey.  He seems to be saying, "God's ways are not our ways, but those who are righteous, who are in covenant with God, who trust him, love him and seek to follow him, will live by faith that God's ways are perfect." 

This is one of the most difficult place for Christians to live--in the tension between redemption and fulfillment.  Maybe you're living there right now.  If so, this series will speak some hope into your uncertainty. 

Next week we'll learn how there are time when you just need to cut loose and scream at God.  Habakkuk did.  He got an answer, and even though it wasn't necessarily the answer that he wanted, God was faithful in his response. 

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