Sunday, February 21, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "My God, My Holy One"

Habakkuk 1:12-2:1

Lord, aren’t you ancient, my God, my holy one? Don’t let us die. Lord, you put the Chaldean here for judgment. Rock, you established him as a rebuke. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you are unable to look at disaster. Why would you look at the treacherous or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? 14 You made humans like the fish of the sea, like creeping things with no one to rule over them. 15 The Chaldean brings all of them up with a fishhook. He drags them away with a net; he collects them in his fishing net, then he rejoices and celebrates. 16 Therefore, he sacrifices to his net; he burns incense to his fishing nets, because due to them his portion grows fat and his food becomes luxurious. 17 Should he continue to empty his net and continue to slay nations without sparing them? I will take my post; I will position myself on the fortress. I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me and how he will respond to my complaint. (Common English Bible)

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

The words that spilled out of the protester’s mouth could not have been more strident—or prejudiced: “If you’re Muslim, we can’t be friends.  My Bible says that.”

And, of course, the Bible doesn’t say that.  In fact the Gospels are unanimous in attesting to Jesus’s tendency to fraternize with all manner of people regardless of who they were.  But that has fallen by the wayside, sadly, for many Christians and their pastors and leaders, who for the past several months have been filling their flocks’ ears with the poison that Muslims belong to a death cult, or that the Qur’an is evil and deserves to be burned.

This sort of a fever pitch has hit a new furor over the past several months ever since the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, resulting in the angry protests of a number of Islamic mosques and centers, including one in Columbus, Ohio, where this protester, only known by the name Annie, said those words about the Bible prohibiting friendship with Muslims.

But, as the Washington Post wrote, a funny thing happened: another person engaged her in a dialogue, and several members of the center told her that they, too, condemned Sharia law, and that they’d collaborate with her to protest state-sanctioned violence in the Middle East.

Handshakes, hugs, and invitations to breakfast ensued.  Annie even agreed to come inside the center to be welcomed by its other members.  All within the span of an hour.

Imagine what the Holy Spirit can do to reverse your perspective when you wait on it for far longer than a single hour—when you, say, wait upon it for an entire lifetime.

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 last week 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.  Today, we hear the prophet’s clearly anguished reply to this plan of God’s—he doesn’t like it at all.

And I mean, wouldn’t you not like it one bit either?  You outline your concerns—your fears, really—to God, and God replies with, “Yeah, I’m basically hitting the big red button, even though it is so out of character of me that you wouldn’t believe it if anyone else had told you.”

No wonder Habakkuk is striving to such lengths to outline to God just how truly horrific a people the Babylonians are.  The irony in this, of course, is that it isn’t like God needs to be told exactly how harmful the Babylonians will be to Jerusalem: that was the whole point of God’s first response to Habakkuk last week.

But what you see peeking out from amid Habakkuk’s horror at his home, his country’s impending doom is at least a modicum of faith, when he ends this particular passage by saying to God, but probably also to himself, “I will take my post, I will position myself on the fortress.  I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me and how he will respond to my complaint.”

Habakkuk leaves open the possibility that the Lord might change Habakkuk’s mind—not necessarily about the Babylonians, but about the ultimate fate of his neighbors, his people.

How we see the other in our lives says a lot about how we see ourselves.  The Babylonians were a brutal empire, but no more so than the Assyrians who came before them, or the Philistines before the Assyrians, or the Egyptians before the Philistines.  In terms of how brutally the Babylonians treated their conquered peoples, they were, sadly, pretty much in line with other ancient empires.

I would like to think that we have evolved since then—evolved enough to recognize exactly who is our enemy and who is not, and that we are called to radically love our enemies, because as Christ says, if we only love those who love us, what credit is that to us?

The issue at hand for Habakkuk, then, versus, say, this woman today named Annie faced with a group of caring, loving Muslims, is that the Babylonians were not a lovable people.  He sees a genuine existential threat from their presence, whereas we today see fake threats, fueled by our own prejudices and bigotries.

Even God agrees with Habakkuk that the Babylonians are a dreadful people.  So it is hard for me to begrudge Habakkuk altogether that much for his clearly devastating fear of them.

But I must.  If I am honest, I really must.

And truthfully, that isn’t the direction I thought the Spirit would take me in the planning and writing of this sermon.  It really isn’t.  Which, of course, stands to reason—the Spirit works in us in ways unseen and unknown to us, and I didn’t think I would come to this conclusion.

Yet even knowing what I know about what the Babylonians will do to Jerusalem—sack it, take the educated and learned ones into exile and leave everyone else to rot in the ruins that remain—I think Habakkuk’s fear should not be total.

Fortunately for us, and for him, I do not think that it is.

Look at how he ends: “I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me, and how he will respond.”

That’s not fear.  That’s faith.

More to the point, faith is not the absence of fear, faith is reaching for the higher, better, deeper plane of meaning in spite of the fear.

Habakkuk, at the beginning of his book, was all fear and trepidation, plaintively crying out to God in the midst of pain, injustice, and violence.

But now, we begin to see the seeds of the prophet’s faith sown and re-sown again.

In a world of leaders and people clamoring for power who would prey on our fears—and I don’t have to tell you their names, you know who they are, they are in the news almost every day—the way we can inoculate ourselves against their demagoguery and their hate, against their pandering to our lowest common denominators and basest instincts, is to reach for our faith and be able to say, loudly, and with one mighty voice, “I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me!”

Instead of reaching only for fear, reach for just enough faith to remain steadfast and wait on the Lord and on the Lord’s word.

Instead of reaching for prejudice, reach for just enough faith to await what the Lord’s reply to you will be.

And instead of reaching for that which is put in your heart by evil, reach for what has been put in your heart by God.

Jesus was put in front of evil, in front of temptation, by Satan in the wilderness, but instead of reaching out for it, He reaches out for what has been put in His heard by God.

Habakkuk does not remain enslaved to his fears over the Babylonians.  He is resolved to wait for the Lord to appear to him again.

And his resolve is indeed rewarded, for God has never truly left us completely bereft, alone, and abandoned…even when, on the surface, such might seem the case.

God will not simply let you be to fend for yourself against the Babylonians rising forth in the distance.

God, as Habakkuk says, is too ancient for that.  God is too holy for that. 

And what we might say today is, God is too great for that.   God’s love for you is too great for that.

What a wonderful truth that is to live your lives in.

Thanks be to my God, my holy one.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 21, 2016

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