Sunday, February 28, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Just Enough Fire"

Habakkuk 2:2-14

Then the Lord answered me and said, Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it. 3 There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. 4 Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly. 5 Moreover, wine betrays an arrogant man. He doesn’t rest. He opens his jaws like the grave; like death, he is never satisfied. He gathers all nations to himself and collects all peoples for himself. 

6 Won’t everyone tell parables about him or mocking poems concerning him? They will say: Doom to the one who multiplies what doesn’t belong to him and who increases his own burden. How long? 7 Won’t they suddenly rise up to bite you? Those who frighten you will awaken; you will become plunder for them. 8 Since you yourself have plundered many nations, all the rest of the peoples will plunder you because of the human bloodshed and the violence done to the earth, to every village, and to all its inhabitants. 9 Doom to the one making evil gain for his own house, for putting his own nest up high, for delivering himself from the grasp of calamity. 10 You plan shame for your own house, cutting off many peoples and sinning against your own life. 11 A stone will cry out from a village wall, and a tree branch will respond. 12 Pity the one building a city with bloodshed and founding a village with injustice. 13 Look, isn’t this from the Lord of heavenly forces? Peoples grow weary from making just enough fire; nations become tired for nothing. 14 But the land will be full of the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, just as water covers the sea.  (Common English Bible)

“Treading on the Heights: A Lent Alongside Habakkuk,” Week Three

Down in Phoenix, Arizona, something mighty interesting is a-brewin’, but that something has its roots right here in Washington state, just a couple of hours north of us on I-5.

The Trinity Church is a brand-new church plant in Phoenix that is led in part by Mark Driscoll—the same pastor who co-founded the Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area twenty years ago in 1996, grew it to fifteen satellite campuses as its main teaching pastor, and then saw it all come crashing down around him amid numerous accusations of abuses of power, misuses of church monies, shunning of former church members, and a preaching message that denigrated women and GLBTQ Christians.

Driscoll announced his resignation from Mars Hill in the fall of 2014, and less than two months later, Mars Hill announced that it was closing its doors for good.

Now, let it be said that I am all about providing (I hope) relevant and engaging preaching.  But when a church shuts down less than two months after its *only* permanent teaching pastor resigns, you can be reasonably sure that what was being worshiped there was neither God or Christ.

Back in Phoenix, the website of Driscoll’s new church plant states he has taken this past year-plus “to learn, repent, grow, heal, and meet with many people involved” from the pain he left behind at Mars Hill.  And Lord knows we love a good redemption story.  And despite my criticism, that is what would have been great to be able to share with you.  But when one journalist at The Daily Beast reached out to multiple former Mars Hill members and elders, each one who replied “said they hadn’t heard from him since his resignation, and they didn’t know of anyone else among them who had.”

It is incredibly painful to go through spiritual abuse—and I know this from those of you who have gone through life in an extremely strict or fundamentalist church before coming here—and if you can, imagine a God who sees an entire nation full of such abuse, and an unwillingness by those in power to actually repent, heal, and become better leaders of their people.

Only then, I think, can we begin to grasp the true depths of the searing indictment of the people that God hands down to Habakkuk in this second chapter of the prophet’s book.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Lent, which commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, and the season takes us all the way up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, Lent is a penitential, even penal season: it is when we are supposed to give something up, but in more orthodox settings, those fasts are much more extensive—daylong entire fasts, or fasting from multiple different foods for the entirety of Lent, not just beer and chocolate.

In that wrestling with penitence and punishment, then, Habakkuk serves as a vivid and sympathetic guide.  We know very little about him personally except that he served as a prophet during the twilight of the kingdom of Judah, after the capable and righteous king Josiah dies in 609 BCE, it is less than twenty-five years to the catastrophic sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, and in between those two events is likely when Habakkuk is prophesying.

Habakkuk, though, is really more conversing with God—arguing with God, really—rather than prophesying to us, which is what makes him such a compelling character, at least, to me.  We began by going through the prophet’s first back-and-forth with God, about the injustice the prophet sees around him and God’s response that the Babylonians are being roused to attack Judah.  Last week, we heard the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he didn’t like it at all.

This week, God replies once more—and it is a reply long enough that we will have to cover it in two weeks, this week and next, and yet again, God shows Habakkuk incredible patience by taking the prophet even deeper into God’s thinking and way of being and seeing humanity.

The trouble is, how God sees humanity at that point in time is negative to say the least—extremely negative.  God basically says to Habakkuk, “Okay, I’m going to tell you this again, and make sure you get it right, every single word of it, so that someone else could read it, because this is important: You.  Are.  The.  Worst.”

It’s hard to know where to begin in this screed: multiplying what doesn’t belong to you (that is, stealing), plundering many nations (again with the stealing), cutting off peoples and founding villages on injustices…all of this makes the people weary, God says, from making just enough fire.

Just enough fire for what?  To keep warm at night or to send all of Jerusalem to the ground in a blaze of looting and sacking that is to come as Nebuchadnezzar II prepares for war against Judah?

Or just enough fire to keep yourself from completely shivering in the cold, but not enough to actually exude the warmth and light that God demands?

Or that the people themselves are the fire, seen as nothing more than kindling to be thrown into the bonfire of altar sacrifices to oneself rather than one's own God?

Making just enough fire is what the church has sentenced itself in many congregations, in many places, to, and we, like God, should have had enough of it a long time ago.

Church was never meant to be a cult, a place where your deep-seated hunger and thirst for faith could or should be taken advantage of.

Church was never meant to be a country club, a place where your want to remain in your comfort zone and hear feel-good messages about chewing with your mouth closed was catered to.

And church, like Jerusalem, was never meant to be a place where people were meant to be content with only making just enough fire to get by, or to be thrown into the fire, no, but to be on fire, to be passionate, to seek God not simply for one hour a week, but as a lifelong journey towards their redemption.

We lose sight of that sometimes, I think.  We forget just how bad the people of, say, Habakkuk’s day, or of a church like Mars Hill may really have had it spiritually, and economically as well.  We have this amnesia that doesn’t want us to remember just how bad we can make things when we really put our minds to it.

Israel, though, was not like us.  The heartbreaking memory of going into exile in Babylon stayed with them for centuries, to the point that Babylon is cited in the New Testament separately by three different authors: Matthew in his recitation of Jesus’s ancestry, by Stephen the martyr in his impassioned defense in Acts 7 by Luke, and most famously by John of Patmos in Revelation.

They did not forget the bad in favor of reaching only for the good.  They remembered it, vividly.

We may need a little of that ourselves, to remember just how bad some of our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones, strangers, and yes, maybe even people sitting here with us, have had a time of it in their lives—not to pity them, oh no, but to respect them rather than to dismiss them.

We need to end our practices that God enumerates to Habakkuk here—our building up our own assets through stealing and plundering, maybe not in the manner of a mugger in an alley, but certainly in the manner of taking advantage of the slave labor and exploitation of others.  We need to stop our all-too-strong willingness to build our cities and our villages on bloodshed and injustice.

That doesn’t sound like us, does it?  None of us killed another person for our lands or our houses.

But that’s not the point.  God knows that most of the Israelites themselves did not build their homes on bloodshed and injustice, because their homes are so threadbare and inadequate that they were more apt to be built in spite of bloodshed and injustice, not because of them.

But that does not mean God wants us to tolerate such pain inflicted on others by the people around us, and the leaders who govern us.  God does not look kindly on those of us who know, in their heart of hearts, just how deep the wounds of the world are and then shrug and say, “Not my job.”

Part of being Christian is giving up the right to draw up your own job description, and to allow God to poke you and prod you in the direction God wants you to go, rather than simply you want to go.

Make no mistake—you can still go the way you want to go.  The leaders of Judah did.

But we far too often make the mistake of assuming that what we want and what God wants is the same thing.  That is the mistake, I reckon, that Mark Driscoll made, again and again at Mars Hill, and that many of us pastors make in different ways, including even me at times.

Truthfully, we all do.  We are not in tune with God’s will 100% of the time; if we were, we would be living in heaven, not on earth.

But that does not mean that we should not try to improve our attention to God’s will in the meanwhile, for we will have made the world, God’s creation and kingdom, a better place for our having done so.

Habakkuk is slowly getting there, to that ultimate conclusion.  May we arrive there with him.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 28, 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment