In the Meantime - Part 3 - "A Terrible & Comforting Answer"

This week I will be picking up where I left off on the sermon series I was preaching on the book of Habakkuk.

Since I've been gone for three weeks, I am going to have to spend a little time refreshing everyone's memory on what exactly we've been talking about, but that's all good.

In this space, just suffice it to say that Habakkuk is a book for faithful people in any time or place who find themselves living in the meantime: between redemption and fulfillment.  It's a book for uncertain times.

In the previous sermon we talked about how Habakkuk shouted at God, demanding that God do something to deal with the injustice the prophet was seeing all around him.

This week we are going to be taking a long, and difficult look at God's answer in Habakkuk 1:5-11.  Here's what God has to say to Habakkuk:

5 “Look at the nations and watch— 
   and be utterly amazed. 
For I am going to do something in your days 
   that you would not believe, 
   even if you were told. 
6 I am raising up the Babylonians,
   that ruthless and impetuous people, 
who sweep across the whole earth 
   to seize dwellings not their own. 
7 They are a feared and dreaded people; 
   they are a law to themselves 
   and promote their own honor. 
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, 
   fiercer than wolves at dusk. 
Their cavalry gallops headlong; 
   their horsemen come from afar. 
They fly like an eagle swooping to devour; 
 9 they all come intent on violence. 
Their hordes advance like a desert wind 
   and gather prisoners like sand. 
10 They mock kings 
   and scoff at rulers. 
They laugh at all fortified cities; 
   by building earthen ramps they capture them. 
11 Then they sweep past like the wind and go on— 
   guilty people, whose own strength is their god.”

This was not the response that Habakkuk was hoping for.

First there had been silence, which caused Habakkuk to start shouting at God in the first place.  "Where are you?" Habakkuk essentially screamed.  "What are you doing?  Why don't you fix this?  Isn't this what you are all about?"

God had been silent when the world seemed to be crumbling all around Habakkuk.  God was silent when greed was rampant.  God was silent when injustice was the rule of the day.  God was silent when people turned away from God.

And then God spoke, and it was a terrible comforting answer---mysterious and disturbing.

When I pray, I often prescribe the answer to my prayers.  I'll pray fervently that God will work something out in my favor, and then I'll add at the end of it all: "If it be your will."

Truth be told, I sometimes don't really mean that last bit when I say it, especially when it's something that's really important to me.  I think I add that last line because I don't want to upset God.  It's the equivalent of deciding with your spouse about where to go for dinner.  You don't want to seem oafish, so you just sort of act like you don't really care what the outcome is, but you do.

"Well, we could either go to Applebee's or get some BBQ, whatever you like."
"It doesn't matter to me."
"It doesn't matter to me either."
"You pick."
"Well, if it doesn't really matter, how about BBQ---unless you don't want that."
"We just had BBQ last week."
"Okay, that's fine... we can do Applebees--even though it's a little more expensive, and full of screaming kids."
"Well, then let's just have BBQ."
"Seriously, I don't care where we eat.  We don't even have to eat if you don't want to."
"Fine with me.  Let's not even eat."
"But I really wanted BBQ."

It's like when we say "if it be your will," to God we actually believe that he doesn't really pay attention to it.  Or at least we hope he doesn't.  What we really are saying is, "do this according to my will."

So, what happens when we don't get the answer that we want? 

What happens when we get an answer that is absolutely the OPPOSITE of what we want? 

This is where Habakkuk finds himself in this very moment.  He comes to God looking for answers, demanding a break in God's silence.  He has something very clear in mind when it comes the response to his prayer.  And God gives him a terrible response. 

What I've learned, and what we see happening here is that God doesn't really explain himself, he reveals himself.  We want to know why things are happening, and what God is going to do about it.  God merely shows up, and uses even the most unlikely means to demonstrate his power, his will, his plans, his desires.

God gives revelations, not explanations. 

So where is God revealed in this terrible, comforting answer?

For that matter, where is God revealed when we pray our own prayers that seem to get answered in the most negative ways.  How can we see God revealed when we pray for the healing of a loved one and they are taken from us in death?  How can we see God revealed when we pray for relief from our financial woes, and we lose our job?  How can we see God revealed when we pray that our marriage would be strengthened and our spouse cheats on us?

How can we see God revealed when we pray that wars end and peace reign and we keep going to war?  How can we see God revealed when we pray that God would end hunger and famine breaks out over much of Africa.

As I write this, the horribly impoverished Haiti is bracing for the possible landfall of a hurricane a little over a year after a devastating earthquake.  I am fairly certain that there have been a lot of people praying that things would improve in Haiti, and now this...

So what can we learn from this passage in Habakkuk?

To begin with, when we take a look at this passage of scripture we hear a first person God speaking.  Habakkuk isn’t saying, “Thus says the Lord...” God speaks for himself.

And there’s plural imperatives here:  “Look!” “Watch!”  “Be utterly amazed!”  This reflects the same kind of language that we find in Isaiah 43 where God declares, “Look!  I am about to do a new thing!  Can you see it?”

But here’s where things start to go South.

God declares that he is going “raise up” the Babylonians, who he describes as “treacherous,” “impetuous” and a bunch of other derogatory things and he’s going to use them to wreak some havoc on none other than Judah, where Habakkuk lives.

So Habakkuk prays that God will bring justice, that he will revive his people and restore them.  And God says, “Okay, I’m going to send these crazy people to kick your butt.”
To suggest that God would use the enemies of Israel to teach them a lesson about faithfulness was a traitorous act.  Very nearly every prophet who had done so, was branded as seditious and was punished.  Some even lost their lives.

To even suggest that the Babylonians might be an instrument of God was a bold statement by Habakkuk, so it was obviously something that he didn’t want to say.
Habakkuk wanted revival and got retribution.  Not exactly the sort of answer that he wanted.

Read the description of the Babylonians again.  Not very flattering is it?  God declares that they have no respect for authority, they worshipped gods of power, they relied on their own strength and acted unjustly.

Wait a second... Habakkuk screamed/prayed that God would end the violence in Judah, end injustice, end the rejection of God in favor of gods of power...

The qualities that God despises and reviles in the Babylonians are the very same qualities that God’s own people seem to posses.  They sowed violence, injustice, rejection of true worship and God basically says, “If this is what you want, you can have it.”

You ever notice that we aren’t so much punished for our sins as we are punished by our sins?  And sometimes the rain of those consequences falls on the just and the unjust alike.

Is this an instance where God is behaving badly?  Or could we be completely missing the point?  Remember, God gives revelations, not explanations.

So, could turmoil, violence and death be evidence of God working toward His purpose?  Could the means to pursue God’s purpose be as unbelievable as the destruction of a nation, full of people God supposedly calls his own?

Or could the means of God’s ultimate plan be as incomprehensible as a cross?

In Mark 13:7 we hear some words of Jesus that are some of the most difficult to grasp for those of us who are faced with the reality of God’s terrible and comforting answers.

He tells his disciples that they will hear of wars and rumors of wars.  There will be a terrible answer from God regarding their prayers.  And then he tells them:

“Do not be troubled.”

Destruction is coming.  Do not be troubled.
Wars are all around us.  Do not be troubled.
There will be fear and anxiety.  Do not be troubled.
People will die of hunger.  Do not be troubled.
The economy will fail.  Do not be troubled.
Friends and loved ones will disappoint you.  Do not be troubled.
You will be filled with doubt.  Do not be troubled.

Who says this in the face of such terrible things?  These are either the words of a crazy person... or of God.

We have a decision to make when it comes to Jesus... he either is who he says he is, or he’s not.  It’s like Jesus is saying, “This isn’t an explanation... it’s a revelation.”
What’s embedded in Jesus own words are some truths that we must embrace if we are going to understand more fully what it means to see God revealed in even the most terrible of circumstances:

First, God is God and we are not.
God holds a mirror up to his people when he describes the Babylonians.  The Babylonians very nearly assume lordship of their own lives.  Their god is their own strength, their own power.  We need to embrace our brokenness and frailty.

Second, there is a plan.
My favorite verse of the Bible is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans not to harm you but to give you hope and a future.”  There  are no coincidences.  God’s plan for redemption and rescue is underway and we are part of it. 

Third, the plan is on schedule.
You ever have someone say to you that God answers prayers “in his time?”  When people speak in platitudes about God and God’s will, I sometimes feel myself throw up in my mouth just a little.  But this Hallmark card bit of theology is pretty much right on the money.  God does have a plan for redemption and rescue and it is right on schedule.  Maybe not my schedule or your schedule, but on schedule.

Fourth, this plan that is on schedule is part of God’s story.
It’s easy to get hung up on God’s terrible comforting answers and miss the story of God’s plan for redemption and rescue.  The thing that I love best about God’s description of the Babylonians is that they are smaller than God.  They don’t get the last word.  They don’t get to “win.”  When God raised Jesus from the dead, he demonstrated how even sin and death don’t get to win.

So often I think that Christians expend a lot of energy trying to prove God’s ultimate goodness---to see the meaning and the purpose in every tragedy.  They spend so much time trying to deliver explanations that they miss the revelation of God in the midst of it all.  God gives revelations, not explanations.  And if we would follow the God revealed in Jesus Christ, we need only trust and hear his words anew...

Do not be troubled.


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