The Words Of The Prophets - Week One: "The Burden"

 


Today we're launching a new sermon series entitled "The Words Of The Prophets."  

In the weeks leading up to Advent, we’ll be listening to the voices of the Old Testament prophets from the Lectionary readings as they prepare for the coming of the Messiah.

The inspiration for this series is a line from the classic song "The Sound of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel.  The line goes like this:  The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls..."

Biblical prophets aren’t predictors of the future; they hope to shape it. They used their words to either project a hopeful future or one full of hardship---all based on what was happening at the moment.  

And the words of the prophets can come to us from some unlikely places at times.  

We just have to have our eyes open, our ears ready to hear, and our hearts ready to be transformed.  

Prophetic imagination helps us see beyond our reality and God's reality.  We get glimpses of the coming Kingdom of God to see the world the way it ought to be, and we also get a vision of a Messiah.  

Today we will be hearing from a prophet who had some hard questions for God and wasn't afraid to ask them.  

Let me ask you a question.  What do you do when bad things happen in your life? 

And further, how do we react when there seem to be bad things happening all around us, and it feels like God seems to not care all that much about what is going on?

I recently read a news article about a young girl with a severe neurological disorder that affected her so 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 they would upset her.  Forget roller coasters, action movies, and 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 effect on society that it does on individuals. Physicians and Psychologists agree on the long-term impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on combat veterans, victims of violent crime, or traumatic events.  

Many individuals who suffer from PTSD engage in substance abuse, are affected by memory loss, cannot function, suffer occupational instability (holding a job), have marital problems, and often display family discord. 

When you apply the same sort of effects in a broader 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, and 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." 

So how do we respond to this?

Most of us white-knuckle it.  We hang on, hoping that things will sort themselves out, or we succumb to the anxiety, act out in destructive ways, and do all kinds of unhelpful stuff.  

We might even begin to think that God doesn't really care, or if God does, that God isn't doing anything about the things happening to us or the world around us. 

We also struggle to wonder to God about all of these things.  We seldom wrestle with God over it, even though---and you need to hear me on this---God wants us to do just that.  God wants us to have that kind of relationship with God---the kind where it's okay to ask questions, even the hard ones. 

Because in the end, we can trust that even though we might not understand everything that is going on, we can trust that God's purposes are pure and filled with love and good intent.  

We shouldn't settle for the benign resignation that informs all of the platitudes Christians tend to repeat when things aren't as they should be:  "All things work together for good..." or "God's ways are not our ways."  

What I want us to hold on to today is a straightforward truth that we all need right about now: 

GOD'S WAYS MIGHT NOT BE OURS, BUT THEY ARE FOR US. 

Today's passage of Scripture comes to us from the prophet Habakkuk from the Hebrew Scriptures.  

Before we read, however, there are some things we need to know about Habakkuk.  

He prophesied in the early 600s to late 500s BCE, and was a contemporary of Jeremiah.  Whereas Jeremiah was a prophet of God for the people, Habakkuk served as a prophet of the people for God. 

Not much is known about him.  His name means "wrestle" or "embrace."

This statue was created by Donatello in the 15th Century and is affectionately known as Lo Zuccone, "The Bald One." 

I saw this statue many years ago during a visit to Florence, Italy.  You could walk up to it and stare the prophet right in the face at that time.  

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. 

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 massive 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 in Israel and tells him that he is to take the lunch he has just prepared and take it to Daniel.  He is 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 grabbed back.

Here's what's important, though.  The book of Habakkuk is about some critical things that can help those who call themselves 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.  

Let's read the passage: 

1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.  2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?

1:3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.

2:3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

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 an earnest question: "How do we reconcile our belief in a good God with the tragic realities of life?" 

Habakkuk isn't afraid to ask the hard questions of God, and then he gets an answer: 

You don't avoid troubles, trials, and tribulations; you overcome them.  Discomfort should not be sought, but a meaningful life will find it.  But you don't have to stay forever in that place of pain because God can redeem even what we believe to wicked or evil intent at the hands of others.  

And then there's the whole thing at the end, "The righteous (or just) will live by faith."  

There's been a lot of wrong interpretations of this verse, but here's what it means:  Those who have a close relationship with God, those who find their foundation in God, and those who aren't afraid to wrestle with God will live by faith because they know God is for them.  

God's ways are not our ways, but a "right" relationship with God gives us peace to know that we will be made right, and all things will be made right in the end, no matter what occurs.  

Things You Need To Know When Things Get Bad

1. Jesus repeatedly taught this to his followers: God never promises an easy life—God offers an abundant life, which is entirely different. 
 
2. God can handle your anger, questions, and burdens---you can, as the Apostle Peter said, "Cast all your cares/worries/anxieties upon God because God cares for you."  

3. No matter what you’re facing, it doesn’t get the last word, not the last thing.  

Frederick Buechener once wrote:  

“The worst isn't the last thing about the world. It's the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It's the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well.”

GOD’S WAYS MIGHT NOT BE OURS, BUT THEY ARE FOR US


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